Saturday, November 12, 2016


Books 77 and 78: The past isn't any better than the present.

I didn't set out to read nostalgic books on the same week that the US elected a man who almost certainly will go down in history as our worst president ever, but I'm kind of glad it worked out that way because all this week I couldn't really bear to do anything that might bring me in contact with the real world.

When I was 10 years old, I got my first Hardy Boys books, and they included The House On The Cliff. I remember exactly where the books were in my room: just after my sister was born, I ended up sharing a room with my younger brother, and to make room for his stuff my books went onto the upper shelf in our closet. The hardcover Hardy Boys books were on right, next to the hardcover Doc Savage books.

1978 was the year Roman Polanski fled prosecution for raping a young girl at a Hollywood party. That year President Jimmy Carter -- a man who was frequently ridiculed in our house when I was growing up -- postponed US production of the neutron bomb, a bomb that killed people while preserving infrastructure. 1978 was also the year the US Supreme Court ruled that a judge could not be sued for having allowed a 15-year-old to be involuntarily sterilized by her mother; the judge granted the mother's petition without a hearing and without appointing a lawyer to represent the girl's interests. That year San Francisco passed a landmark gay rights law; St. Paul repealed its.

The Hardy Boys are frozen in time: in the story of some kids helping break up a smuggling ring, farmers serve pie and ham sandwiches to kids who stop in after rescuing a man who was drowning; the boys ride motorcycles and attend high school. Their father, internationally renowned detective Fenton Hardy, never shoots first 'unless he has to.' The smuggler, when he is caught, breaks down and confesses that he had a bad upbringing, and that when he gets out of prison he will use the house on the cliff, which he has inherited, as a boys' home.

In less than 2 years after I first read The House On The Cliff, Ronald Reagan became president. I don't remember much about Jimmy Carter's presidency; I grew up in the Reagan years. I was 11 when he was elected and 19 when his second term ended. Reagan, who many people now believe was suffering from dementia in his second term, was a year younger, when elected, than Donald Trump is now.

Reagan is remembered for lots of things now, but perhaps none more than Reaganomics. Reaganomics didn't lower taxes on the whole: taxes as a percentage of gross domestic product were 18.2% at the end of Reagan's terms; they'd been 18.1% at the start of his presidency. They did lower taxes on the rich, though.

Reagan's policies froze minimum wage at $3.35 per hour, cut public housing and rent subsidies by 50%, and cut spending on Medicaid, food stamps, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Social Security Disability payments.

The Hardy Boys' lives seemed pretty secure: their friends have boats, they have motorcycles, their mom doesn't have to work, they live near the sea. But there's still crime: there are still smugglers who filch drugs and sneak them into New York, and burglars.

Crime doesn't go away, it seems. In the 30th century, when the Legion Of Super-Heroes takes place, crime has become both an interstellar and a local thing: criminals steal diamonds or try to build armies of robots or take over factory planets in schemes of dubious merit. I started reading comics in the 1980s, much to the dismay of my mom, who found much to be dismayed by wherever she looked. Legion comics were among my favorites: not as dark as Marvel's X-Men but still sort of seeming like they were true-to-life: the Legionnaires (who were 'teens' much like John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were 'teens' in 1978 when Grease was released as a movie) had parents and lives and took vacations but also saved the world.

Among other terrorist attacks, in the 1980s, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Scotland, and the Marine barracks in Lebanon were blown up. Iran and Iraq were at war, as were the UK and Argentina, Israel and Lebanon, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, and let's not forget we invaded Grenada that year. We won, largely because us invading Grenada is like Ohio State playing UW-Whitewater.

A year ago, Breitbart gave 20 reasons why Trump should become president. They included his business acumen, that he 'speaks for us little people', has a 'stellar' family and that he 'is a man of sound morals.'

We know none of those things are true, of course, but truth takes a back seat in politics.

