Friday, December 30, 2016

Book 91: Look at least I MENTIONED the book

So obviously I am not going to finish 100 books this year. I am 2/3 done with Friday by Robert Heinlein, and 2/3 done with Secret Wars, the Marvel Collection, and have just started The Integral Trees by Larry Niven, and 1/3 done with The Trees by someone or other, but there are 41 hours left in 2016, and that means I would have to finish all those books and read 5 more in that time. What with having a job to do I probably will not get there.

I've thought a lot about what I might do next year. For the past few years I have set myself a goal each year, not always starting on New Year's Day. (I place no special importance on the start of a new year; if you want to do something, really want to do something, you just start doing it. I recognize that New Year's Day often is grounds for assessing the year or one's life or otherwise trying out new things, though, so I don't fault people who use that as an attempt to improve themselves. I just think people shouldn't wait until New Year's to try something.)

Some of those projects were my story-a-day project, which turned out to be harder and more wrenching than I thought. I once gave up McDonald's for a year, making it 10 months in before I accidentally -- seriously! -- ate some McDonald's. (What happened was this: for 10 months I had not eaten any McDonald's food. It wasn't done as a health project, but simply as a way to branch out; I felt like McDonald's had become a default if I wanted some fast food, and I don't like to feel caught in a rut. Even as I write this I know someone(s) somewhere(s) will be rolling their eyes and saying yeah but maybe you should not eat fast food at all or should resolve to try to eat healthier or something but I don't care about that. I have bigger fish to fry in my life, so to speak, than worrying too much about whether I occasionally eat fast food. Fast food is one of the pleasures of life, and while everything should be done in moderation, I refuse to entirely cut out the pleasures of life, especially when there are many more important things to worry about. Anyway, how it happened was, we had taken a day to have a date, Sweetie and I: I took a day off work while the boys were in school, and we saw a movie and got some fast food for lunch so we could eat and talk without interruption. She got a Big Mac, but doesn't like to have two hamburger patties on there, so she took one off and asked if I wanted it. I was eating a burger from Sonic, and said sure and put it on mine and then took a bite and then realized what I'd done.)  I once spent a year giving up something that I loved for a month at a time (a different thing each month.) Once my goal was to increase my jogging until I could run from my house to the Wisconsin Capitol (7 miles) without stopping.

Reading 100 books in a year was the latest, and when I realized earlier this month that I wouldn't make it, I began wondering what I could do next. I've spent the better part of a month worrying (in a very minor way) about that.

This isn't a new thing. I have enough self-awareness to recognize in part the potential psychological underpinnings of behavior. When I was a smoker, years back (I haven't smoked in 12 years, so the amount of time since I quit smoking is getting closer to being greater than the amount of time I smoked, which was 17 years), I would frequently make attempts to quit smoking. Those almost always coincided with some big upheaval in my life: starting law school, moving to Washington DC, the like. They were, in a way, attempts to control the uncontrollable: I couldn't really control what might happen when I moved to Madison and started law school -- it was too big to do more than tackle one day at a time. So I would try instead to control something that nobody else could affect.

I think the current mania-ish I have about measuring things -- 100 books, a year's worth of stories, that kind of thing-- may have to do with the health issues of the past few years, with the fact of getting older, with the boys growing up, and with my own professional life. They are ways of gaining control, explaining the world, and improving myself that I can still do. When I tried, a few years back, to increase my upper body strength and start doing more push-ups I eventually had to give up (and I remain weak to this day), so physical challenges are starting to be harder and harder. (My recent blood clot in my leg coincidentally happened on the exact day I decided that I would start a new exercise program. I am at war with my body.)

There's a lot in my world I barely understand or control. The other day, talking with Mr Bunches about New Year's Eve, I said that on January 1 it would be the year "2017," and that's why it's a new year. He started crying. When I asked what was wrong he said it had to be still 2016, and I didn't understand why that was upsetting. So I said Why can't it be 2017? He said that in 2017 was when he goes to 5th grade and he doesn't want to go to 5th grade, he wants to be in 4th grade.

I had to explain to him that September in 2017 was 5th grade. He is very scared of growing up, Mr Bunches. Somewhere along the line he got scared of it, and so he will frequently ask us if he can stay a little boy forever.  We tell him he can. What's the harm? He might well stay a little boy forever, our own Peter Pan. He's smart and funny and excited about life and has the maturity of roughly a first-grader, so the odds that he will one day go to college and get a job and get married and live on his own are at the least less than for some other kids who aren't autistic. Mr Bunches still believes in Santa Claus. I still want him to.

When you are walking along one day and get a sharp pain in your leg and two weeks later are in the ER with them wondering if you've maybe damaged your lungs with blood clots, when a discussion of holidays starts your son crying, when your professional life is one of near-constant troubles, it can be comforting to extend your vision out to the horizon, to peer ahead and say next year at this time I will have read 100 books or something similar. It reassures you that there will a next year at this time and that you will be part of it, and that something in your life then and now will be a constant.

Then, too, there is the fact that with much of physical improvement becoming a pipe dream, the mental improvement is a good goal. I like 100 Books Me: I like the guy that reads books rather than fritters away times on things he considers less important. We cannot always be living our life to the fullest extent, cannot constantly be climbing Mount Everest and otherwise exemplifying our best selves, but we can try. When I find myself doing things that I consider a waste of time, I try to rectify that. While I've always read a lot, much of my reading seemed to have fallen into what I think of as the junk food category, reading that didn't really entertain or enlighten so much as it just killed time. It was my equivalent of staring blankly at a TV while it played a sitcom. So I changed that.

The reason I was worrying about what to do next is because I don't like repeating myself, but as New Year's drew closer, I started thinking okay but what if instead of a one-year thing it was an every-year thing? What if you just challenged yourself to be this person all the time?

So that's what I did. I decided that from now on I will try to be 100-Book Me. I hit 91 so far this year, but my goal is no longer a 1-year goal; it's a goal to read 100 books every year, because ... because I want to.

If you're wondering how all this ties into Dune Messiah the answer is it doesn't. I could do something facile and say Oh Paul Atreides was concerned about how his goals and visions impacted his life and junk blah blah blah but I'm not going to bother. The 100 Books has always been more about me than about the books.

