Minor Thoughts from me to you

Reading Idea: The Traitor Baru Cormorant

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

$12.99 on Kindle

Seth Dickinson explained the conceit of his novel, on Scalzi's blog. I'm a sucker for subverting expectations this way.

“My master plan would’ve changed the course of history! I put my life into this — I leveraged politicians, I conjured up shell corporations, I put puppets on every throne and agents in every council. I built something! I had a vision!

And they call you a hero. What did you do? You stumbled in at the last moment and broke everything.

If heroism means standing up for the status quo, then I’ll have no part of it. The world’s full of suffering. Someone must act.”

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the story of a young woman trying to tear down a colonial empire, avenge her fathers, and liberate her home. The Masquerade wants to rule the world, so that they can fix it. Baru can’t beat them from the outside, killing them one by one with a sword the way Luke Skywalker or Aragorn might — unlike most evil empires, they’re smart people who take sensible precautions. Baru wouldn’t stand a chance against a single Masquerade marine.

Being surpassingly clever and excitingly ruthless, Baru decides to destroy the Masquerade from the inside. She’ll join their civil service, prove herself as a really awesome operative, and secure enough power to get what she wants. (She thinks Luke should do the same thing.)

Baru will, in short, become an evil overlord: a brilliant superspy plotting triple-cross operations right under the noses of her masters, conspiring to topple nations with banking schemes, daring heists, ornamental men, secret alliances, private armies, napalm, pirates, and the occasional sword duel, when absolutely necessary. An evil overlord working for good!”

The Baseball Commissioner Who Made Bush President →

I, myself, am often reminded of life's little ironies.

The story begins in the early 1990s, around the time Selig led a coup against Vincent, whom the owners deemed insufficiently devoted to their interests. Selig used the popular and gregarious Bush—the public face of the Texas Rangers, though he was just a minority owner—to whip the requisite votes in favor of removing the incumbent commissioner. The two small-market owners had a quiet understanding between them: Upon ousting Vincent, Selig would serve as interim commissioner, then, once the battlefield dust cleared, yield the throne to Bush.

Though Bush was a friend and longtime supporter of Vincent, he agreed to rally the troops to support the vote of "no confidence" in the commissioner, based largely on the promise that Selig "would support his dream to become baseball's next Commissioner." It didn't work out that way. Selig would spend the next 22 years in Bush's dream job. He would preside over a players' strike that culminated in the only cancelled World Series in baseball history—something the Great Depression and two world wars couldn't accomplish—but then help engineer a renaissance, thanks to the boom in attendance at new retro-designed family-friendly ballparks (which replaced many cold and ugly '60s and '70s mixed-use behemoths), a surge in colorful international talent from places like Japan and the Dominican Republic, and, yes, the steroid-infused home run craze of the late '90s and early '00s. Selig was the proud steward of baseball's rebirth, but once the steroid jig was up, he would become the flustered face of indignation.

The commissioner's old ally in Texas, stuck with nothing else to do after Selig left him twisting in the wind for more than a year, never officially telling him that he had no intentions of abdicating, would be pushed by Karl Rove into running for governor. Bush unseated the incumbent in 1994, he launched a bid for the White House five years after that, and the rest is history.

You'll remember that President Bush's Cabinet included Condoleeza Rice, who wants to be the NFL's commissioner. It'd be an interesting turn of events if those two ever end up in their true dream jobs.

This entry was tagged. NFL Baseball

Why Daraprim went from $13.50 to $750

Andrew Pollack wrote a shocking expose of corporate greed, revealing that Turing Pharmaceuticals jacked the price of Daraprim from $13.50 a tablet to $750 a tablet. This is a 62-year old drug.

Pollack spent 21 paragraphs writing about the importance of this drug and the shockingly unapologetic greed demonstrated by Turing Pharmaceuticals. I spent 21 paragraphs wondering how a company could increase the price of an unpatented drug by 5,500% without being undercut by a competitor.

In paragraph #22, Pollack finally decided to toss off a few sentences about that.

With the price now high, other companies could conceivably make generic copies, since patents have long expired. One factor that could discourage that option is that Daraprim’s distribution is now tightly controlled, making it harder for generic companies to get the samples they need for the required testing.

Oh-ho. It's government regulation. Manufacturers of generics need to compare their own prototype pills to Daraprim, before they can get government permission to market and sell a generic. Prescription laws make it hard to obtain Daraprim without a prescription and Turing's control over its own supply chain ensures that nothing leaks out. In essence, government restrictions on trade are giving Turing a monopoly on a patent free drug. Turing's price hike would be impossible without this government protection.

