Saturday, November 26, 2016

Mr Bunches And The Mean Kid

So we were at the park this one Saturday, and as I was sitting by Mr F on the spinner, I heard Mr Bunches saying:

"Stop looking at me."

I focused in on where he was, and saw Mr Bunches at the top of the play structure, with a kid who was a bit smaller than him. The kid was standing in Mr Bunches way, and quite obviously staring at him.

I waited to see what would happen, and Mr Bunches said again: "Stop looking at me."

I figured Mr Bunches might have caught the kid's attention because he had been playing and scripting, muttering to himself all the lines in the movie Tangled, which he'd watched before we'd walked to the park.

The kid stepped aside, and Mr Bunches went down the slide. He came over to me and said "That kid is staring at me." I said "Just ignore him. You mind your own business and he'll go away."

So Mr Bunches went back up and the kid was staring at him the whole way, and standing in front of him as Mr Bunches went to the slide. The kid stood there blocking him a second before looking down at me, and then stepping out of the way.

Mr Bunches stepped past him and said: "You're such a loser."

I started smiling. Mr Bunches went down the slide. When Mr Bunches went back up, the kid said something I couldn't hear, and Mr Bunches said (very calmly) "Please leave me alone. I cannot play with you."

"Why not?" I heard the kid ask.

"Because I don't like you," Mr Bunches told him, and then went down the slide again.

This time the kid slid down after him, and at the bottom followed him as Mr Bunches started to climb up again. The kid said something and Mr Bunches finished climbing, and turned to the kid. Very calmly he said:

"I'm taller than you."

And he slid down the slide. I don't know what it was about that comment but the kid went nuts. He slid down as fast as he could, following Mr Bunches and hollering the names of all the people the kid was taller than. He was saying "I'm taller than my grandma and I'm taller than a lot of my friends" and trying to get Mr Bunches to acknowledge him.  Mr Bunches just climbed back up the ladder and went down the slide again. Then, the next time up, the kid tried to climb on the outside of the slide like he was going to jump in the way of Mr Bunches as he slid down.

Mr Bunches saw him, and said "I'm not talking to you. You're not my best friend."

This made the kid stop and say "I don't want to be your best friend."

To which Mr Bunches said:  "You're crazy."

Again, this drove the kid bonkers: he started saying how he wasn't crazy, and Mr Bunches just kept saying "I'm not talking to you, you're not my best friend," and the kid went back to saying who he was taller than (I think Mr Bunches must have hit a nerve), and then as Mr Bunches started down the slide again, the kid jumped on and tried to go right after him...

... so Mr Bunches stopped himself, and the kid slammed into Mr Bunches back, and Mr Bunches very slowly slid down so that the kid the entire time was trapped behind him.  When they got near the bottom the kid jumped off and ran away saying "I'm leaving."

Mr Bunches shouted after him: "You're crazy!"

I bet it'll be a long time before that kid tries picking on someone again.

Book 83: What I should do is combine these two story ideas into one and create an all-powerful wizard detective who keeps murdering people without knowing it. DIBS ON THAT IDEA.

Alan Dean Foster has written, according to Wikipedia, over 100 novels, and as I was (re)reading The Hour Of The Gate I was trying to work out in my head if, based on sheer volume alone, Foster would rank as my favorite author.

I counted up the books I've read by him, and it's 18.  The only other authors prolific enough to match up, I think, are Piers Anthony and Stephen King, so I counted them, too. King, I've read 13 (or 14; it's hard to tell sometimes, because his stories run together in my mind.) Anthony it's at least 31; I can't remember if I've read some of his, too, like the 2nd half of The Apprentice Adept series. Which puts Foster pretty firmly in second place, not a bad spot to be in my opinion.

The Spellsinger books, like a lot of the mid-80s fantasy I like so much, rely on a tried-and-true formula that works because Foster is a good writer and can rise above the cliches. The Spellsinger series follows Jon-Tom, a law student/musician from our world who gets accidentally pulled into another world by the wizard Clothahump, a turtle; in Clothahump's world, all animals -- spiders, insects, mammals, and birds, but not lizards (other than dragons) -- act more or less like humans. Jon-Tom's been pulled there because Clothahump thought he was an engineer; engineering in our world is like magic in Clothahump's world, we're told, although there's not that much evidence to support it.

The books themselves aren't short on action or adventure or imagination, from double-rivers (one underground flowing under the above-ground one to communist dragons to a mystical horse that must circle the universe in order to end it, Foster lays out a good adventure that moves briskly from one scene to the next, and the books manage to be a good, pulp-movie-style adventure.

The kid-who-has-powers thing was obviously big in the 1980s, and maybe Luke Skywalker started it or maybe he was just the latest iteration of it, but Foster's take on Jon-Tom's stumbling version of magic is kind of fun: he's a "spellsinger," so when he plays music and sings he can do magic, magic that's loosely based on the song he's singing -- so, for example, when he tries to conjure a boat in one book he sings Sloop John B.  The magic has side effects or is uncontrolled, and in that Sloop John B example, Jon-Tom accidentally makes himself the first mate, and thus spends part of the voyage drunk because the first mate, he got drunk.