Quotent Quotables: The cool thing to do would be to say "And that sums up 2016" but the COOLER thing to do would be to say what I could do and then claim I'm not doing it even though kind of by saying I COULD do it I did it so I get credit either way. (Got all that?)

From The Vision: Little Worse Than A Man.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

I know statistically speaking fewer people will probably see it here than in the comments of the original video but I needed to vent just a little more.

Maybe I was just tired after spending the night before down at the ER dealing with a blood clot in my leg, but last week I watched a video about why we are "so nostalgic" and was offended by the simplistic way it attacked the question, from its lack of defining the question or the basic terms to the junk-science way it then tackled the self-fulfilling prophecy of its so-called thesis.

Here is the video, which originally I saw on Sploid but which is from something called "8 Bit Philosophy," which itself seems to exploit some nostalgia, both of which I would avoid in the future. Following it is the comment I quickly dashed off in my anger.

My comment:

Awesome! Cereal-box psychology! It makes sense as long as you don’t think about it.
If “nostalgia” doesn’t change, then changing the past to adapt our views of the new world — adapting Star Trek to terrorism — isn’t consistent with the definition of “nostalgia” they give. There was no talk of the Industrial Revolution-era workers ‘adapting’ King Arthur to address their more modern fears.
Also, it seems like ‘nostalgia’ is a pretty broad idea, if Mussolini’s nostalgia for fascism and modern people’s nostalgia for Full House are the same concept.
The ‘nostalgia’ feeling people get has a lot more to do with branding than with nostalgia or fear of an information revolution. The ‘revolution’ people are talking about is 17 years old, at least, and the things people are ‘nostalgic’ for include movies that are only 20 years old. A far cry from the nostalgia for the Roman Empire, which wasn’t so much nostalgia as it was adoption of a rallying cry and motif, the way our soldiers might put sharks on planes; it’s not that they’re secret icthyologists.
It’s just plain easier to sell a rando space opera as “Star Wars” branded ( than it is to create a whole new market: the old business adage that selling more to existing customers is easier than finding new customers applies no less to pop culture than to potato chips or cars (if “nostalgia” is so big why are there no retro cars?).
Moreover, where are the facts that we are any MORE nostalgic these days than in say the 1970s when Lucas was creating “American Graffiti” or the 1980s when they were making Indiana Jones movies — updating the old “serials” — and remaking ‘Clash of the Titans’ using old fashioned techniques.
I guess if you loosely define a word enough, and then don’t care about the comparisons you make, you can make ANYTHING sound smart. Watching this was a waste of 4 minutes (I stopped early.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

At the time, it was 4:40 in the afternoon, the temperature was 17 degrees, and snow was falling.

Maybe his roof was broken? Sweetie conjectured. But: wouldn't it have had to be working at some point when he set out, and then he put the roof down, and then it broke and couldn't go back up?

So in other words, this man decided that winter in Wisconsin was a great time to let that top down!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Book 90: So it's a REALLY GOOD comic book is what I'm trying to say here.

I am currently reading Marvel Secret Wars as my "light" reading, and I of course just finished book 90, The Vision Vol 1: Little Worse Than A Man, and the difference between them is light-years.

The Vision is a good example of what comic books can aspire to. Or I should say graphic novels. The phrase "graphic novel" is frequently used to mean 'any sort of comic book that's longer than a single issue,' but I think that there is a distinction between a comic book and a graphic novel.

A long time ago (just over four years) I wrote a lengthy and very boring post about why people bother putting the words "a novel" on their books. I wondered so much that I spent some time looking it up, and learned that "novels" originally were books that (as the name suggests) were new kinds of stories: stories that focused more on character than plot, with a 'plausible' storyline.

That description now more aptly applies to what would loosely be termed "literary fiction," although even that category is getting too broad; when I went to look for new books on sale on Amazon the other day, I first clicked on "Scifi/fantasy," and got about 12 books. I then clicked "literary" and got about 2500 books, and the 12 books that had been in "scifi" were also in there. Some of them were Kurt Vonnegut books, which I would agree is a very literary form of scifi, but I think you ought to pick a genre and stick with it. If everything is literary fiction, nothing is.

So not every 'comic book' is a graphic novel, but The Vision is a graphic novel as I think of novels: novels are still to me books that are more concerned with a character's personal arc than plot. In a thriller, say, a character may learn something or grow a little, but in the end you're reading it to find out who the serial killer is or whatever. In a novel, you're reading it to see how the person the story is about develops.

The Vision is all about the latter; it begins with a weird unexplained thing about how The Vision wiped his memories of emotions, or something, and moved to suburban Washington DC with a family he had created: a wife, Virginia, and twins Viv and Vin, who are teenage synthezoids created in part from the Vision's and his wife's brainwaves and so must go to school to mature their minds.

From there, the plot proceeds almost along Fargo-esque lines: Behind the scenes of this regular life there are serious fatal goings-on. The Vision worries about money (for some reason he's not being paid by The Avengers even though he still fights with them and advises the President about Avengerish things. This is a plot point that seems thrown in for the specific reason of getting his wife out of the house at one point, as it is otherwise mostly ignored so far), and wants his family life to be perfect or as perfect as possible. Neighbors, meanwhile, behave in more or less rote fashion -- some like the Visions, some want them gone, some fear them, etc.

So far this would all be a run-of-the-mill Spider-Man or X-Men comic, but those are just plot mechanics that help keep things moving. What's going on is informed more by the fact that the Visions are not human, quite, and are also fairly new at even existing, and also that they were created by Ultron, who is after all an evil robot that intended The Vision to be used to destroy the world. That's a heavy load of problems to carry for anyone, and it helps determine how the Visions react to the events that unfold.

(Imagine, if you can, not only knowing your creator for sure but knowing that your creator was evil and intended to use you for evil. I think even the Catholics would have to concede that would be a bit much guilty baggage to unload on someone.)

The idea of being nonhuman, or alien, often is sugarcoated or ignored or painted in stark contrasts in the comic world. One reason I've enjoyed the new take on Superman in The Man Of Steel (which took some coming around to on my part) and Batman vs. Superman is that in fact it makes Superman a real alien; he looks human but he's not, and he doesn't always incorporate our own thinking into his alien morality all that well, either. That's a more subtle thing than the X-Men's we're mutants so they hate us so we hate them  version of nonhumanity, and something like that is at work in The Vision.