In Legion Of Superheroes, the Legion has a rule: no two members can duplicate each other's powers. This is to promote 'diversity,' I think they said. They also reject members whose powers are hard to control or demonstrate significant weakness, like Night Girl, who is superstrong but only in shadow -- so a bright light can take her out! they say.  The rule is honored more in the breach, I think: Ultra Boy and Mon El, for example, each have superstrength and invulnerability, although Ultra Boy can only use one power at a time. If he's superfast, he's not invulnerable, and that gets them into trouble time and again. Timber Wolf and Karate Kid are each martial arts experts, but Timber Wolf, like my own personal favorite, Wildfire, has a temper problem, which frequently gets them into trouble. If you were a rejected legionnaire, you might wonder about how hard-and-fast those rules really are applied.

Just like you might wonder about whether things are really so great in the 30th century. Despite the fact that there is a "United Planets," there is also a planet where people were enslaved for 7 years by a warlike race, and the Legion only happened to foil that plot by luck. The Legion, we're told, is color-blind -- they even have a blue girl! -- but there's an island called Marzal, on Earth, where the black "race" lives and wants no contact with the rest of Earth.

Donald Trump is going to "bring manufacturing jobs back," and stop illegal immigration, plus stop Muslims from coming here.  The current unemployment rate is 4.9%. While it's not commonly discussed, the federal government in fact tries to keep unemployment at about that rate. The Federal Reserve's statutory mandate is to try to keep inflation at an annual level of 2%, and unemployment between 4 and 5%.   Bringing jobs back to the United States will mean lower unemployment, one assumes, because there aren't going to be immigrants taking those jobs. Lower unemployment almost always means higher inflation. Donald Trump's two stated goals directly conflict with longstanding US economic policy.

Whether we have lost jobs, and how many, and when, is open to debate. CNN reported in March that 5,000,000 factory jobs had been lost since 2000.  The story noted that mechanization and automation of jobs was responsible for cutting down on manufacturing jobs, as well as foreign workers. A year earlier, though, CNS News claimed we'd lost 7,231,000 manufacturing jobs since 1979. 

Like job 'creation' job 'loss' takes on many forms. In our office, two lawyers left in the past 18 months to go to other jobs. We didn't replace those lawyers. That seems to count as two job losses, but in one case, the lawyer joined another firm, apparently not replacing anyone there, so that was one job created. Net job loss 1?

Trump is going to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a 'marketplace' alternative. Obamacare in fact is based on a marketplace: you have to buy insurance from insurance companies, who offer it as group rates or on exchanges.

Trump is, as all Republicans are, going to cut taxes. Or not. Trump promised repeatedly during the campaign to cut taxes on small businesses, promises his advisors said weren't actually promises. Either way, Trump's plan looks like it will add trillions to the deficit, forcing more government borrowing and more money to go to US debt service.

In 1988, the total amount the US government spent just paying interest on the national debt was:


In 2016, that amount had more than doubled to:


The payments have not gone up at a steady rate; sometimes they went down. They peaked at $363,000,000,000 in 1998, then dropped before going up to $451,000,000,000 in 2008, then $454,000,000,000 in 2011. Which means they've gone down nearly 10% since 2011.

I don't remember the 1980s as a particularly good, or bad, time. I remember them as a time that I was mostly preoccupied with the things teens are occupied with: trying to figure out life, trying to date people and fit in, that kind of stuff. I didn't  solve mysteries or fight supervillains; I just read about them as an escape from what I imagined were troubles that nobody could understand and nobody could solve. I didn't pay much attention to politics or government in general until the Iran-Contra hearings, when Ollie North 'heroically' sold arms to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras.

The problems the Hardy Boys faced, the villains the Legion faced, the problems my teenage self faced: they were all, really, fictional, transient. They were problems that would go away when you flipped the page, when you turned 16, or 17, or 18. Once high school ends, nobody needs to worry about being popular in high school anymore. As you get near the end of a book, you know that even a weakened Fenton Hardy isn't going to let a smuggler shoot his sons, that Superboy and Star Boy are going to find a way to stop the Fearsome Five.

It's once you close the book, once you graduate, that you realize what problems really are. Over the next four years, people who are scared of the future and fetishize the past are going to try to re-create what they imagined were good times, by selectively choosing what information to pay attention to and what problems to focus on.

But the past wasn't as good as you think it was. The Hardy Boys and the Legion were simplistic notions of the past and the future, versions of reality that are every bit as out-of-touch with the real real world as the minds of those who imagine you can build a wall around America to keep us from getting hurt, who imagine that factory jobs will suddenly exist and there will be people to fill them, who imagine that you can cut taxes and increase spending without hurting someone -- and who will ignore that the someones who get hurt are those who need help the most and take the least.