The New York Times article frames this as an issue of greed. But greed is a universal constant. It's always with us. Greed is never an explanation for unpleasant behavior. The real question is why nothing is acting as a check on greed. In this case, the government is blocking that market based check. I can see two solutions.

  1. Stop restricting access to pharmaceuticals. If the FDA didn't tightly control drug distribution, generic manufacturers could easily obtain their own supply of Daraprim and start cranking out much cheaper copies. Turing would be forced to lower their prices to match and greed would be kept in check.
  2. If you are going to restrict access to pharmaceuticals, there should be an exception in the law that allows generic manufacturers to easily obtain access to the main drug, for the purposes of cloning it. I see no good reason to give Turing Pharmaceuticals a government enforced monopoly on the drug's distribution and supply once the patent protections have expired.

Once again, the New York Times has made the free market into the villain of the piece. I think the real villain is the government restrictions that give Turing Pharmaceuticals power it doesn't need and shouldn't have.

Forget Justice: Cops Just Want Money →

California recently tried to reform its civil asset forfeiture laws, something supported by over three-quarters of all Californians. The bill was watered down to nothing and then killed off entirely, after intense lobbying by the police unions and police leadership.

In other words, state and federal law-enforcement officials stopped this state bill that would protect people from oftentimes unfair takings of their property because they depend on the money and it's too much of a hassle for police to make sure a targeted person has been convicted of a crime.

And this is the reason I don't respect the police. I'm not impressed that you "put your life on the line", if you also think that there's nothing wrong with seizing someone's property without ever convicting them of a crime.

This entry was tagged. Corruption Police

Review: Starship: Mutiny [★★☆☆☆]

Starship: Mutiny

Starship: Mutiny
by Mike Resnick

My rating: ★★☆☆☆
Read From: 27 August 2015 - 30 August 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

This piece of space opera stars Wilson Cole, a space navy officer who never met an order he liked and who makes a habit of being demoted for cause. He's assigned to the Theodore Roosevelt for his insubordination. Once there, he proceeds to violate orders multiple times before finally mutinying and taking over the ship.

This is all supposed to be in the service of a grand adventure, starring a supremely competent officer. It fails because Cole is a jerk who's constantly explaining his own superior understanding of what everyone else should be doing. Worse, he's a loose cannon who acts on his own initiative, always impressed by his own abilities. If you developed a plan no failed to tell him the entire thing, he's exactly the type of officer that would screw it up, by taking the part of it he did know and deciding to "improve" it.

All of the other characters are wafer thin and seemingly only exist to either admire Cole's brilliance or make Cole look more brilliant by playing the part of the idiotic foil. There's the weapons tech who worships Cole, just because he disciplined the tech for being high on duty. There's the alien best friend, who will support him no matter what. And there's the beautiful security chief who will tell him everything, subverting ship,security to do so, , and who (of course) ends up in his bed.

Having been blinded by the light shining from Cole's halo, I have no interest in reading any further in this series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Reviewing the 2015 Hugo Awards

Worldcon presented the Hugo Awards last night. The Hugo's are science fiction's oldest and most prestigious awards, given by the science fiction fans of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). These were the results in the categories I cared about and voted in.

  • Best Novel went to The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, Ken Liu translator.
  • Best Novelette went to “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator.
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form went to Guardians of the Galaxy, written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman.
  • Best Novella, no award given.
  • Best Novelette, no award given.
  • Best Short Story, no award given.

Worldcon gave the Best Novel award to the right book and I'm thrilled how that turned out. Aside from that, I'm disappointed in these results. They show me that the Worldcon membership has become political and is no longer interested in science fiction.

This was the year that the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies both published slates of suggested works for Hugo nominations. The Sad Puppies are led by a man who's Hispanic, former gun shop owner, and NRA member (Larry Correia); alongside a man who's a naval chaplain married to a black woman (Brad R. Torgersen). The Rabid Puppies are led by Vox Day (Theodore Beale), a performance artist (one hopes), who loves to provoke with inflammatory rhetoric that openly flirts with racism and misogyny.

Larry and Brad have both long felt that science fiction has become a boring wasteland of message fiction, more concerned with political correctness than with entertaining stories. The stories they dislike tend to be written by racial, sexual, or religious minorities. Naturally, Larry and Brad were attacked as racist homophobes, who wanted to keep science fiction pure for white, male authors. (Wired published a fairly even-handed overview of the whole Puppies saga.)