Jon-Tom's magic comes in mostly when Foster needs it to; although the books are about being a spellsinger, like most books in which characters have magic there are limits on the magic, both artificial and in-story. In The Hour Of The Gate Jon-Tom decides not to use his magic sometimes because he's too angry, or at others because the group deems it too dangerous, and so on.  Whenever I read characters who have magic that have limits on it (for whatever reason) I go back to my list of dream stories I would like to write, which include:

1. A murder mystery in which the detective is himself the one who committed the murder, but he doesn't know it and the reason he doesn't know it has nothing to do with accident, drugs, or being drunk, or amnesia or the like -- in other words, he murdered someone, then has to solve the mystery, and the reason he can't remember it isn't explainable through hokey devices, and  
2. A fantasy story in which there is an all-powerful wizard, one who can do pretty much anything he wants, and then... I haven't worked out the rest of the plot but there'll be no limits on his power.

The limitation-on-power thing bugs me, especially when the limit is arbitrary or unexplained. In All The Birds In The Sky the witch's power was limited by the need to not be aggrandizing, although that was never really explained. In the Xanth books characters are always trying to forego their powers and figure things out some other way, which strikes me as incredibly odd, and counterintuitive.  Imagine this:

Batman and Superman are standing atop a skyscraper and a giant robot begins tearing down Gotham City. Batman says You should just pick it up and throw it into the sun.  Superman says nah I think I'll try to outsmart it so it leaves the city alone.

What would Batman do? I think probably slap Superman and say don't be stupid, just pick it up and throw it into the sun.

(There are a certain amount of people right now saying well what if the robot is actually filled with some sort of explosives that, if launched into the sun, will destroy the universe? but that's not part of the setup, and you're sort of part of the problem.)

The problem is, I think, artificial conflict. And it works worst when it's used only whenever you want it to be a limit. I was watching The Force Awakens the other night when I couldn't sleep, and I was thinking about how Rey manages to mind-control the stormtrooper, and how Obi Wan did that in the first movie. Mind control seems to me to be exactly the kind of thing Jedi shouldn't do; if you can't get mad and attack someone without going to the dark side, how can you make someone else do something against his or her will? And why not use it all the time? I know, I know: it only works on weak minds or something, but the point is: there is a limit to Jedi power that is applied only when the story requires it. Luke can't get mad and fight Vader without going to the Dark Side. Rey can use her mind-control powers to make stormtroopers give her weapons so she can kill people. It's inconsistent.

There's a bit of limitation, for no real reason, in The Hour Of The Gate, even beyond Jon-Tom's occasional reluctance or lack of ability. Clothahump sometimes is too tired to do more magic, a limit that also gets applied somewhat randomly, and there are things magic can't do that, again, don't seem too consistent.

The point of it is that if your story requires a basic element to fail or not be used at a certain point to create drama, then the story itself isn't probably so hot, or the system you've set up (regardless of whether it's meant to be a system or not) isn't consistent and needs some work. All systems need consistency or people get removed from the story.

As an example, consider my objections to shows like Law & Order: I don't like to watch them because frequently they cut corners or do something that wouldn't happen, like two lawyers arguing a point of constitutional law as they walk down a hallway with a judge, who then rules, all off-the-record and with no witnesses or anything. That's ludicrous! I usually say.

Then, one time, watching the show Ed, about a lawyer who bought a bowling alley and works out of it, Ed The Lawyer got hired on some huge case that went to trial like literally the next day, with no witnesses or subpoenas or juries or depositions or anything. How come you don't get bugged by stuff like that? Sweetie asked me, given how unrealistic it was.  The difference, though, was that Ed didn't pretend to be a realistic version of the legal system; it was a show about a bowling-alley lawyer. Law & Order wants to be deemed realistic, and so when it cuts corners for the sake of storytelling (it's more dramatic to have lawyers walking down a hall than simply sitting at a table, I get it) it breaks the system down.

If your limits are built into the story, like Superman's kryptonite, Jon-Tom's unfamiliarity with how magic works, then they're fine. It's perfectly fine to have Jon-Tom's magic fail at a key moment because he's been doing magic for like 2 days. If your limit needs to be created at that moment simply to create drama -- the wizard is suddenly too tired or magic 'doesn't work' on that thing or some such - -it's just poor storytelling.

That's not a critique of The Hour Of The Gate. Foster doesn't fall prey to the 'we can't do that so it's dramatic' bug all that often.  This is a good book, as good as I remembered it being, and if you like pulpy-fun fantasy fiction Alan Dean Foster is your guy.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Trumpocalypse Day 4: He's hot for (diverting money away from your public school) teacher.

Trump announced the other day that Billionaire Betsy DeVos will be his education secretary, seeming to follow through on his stated policy goal of making school choice and a voucher system the default, if not the only, system of public education.

Leaving aside the cognitive dissonnance of providing federal funds to ensure that kids can go to any school, no matter how terrible it is, while at the same time arguing that the federal government should in no way take even the most marginal steps to provide health care for those children, school choice is a terrible idea.

A few quick facts (sorry to ruin the party!) Public education is largely a state-- and actually mostly a local-- function of government, but states and local governments (which mostly fund public schools via property taxes, a tax that [like all taxes but particularly this one] hurts middle-class and poor people most) get lots of funding from the federal government.

