Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book 54: What? No. I'm not getting choked up about a RHINO. Again: just dusty in here.

I stumbled across The Last Unicorn at the library while accompanying Mr F on one of his many trips to the bubbler -- the bubbler being the only thing Mr F really likes about the library. It was set aside in one of these 'new and notable' sections the libraries around us have been setting up, highlighting books that otherwise might not get noticed.

The Last Unicorn tells the story of an expedition to look for one of the rarest creatures on earth, the saola, an animal that Westerners only discovered in 1992, and which might now be near extinction. But it tells, too, the story of conservation and human development, and is the kind of look into just how things actually work that ought to be taught in science classes.

The saola was first noticed by westerners in 1992; it lives mostly in wet mountain regions in Laos and Vietnam, near an area where a massive dam was built, flooding much of the territory while providing electricity and modern amenities to the region. As part of a compromise in building the dam, some of the profits were to be used to set up a protected zone in which tigers, rhinos, muntjac, and even rarer animals, like the saola, would live. The protected zone was indeed established, but the trip detailed in this book shows how ineffective it is: the team looking for a saola finds several thousand snare traps made of cheap, common bike cable, sometimes as many as 200 in a row. Villagers, who 'earn' less in a year than teens in America spend in an hour, want roads and beer and electricity, and they can trade golden turtles for several thousand dollars. Rare woods in the area go for even more. So villagers either traffic in the protected zone, or they look the other way. Even one of the government agents on this trip ignores a smuggler who walks right by them carrying protected wood out of the zone.

The problems are many: people who live in the area don't value the saola, or other species, more than they value improvement. Governments often don't have the resources or cultural background to care about extinction. Cultures are different. And the area itself is vast and hard to patrol.  Motivations to protect the saola and other creatures are weak and diffuse; motivations to profit from them are strong and immediate.

The details of the trip itself are vivid, describing the guides and others they meet, detailing Laotian culture and attitudes, and giving great amounts of detail on the wildlife and background for the animals discussed in the book. It's really a phenomenal book, one that kept me gripped in a way that nonfiction usually doesn't -- not least because I was dying to find out if they ever actually saw a saola.  (I won't spoil it for you, in case you want to read the book.)

It's a book that made me think, a lot, about the world we live in. We in America take for granted that everyone should preserve the rainforests and not hunt animals to death and the like; but in The Last Unicorn the author points out that Romans, seeing Great Britain, would be stunned to learn that the great forests that used to be there are gone, and the 'habitat' that is being protected there is nothing like what was there 1500 or 2500 years ago.

Modern humans aren't the only people to blame for deforestation and extinction.  Clovis North Americans likely hunted mastodons and other megafauna to extinction in North America thousands of years ago. Then, as now, we barely understand how we affect nature; that same article I just linked to points out that cottonwood tree populations shrunk in Yellowstone after wolves were removed from the area in the 1920s: the problem was that elk were no longer controlled, and elk feed on cottonwood. Simple travel alone helps spread invasive species that can forever upset an ecosystem, and sometimes the invasion is deliberate: fish farmers brought in Asian carp to keep their ponds clean, and they've now worked their way up to Illinois along the Mississippi. There's now a lawsuit pending with Michigan and Canada trying to close canals in Illinois to stop the carp from spreading into the Great Lakes.

People have a right to modernize; without fish farms we'd have less fish to eat, and without asian carp presumably that fish would've been more expensive. We have to balance the price of cheap nutritious food with the fact that we don't really understand how anything works, ever. And people in what we think of as the Third World are now being asked to forego the pleasures of modern life that we enjoy -- we have highways and fast food restaurants and high-speed internet and air conditioners -- so that their habitats can remain pristine.

There's a story in the book about a rhino skeleton they found in Laos. A project had been run to try to figure out how many rhinos still were on the mainland in that area, and they found piles of dung from rhinos all over the place using specially trained rhinos. (The way they track animals now includes cameras, dogs trained to find dung, and even using DNA extracts from leeches to determine what animals the leeches have fed on). They estimated that there were 40 or so rhinos in the area.