The Vision is a human of sorts: he is organic, but was created rather than born, and is therefore something weirder and more scifi even than a 'test-tube baby' (I can remember when there was an uproar over test-tube babies? Scientists estimate that 5,000,000+ babies have been born via "in vitro" fertilization methods, with the first-ever being born in 1978.) Test-tube babies, though, can't be picked out by sight, while a 'synthezoid' can, what with being red-skinned and having glowing eyes and all. Since humans primarily discriminate on the basis of what we can see, and then on the basis of what we fear, looking different often translates into problems. Looking different and being different at the same time is trouble, doubled.

The Vision's plan is to more or less mimic human activity in hopes of making himself more human: they decorate their house and have guests over and wear clothing and the like because doing so will make them act more human.  This all falls apart when early on in their attempt, a bad guy attacks the house while The Vision is out. (There's a backstory there that I suppose regular Avenger readers know but I won't get into it as it doesn't matter much.)  Virginia defends the family by killing the bad guy and burying him in the backyard, then lies to The Vision about this. Viv, the daughter, is injured in the attack and Vision must try to save her at Avengers HQ while, predictably, Virginia's decision to kill and lie has bad consequences that anyone who has watched Fargo (the series) or read or seen similar stories can predict: someone saw her, she confronts that someone, there is lying to the police, etc.

What raises The Vision above those stories is more than the mashup of crime drama with superhero story; it's that the story isn't just 'people in over their heads' but 'people (?) trying to fit in and getting over their heads.' Near the end of the first volume a subplot involving someone predicting the future winds up, and the problem with The Vision's plans becomes clear: if he continues on the path he's chosen, he is going to have to try to destroy The Avengers themselves.

The Vision isn't evil; this is one of those stories where each step seems reasonable enough until the ultimate effect of those steps is to be unreasonable (a type of story I enjoy immensely anyway) but it's layered with meaning here: The Vision isn't just trying to hold onto a life he's carved out; he's trying to carve out a life in the first place, so he is violating all these rules in hopes of achieving something that may not even be worth what he thinks it is; if it's easy enough for us to imagine going to great, even criminal, lengths to protect our families and middle-class lives, it's harder to imagine doing criminal activity just to get there, while we go through the motions of pretending we have it in the first place.

I haven't finished the entire series yet -- it's three volumes -- but already the first volume is one of my favorite things I read this year (and it's a quick read).  What sets the story apart, too, is that the pictures inform the story: they are more than the typical comic book panels: they're moody and artsy and serve almost as movie sets.  Many times when I'm reading comics or graphic novels the pictures are a distraction or don't add to the story, and the medium makes the story awkward: characters having to declaim their motivations, for example (or in some cases describing what's in the picture even though there's a picture) but that's not the case here; the artwork adds to the story and makes it more engrossing.  I can't wait for the next two to arrive at the library.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Trumpocalypse 10: So long, 14th Amendment.

Scott Walker Says He Would Support Article V Convention To Amend Constitution, said the innocuous-seeming headline on, written by editors and reporters who bemoan fake news and the fate of newspapers while contributing to their own demise by completely failing to report on real news, by which I mean "did they ask follow-up questions and possibly see what it was Failed Presidential Candidate Scott Walker doesn't like about our US Constitution which is only The GREATEST CONSTITUTION IN THE WORLD?"

They did not.

Instead, the article simply and blandly quotes what appear to be press-release type quotes about how popular the move to amend the US Constitution is among Republican governors, who want to reign in the federal government despite the federal government being entirely controlled by their party.

I'm not a political reporter, of course, which means I have a memory, Google, and the desire to use them instead of just hacking away until I get my paycheck, so I googled "ALEC Article V Amendments."

You may remember "ALEC," which was kind of a big deal before the Democrats decided that they would simply blame 'fake news' for their continuing to lose elections.  "ALEC" is the "American Legislative Exchange Council" and it is essentially a lobbying group for extremely conservative reform.

ALEC has up on their website right  now an application for a Constitutional Convention which it summarizes this way:

The federal government has steadily consolidated its power while eroding state control in ways that are clearly inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Foreseeing this possibility, our constitutional framers created a method for states to introduce amendments to the U.S. Constitution through an Article V Convention. This draft model policy serves as an application to Congress to call an Article V Convention limited to proposing amendments to that will impose fiscal restraints on the federal government; limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government and limit the terms of office for federal officials and members of Congress.

Now, keep in mind, none of those things are in and of themselves particularly conservative, or bad. Laws which affect both parties equally (like Virginia's stripping of gubernatorial power) can come back to bite you. Remember when the Democrats were mad that GOP senators were stalling things with filibusters? Bernie filibusters all the time, and that Texan legislator won national acclaim for filibustering a Texas abortion law. The "filibuster," by the way, is the ultimate domination of a minority (1 person, or at the most the number of people that 1 person represents) over the majority (us.)

ALEC has also set out, in a 56-page brochure, (available on PDF!) some helpful guidelines for states to call for an run an Article V convention. They include tips like "Don't make applications [for a convention] too general" and "Don't make applications to specific."

It's harder to find out what, exactly, ALEC wants the states to want the US Constitution to say. Back in August 2016 the NY Times published an article about the push for a convention, proving that reporters can report. It noted that the push arose from the fact that the GOP controls most state legislatures. The level of Democratic control of state legislatures is as low as it was at the time of the Civil War, which means the last time the Democrats were this unpopular, it was because they supported slavery.

One big thing ALEC is pushing is a 'balanced budget amendment.' This, too, is not an automatically bad thing. Thomas Jefferson wanted one, but Jefferson also wanted to prohibit the US from printing paper money. (Nor is consistency a hobgoblin in Jefferson's mind: he later busted the budget buying the Louisiana territory.)  Balanced budget amendment talk became big when pushed by a Taxpayers group beginning in the 1980s when Reagan was elected. It should be noted that whenever there is a Republican president, as there has been 20 of the last 36 years, there is nothing that keeps that Republican president from refusing to sign any budget that is not 'balanced.' Same goes for when the GOP controls Congress. The Republican push for a balanced budget amendment is the equivalent of a dieter asking you to lock his refrigerator so he can't raid it.