I'm disappointed that the Worldcon membership had such a political reaction to the Puppies. Many of them vowed to give no award, rather than give an award to a work that the Puppies had nominated. Now that the results are out, we can see that many voters did just that: no award was given in five different categories. This was overtly political voting. It wasn't based on the quality of the stories. The "trufans" voted according to whether or not they liked the fans of a given story. I'm disappointed that a fan base that supports tolerance and diversity would judge a work not on its own merits but on the merits of its supporters.

It has also become clear to me that the Worldcon membership is less interested in science fiction than it is in literary merit and stories of the fantastic. This is most clear in two of this year's winners: “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” and Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Hugo Voter's Pack included a copy of “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, alongside an interview with the author, Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Heuvelt said:

The whole turning upside down was a metaphor to begin with, so I think this is more a love story, or a humorous-grief story, or a fantasy than a real SF.

Having read the story, I wholeheartedly agree. Heuvelt constructed the story around the grief that Toby (the narrator) feels after breaking up with his girlfriend, Sophie. This breakup turned Toby's emotional world upside down, even as gravity reverses all over the globe and the real world literally turns upside down.

It's an interesting concept, but it has everything to do with emotional upheaval and nothing to do with science. It's a good story (although not to my personal taste), but I don't think it should be a candidate for (let alone a winner of) science fiction's foremost award.

It was up against three stories featuring various elements of science. All were well written and would have made deserving winners. The Worldcon membership chose instead to give the award to a literary tale that didn't include any science fiction.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a fantastic film. It was brilliant, fun, and funny. I've watched it three times and even bought a copy. But it's a movie based on a comic book. True, it happens in space and features ray guns, space ships, and a world destroying energy source. But there's no science involved anywhere in the story. It's a story of the fantastic, not a story involving science.

The Hugo membership chose Guardians of the Galaxy over Interstellar, a movie that involved true science fiction in its best elements. Interstellar showed a world ravaged by blight and the scientists and explorers that risked everything to build a ship and fly through a wormhole, to find a new home for humanity. The story involved real science, was well written, well acted, and entertaining. In my opinion, it was everything that a Hugo winning movie should be. But it lost to a truly entertaining comic book movie.

Based on this year's nominations, reactions to who nominated works, and which works won awards, I think it's clear that the Worldcon membership is no longer interested in the science part of science fiction. Instead, they're interested in fantasy, stories of the fantastic, and literary stories. I enjoy those, but I want to find a group of fans who still appreciates, and honors, the fiction of science, stories that can both entertain and teach you about the laws of the natural universe.

This entry was tagged. Science Fiction

Reading Idea: A Summer for the Gods

$9.99 on Kindle

How much do you know about the notorious Scopes trial? Glenn Reynolds says that whatever it is, it's probably wrong.

TODAY IS THE 90TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE SCOPES TRIAL. Let me just note that what you think you know about it is probably wrong — especially if what you think you know about it comes from watching Inherit The Wind. I highly recommend Ed Larson’s excellent treatment, A Summer For The Gods.

What's the book about?

If you haven't seen the film version of Inherit the Wind, you might have read it in high school. And even people who have never heard of either the movie or the play probably know something about the events that inspired them: The 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," during which Darwin's theory of evolution was essentially put on trial before the nation. Inherit the Wind paints a romantic picture of John Scopes as a principled biology teacher driven to present scientific theory to his students, even in the teeth of a Tennessee state law prohibiting the teaching of anything other than creationism. The truth, it turns out, was something quite different.

In his fascinating history of the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson makes it abundantly clear that Truth and the Purity of Science had very little to do with the Scopes case. Tennessee had passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, and the American Civil Liberties Union responded by advertising statewide for a high-school teacher willing to defy the law. Communities all across Tennessee saw an opportunity to put themselves on the map by hosting such a controversial trial, but it was the town of Dayton that came up with a sacrificial victim: John Scopes, a man who knew little about evolution and wasn't even the class's regular teacher. Chosen by the city fathers, Scopes obligingly broke the law and was carted off to jail to await trial.

What happened next was a bizarre mix of theatrics and law, enacted by William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. Though Darrow lost the trial, he made his point--and his career--by calling Bryan, a noted Bible expert, as a witness for the defense. Summer for the Gods is a remarkable retelling of the trial and the events leading up to it, proof positive that truth is stranger than science.