After the rhino skeleton was found, scientists located a bullet lodged in one leg bone, and hypothesized that someone had tried to poach it, but it had only been wounded and got away, eventually falling down a hill and suffocating. Sad enough, but sadder still: when they tested the rhino DNA against the 40-ish dung samples, they learned that every sample was from that one rhino. The last rhino in that area had died a sad lonely death at the bottom of a ravine.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Book 53: "Superheroes," you say? Why, I'm not sure such a concept would be popular at all, sir.

Soon I Will Be Invincible was another re-read; I got the book as a Xmas present back when it was first released in 2007. It's more or less a prose comic book, one that takes all the usual trappings of a superhero comic and plays with the notions a bit. On re-reading it's still enjoyable, primarily because of the main character, Doctor Impossible.

The book is told in alternating chapters narrated by Dr. Impossible and Fatale, a former special-ops cyborg who has been recruited to join "The New Champions," a reconstituted superhero group formed to look for Earth's greatest hero (in this novel, anyway), CoreFire, as well as find the newly-escaped Dr. Impossible.

There's really nothing new in the book: CoreFire is a Superman, there's a Black Wolf character filling in as a thinly-disguised Batman, and Dr. Impossible is every evil genius from Lex Luthor on; there are island lairs and robot armies and multi-hero fights; what makes the book worth reading is the spirit Grossman puts into it, for lack of a better word: the book is fun the way comic books can be fun even when they deal with (semi)serious issues.  Grossman's writing is smooth, the characters are interesting, the plot rolls along, and there are enough twists and fights and puzzles to keep everyone happy.

Dr. Impossible is really a great character: an evil supergenius who constantly reminds us he is one, the book unveils his history and persona layer by layer, back to when he was in school with the man who would become CoreFire after an accident caused by Dr. Impossible when he was just a lab assistant, and then forward through his time in prison and another accident that gave Impossible his own bit of superpowers.  His running monologue is at times poignant and at other times hilarious; his showdown at the end of the book -- there had to be a showdown, for a book like this -- is one of the most weirdly touching moments I can recall in a book. Impossible has a keen sense of humor as well as for the necessities of his position: when he is found by accident in New York when he doesn't have his costume with him, he tapes a napkin over his face so cameras can't get a picture of his face. At another point, he uses his blaster on a hero despite knowing it won't work, more or less for old time's sake.

The only other character with any depth is the cyborg, Fatale, and while she's kind of interesting, it's Dr. Impossible's show; the chapters told from Fatale's perspective drag a bit and tend to be mopey, but even then they're still a lot of fun.

The background characters in the book are interesting, though: Grossman really goes all out on the mythology; he's got Golden Age heroes, faeries, aliens, robots, an invasion on Saturn, pretty much everything you could imagine from a longrunning comic series.  It's all so detailed and neat that it makes me with there was a comic series (or just a series of more prose books) with more of these heroes and adventures. I can't really understand why that hasn't happened, since superheroes are so big these days. (My guess, though, is it has to do with money: it costs a lot to make any TV show or movie, and the special effects' costs for a superhero film would make it even more expensive, so trying to start a whole new superhero movie franchise without 50 years of built-in fanbase is probably prohibitively expensive, but even if that's true it doesn't explain why there's at least not a comic series or sequel to this book.)

If you like superhero movies or comics, odds are you'll enjoy the book. You should give it a try: this book deserves to be a bigger deal than it apparently is.

I had this moment

A Foolish Homonym Is The Hobgoblin Of Little Minds Or Something Like That.

Andre said, “Zoey, this is Tre. My brother. He’s gonna fix you up. He does all our suits, Ling’s outfits, too.”
Will said, “We’re going for confidence here. I don’t want her dressed like she’s coming in nervous, or armored, or ready to run. I want her dressed like she’s going to a party without a care in the world. We want to sew doubt about why she’s so confident. I’d suggest something tight, with heels.”

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits: A Novel, by David Wong

Student Loans: The Debt That Keeps On Giving

Student loans are the debt that will drag America under for the next recession, which is likely to hit in just a few years, as low taxes are associated with boom-and-bust economies and the current market valuation is almost identical to the markets in 1999 and 2008.