Then again, under most proposals, you could still raid the 'fridge under a Balanced Budget Amendment, since most proposals would require a budget to be balanced unless 3/5 of Congress -- less than that needed to override a presidential veto -- voted to UNbalance it.

While most articles focus on the Balanced Budget aspect of ALEC's Article V push (which was said to be almost near its goal in 2014, so perhaps even now people, including me, are being alarmist about, but since we were asleep at the switch on the Trumpocalypse, maybe it's time to be a bit alarmist about things again)  ALEC also wants an amendment to limit terms in the federal government. Did the Founders believe in term limits? Maybe, maybe not: Washington stepped down after two terms and every president honored that right up until FDR decided to honor the will of the people, after which the Republicans decided that the will of the people was bunk and proposed the 22nd Amendment. (The GOP controlled Congress at the time.)

But the amendment nobody seems to mention is the "Government Of The People" amendment. In this amendment. ALEC proposes to amend the Constitution to let states nullify federal laws they do not like. Nullification, too, is not a new concept: Jefferson and James Madison argued states had the right to nullify the Alien & Sedition Acts, but in 1809 the US Supreme Court said states can't nullify federal laws, what with the US Constitution saying federal laws are the 'supreme' law of the land.

Nullification was perhaps most famously argued on behalf of the states that would form the Confederacy, arguing that the states could nullify federal attempts to make African-Americans people, not property. Nullifcation has also been used, though, to try to help that cause: Wisconsin argued it could nullify the Fugitive Slave Act: Wisconsin state courts had freed a slave, finding the Act unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court reversed.

The GOP spent most of the last 6 years trying to undo Obamacare, but let's not forget the GOP's state- and federal attacks on equal rights for people, voting rights for minorities, and other fundamental areas of our society. The Amendment would let individual states -- controlled by Republicans and an increasingly-conservative judiciary (Scott Walker in Wisconsin has promoted judges who were or are members of the "Federalist Society," an extremely conservative legal group) -- nullify any laws they found inconvenient or unlikeable. Including, say, Medicare or Social Security? Possibly.  Such a move would make the United States also more balkanized, more like the European Union than like the United States; it would certainly weaken the federal government, which may sound good to some people at some times but should sound terrible to all people at all times, as it is the federal government, not the states, which have secured equal rights to people, extended the vote to women, provided for a base level of care for our elderly and disabled (shamefully low though it is, it's there), modernized commerce with the US highway system, got us to the Moon, and otherwise turned the United States from a backward, agrarian dependency to the only remaining superpower.

For now.

Snow Days

Monday, December 19, 2016

Book 89: I don't think Disney will be adapting this one any time soon.

I've always been a fan of the 'funny animal' genre of comic; back in the 1980s one of my favorite comics was "Captain Carrot And His Amazing Zoo Crew," which is more or less the antithesis of what people want out of comic books, if I judge correctly most other comics on the market.

"Funny animals" are animals that are basically people, animals that are basically human except they may or may not wear pants.

One thing I've always wondered, though, is why, if animals became like people, they would mimic people exactly  or as exactly as they can? I started thinking about that again when I watched part of Zootopia with Mr Bunches (he didn't like it, and I can say it wasn't all that great seeming, frankly), but it holds up with any 'funny animal' book or comic or movie: the animals always seem to form themselves into a semblance of human society, with slight alterations: a giant sentient chicken might, for example, have a house that resembles a coop.

Mort(e) solves the "why do animals act like humans" solution somewhat simply, and also may help explain why it would be that if a mouse suddenly became sentient and walked upright and had opposable thumbs and the like, he might act more like a human -- and along the way, Mort(e) is a very good book.

Mort(e) is about an animal uprising, told (mostly) from the perspective of a former housecat.  In the first chapter, we experience life through Mort(e)'s eyes, back when he was called "Sebastian" and was a cat in a household of a mother, father, and two kids.  The chapter is actually fairly convincing; it feels like the dim recollections of a cat, or I guess it feels how I imagine that must feel.  (My own explanation for why 'funny animals' act like humans is that we, as humans, have shortcomings in our imagination: we can't conceive of what it would be like to have a nonhuman brain in a nonhuman, or mostly nonhuman, body, and so we ultimately will always fall short of truly imagining a nonhuman society; when we imagine how a housecat looks at life, we are a human imagining how a human would imagine a housecat looks at life.)

(The exception to this might be Watership Down, a book which I only vaguely remember as being very good. I should re-read that. By this point, the only thing I remember about Watership Down is that it was about rabbits, and I remember my mom saying she hated the book because of the rabbits screaming. I don't remember any rabbits screaming?)

At the end of the first chapter, Sebastian grows larger, has his front paws turn into hands, and begins to be sentient, able to think critically and learn and act and talk (in English.)  He [SPOILER ALERT!] shoots the dad that was in the family and wanders off to find his best friend, a neighbor's dog named "Sheba."

From there, the book unfolds as a war on humans, with the war being actually caused by ants, led by their nearly-immortal queen, Hymenoptera Unus.  We meet her in the second chapter, and Mort(e) truly gets good whenever the ants are front and center: we get a solid look at how the human-ant war (a war that only the ants seem to realize is a war until it's too late) started and how it developed to its current state, where Hymenoptera Unus has managed to develop a way to disperse hormones in the air that cause all animals to mutate into more-or-less human types, with hands (animals with hooves don't get hands, to their shame) and ability to talk and reason, and these animals become the infantry in the ants' fight -- backed by "Alphas," ants that are the size of humans and can walk on their hind legs.

It's the ants in Mort(e) that are really the high point of the book: the way their society is described, their history, their communication, and the like, really does seem alien, while the ants' reasons for the war are all too human: They are disgusted by how humans act and think, seeing us as the kind of mindless disgusting bugs we think of them.

Sebastian, as I said, starts out to find his friend, and soon falls in with a military organization known as the "Red Sphinx" (their emblem, a sphinx, is of course a lion with a human head) run by "Cul De Sac," a bobcat who was chosen by the ants to lead them.  Rechristening himself "Mort(e)" to get rid of his slave name, "Mort(e)" becomes an elite commando. (The name itself was chosen from when Sebastian, newly aware, read a book of old stories, Le Morte De Arthur, but he put the (e) in parentheses so that he could be Mort, a regular guy, or Morte, death. Just goes to show there are literary hipsters even among forcibly evolved animals.)