Consider this:  If you get Social Security Disability Income, which is the primary income Mr F and Mr Bunches will have after they are 18 -- income which they will have to use to support themselves in some way after Sweetie and I are dead -- you get an average of $1,166 per month. Mr F, when he is 18, will not be able to work, not unless a miracle happens and turns his life around. He will have income, assuming that we don't cut it more to bring those factory jobs back, the way Reaganomics did, of about $14,000 per year.

People making six figures save, on average, $5,000 per year on their taxes by taking the mortgage interest deduction. If you earn more than $100,000 per year, and own a home, we reduce your taxes by $5,000 per year simply because you're you.

Cutting taxes to help the rich began in the 1980s. Cutting benefits to hurt the poor began then, too. There have always been wars in the mideast and terrorists looking to kill us. There have always been job losses and changes in society that hurt some and help some. There have always been economic shifts: farms to cities, cities to suburbs, agrarian to industrial, industrial to informational, that have raised some up and hurt others.

Nothing Donald Trump does will change that for the better. But that's not the goal of Trumpists. Their goal isn't to make the world a better place. Their goal is to make the world better for them. Life is a zero sum game for Republicans: if you are up, they are down, and if you are down, they believe they are up, even if they aren't really.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I worried about my comic book collection and whether girls liked me and if the car would be available for dates. I can be excused for ignoring some of the things going on in society, because I was a kid.

In 2016, I worry whether my sons will live on the streets after I die, whether police will shoot my grandson when they pull him over for speeding, whether the few protections that are left in the world to keep people (in America, at least) from starving in the streets or dying in shelters because hospitals won't take them, will be stripped away.

I don't miss the ignorance of the world I had when I was a kid. It's ignorance that got us here. I can hide my head in the sand for a week or two, re-reading old books, but all it does is emphasize that things have been going wrong for a long time now, and we aren't getting any better or smarter.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Here is the one reason Donald Trump won.

That reason? Democrats don't vote. And they don't understand how government works.

I said exactly 5 months ago that Democrats don't vote. And I pointed out that Democrats don't understand that congressional districts, and local races, are as important (if not more important) than the presidency.

Democrats don't vote, and don't understand how government really works. I noted just two weeks later that Trump had the support of older, poorer, less educated people. Democrats here failed to pay attention to what happened in the Brexit vote, and didn't understand that smart hip young college students -- Democrats -- don't vote.

Democrats might not vote because there was no reason to vote for Hillary!, who, I noted, was basically a Republican when it came to the issues that mattered.  I tried, this morning, recalling a single policy position Hillary! took in the final months of the campaign. The only one I could think of was "I'm not Trump." Running against someone -- as Democrats in Wisconsin proved three times with Scott Walker -- doesn't make people vote for you.

It's possible voter ID laws and other measures, even if suspended temporarily, helped suppress the Democratic vote, as federal judges in many states ruled in invalidating those programs. But that again just demonstrates that the Democrats' insistence on focusing on the presidency has helped doom them. With Republicans in control now, the swing vote on the US Supreme Court will make Clarence Thomas look like John Marshall, and those Voter ID cases that make it to the highest court will likely be approved, forever altering the political landscape.

At least that will give some Democrats a reason for not voting, because Democrats don't vote.

Here's how you know Democrats don't vote.

In 2012, 65,000,000 Democrats voted for Barack Obama.  60,000,000 Republicans voted for Romney.

In 2016, 59,000,000 Democrats voted for Hillary!, while just shy of 59,000,000 voted for Trump.

I can't prove that they're all the same people, but here's what that says: 6,000,000 Democrats who voted in 2012 didn't vote in 2016, while nearly every Republican who voted in 2012 made it to the polls this year.

Democrats don't vote.  So while you moan on Twitter about how terrible things are, remember: if you are a Democrat, the odds are you didn't vote. This is on you.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

I had this moment

A Minute With Mr Bunches

So you think Mr Bunches can dance?

He can:

Mr Bunches was picked for his dancing skills, and got to showcase them at the assembly to teach people to respect others at his school this morning.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Book 76: This is why even I don't come back for fourths.