Or they did. Over the last five years, federal spending on public education dropped nearly twice as fast as federal spending overall did. This year, the federal government will spent about $42,000,000,000 on public education.

The modern voucher programs began with Milwaukee, in 1990, which created the first voucher system. At the time, 60% of Milwaukee students were dropping out before graduation and the average grade for students was a D+.

26 years later, one result has been that the Milwaukee Public School system has a higher-than-average load of students with special needs, and voucher students and non-choice students scored roughly equally. (That link, which touts that voucher students do better, ignores the actual statistics:

On the Badger/DLM exams, 27% of students in the Milwaukee voucher program were proficient or above in English language arts, compared with 25.6% of all MPS students and 20.5% of those considered economically disadvantaged. Sixteen percent of Milwaukee voucher students scored as proficient or higher in math, compared with 15.8% of all MPS students and 13% of those economically disadvantaged.

Yes, the voucher programs had a slight lead on the standardized test.)  Results were better for voucher program students on the ACT college entrance exam.

Other results are mixed. A compilation of studies in 2011 found little difference in math abilities between voucher- and non-voucher similar students. Voucher students were slightly (4-7%) more likely to go on to and finish college.

One thing to remember is that education doesn't happen in a vacuum. While voucher advocates like to credit voucher programs for those advancements, one can't rule out the fact that students who switch from a public school to a private, voucher-paid school may have parents who are more engaged and more educated themselves, and thus be more inclined to do well academically. One of the key factors that determines if a student goes to college and does well there is whether that student had at least one parent who went to college. Another, as you'd guess, is income.

Among the factors that play into that lack of success, that last report noted:

If these obstacles were not enough, first-generation students typically have less well developed time management and other personal skills, less family and social support for attending college, less knowledge about higher education, and less experience navigating bureaucratic institutions.

Meanwhile, 81% of public school (non-voucher) students nationally graduate from high school on time, and 86% of those students have a college degree by age 26.  Overall, educational achievements have been rising even though only 0.5% of all students are currently voucher students. 

Competition among institutions can, indeed, make them better. (Ironically, many devout social conservatives believe in, if not Darwin, social Darwinism.) But there is no social issue that can be boiled down to black-and-white, single option methods.

I have long been in favor of 'public option' provision of social necessities: public schools, public health care, and the like. This works best when the government provides a robust public option at affordable rates, and then makes it possible for people to opt for that, or a private option, depending on their whim.

Here's an analogy: like education, and health care, delivery of information and goods is a public necessity. The United States created a "Post Office" in 1775. The USPS was funded directly by the government until 1971; now its funding comes from receipts for its goods and services, but it relies too on tax exemptions and low-interest loans from the government. (Some of the problem, if it is a problem, comes from Congress' requirement that the USPS pre-fund its retirement, a law Congress passed in 2006.)  It is, though, for the most part, privately funded now.

The existence of the post office, with its government support, has not stopped the development of fax machines, emails, private courier services, and the like. In 2015, the parcel delivery industry had revenues of $150,000,000,000.

People can use the post office, trusting that it will get the job done: packages will get there, safely. People can opt for the slightly-more expensive private services, which have to be good enough to compete. The USPS uniformly has a lower cost for most immediate shipping, but UPS and Fed Ex and others make up by having (for example) higher weight limits.

School choice vouchers are the equivalent of the government taking away all benefits for post offices, and using that money to give you a coupon to select a shipper from anyone you want; but if they did that, the USPS would still have (for example) the congressional mandates that it pre-fund all retirement (private companies don't have to) and that it deliver everywhere (private companies don't have to).  So a Mail Voucher system would handicap the USPS while, technically, saving no money (since the government would be handing it out in vouchers.)

One possible outcome of such a move would be to essentially end, or at least set on a path to destruction, the public school system. But why would Trump and Billionaire Betsy want to move the state and federal funding from public schools to private schools?

The last time a simple solution to a complex problem worked was when Alexander cut an ox-cart free from a post. That turned out well for him, right?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Book 82: If you do one thing today, read "Bullet In The Brain." Also, don't do just one thing today; that would be a waste of a great holiday.

Because I'm contrarian by nature, I once came up with a theory as to why you can judge a book by its cover. The theory is this: if I like a cover, I will probably like the book. The reasoning behind it is: someone had to design a cover and to do that they had to at least know something about the book. They then distilled that feeling about the book into an image, and they liked the image (or they wouldn't have created it).  If I like the image, I am at least somewhat likely to like the thinking behind it -- i.e., the book.

So I was curious to see if I would like the same kind of stories David Sedaris does. Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, was the inspiration for me to start writing funny versions of my life on here, way back when, and before I stopped doing that so much because it started being kind of repetitious not just of myself, but of other people writing about their lives, as well.

As an aside, I've come to realize that if I think something looks picturesque, probably lots and lots of people think that. I've also come to realize that many of the basic 'truths' we think about life -- parenting, etc. -- are 'truths' that everyone else knows, too, and while I still take pictures I like regardless of whether other people are also taking a picture of the same thing [and it's kind of disconcerting, when you stop to take a picture of someone, to see someone else doing that at the same time], I stopped writing about things I think are more or less just the same things everyone is thinking.