A New Flag for the New South

For the past two days, I've been listening to Dan Carlin's conversation with Sam Harris. This morning, I heard an exchange around the Confederate Flag that caught my attention. First, Dan floated the thought of a redesigned Confederate flag, to show regional pride without showing racism.

I would love to interview these folks, because whenever someone writes me a letter about this, they always say "It's not about the slaves and it's not about the racial situation, it's about the right to seceede, to protect your life, it's a right to do all ...", in other words, take every reason for the civil war besides the slavery aspect and they will say it's about that because nobody's, or very few people I've ever spoken to, say "Yeah, I fly the flag because black people are inferior and blah, blah, blah." I would love to see a notation then to the flag, you know there's a lot of flags from other countries where something will happen and a new regime will take over or something will change and they'll alter the flag slightly, you know we'll always put another star on our flag when a new state came in. Seems to me you could put something like a chain being snapped or something in the center of the flag or something that indicated that this flag isn't in favor of slavery or this is the post-slavery Confederacy or "Welcome back black people to the New South", whatever. Something that just sort of said, "You know the little chain on the flag being freed, yeah, that shows that this flag does not represent something that said that the slavery was the part that we would like to see returned."

A few minutes later, Dan came back to that thought and expanded on it a bit more.

In the emails that I'll get about this people will talk about "It's just a pride in your heritage sort of thing". I think the pity then is that there isn't an alternative symbol that if you wanted to say "I'm a Southerner and I'm proud of it" that you could show that didn't have the same overtones, that didn't appear to some people that you're not just saying "Yes, I'm proud of the South but I'm proud of things the South did before the Civil War". I mean the United States for example has a whole bunch of other flags that we've flown at one time or another, the Gadsen Flag, all those kinds of things, which different people can appropriate to show different aspects or different ideas. Seems to me, if you're into Southern pride—and I don't think there's anything wrong with having pride in your heritage, or your grandfathers, or anything like that. It's a pity that the symbol you could use to show that has all sorts of other overtones that are not just deeply offensive but that make people who are valued members of your community feel, not just like second class citizens, but maybe even a little afraid. Who would want to show that in a way that took other Southerners and, instead of making them feel proud, would make them feel the opposite of proud?

I decided to take that idea and run with. What if I took the Confederate flag and changed the colors? I decided to keep the basic elements, to represent some continuity of Southern culture, but change the colors to signify that this is a New South that doesn't embed the racism and hate of the past.

Original Flag

I think the defining features of the original flag are the bold, red field that dominates the flag and the two blue bars that crisscross the field. That's what I need to change, to make this feel like an updated, more modern, version of the flag.

Original Confederate flag

Redesign 1

For my first attempt, I wanted to deemphasize the red. I moved the blue from the bars to the field and moved the red from the field to the stars and the outline of the bars.

Redesigned Southern flag, attempt 1

Redesign 2

I didn't like how bright (eye searing?) the red and white bars were. I decided to make the field white and match blue bars with white stars. I deemphasized the red even more, relegating it to the outline of the bars.

Redesigned Southern flag, attempt 2

Redesign 3

The second attempt was better than the first, but I didn't like the bright expanse of white, now that the entire field was white. I made the field blue again and decided to get rid of the red entirely, replacing it with green. Now the stars are green and the outline of the bars is green.

I'll say that the green is there because it can represent the rebirth of the South into the new South.

Redesigned Southern flag, attempt 3

Redesign 4

This is nearly identical to the third redesign. In this one, I removed the outline of the bars, to make for a starker contrast against the blue field and a further distancing from the Old South design.

Redesigned Southern flag, attempt 4

What do you think? Can you imagine seeing one of these flags as a common symbol of the New South, one not associated with racism and hate?

This entry was tagged. Culture Reform

Review: River of Stars [★★★★★]

River of Stars

River of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 18 June 2015–29 June 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This is another novel of Kitai, Guy Gavriel Kay's analog to historical China. This book takes place in a time roughly equivalent to the early 12th century. Kay described his own setting, in the book's "Acknowledgement" section, along with his reason for working in historical fantasy, rather than historical fiction.

River of Stars is a work shaped by themes, characters, and events associated with China’s Northern Song Dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng.

... I am significantly more at home shaping thoughts and desires for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan, or developing the characters of my two Lu brothers, than I would be imposing needs and reflections (and relationships) on their inspirations: Li Qingzhao, the best-known female poet in China’s history, General Yue Fei, or the magnificent Su Shi and his gifted younger brother. Not to mention other figures at the court (including Emperor Huizong himself) in the time leading up to and through the dynasty’s fall.