I was in a rut between audiobooks. I'd started listening to Dune but the borrowing period expired, so while I waited for it to come around again I couldn't pick a new book to listen to. Finally I settled on So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, figuring it'd been years since I read it so I might enjoy it all over again the way I have a bunch of books this year.

Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy it all that much, and that's pretty much consistent with how I remembered the book in the first place, as it turns out.  When I first downloaded it I could recall only what I thought were the basics of the storyline, about Arthur Dent returning to Earth, which has been mysteriously undemolished, and falling in love with Fenchurch, who was the girl from the first book who had an idea that would make everyone get along. But I thought there must be more to it than that, so I gave it another whirl.

Only there really isn't more to it than that. Arthur comes home, falls in love and he and Fenchurch go visit Wonko The Sane, only to find out that he can't really help them figure out what it was Fenchurch thought of before the demolition, so they go see God's last message to his creations, where they run into Marvin who [SPOILER ALERT] dies.

There's also a subplot with Ford Prefect that honestly didn't seem to matter in the book at all, other than to include Ford, which if you're not going to put in Zaphod and others, why insist on having Ford.

So Long isn't a bad book, per se, but it's not anywhere near the same league as the first three books in the Hitchhiker trilogy; it's not just the utter lack of any sort of plot really, but the fact that this book, tonally, just doesn't fit with the rest of the books. It's not the kind of outrageous, madcap, anything-can-happen book that people who read the first three will be expecting. It's more thoughtful and more pensive, and seems to be trying harder for the weirdness and funny asides of the first three books.

I went and read about the book and Adams' thoughts on it, and learned on Wikipedia that Adams himself wasn't very happy with the book, which was produced under some pressure to comply with a timeline.  I also, in reading that entry, remembered that there was an installlment after So Long, the fifth installment, Mostly Harmless, which I sort of vaguely recall reading, I think?  I'm pretty sure I read it.

Anyway, it's hard to understand why So Long is so markedly different and disappointing. Later books he wrote -- the Dirk Gently novels -- managed to recapture some of the spirit (The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul being the better and less bewildering of the two), so my guess is that it was just that the Hitchhiker characters had run their course: there wasn't much left for them to do, I think.

But beyond that, too, the book doesn't actually answer the questions it sets out to answer. Fenchurch, for example, was trying to figure out what it was she'd thought of before the Earth was demolished, and when she sees God's last message she seems to think that answers her question (or at least she feels better) but it's hard to see how the message helps her. Marvin's ending is disappointing, as well; Marvin The Paranoid Android is one of the greatest characters ever created in literature, and to have him show up in the final chapter of the book and essentially just peter out is a letdown; the Marvin who was furiously stomping in circles in the mattress swamps, or the Marvin who had to pilot the ship into the sun, is the Marvin readers should have been allowed to see. It just felt wrong for Marvin to be so pathetic; in the past, Marvin was miserable and depressed and had the pain all down the diodes, etc., but he owned it, instead of being victimized by it.

Ford Prefect, also, moves beyond being Ford Prefect: the old Ford only helped people out by accident, and otherwise just wanted a good time. The new Ford tries to bankruptcy the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation, among other things he does that seem to be out of character for Ford.

The problem isn't so much that those characters change; characters growing or changing is okay. It's just that the new versions of them aren't funny, so the fact that they're different is just jarring, rather than showing some sort of literary merit.

Arthur and Fenchurch, though, to be fair, manage to work as a couple, and possibly the tone of the book is (as some critics have said) affected by the fact that it's more of a romance than a book about wacky space adventures, but the problem with that thinking is that Arthur and Fenchurch still have wacky space adventures, or at least wacky space-adjacent adventures, like going to visit Wonko or hitching a ride on a UFO or meeting the Rain God, and yet there is a distinct lack of wackiness to these adventures.

Mostly the book feels a lot like the final season of Arrested Development: inessential, tone-deaf, and harmful, in a way, to the rest of the series.  I'm not one of those guys who thinks that you can destroy an earlier book by writing a later book; the existence of So Long... doesn't make the three previous books any less great; what it does is make people who read them say stuff like "Read the first three and skip the last two," and take a great series from great to 60% great.  I wish I'd gone back and listened to Hitchhiker instead.