Anyway, Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, and even if people accuse him of making stuff up, he's funny and his stories have, as Stephen Colbert would say, a 'truthiness' about them; plus, they're unique. They manage to somehow wring a universal feel out of, say, putting a bunch of record albums up around his house to stop birds from flying into it.

In Children Playing Before A Statue of Hercules, Sedaris picked some of his favorite short stories of all time to put into an anthology. This, I figure, is as much a cash grab as any of the other ones I complain about on here. After all, the only reason I checked this book out was Sedaris' name on the cover; a random collection of short stories probably wouldn't have risen above the clutter otherwise. But my lack of disdain for the project isn't just because I like Sedaris; it's because unlike most 'cash grabs' this one actually has merit.

The only theme joining the stories is that Sedaris liked them all.  Beyond that, they are a very disparate set of works.  (The audio version, which is the one I had, has only five stories; the print version is longer.) In order of least to most favorite,

Cosmopolitan, about a relationship between a neighbor and lonely Indian man whose wife left him after their grown-up daughter moved out, was tedious and felt, to use a word I find apt, typical. The story unfolds in exactly the way you would imagine from that setup, and doesn't contain any surprises; typical stories can be okay, if they're well-done or interesting, but this one wasn't either of those.

Where The Door Is Always Open And The Welcome Mat Is Out was enjoyable enough, the story of a sister in New York getting a visit from her sister from Cleveland, and the stress and disappointment of that visit; the whole story takes place in about 12 hours, and is told from the perspective of the New York sister, whose attempts to see her own life as something her sister would approve of are sadly amusing.

From there the stories pick up a lot.  In The Cemetary Where Al Jolson Is Buried, about the last meeting between two friends, one of whom is dying, is funny until it's not, and was one of those short stories that stick in my mind.  Gryphon, about an unusual substitute teacher who believes in angels and tells students' fortunes was the same; in the latter, the story is told from the perspective of a student in the small town, one who clearly wants the world to be magical the way the teacher says it is, even though he knows deep down that it's not.

The best story is the shortest: Bullet In The Brain, about a man who happens to be in a bank when the bank robbers get there, is a classic, and I won't spoil it for you by telling you why other than to say the title is not a metaphor of any sort, but quite literal.

So: 80% matchup between me and Sedaris on stories we like, which actually is about what I expected when I first began the book, which I correctly judged by its cover.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Trumpocalpyse Day 3: A Penny Saved Is A Drastic Reduction In Government Services

Donald Trump's proposals, presumably a reason why people voted for him, included the 'penny plan.' This is a plan to reduce federal spending by 1% per year. The Washington Post, which celebrated the election of Trump by having a woman wear a dress made of napkins, which guests were told to take off of her one at a time, reviewed Trump's Penny Plan back in September, when nobody was taking him seriously yet.

Like the old thing about how if I give you a penny today and then double it tomorrow and keep on doing that you'll be a millionaire in a month, those cuts add up, namely because federal spending grows each year.

Here is how federal spending (other than defense spending) grew under each president, from the Cato Institute:

Under even theoretically conservative presidents spending increased each year, and Bush I and Bush II were both bigger spenders than Clinton.

If the federal budget grows by 1.9% per year, and you cut it back 1% per year, each year you cut a bigger portion. If the first year the budget is 6,000,000,000,000, you must cut 60,000,000,000.

The next year, the budget would grow by let's say 2%, or 120,000,000,000 -- so your expected spending would be 540,000,000,000+ 120,000,000,000, or 660,000,000,000,000. Cutting 1% requires cutting 66,000,000,000 this year -- 1% more than last year.

That's a best case scenario.

Within 10 years, as the Post noted,

The budget would need to be cut by 23% to meet the plan.

The Penny Plan would not affect the governments biggest obligations: defense, Medicare, and Social Security. The Penny Plan could not, without destabilizing the world's economy, affect the debt service the government must pay on its outstanding obligations (the National Debt). The Penny Plan would reduce all other government spending, by 23% from where it is now, at least.

That may sound good to you, but keep in mind that even Trump's own policy site notes that our infrastructure is crumbling and we need to modernize the FAA, air traffic control, and our bridges, to avoid a disaster.

I hope the states can pay for all that stuff. Without the federal highway matching money they get now, of course, because that too will be cut by 23%, or more. And without any of the other money states get from the US government, which will be tough, given that 31.5% of all the money each state spends comes from the federal government.

Book 81: This is like 10000 words of blather about how great I am, and then a touching little thing at the end you should probably just skip ahead to.

I kept mulling over two things as I made my way (via audiobook) through Dune. 

First, I thought: man, I was pretty smart in 8th grade.

And second, I thought Boy, Frank Herbert really did a one-of-a-kind thing.

As to the first thought: I read the Dune books (the ones that existed, then, at least) in 8th grade and maybe a bit into 9th grade, when I was about 13 years old. I remembered Dune pretty well overall: I remembered the Bene Gesserit and Duncan Idaho and Stilgar and the Fremen, and a lot came back to me as I re-read it, too, things that had been lodged in my mind. But, listening to it now as a 47-year-old guy with advanced graduate degrees, I was surprised at how sophisticated the book really is, and how well I'd understood it in 8th grade.