But if there were any thoughts that perhaps, just perhaps, student loans might be treated like (most) other debt and that sanity would again reign in the higher-education arena, those thoughts have been dashed by the latest exemption provided student loan creditors: they now don't (really) need to comply with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The TCPA, a law of extremely dubious utility to most debtors and yet somehow a hindrance to most businesses, has become a terrible mishmash of rules and exemptions and loopholes and overlitigation. The November 2015 changes to that law did not help: In November 2015 as part of a budget bill, Congress amended the TCPA to exempt calls that are "solely" for the purpose of collecting debt owed to or guaranteed by the US government.

That 99.9% of the people who will be affected by this law are student debtors seems obvious; that creditors and collectors will rush to take advantage of this loophole is less apparent but understood by all.

In Workman v. Navient Solutions, (SD IN 16 CV 457), the plaintiff alleged that beginning in November 2015, Navient called her "often several [times] per day," and that she had her lawyer write a cease-and-desist letter. Which should be called a "cease letter" but let's not get distracted.

In either case, Navient moved for judgment on the pleadings, citing the November 2015 amendments to the TCPA.

Workman asked the federal court to stay the case, arguing that the FCC was given rulemaking authority to implement the law, and that it was not clear whether or how the FCC would limit the carte blanche Congress handed student loan collectors.  The federal court denied the stay on July 27, 2016, likely meaning Workman's claim will be dismissed.

The FCC was supposed to issue new regulations by August, although the Workman court noted that one FCC commissioner felt the rules would not be completed by then.  It appears that the FCC will limit the authority at least a bit, as the proposed rules would limit the frequency and number of calls, as well as the people who might receive calls.

The bottom line, though, is that if you are a student loan debtor, your debts cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, you can be garnished without a court hearing, there is no statute of limitations applicable to most of the student loans, and now student loan collectors are exempted from a law meant to protect debtors from harassment.

Debtors who owe gambling debts, credit card debts, and loans for risky business ventures are treated better than debtors who borrowed money to go to school, only to have their decision not pay off in the way they hoped -- meaning they ended up in a job that earns less than they had expected (or they were unable to finish school.)

The decision to treat student loans differently has zero to do with smart economic policy or support for lower-income students (the original purpose behind federal student loans.)  70% of all students graduate owing student loans, with the average amount owed being about $29,000.  Student loan debt is growing at twice the rate of inflation.  20% of all student debt is made up of 'private' student loans-- lenders who are not governed by many regulations, but have their debts guaranteed by the US Government and thus are exempted from most consumer protection laws.

Whose decision was it to allow lenders to make loans without considering ability to pay or financial solvency, then to guarantee those debts, and then to exempt those debts from bankruptcy and consumer protections? Probably not your decision.

Student loan companies have spent $44,000,000 or so lobbying the government for changes in the laws in the past 10 years, and contribute about 90% of their campaign money to Republicans. 

Whose decision was it to allow lenders to make loans that have zero risk to the lender, and yet tie debtors down for decades? It was the lenders' decision.

Will anything be done about it? Doubtful. While a senator, Hillary! voted to make student loans harder to discharge in bankruptcy, and she promoted Navient (then Sallie Mae) as a good source of jobs back in 2001. (Hillary! in 1999 had gotten Bill to veto similar bankruptcy-loan legislation but apparently her position shifted once she was a Senator from New York and palling around with the owners of Navient. Imagine.)(I used to be against campaign finance reform but now I am in favor of not allowing any contributions whatsoever, and requiring public funding of all campaigns.) Hillary!'s best plan would only save borrowers on average $2000 a year. Not peanuts but not very much help. I imagine if I gave you $150 more per month you'd be okay with it but it wouldn't solve very many problems for you.

Trump's "plan" (?) meanwhile is to create more jobs so people can pay their loans. Presumably those jobs will be building the wall, and thus Mexico will be helping our future students pay their debts to Hillary!'s lunch buddies.