Good song, though:


Sunday, November 06, 2016

Book 75: Or if you don't like Star Wars references, you could think of it as being like if Frodo got to the Cracks Of Doom but Sauron had died of old age and the One Ring turned out to be just sort of a MacGuffin.

In the end, I wanted more out of All The Birds In The Sky.

All The Birds In The Sky as a book feels a lot like its protagonists: always reaching for something more, and not sure if they've made it there yet. The book is good. Too good to feel as light as it does, which is why I wanted more. It's a good book that feels like it should have been a great book.

The plot is this: Patricia, as a young girl, learns that she may be a witch when a bird talks to her and takes her to the Tree, where all the birds meet and pose a question to her. Her potential witch status makes her something of an outcast, and causes her to bond with Laurence, whose own unhappiness and focus on science makes him an outsider, too. Never really friends but not quite enemies, Laurence and Patricia form a unique bond that carries them through most of high school before their paths diverge.

From there, it's a small [SPOILER ALERT] to tell you that their paths meet up again as the possible end of the world is looming: the two are on opposite sides, each of which faction has its own, possibly terrible, idea about how to solve all the problems in the world.

There's a lot to love about this book: Anders creates a system of magic that is deceptively awesome in its simplicity, and throws in the kind of true-seeming science that books like this rely on, both without getting caught up in all the arcana that, say, Lev Grossman's Magicians series does with magic or Larry Niven might for science. There are touches of humor, too, throughout the book, which give it the kind of light quality that allows the book to deal with serious (and sometimes dark) themes and scenes.  All of this is good, and what makes it a good book.

The downfall, though, is the book feels underdeveloped, or perhaps rushed, or both. At times, I wondered if maybe it was intended as a YA book; it felt simple in a not-bad way, simple the way the Narnia books sometimes felt simple, but at other times it felt rushed, or as though something had been cut out.  I wondered after I finished it if maybe the publisher hadn't made the book be cut back to fit a page length that it thought we be more economical or something. It has that feel to it.  There's a lot of stuff in the book that feels exposition-y or voiced-over, like Laurence's romance with another girlfriend throughout the book; the entire relationship feels like an example of tell rather than show, the way you might if you really wanted the readers to know something, but had a time limit.

Then there is the story of Theodolphus Rose, a master assassin who enters the story with plans to kill Patricia and Laurence while they're still young, because he's foreseen them destroying the world; after a major buildup with Rose, his storyline just peters out in a way that feels almost entirely unconnected to the first part of the story. Had Rose been cut out of the story entirely I think the book would be no worse for it, which says a lot about a master assassin who takes a job as a guidance counselor.

There are also minor things that don't fit in, like two of the more powerful witches, one who does spells by telling stories, a magic that nobody else has, and one whose mere presence causes anything biological to grow crazily.  These two characters are brought in and out as needed, and the fact that their magic is so different from everyone else's goes unexplained.

Near the end, I started to think that this was maybe book 1 of a series, and that the feeling I was getting from the book was the way I feel when confronted with an origin story: it needs to be gotten over with, if told at all. (I think origin stories are often unnecessary but that's for another day.)  I'd have liked that a lot better than having the finale to the story compressed into the final 10% or so of the book.

Then there is the ending: although it plays into the setup and beginnings of the characters, the way it comes off is a bit deus ex machina ish.  I won't spoil it for anyone who wants to read the book, but I found the ending a bit unsatisfying given everything that had come before. The book set up some pretty high stakes, only to have them not matter at all in the end; to get the effect of what I'm talking about, imagine that after everything that happened in Star Wars, instead of the rebels assaulting the Death Star, it simply blows up as it exits hyperspace and Princess Leia gives Han the money to pay off Jabba because the rebels just saved so much in not having to fight. While not the same thing as what happens in All The Birds, the feeling is the same.

I don't mean to run it down too much; the book is still a good one. I enjoyed reading it, but it never felt like it rose above standard fantasy/scifi fare. But for all that, Anders is a very good writer, and has some obviously great ideas, ideas that would have been better served with a book that more fully explored them instead of a book that just felt like it had to hit its marks on time.