For example, there's a part of the book where Herbert delves into the sandworm-spice-little maker cycle, and he doesn't really spell it out very well, but instead just talks about it as though the reader had been raised on Arrakis, and one would have to understand or intuit a bit about how this worked, and I recalled, as it went through that part on the re-read, how I'd understood it back 34 years ago, as an 8th grader.  Just as I understood a lot of what Herbert talked about or implied; Herbert's writing is really, I think, well above middle-school level, and even if the science he makes up is made up, it's still draped in techno-whatifs and the like.

I mean all this to discuss something I frequently point out to my kids, others, clients, etc: That intelligence and education are two totally different things. As an 8th grader, I was an intelligent kid with hardly any education. Intelligence is the means of understanding things that are presented to you; education is presenting things to that intelligence.  I instinctively knew the difference between being smart and being educated, but re-reading a pretty-sophisticated book for the first time in 3 decades really drove it home. Dune is a smart book; it demands some intelligence of its readers, and I grasped all its nuances as an 8th grader as readily as I did as a middle-aged man.

That, in turn, led me to think about whether YA books and middle-grade writing do a disservice to kids, or not, a line of thought I'm uncomfortable with because I don't like judging reading material; to me, reading is reading is reading, and if you enjoy it and it makes you think, it's good. I don't think there is inherently any more merit to, say, Anna Karenina than there is to Piers Anthony's Xanth books; I know society values the former more than the latter in many ways, but I don't see why. To me, the Harry Potter books are on the same literary level as Shakespeare's plays, but Harry Potter is more enjoyable to me now.

So thinking that YA books might not be the best thing for tweens to read is discomfiting to me, but here's how I mean it: talking down to people is not necessarily good. There are two kinds of YA books, I think: those that are intended for younger readers in their subject matter, and those that are pitched to poorer readers in their vocabulary and presentation. The former I have no problem with; the latter I kind of do, in that books which do not stir a person intellectually, and, yes, challenge them a bit, are books that ultimately stand an equal (if not greater) chance of turning a person off reading.

I see all kinds of books marketed towards middle-schoolers and tweens and teens that are, to be blunt, simple, but not simple in a good way: they are books that are simple like a blunt instrument is simple, books that present cardboard characters and limited vocabulary and simple plotlines, and as such, they are books that are more designed to be gotten through than experienced or enjoyed. Giving books like that to a kid, and then expecting the kid to enjoy reading, is like forcing kids to engage in manual labor and expecting them to learn to exercise from that.

When I say reading is reading and all books have merit what I mean is that if you are reading something that engages you, that makes your mind work and helps you think (even if you are only thinking, say, about the superheroes in the comic book you've got) and excites you about the subject matter and makes you want more of that thing, if that's the kind of thing you're reading, then it's good even if it's not Tolstoy.

On the other hand, if what you're reading is plodding, didactic, pedantic, simple, or dumb, if that is what you're thinking as you read, then that stuff is not worth reading. Instruction manuals for putting together a coffee table are simply written and boring to read; I don't put them on the same plane as any reading material that I count as reading material.

Which goes back to Dune vs YA books: Dune is a complicated book with all kinds of political maneuvering, pseudo (and real?) science, religious and literary themes, and dozens of complex characters; and it's a book that back when I was 13 was stocked in our middle-school library. It's books like Dune that made me so fascinated by reading: books which created whole universes, literally, and challenged me to understand them and continue to explore them.  That's what books -- of whatever level -- should do.

Someone a while back wrote and article in which he or she said they enjoyed reading YA books because they were "simpler" than adult books. Depending on what's meant by that, that reader may be hurting him (or her; I can't remember) self, and books like that may turn as many people off of reading as they turn on (if not more.)

It's all ultimately subjective, but I think authors and readers do themselves a disservice when they take the less-challenging route.

Which brings up point two: Frank Herbert's Dune universe is, as far as I can tell, unique among scifi and fantasy types of books. Nearly every major work of genre fiction, book or movie, has spawned numerous spinoffs or created archtypes, from Lord Of The Rings' crushing impact on fantasy to Star Wars' birth of grunge space wars, but I'm not aware of anything that really took after Dune in any real sense.  Dune's combination of medieval society and spacefaring technology has I guess hit a few places (like, if I remember correctly, Krull?) but there's not really a "medieval-space-genre" that's grown up in the wake of the Dune books, and I'm not sure why that might be.  But I have some theories:

Theory 1 is that the books are simply too specific to become archetypal; they're dense books full of religious themes and commentary on society and hinted-at history that's every bit as detailed as Tolkien's, but the specific niche they occupy/create is uniquely Herbert's.  In that sense, other books that attempted to move into the genre might have seemed too copycattish, the way Battlestar Galactica's first TV incarnation was extremely reminiscent of Star Wars.

Theory 2 is that maybe the books aren't as popular as I might think, something I run into in my life all the time: stuff I love turns out to be very, very unpopular with society as a whole, which is why the nicheification of culture is good for me: absent Netflix and Hulu and Amazon, I'd probably have far less pop culture available for my consumption.