But what is the river of stars? In Kitai legends, it is that which lies between mortal men and their dreams. It is what must be crossed over, after death, to reach the afterlife. That's an appropriate title because the major theme of the book is what is remembered of a life, after that life is over. River of Stars focuses largely the life of the main character, Ren Daiyan and explores what he did and how he was remembered.

Kay is fascinated by the ways in which the decisions and events that seem almost trivial at the time become something that reverberates throughout time. He's also fascinated by the opposite side of that: the things that could have been momentous, but sink with barely a ripple because of what was happening elsewhere or because of the way in which a life was cut short.

All of that leads, inexorably I think, to a meditation on the way in which we construct narratives to explain the world around us. I think the result musings were frequently poignant.

He died too young in a war in which too many died.

We cannot know, being trapped in time, how events might have been altered if the dead had not died. We cannot know tomorrow, let alone a distant future. A shaman might claim to see ahead in mist but most of them (most of them) cannot truly do this: they go into the spirit world to find answers for today. Why is this person sick? Where will we find water for the herds? What spirit is angry with our tribe?

But sometimes storytellers want to inhabit certainty. They assume more than mortals ought. A tale-spinner by a hearth fire or gathering a crowd in a market square or putting brush to paper in a quiet room, deep into his story, the lives he’s chronicling, will deceive himself into believing he has the otherworldly knowledge of a fox spirit, a river spirit, a ghost, a god.

He will say or write such things as, “The boy killed in the Altai attack on the Jeni encampment was likely to have become a great leader of his people, one who could have changed the north.”

Or, “Lu Mah, the poet’s son, was one whose personal desire would have kept him living quietly, but his sense of duty and his great and growing wisdom would have drawn him to the court. He was lost to Kitai, and that made a difference.”

However boldly someone says this, or writes it, it remains a thought, a wish, desire, longing spun of sorrow. We cannot know.

We can say Mah’s was a death too soon, as with O-Yan of the Jeni, their kaghan’s little brother, slain in the first attack of a grassland rising. And we can think about ripples and currents, and wonder at the strangeness of patterns found—or made. A first death in the north and the death farthest south in the Altai invasion, in the years of the Twelfth Dynasty when the maps were redrawn.

But then, maps are always being redrawn. The Long Wall had once been the forbidding, fiercely guarded border of a great empire. We look back and we look ahead, but we live in the time we are allowed.

A related theme is the way in which we, of the present, look back at the past and try to draw lessons from it. But that too is a construct. Life happens and is often incomprehensible in the happening. It's only much later that someone can see a pattern or a lesson.

He died on that last thought, not the one about fearing a sword. That had come a moment before, while the man who ended his short span of days (Pu’la of the Altai was seventeen years old, his father’s only son) had been levelling a bow.

It was a similar death—on guard at night, an arrow—to that of another young rider two summers before. O-Yan of the Jeni, fourteen years of age, had been killed by an arrow loosed by Pu’la’s own skilled and deadly father on the night the Altai attacked the Jeni camp, beginning their assertion of themselves upon the world.

There might have been a lesson, a meaning, in this, or not. Most likely not, for who was there to learn of it, and what would the teaching be?

I gained two things from this novel. The first is a continuation of my desire to learn more about Chinese history and culture. Kay has convinced me that that history is rich and deep and worth studying. Second, is a humility about looking back at that history. The events of the past are the sum of the hopes, dreams, fears, and actions of the people of the past. Their stories are what's worth focusing on, more than the supposed lessons of the past.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Reading Idea: The Library at Mount Char

$10.99 on Kindle

Here's the hook: apprentice librarians, practically living in a magical library, learning lots and of powerful magic. How would that change you? Here's how author Scott Hawkins describes his novel.

Along those same lines, what if the guy you room with has, through diligent study of his corner of the magic library, become the most dangerous person alive? He’s invulnerable-ish. Maybe he’s not quite at the Superman level, but he’s more than a match for, say, a battalion of infantry with artillery and air support. Your roommate is the absolute pinnacle of the Earthly food chain, and he just drank your last beer. Again.

Maybe when you first moved in together he was nice enough—or not. But over time, the knowledge that he’s completely immune to any sort of discipline has had an impact on his manners. He never vacuums. There are dishes in the sink. The last time he stole your beer you left him a polite note. He broke your arm. Your buddy who resurrects people fixed it—you got her a pint of Haagen-Dazs the last time you bought groceries, so she didn’t even keep you waiting for long–but it still smarted like a sonofagun.