The reason the animals mimic humans is actually part of the theme of the book -- the animals must struggle with their new lives while coping with the ongoing effects of their old. One, Wawa, is Mort(e)'s predecessor after Mort(e) retires, and she in particular is an interesting character, having been raised as a dogfighter before the war, and wanting desperately to be part of a pack; another, Bonaparte the pig (apparently a callback to Animal Farm, which I never read and I'm not going to so don't bother telling me to) was the only one of a group of pigs trapped in a barn to gain sentience, thereby avoiding being cannibalized by the dominant boars in the barn (the rest of his story is terrifying and strange, so I'll not spoil it.)

Religion and the way societies evolve is the other theme of the book, but that only slowly develops out of the rest of the story until it becomes apparent that religion is in fact one of the things the book is concerned about (it's not in any way a religious story, but does deal with how and why people believe the things they believe.)

One of the questions the book works on is whether the way our, or any, society shapes up is inevitable: Do we adopt the structures of our society, including religion and prejudices and war and fear because they are the natural end result of our being a certain way (able to think, self-aware, tool-using) or are they forced on us by higher powers demanding our allegiance and testing us to see if we are worth it?  It's an interesting idea, sort of a reverse engineering of the anthropic principle: the universe is the way it is because that's the only way a sentient people could make it be.

Even without those questions Mort(e) is a very very good book, gripping and interesting, and Sebastian/Mort(e) is one of the more interesting characters in any book I've read. Well worth reading.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Quotent Quotables: Even after reading it I'm not sure whether I totally liked the book...

But I know I don't like this:

Cynthia Jalter took my shoulder and turned me toward her, then drew her hair back and leaned forward. Her features were arranged in a special shape, a shape I recognized. She put her face against mine. A kiss.  The sticky part of her face found mine, and they oscillated together.

- As She Climbed Across The Table, Jonathan Lethem.

Add caption

Saturday, December 17, 2016

American Dirt

It didn't matter much; the citizen in question was already on a US government "kill list."

Our government has a "kill list."

The government also killed that citizen's teenage son, but said it was an 'accident.'

The government apologized.

The author of the memo now sits on a federal appeals court.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

15,842 New Words: Next you'll tell me there's no NOG in Egg Nog!

In Harriet The Spy, which I started reading to Mr F one day at the library, Harriet orders a "chocolate egg cream," and I remembered reading this book as a kid and wondering then, as now, what an egg cream was.

Turns out it's something kind of gross-sounding: Wikipedia says it's a combination of milk, carbonated water, and chocolate syrup.  Like a very thin milkshake, possibly, it sounds like watered-down bubbly chocolate milk.

Although nobody's sure where the name "Egg Cream" comes from, the most likely theories (to me at least) are that it's a remnant of the days when milkshakes were made with eggs. Apparently in the 1880s milkshakes were chocolate syrup, cream, and raw eggs. They were "shakes" because the ingredients were mixed in a cocktail shaker.

If you're wondering, March 15 is Egg Cream Day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Goddammit Democrats keep this up and I will vote for Trump OUT OF SPITE.

As Democrats continue to flail around wildly trying to prove that they didn't lose the election it was stolen guys honest (behaving exactly the way they pre-emptively chided Trump for during the campaign) the latest excuse is the most ridiculous by far: if it wasn't the Electoral College or Putin stealing the election, it was lack of typing skills.

I'm going to warn you: the person who gave this story to the press is A LIAR.  He is lying. He is lying, and the press believes him. He is lying, and Hillary! & Co. and the press are supporting him because it makes it NOT THEIR FAULT GUYS that Hillary! lost.

Remember: the man who claims this excuse in the following story is lying:

One of the worst and most public email hacks in political history began with a typo, a report in The New York Times revealed on Tuesday.
An aide to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, saw a warning email in his inbox back in March, claiming to be from Google. Podesta needed to change his Gmail password immediately, the email said.

The story points out what we all know:

Most adult internet users know by now never to click a link in emails like this ― phishing is fairly common. Even unsophisticated tech types are hip to the scam. 

"We all" not including people working for Hillary!

So, before responding, Podesta’s aide showed the email to another staffer, a computer technician.

That's where the lying starts.

From the Times (bolding is HuffPost’s):
“This is a legitimate email,” Charles Delavan, a Clinton campaign aide, repliedto another of Mr. Podesta’s aides, who had noticed the alert. “John needs to change his password immediately.”
With another click, a decade of emails that Mr. Podesta maintained in his Gmail account — a total of about 60,000 — were unlocked for the Russian hackers. Mr. Delavan, in an interview, said that his bad advice was a result of a typo: He knew this was a phishing attack, as the campaign was getting dozens of them. He said he had meant to type that it was an “illegitimate” email, an error that he said has plagued him ever since.
I was not the only one who immediately realized that the "computer tech" staffer was lying: I (and hopefully you) immediately noticed that the article was wrong: the staffer wrote "a legitimate" rather than "an legitimate." If he'd meant to write "illegitimate" he likely would've put "an" in there, so there are two typos. In addition, telling someone they have an "illegitimate" email is usually not followed by "so change your password."

Further, a computer tech would have known that you don't click in the email if you're at all in doubt: you go to the site yourself, to try to avoid being fished.

In addition, if you Google the phrase "How can I know if a change password request from Google is legitimate" you'll get as a top result a link to this page, which tells you when and how Google will ask you to change your password. 

The Times report that actually discusses this notes that prior to TYPOGATE, the Democratic National Committee was already aware of potential hacking problems, but that (allegedly) nobody had alerted the higher-ups about it.

The Times story then goes on to reveal that the typo did not contribute to the hack at all.  Billy Rinehart, "a former D.N.C. field director" got the email at 4 a.m., clicked on the link, and changed his password. (The Times notes he was "half asleep," because making important decisions about presidential campaigns is okay if you do it "half asleep.")(Evidence of the press coddling Hillary! & Co is shown by the press giving Rinehart that "half asleep" pass as well as HuffPo's cutely noting that the hack wasn't all bad because we got Podesta's risotto recipe. Ha ha politicians: They're just like us!)