Theory 3 is that I'm wrong and there's all kinds of Dune -ific stuff out there and I just haven't come across it.

Theory 2 seems incorrect; in a list of readers' top 100 scifi books back in 2011, the Dune series came up at #4,  Theory 3 I can't prove or disprove; I looked through that list and couldn't tell if some of the series were or were not similar to Dune. But I think Theory 1 is likely the closest: the Dune books are so unique that anyone else telling a similar story would either feel like they were plagiarizing, or be accused of it, or both; it's one thing to have dirty spaceships flying around big battlestations/stars; it's another to have knives and shields and religious orders and Dukes and space lighters and cloning tanks all exist in one universe.

Which makes what Herbert achieved even more remarkable: he created something so different than everything else that it's really its own genre; Dune is its own substrata of science fiction, a branching that exists only in the Dune universe and nowhere else.

That's all a lot of theorizing, anyway, but the concrete stuff is this: Dune remained every bit as enjoyable this time around as it did almost 4 decades ago, so much so that I've decided to work my way through the original series again. I'm not sure if I'll continue onto the newer works that have been done by people other than Frank Herbert, but I at least want to read (again) the five I made it through so many years ago.  It's nice to think that me, driving along in my car with Mr F through the industrial park, or coming back from a hearing in another county, is sharing something across time and space with that nerdy fat kid sitting by himself on the bus, reading a brown-covered paperback full of weird words and fantastic ideas.  I miss that guy sometimes, until something like Dune reminds me that he never actually went away.

Trumpocalypse Day 2: Run Washington like a business!

Jezebel reported the other day that sources were claiming Trump used his President-elect status to pressure Argentina into approving a building project of his. The article noted that Trump registered 8 companies in Saudi Arabia during his campaign, and that immediately after doing so, Trump began moderating his stance on Saudi Arabia.

Jezebel then quotes a September -- hey, that's before the election! -- report from Newsweek:

Here’s some context, from a Newsweek report in September:
Many foreign governments retain close ties to and even control of companies in their country, including several that already are partnered with the Trump Organization. Any government wanting to seek future influence with President Trump could do so by arranging for a partnership with the Trump Organization, feeding money directly to the family or simply stashing it away inside the company for their use once Trump is out of the White House. This is why, without a permanent departure of the entire Trump family from their company, the prospect of legal bribery by overseas powers seeking to influence American foreign policy, either through existing or future partnerships, will remain a reality throughout a Trump presidency.

As Jezebel noted, not a single facet of that is actually illegal. If you were wondering why Trump wanted to be president, put a tick next to "in order to make legal, obscene profits for his companies," and close your notebook.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

OK so admittedly I did just rag on short story collections but it's different when it's MY OWN.

The threat of bacon lay heavily on the air: sweet and hot and wet.

* * * * *

Scientists for years have been wondering about Einstein's brain.

* * * * *

Pete and Repeat went out in a boat. 

* * * * *

Toby learned he was going to be a father shortly after he'd learned they were having a war.

* * * * *

Those are the opening lines of the first four stories in worldwarfour, my new collection of short stories available for FREE today through Saturday on your Amazon Kindle. Click here to buy it.

worldwarfour 's stories are about time travel, and pigs, and kids, and Africa, and old jokes, but more than that they are about life as a battle to understand the forces that shape us and push us, pull us, move us.  worldwarfour is about the struggle we all have against our own instincts, and our own lives.

Regardless of who you are or where you are from, you will find someone to connect with in these stories, and you will find the theme of the powers that be versus the powers we want to be a universal feeling that connects us all.

Here is the opening line from the final story in the book:

Mom wouldn’t be home for hours. The woods were hot. The hill where Jimmy had tried to jump his bike over the plywood ramp only to mess it up and break his head and the paramedics had to come all the way out into the woods and his family had moved away after was right in front of him.  He was failing math. It was October 3. 

Get worldwarfour for free by clicking here.

Trumpocalypse, Day 1: Trump's simple take on a complex issue.

I'm starting this late, but it's time to start noting the numerous, numerous ways in which the Trumpocalypse will destroy us.  Thus, a (hopefully to be daily) list of how Trump & Comp (nice right) are going to drag us, kicking and screaming, into the appropriate rings of Hell.

Today, Trump is threatening to withdraw from the "Trans-Pacific Partnership" free trade agreement. This agreement, which mirrors one we have with the European Union, is a free-trade agreement with 11 other countries. Drafts of the agreement (which hasn't been made fully public) mostly appear to be based on earlier US treaties.

Among the benefits for Americans: TPP would eliminate tariffs American manufacturers face now, entirely, and would eliminate almost all of them for American agricultural products -- so US goods would be able to be sold for less money overseas without losing profits. It expedites customs procedures in ways that experts say will be particularly beneficial to small businesses.

TPP also requires countries to have laws in place against child and forced labor, political corruption, and employment discrimination.

TPP has been criticized (by Paul Krugman, for example) for having too-strong patent protections, which might cause increases in drug prices.

What I expect most Trumpites hate about it is that it requires countries to allow collective bargaining, and puts in place environmental protections.