Do you leave another note? Or just suck it up and go to bed?

…What if you decided you wanted out?

How would that even be possible? Even if you did escape after a lifetime in that environment, what would normal people seem like to you?

What would you seem like to them?

…Still, even with their access strictly controlled, these librarians learn some interesting stuff. One guy talks to animals. Another spends weekends commuting to the twenty-third millennium to go clubbing with friends. There’s a woman who keeps a spy army of ghost children, invisible to anyone but her.

Unless you’ve got the soul of a Peter Parker, just living in the vicinity of that kind of power would affect your personality.

The hook and description caught my interest. The editorial reviews solidified it.

“A spellbinding story of world-altering power and revenge…Hawkins has created a fascinating, unusual world in which ordinary people can learn to wield breathtaking power—and he's also written a compelling story about love and revenge that never loses sight of the human emotions at its heart. A wholly original, engrossing, disturbing, and beautiful book.”
Kirkus (starred)

“An extravagant, beautifully imagined fantasy about a universe that is both familiar and unfamiliar…Hawkins makes nary a misstep in this award-worthy effort of imagination. You won't be able to put it down.”
Booklist (starred)

"A bizarre yet utterly compelling debut...might remind readers of Robert Jackson Bennett's or Neil Gaiman's horror/fantasies.”
Library Journal (starred)

“A first-rate novel… a sprawling, epic contemporary fantasy about cruelty and the end of the world, compulsively readable, with the deep, resonant magic of a world where reality is up for grabs. Unputdownable.”
Cory Doctorow, New York Times bestselling author of Little Brother and Makers

"The most genuinely original fantasy I’ve ever read. Hawkins plays with really, really big ideas and does it with superb invention, deeply affecting characters, and a smashing climax I did not see coming."
—Nancy Kress, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Beggars in Spain

“A pyrotechnic debut...The most terrifyingly psychopathic depiction of a family of gods and their abusive father since Genesis.”
Charles Stross, Hugo and Locus Award-winning author of Accelerando and The Apocalypse Codex

Reading Idea: Enter the Janitor

$4.99 on Kindle

Josh Vogt pitches his fantasy novel, over at Scalzi's site.

In Enter the Janitor, the Big Idea was that magic is actually hiding in plain sight. It’s evolved alongside humanity and taken on quite a different role than it used to hold. Rather than a religious function or mystic mumbo-jumbo, magic could be connected to our history of sanitation and hygiene. Think about how many little health rituals we practice every day; at the same time, keeping things clean is often done on auto-pilot, meaning we may miss very obvious clues that something supernatural might be in the works. How many commercials and ads treat cleaning tools and chemicals as literally magical implements? Animated soap bubbles…talking sponges…even the genie-like Mr. Clean.

Magic also could have become more of a corporate affair, staffed with janitors, plumbers, maids, and more who dedicate their lives to the craft, much like ancient wizards and mages and witches would’ve. Rather than saving the world from eldritch towers, they began to do so in plain sight, one clean window and one mopped floor at a time. They swapped out wands and staffs for squeegees and mops and spray bottles.

…The more I thought about this, the more I realized I needed to revel in exploring this ridiculous version of reality. And that’s when both the characters and the world they inhabited came fully to life in my mind. Janitor closets could be mystic portals. Garbage dumps could be repositories of power. Sewers could be…well…still sewers, but with stranger creatures slithering through them.

I think that's a very clever concept. I'm always suspicious of self-published works. (Was there something wrong with it, that a traditional publisher wouldn't grab it?) But this one has an interesting enough concept that I may give it a chance.

How Polluting is Your Car, On a Scale of 1 to Horse Manure?

It's fashionable to decry the horrid pollution of gas guzzling, emission belching, fossil fuel cars. But how do they compare to life in late nineteenth century urban America? (I'll re-use this quote from my last reading idea.)

Even the wastes of horses were commodified.  The collection of urban manure had old, even ancient roots.  Again, the process is most easily documented in New York City.  Before 1878, individuals roamed the street and picked up manure.  In that year the Common Council supposedly sold an exclusive license to a William Hitchcock, who sold the street sweepings to farmers for fertilizer.  Street sweepings varied in quality and were worth more if from an asphalt street than if from a gravel street or a dirty alley.  They were always worth less than stable manure, a purer product.  The older pattern of individuals collecting street manure for urban gardens never fully went away, and as late as the first half of the twentieth century neighborhood children in the Italian American neighborhood of East Harlem did a thriving business collecting horse manure from the streets for backyard gardens in the area.