The actual "typo" (remember they are lying) was sent by a different computer tech to a different aide who had checked it out when he logged into John Podesta's email; the Times notes that "several" aides had access to Podesta's personal email.


So the Times story notes that the Democratic National Committee had at least one fairly high-level person working with the FBI on a potential hack, but that person never alerted higher-ups. The DNC also had such lax cybersecurity that "several" people had access to the personal emails of John Podesta, campaign chairman for Hillary! It notes that at least one higher up, while "half asleep" clicked a spam email that set off alarms in at least one other staffer.

And reporters sum that up as "haha a silly typo screwed up the election." Those reporters did not, in repeating this fake news story, mention that the "typo" had nothing to do with the security compromise, but they do describe people like me (and like reporter/writer Tom Scocca) who see the lies about the typo as yet more BS from the Dems, as 'conspiracy theorists.'

The media, of course, generally tend to be sympathetic to Hillary! & Co. The media also do not want to admit that mainstream media sources are as culpable as 'fake news' sites and Facebook for the lack of real information provided to the public. The Dems want desperately to paint the election as "stolen" because otherwise they would have to admit that their candidate was only an ersatz Democrat in the first place, selling warmed-over policies with no real agenda, one they ran simply because it was her time, rather than because she was a good candidate.

For the last freaking time: Democrats lost the election because they did not vote. Russia, the Electoral College, Jill Stein, typos, email hacks, Wikileaks, whatever hobgoblins the Democrats want to throw out there did not lose the election. Democrats lost the election because they did not vote.

Happy Wednesday!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book 88: A rather humdrum outing in Xanth this time.

If I'm going to rag on guys like Grisham for having a formula for what they write, then I suppose I ought to do so for Piers Anthony, as well; Harpy Thyme, as the 17th book in the Xanth series, is enjoyable enough, but the parts that make it fun are the parts that don't feel like they've been done 16 times before.

In Harpy Thyme, Gloha the winged Goblin-Harpy crossbreed sets out to find true love, and begins with (of course) a trip to the Good Magician. That was also the inception of the plot for at least 1, and possibly 2, other Xanth stories. Once she gets to the Good Magician, she is told that rather than do her year's service, she should go see Humfrey's first son.  This, too, has become commonplace for Anthony: the Good Magician doesn't actually require a year's service of any of the questioners who are the stars of the books; in this case, though, it makes little sense to not require the service because in fact he has answered her question -- so Gloha, who is not a Magician (usually exempt from the service) and who performs no other task for Humfrey (another way of getting out of the service) simply gets an answer that she doesn't have to pay for.

So Gloha sets off to find Humfrey's first son, and there is a rather pointless (but possibly meant to be charming?) series of visits as she goes to one more-or-less random person after another to try to find out who Humfrey's son might be, before she literally just sort of stumbles across him. The [SPOILER ALERT] son turns out to be Crombie, which readers might have known; I can't remember if that was mentioned in an earlier Xanth novel.

Gloha asks Crombie to use his talent for finding things to point to the direction of her dream man; he does, and she then sets out with Magician Trent, who is youth-potioned for this story.  From there the story takes the typical sort of Xanthian twists and turns, all of it very familiar by now to anyone who has read the previous 16 books.

As I said, it's enjoyable enough; I use the Xanth books as filler and I was reading this one while I was tremendously busy and also a bit under the weather, so I didn't mind that it was simple, but it would be nice to see Anthony spread his storytelling wings a bit more with the Xanth books. As I was reading it I kept thinking of the really good Xanth books: Night Mare and Crewel Lye are two of the best, and Castle Roogna also a great one, and none of them really follow the same pattern as what has come to be the typical Xanth storyline: a person sets out with a question for the Good Magician, only to get a nonanswer of sorts, and then work through the question him- or herself on the course of fulfilling the seemingly nonsensical task Humfrey has given them.

The book did flesh out and elaborate on some characters; the demon Metria expands as a character, and Trent becomes a bit more human than he was in the first 2 or 3 novels, where he barely appeared, so there's that (we get to know Trent's Mundanian history, a bit, and it turns out he was friends in some way with Van Gogh, a detail about which I can make up my mind: interesting? or too much?)  The puns are good, as always, but overall the story was only a middle-of-the-road Xanth book, not one of the great ones, not one of the bad ones, either.

A couple of things that particularly stood out as minor annoyances: there was a sequence in the book where two people, I believe meant to be from Mundania, were stumbled upon and put in touch with each other, and it all had the feel of some sort of inside joke or Easter egg type thing, but since the book is almost 25 years old, it was nearly impossible to even make sense of the joke, and it threw me out of the story for a bit.

Also, Anthony is replaying entirely too many bits from earlier books: we get another round of "the Curse Fiends force someone to put on a play," and the whole "we have to put on a play to get past this challenge" thing is really a Xanth trope by now.

The whole thing with Crombie and Humfrey was just a throwaway: Crombie was always a fascinating character: a soldier, woman-hater who married a nymph and had had a secret demon girlfriend growing up, Crombie (we're told) hates his father, Humfrey, for how he treated him -- but the two become instant friends again just right smack out of nowhere. Then the story drops them entirely.

And, there were a couple of things that made it seem as if the idea behind the book had changed. For example, the title: at points in the story, there were mentions of the "thyme" plant as it exists in Xanth -- slowing down time for people -- but they never connected up to make it really "Harpy Thyme" in any way, and Gloha isn't actually a harpy; there were some madness-inspired flashbacks that talked about some sort of cave Gloha found that was filled with artifacts and she had to be rescued, but that never went anywhere, either; they were just sort of thrown in there. All of Anthony's other titles for the books ultimately made sense once you read the book ("Crewel Lye" for example was the way they cleaned the Roogna tapestry to see Jordan The Barbarian's story).  This title just felt like it was unrelated entirely

Some things that worked well, though, were the crushes on Trent that both Gloha and a winged centaur Trent transformed 70 years ago had, and Trent's reaction to them; and the final scenes when Gloha and the others have to storm up Mount Pin-A-Tuba (for reasons related to the plot that I won't disclose) are actually pretty exciting.