Trump is not the only person concerned about TPP; Elizabeth Warren, who I wish would run for president, is against it, as was Bernie Sanders. The controversial provision Warren seems most against is the provision that allows investors to sue countries for violations of the treaty. The International Bar Association says that countries win most of those cases and that very few are brought by multinational corporations.

A couple of key points: we are a member of the World Trade Organization, which in many ways is more powerful than TPP would be. The World Trade Organization can, for example, invalidate our laws if they conflict with trade agreements. And our trade agreements are byzantine, so much so that boiling them down to talking points is ludicrous. Consider, as one point, that for 10 years we had a trade dispute with Brazil over cotton, a dispute that developed after Brazil sued us in the WTO and won $830,000,000 in penalties. The dispute was over cotton subsidies we paid our farmers, and we settled it by paying $300,000,000 to Brazil -- a payment we made to win the right to continue paying our farmers to grow cotton.

I am in favor of free trade. Free commerce brings a better quality of life to everyone.  

Quotent Quotables: Love is like this small room...

Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that has ended up at the bottom of the trunk. There are dolls with eyes that wobble, hair that is falling out of their heads, and dirt behind their ears. Their fingertips have been chewed off by dogs and they have been drawn on with ballpoint pen. It has been so long since they have been held or anyone has told them that they are lovely. They lie at the bottom of the toy chest, hidden and ashamed. You are either going to be disgusted by them, or you are going to be so filled with love for them that your heart almost breaks.

I took  his hand in mine.

-- The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill.

15,842 new words: I would be a very small black hole.

Enter that room and you breached a Schwarzschild radius of something not canny, and that cephalopod corpse was the singularity.

-- Kraken, China Mieville.

The Schwarzchild radius is the radius of the hypothetical sphere of matter within which you would have to condense that matter sufficiently to create a gravitational field in which the escape velocity is the speed of light; in other words, it's the size of a black hole for any given amount of matter.

The Schwarzchild radius for the sun is 3 km; condense the sun to that size, and you have a black hole. For Earth, and this is fascinating to me, the radius is 9 mm.  The Schwarzchild radius for me is 1.738 x 10-25 m.

Currently, the smallest black hole known to man is 24km in diameter.  Scientists theorize there may be a far smaller one, but Donald Trump wouldn't release his medical records.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Book 80: If reading a book is like starting a relationship then I am the Don Juan of reading.

AHEM! Let's remember who first
had the idea of putting a regular object
upside-down on the cover to indicate
that things are not quite what they seem,
shall we?
The single best story in Get In Trouble is-- probably -- The Summer People, because it gets what I like about storytelling right: fantastical stories need to have a human element behind them or they just read like an old Popular Mechanics' "Visions Of The Future" article.  Only a few of Link's stories fall into that category, while most of them are the type of scifi (for lack of a better word) that I like: stories that mostly just drop you into that world and don't assume you'll need a lot of explaining (or which explain by showing you the explanation.)

One thing though that I should note right off the back is that possibly the idea of combining a bunch of short stories into a book is possibly not the greatest idea, because it makes some of the stories seem less memorable, and because reading 9 different stories in a short length of time makes it easy to forget some of those stories. This is something that's happened with even my favorite book of short stories -- the Cheever collection and Lucy Corin's 100 Apocalypses (And Other Apocalpyses) and BJ Novak's book of short stories among them -- and it happened here.  I finished Get In Trouble about actually a week ago and am only now getting around to writing about it, but as I look at the table of contents there are a couple of the stories that I can't recall anything about, at all, despite liking them as I read them.

I think that the reason books, written stories, mean so much more to me than movies or television shows is twofold. First, there is the fact that you spend so much more time with a book than a movie. We watched The Monster last night (pretty good; ending wasn't all that great but that might just be me) and when it was over, it was just... over. I never really find a deep meaning in a movie, never find myself pondering what it might say about life or my philosophies or anything, and I don't remember movies all that well.  But we only spend 2 hours or so with a movie, in the first place. I started reading what will likely be book 82 in this series yesterday, and already I've put more than 2 hours into it, and I'm only about 1/3 of the way through.

The second reason is more powerful, even: with a book, our brains have to do all the work: picturing the scene and imagining how voices sound (at least for text-based rather than audio books) and keeping track of it all, sometimes over a lengthy period of time. We form a relationship with a book, and it sticks in our mind the way anyone or anything might if we formed a relationship with those things.

Short story collections, then, are like speed-dating, which can be either good or bad; in a collection of speed-date stories, the ones that stick in your mind, like The Summer People here, are probably very good. As I look back over the collections I've read in the first 79 books, I can remember a handful of stories: "The Pier Falls" and "Wodwo" from Mark Haddon, "10th Of December" from Saunders, Lethem's "Five Fucks", "The Story Of Your Life" and the one about the Tower of Babel from Ted Chiang, while I can remember the specifics of all of the books.

That probably means that those short stories pack a wallop: I read each story in probably an hour or two, and yet it stuck with me the way longer books read over a week or two stick with me. But it also means that the stories that aren't as impactful right off the bat.

(I am going to mention here that the single best short story I've read, my absolute favorite of all time, is at the moment "Melt With You" by Emily Skaftun. It haunts me, it's so scary and good. If you haven't read it yet you definitely should.)