Say what you will about my Toyota Sienna minivan, but no one will ever have to step in, smell, or sweep up any poop from it. Modern life is far cleaner, healthier, and more hygienic thanks to the widespread adoption of the internal combustion engine. It's not the sexiest technology, but I'm very happy to have it.

This entry was tagged. Cars Good News

Reading Idea: The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century

$29 in paperback

Tyler Cowen references an interesting sounding book, in his Equine Markets in Everything post.

Circa the late nineteenth century, in urban America:

Even the wastes of horses were commodified.  The collection of urban manure had old, even ancient roots.  Again, the process is most easily documented in New York City.  Before 1878, individuals roamed the street and picked up manure.  In that year the Common Council supposedly sold an exclusive license to a William Hitchcock, who sold the street sweepings to farmers for fertilizer.  Street sweepings varied in quality and were worth more if from an asphalt street than if from a gravel street or a dirty alley.  They were always worth less than stable manure, a purer product.  The older pattern of individuals collecting street manure for urban gardens never fully went away, and as late as the first half of the twentieth century neighborhood children in the Italian American neighborhood of East Harlem did a thriving business collecting horse manure from the streets for backyard gardens in the area.

That is from Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, an excellent book from 2007.  I am sorry it took me so long to discover this work.  It has wonderful sentences such as:

Stables rarely make it into the histories of the built environment, although they constituted a substantial part of that environment.

How can you go wrong with that?  There is a good economics on every page of this book.

Review: Under Heaven [★★★★★]

Under Heaven

Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 10 June 2015 - 15 June 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This story, set in a fictional country of Kitan, is loosely based on Tang China, the master poets of the dynasty, and the An-Lushan rebellion. I came to the story completely unfamiliar with Chinese history. I was captivated by the story and the beauty of the society that the story depicts.

Shen Tai, the second son of General Shen Gao, has spent the last two years in a solitary pursuit—he's been burying the dead at Kuala Nor. These are the soldiers killed during one of the last battles with the Taguran Empire. He's been burying the dead of both armies, as a way of honoring his late father's memory.

Near the end of his two years at Kuala Nor, Shen Tai receives a letter from the Taguran princess, giving him a gift of 250 Sardian horses. These are the most magnificent horses for hundreds of miles, coveted by everyone in Kitan. Men would kill for any of these horses, let alone 250 of them. This gift is both a potential death sentence and an incredible opportunity.

The rest of the story concerns both Shen Tai and the empire of Kitan, how they grew and changed and what effect the horses had on the course of history. This is a story about Kitan, the Tang Dynasty, as much as it is about Shen Tai or anyone else.

Like all of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels that I've read, this one is beautifully written and very moving. There are fantastical elements to the story, but they take a back seat to the characterizations and the evocative language. It's a story that forces you to appreciate human nature and the way that history can change on the smallest of decisions. It was a pleasure to read.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

I Appreciate Justice Thomas →

Tamara Tabo writes at Above the Law.

Liberal critics frequently bash Thomas for haplessly following the lead of fellow conservative Justices such as Antonin Scalia, unable to form reasoned opinions on his own.

Thomas’s many dissents belie the criticism that he marches in lockstep. This Term, he holds the weakest voting relationships of any Justice with his or her fellow Justices. His rate of disagreement with Justice Sonia Sotomayor — currently 57% — is the weakest voting relationship of any two Justices on the Court. Even his agreement rates with Scalia and Roberts amount only to 77% and 66%, respectively — far cries from the 90+% relationships between some other Justices.

…Thomas’s dissents often represent radical departures from the fundamental approach of the rest of the Court. He’s not quibbling over factual judgment calls. He’s often applying an entirely different method of deciding the case. ​> …Clarence Thomas is either unafraid of correcting bad precedent, or he is flagrantly disrespectful of stare decisis, depending upon how one looks at it. His fidelity to text might seem downright obsessive, even to a fellow originalist like Justice Scalia. Thomas has the tunnel vision of a man sure of his method, regardless of what his colleagues see. ​ I've long appreciated Justice Thomas. He doesn't write with the wit and sarcasm of Justice Scalia. But his opinions are always principled and well reasoned.

I love his willingness to go with what's right, regardless of the precedent established by the errors of previous courts. When it comes to upholding the Constitution as written, Justice Thomas has no peers.

Towards A Solution for Medical Price Transparency →

The biggest problem in healthcare is that providers—doctors and hospitals—are allergic to straightforward pricing and refuse to give actual prices before providing services. This idea for a solution isn't perfect but I think it's worth trying.