Overall, the book was a C+, and if it was my introduction to Xanth it probably wouldn't have been strong enough to keep me reading. Then again, who starts a series at book 17? Anthony is lucky that any reader who made it this far is probably like me: willing to forgive the weaker stories in hopes that  the full magic will be restored, as it were.  The first 8 books were really strong, but of books 9-17, only Man From Mundania stands out, although both Harpy Thyme and Demons Don't Dream had their merits.

 I still plan on finishing all of the Xanth books eventually; a man's gotta have goals.  I just hope that in the upcoming 19-already-written (and apparently 7 more planned) Anthony tries to recapture the best of the Xanth writing, instead of just churning out more of these.

Trumpocalypse 9: Everything you always wanted to know about the Department of Energy (But Were Afraid to Ask "Real" News Sources)

As you keep hearing news about 'fake news' and Russia 'stealing the election' and the like, keep in mind that (a) 'fake news' is only available because so often 'real news' is about superficial stupid stuff and makes no effort to understand the issues, and (b) unless Russia actually somehow forced or bribed people to vote for Trump/stay home for Hillary!, or faked up the votes [there is NO EVIDENCE OF EITHER] it cannot "steal" the election from anyone.

I was thinking about those things as I read this lead into a story on The Concourse headlined "Rick Perry's Glasses Qualify Him For Important Science Post, Building Nukes."

Rick Perry, a swaggering idiot who found a pair of glasses on the street one day, is about to become the head of the Department of Energy, according to CBS News. The Department of Energy’s job right now is to develop the next generation of nuclear weapons.

Is it, though? The blogger who wrote the article, Ashley Feinberg, goes on to compare the current Energy Secretary's qualifications with Rick Perry's, finishing up with:

Now, none of this would be as big of a problem if Obama hadn’t just agreed to a a massive modernization program of our existing stock of nuclear weapons. This program is going to cost somewhere in the range of $350-450 billion and take about ten years. And our big, dumb boy Rick Perry gets to kick the whole thing off, as he’s now responsible for the design, testing, and production of all nuclear weapons.

I'm no fan of Rick Perry's, and I think the country would in fact be worse off with him as President. But this sort of reductive news writing is every bit as pernicious as "fake news," because it essentially falsifies Rick Perry's record, Rick Perry's role as Energy Secretary, and the program Obama agreed to.

Let's start with Rick Perry's record and qualifications. Feinberg sums them up as:

In other words, Rick Perry is a figurehead on a few boards that very tangentially have to do with “energy.”

In reality, Rick Perry has a degree in Animal Science from Texas A&M.  Texas A&M is currently the 74th ranked college in the US News rankings of best colleges.  Perry also served 5 years in the Air Force as a C-130 pilot.

Politically, Perry began his career as a Democrat, first elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1984, and worked for the Gore campaign in 1988.  He switched parties in 1989. When Perry ran for re-election as governor in 2006, he was endorsed by a prominent Texas Democrat.

Perry ran for Agriculture Commissioner in 1990; he 'narrowly' defeated the Democratic incumbent -- who at the time had his office embroiled in an FBI investigation into corruption that would eventually lead to three aides being convicted. The incumbent wasn't charged, but keep in mind: Democrats supported a man who at best was so out of touch that three of his aides could be taking bribes. He was re-elected to that position, then served as either Lieutenant Governor or Governor.  He has since also worked at the chief strategist MCNA Dental, the nation's largest privately-held dental insurance company.

Again: I am not a fan of Perry's, but falsely presenting his background is fake news of the sort that people like Ashley Feinberg credit with 'stealing the election.' "Fake news" is any news that creates a false premise, and lying can be done by omission as well as by commission. Feinberg lied about Perry's background, to create the impression that Perry was a himbo.

Then there's the Department of Energy.  Again, a few minutes of Googling shows how reductive Feinberg's article was, in a misleading way.  Here is the organizational chart for DoE:

The Department does, in fact, police nuclear weapons, but also nuclear reactor production for the Navy, waste disposal, and a variety of energy-related research projects. It has just over 106,000 employees, only 12,000 of which are actual federal employees; 93,000 people on DoE's payroll are contract employees.

Among the things DoE does that are far more concerning than nuclear weapons stockpiles are the Loan Guarantee Program; enacted in 2005 (under the last Republican president) this law was in part funding for 'green' energy projects, and in part clearing the way for natural gas fracking and in part a change in how public utilities were held. Obama voted for this law; Hillary! criticized him for it. Under Trump's DoE, we should be more concerned about a curtailment of green energy and climate change research than we should that Rick Perry will somehow bumble our nuclear weapons program, but it's not as cool, right Ashley, to write a headline about how Rick Perry's nomination may signal that the Trump administration might take a law Obama voted for and water it down so that funds don't go for greenhouse gas research? I'm pretty confident that we face far greater risks from loosening energy controls and use of coal and fracking than we do from rogue nukes.

By the way, did you remember that Hazel O'Leary was Bill Clinton's first Secretary of Energy? Her qualifications? She'd been a prosecutor, and had been both a consultant and the head of an energy commission. Those credentials are remarkably similar to Perry's.  While Feinberg faults Perry for sitting on the board of a company trying to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, O'Leary prior to her nomination had been an executive VP at Northern States Power Company.  Northern States was in the early 1990s trying to merge with a company that was building the controversial Point Beach Nuclear Plant in Wisconsin.


As for that "nuclear program" Perry will be in charge of? In July, the Washington Post reported that Obama "wants to cut back" on plans to spend $350,000,000,000 over 10 years modernizing our nuke program. 

By October, though, Obama had authorized a modernization program set to cost $1,000,000,000,000 -- nearly three times as much as the earlier proposal.  The New York Times, hardly a bastion of Tea Party politics, called the plan "unnecessary."

According to Arms, which Feinberg links to, some of the money will address "ethical lapses and poor morale" under the Obama administration. The overall modernization effort is too complicated to sum up in a brief note, which didn't stop Feinberg from doing just that.

So again: I'm not saying Perry is a good choice. I'm not saying he's a bad choice. What I'm saying at this moment is that the 'news' a lot of people will read about Perry and the Department of Energy will be fake and will omit those facts which are uncomfortable for people like Ashley Feinberg, and will inappropriately summarize facts people like Ashley Feinberg can't bother to get across to their readers as they race for pageviews.  Feinberg's article is no less propaganda than anything you'll read on Breitbart, and liberal media sources are also to blame for Hillary! losing the election.