Nevertheless, I don't see the idea of story "singles" catching on anytime soon. Nick Harkaway, my favorite author (sorry Andrew, you're number 1A) has a short story 'single' out and I've never bought it even though I buy all his fiction books as soon as they're published. Lots of big-time authors release single short stories on the Kindle platform. I wonder if, like Gillian Flynn's The Grown-Up those are really good stories or if they're just there to take advantage of a hot author. John Grisham, JK Rowling, and Stephen King are all on the Kindle Single bestsellers' list as of this post, which could mean that short story singles are a way for authors who usually write novels to produce something shorter, or it could mean that authors are dumping stories that didn't quite work onto the market.

So: back to Get In Trouble, which, as I said, is overall pretty good. The Summer People is set in the South and follows, briefly, a girl who has to get the houses in a small town ready for summer people coming in, and she befriends a new girl in town and introduces her to the real "Summer People," a house in which strange, possibly vaguely-fairy-like?, people live.

Secret Identity is a close second, a story told by a 15-year-old who befriends a man in an online game and then goes to travel to meet him at a hotel where, as it turns out, there is a convention of superheroes, and also a convention (separate) of dentists. The superhero stuff plays into the story in only the slightest way, which makes the story seem all the better, somehow.  Valley Of The Girls is good, although tending more towards the Popular Mechanics version I mentioned: it's a story that focuses more on technology and how it affects us, without any truly human element in it, and it's also a bit more bewildering at first than it needed to be. In Valley, rich people in the future hire poor kids to play the part of their children, while their real children are given a chip that keeps them from being noticed or photographed, so when the rich kids turn 18 there's no embarrassing evidence of them out there on the Internet. It's told from the perspective of one of the rich kids and his sister, and while there's a lot of neat stuff in it (the trendy thing for rich girls is to build pyramids like the Ancient Egyptians, for when they die, for example) there's never really a connection with the main character or his sister.

That's the problem with Light, too, the story that finishes up the bunch, and which follows a woman who was born with two shadows, one of which grows a twin brother for her; the story centers around the brother coming home just a hurricane is about to hit, which seems a bit too on-the-nose, really, and while the story is interesting, again (the woman works at a warehouse which holds 'sleepers,' people found in a comatose state for no reason, and visits a 'pocket universe' to find her husband) there's really not much too it. In a way, Light parallels The Summer People, but where Summer People focused on the characters and left the magical stuff in the background except where necessary, Light flips that around.

The New Boyfriend was my least favorite of the stories, incorporating most of what I dislike about short stories, especially: it seemed to have no real reason to exist, was too long without needing to be so (I got impatient during the story several times) and has a needless twist -- needless twist being, as I formulated recently, a twist that seems to come out of nowhere and doesn't actually further the story, but only creates a surprise; such twists usually exist because the story has nothing else going for it, and that's the case with The New Boyfriend, which I'll [SPOILER ALERT BECAUSE THE TWIST IS A CHEAP TRICK] spell out:

In the story, a girl -- I can't remember hardly any of the characters' names -- has a rich friend, and the rich friend for her birthday gets a 'Ghost' Boyfriend to go with her Vampire and Werewolf Boyfriends; think 'robotic dolls' and you're on the right track. The main character wants a Ghost Boyfriend herself and becomes jealous, so she secretly puts a trinket in a secret compartment of the Ghost Boyfriend to make it be attached to her, rather than her friend. Various periods of time later, it turns out the Ghost Boyfriend really is a ghost and he's in love with another ghost, rather than the main character, and she is heartbroken.

The 'twist' is barely relatable to the story: the main character early in the story has bought the locket off the Internet, and it comes with two braided pieces of hair which purported to be from the 1800s, and that, it turns out, are the 'ghosts' in the story, but that barely explains anything, and in fact confuses some ideas of the story. Such as: in the story, we're told that the Ghost Boyfriends had been recalled at one point, but the rich girl's parents managed to find one, but we're never told what the reason for the recall was. I think it's supposed to be implied that the Ghost Boyfriends were actually real ghosts, but if so then the story makes little sense: most of the implication here is that the main character accidentally put a real ghost, and its girlfriend, into the Ghost Boyfriend, but if that's the case, then what was the recall about? Were other girls putting 18th-century trinkets into their ghosts? And if the recall was because there were real ghosts in the other Ghost Boyfriend, then why did the locket in this case spur it (or did it? It seems it did because in the end the main character takes her locket back and the Ghost Boyfriend goes back to normal?)

Either way, it's an unsatisfying twist that seemed more like the author saying boy this story blows I'd better make something happen here than a twist that was built into the story.

The rest of the stories are good-to-average: the best of the rest is Secret Identity, about a girl in a small town who's secretly meeting her ex-high-school boyfriend, who happens to be a superhero; she herself has the power to levitate a foot off the ground. It was quirky and kind of sad, and I liked it.

Overall, the stories are worth reading, but it's not like this was the earth-shattering book critics made it out to be. The book was up for a bunch of awards and won tons of praise from critics who called it things like brilliant; I don't think it's brilliant, but it's good.

Quotent Quotables

If you can't be honest with your best friend's vampire boyfriend, who can you be honest with?

-- Get In Trouble: Stories, by Kelly Link.