Quotent Quotables: Yes, I suppose it would be.

Brad narrowed his eyes. “Wait a sec,” he said. “This isn’t the thing about being eaten by the lions again, is it?”

“It will always be the thing about being eaten by the lions, Brad. From here on in, until it occurs.”

-- From Torn Apart, And Devoured By Lions, Jeffrey Wells (in the Machine Of Death anthology.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Update On Parenting

Early one Sunday morning, Mr F was sitting in his underwear wrapped in a blanket, something he likes to do and so gets every now and then to do as a treat.  He began to get a bit mischievous (we call it frittery): messing with stuff, wanting to play with the water, trying to dump out the coffee pot.  After the third intervention I said to him: 

You've got to be good. You keep getting in trouble, I'm gonna make you wear clothes.  

Friday, December 09, 2016

Everyone involved in this story is getting exactly what they deserve. It's a Xmas Miracle!

We have only one time ever bought the "hot toy" for a kid when it came out: long ago we got up really early and went and waited to buy a Playstation Portable for The Boy, who really wanted one. I don't recall that it made a Golden Light from Heaven (TM) shine down on us or anything, so probably it wasn't really worth even that minimal effort.

I think parents who overpay for toys are stupid, and I think parents who place such an emphasis on providing material things to their kids that they do anything more than some minimal effort to get them a toy they want are probably not good parents.  But people that take advantage of the dumb & desperate (TM) are just as bad, which is why I found this news to be The True Meaning Of Xmas:

Author Buys Up $23,500 Worth Of Hatchimals And Parents Are Furious

Says the Huffington Post headline. Cue the Xmas music: *All I want for Xmas is... * 

as we come on a montage of shop windows dusted with snow amid bustling shoppers who pass to and fro,  their happy arms laden with gifts for their wives and gifts for their children to brighten their lives.

But wait, what's that discordant sound that I hear? A stampede of parents all shouting in fear

Some people turn to bake sales or GoFundMe accounts to raise money. But for author Sara Gruen, she looked to this season’s must-have children’s toy.
Gruen, who wrote the New York Times best-selling novel “Water for Elephants,” is facing online fury among parents after buying up $23,500 worth of Hatchimal toys only to resell them at higher prices as a so-called fundraiser,

"We can't let her do that!" their voices cry out, as far and away all the parents do shout. "OUR KIDS need those toys, need them now, don't you see? Without them, what can we put out under our tree?"

Hatchimals, which are Furby-like birds that pop out of eggs, first hit shelves with a price tag of $49.99 but have since ballooned to more than $200, making it a nightmare for cash-strapped parents to get their hands on for the holidays.
Gruen insists her price hike on the more than 150 toys is not for personal gain and that any profit made will go towards the $150,000 she has spent towards trying to free a man behind bars. She didn’t identify the man but told Philly Voice that he will be the focus of a “Making A Murderer”-type documentary series she’s working on.

A sketchy fund-raiser, an author whose pages haven't been on the best-seller lists for, like ages? A scandal is brewing, with parents and toys and Amazon policies all making noise!

In a Facebook post announcing her toys’ sale, Gruen wrote that the moment she first heard about Hatchimals she saw the next Cabbage Patch Kids doll. In the days following Black Friday she went to work buying them up, despite the toys already selling for well over their original market value.
“I figured I could still sell them at a profit and put a dent in the extremely hefty lawyer fees I’m accruing in my fight to get the wrongfully convicted man’s case back before the Supreme Court. So far, so good, right?” she wrote.
She said her cloaked fundraiser hit trouble, however, when she tried to resell the toys on eBay, only to learn that the website limits individuals’ Hatchimal sales to three per week. Other websites like Amazon and Bonanza had similar regulations.

Hey lady, that's not what Xmas is about! Xmas isn't getting some murderer out. It's not about profits and lawyers and fees: it's about all these parents whose presents you've seized!  These parents, they just want to show that they care, and this toy will get those kids out of their hair! That's why they'll pay as much as double the price, but asking for triple? Well: that's just not nice.  You'll get your comeuppance, get payback galore, for this Hatchimal plan has made Xmas a WAR!

Fearing “financial ruin,” as she called it, she turned to a Facebook plea for Hatchimal-hunters to visit her Shopify site where they’re listed for $189 each.
“I have a fortune invested, only one venue to offload them, and in only three weeks they will magically transform into useless pumpkins that will take up space in my office FOREVER, and have caused my financial ruin,” she wrote in her Facebook plea.
It’s not clear exactly how many she purchased. Her Facebook page states 166 though the Philly Voice reported 156. Based on those numbers, if she sells all of them, she should pull in approximately $29,000 or $31,000, respectively. After subtracting the amount she paid per toy (not including taxes if it’s not already included), her estimated profit would be around $6,000 or $7,000.
Though many people appear to have reached out to her to snag one of the furry creatures ― some of the toys on her Shopify site are listed as “sold out” ― others have expressed anger while accusing her of “exploiting families” and “preying off desperation” before the holidays. 

Sure we all thought it funny when Dwight pulled this trick, but that was The Office and that was Dwight's schtick. In real life, things like this just aren't that funny, using your Facebook to take all their money. You're worse than Sylvester McMonkey McBean: maybe we should shove you in your Star-Off Machine!

We won't take this sitting down, ma'am, we just can't. Why, we'll go on Facebook and post up a RANT! That will (we are sure) change your miserly ways: we'll hit you from all sides, we'll post them for days! We'll talk about charities, parents and kids, about what you are not and 'bout what Xmas is:

and when its all over, the dust has all settled, when we're huddling in Starbucks (TM) feeling nettled, when Xmas is nearing and we've got no toys, no Hatchimals magic for our girls and boys, we'll look to the sky and see star after star, blazing with glory from near and from far. We'll all join our hands and we'll all start to sing, remembering Xmas is not about things, it's not about presents and who can get what, it's not about buying or spending a lot
HA HA we're just kidding, that's all a nice thought, all that singing and starlight and love and what not. But this is America, 2016, and people are greedy and stupid and mean.
God bless us, every one!