Perhaps a solution in the healthcare arena would be to institute binding arbitration in cases where providers refuse to agree on prices before providing service. And perhaps the binding arbitration could be based on the fee the patient offered to pay upfront, but declined by the provider in favor of bureaucratic claims processing. For example, if a patient had offered (in good faith) to pay $5,000 for the surgery; but the EOB and claim came in at $50,000, the arbitrator would award one or the other. Common sense tells us that the arbitrator will almost always award the patient’s upfront offer.

Drop-In Chefs Help Seniors Stay In Their Own Homes →

This is a very interesting service, from a local Madison company.

“A healthy diet is good for everyone. But as people get older, cooking nutritious food can become difficult and sometimes physically impossible. A pot of soup can be too heavy to lift. And there’s all that time standing on your feet. It’s one of the reasons that people move into assisted living facilities.

But a company called Chefs for Seniors has an alternative: They send professional cooks into seniors’ homes. In a couple of hours they can whip up meals for the week.”

“According to some estimates, there are hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million seniors living in their own homes who are malnourished. In long-term care facilities, up to 50 percent may suffer from malnutrition. This leads to increased risk for illness, frailty and falls.”

“Part of the business plan is keeping the service affordable. In addition to the cost of the food, the client pays $30 an hour for the chef’s time. That’s usually a couple of hours a week of cooking and cleaning up the kitchen. There’s also a $15 charge for grocery shopping. So clients pay on average $45 to $75 a week.

And while there are lots of personal chefs out there and services that deliver meals for seniors there are few services specifically for older adults that prepare food in their homes.”

This isn't what most people would think of as healthcare, but I'd call it healthcare innovation. Living a healthy life—and eating right— is a big part of staying out of clinics and hospitals. If people spend money on this service, they could very well be saving thousands of dollars in other healthcare expenses.

This strikes me as the kind of service that insurance companies won't want to provide but that patients would be willing to pay for, if they have control over their own healthcare dollars.

Wisconsin's Two Chief Justices →

It looks like it'll be an interesting—and awkward—couple of months on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

“Wisconsin Supreme Court justices moved quickly Wednesday to elect a new chief following certification of a constitutional amendment that ended seniority as the sole determinant, even as a federal lawsuit was pending seeking to delay replacing longtime Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Abrahamson objected to the email vote making Justice Patience Roggensack the chief justice, and Abrahamson continues to believe she still holds the position, her attorney Robert Peck said in a letter filed with U.S. District Court late Wednesday.”

This entry was tagged. Wisconsin

Review: Lords and Ladies [★★★★☆]

Lords and Ladies

Lords and Ladies
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 15 March 2015 - 17 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

After Terry Pratchett's death, last week, I felt the need to read more of his novels, in memoriam. When I last read a Discworld novel, I was reading in the "Witches" sub-series. I decided to keep going with that and read Lords and Ladies.

The last novel was a send-up of fairy godmother stories. This was a pastiche of elf (or fairie) stories, primarilyA Midsummer Nights Dream. Pratchett chose to present his elves as amoral monsters who toyed with humanity purely out of a boredom and a desire for entertainment. Their power derived from their ability to make people feel completely overwhelmed by their inferiority to the elves. The overmatched individuals lost all inclination to fight back, feeling that whatever happened to them was just and right.

The surface plot revolved around the wedding of King Verence and Magrat Garlick. Throughout the story, Magrat tries to figure out who she is and what her role in life should be. Granny Weatherwax and Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of Unseen University, both feel regret for paths that they didn't take through life.

Surprisingly, I thought the story contained a strong streak of conservatism. Part of the idea of conservatism is that past generations knew things that we don't and structured society (or traditions) in response to that knowledge. We may have forgotten the knowledge that they had, but we still have the traditions that they established to embody that knowledge.

In Lords and Ladies, elves are let into the world of men through the actions of young witches who think that their elders (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg) are exasperatingly old-fashioned. They flout several traditions, including several that were key in keeping elves away from the Discworld. Because of their rejection of tradition, Lancre almost falls under the sway of the elves again. The current generation has to relearn the lessons that led to the traditions of past generations. By the end of the story, they begin following those traditions again, to keep their own families and children safe.

I enjoyed this story on all of the levels that I saw.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Maskerade [★★★★☆]


by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 17 March 2015 - 18 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Amazon description:

The Ghost in the bone-white mask who haunts theAnkh-Morpork Opera House was always considered a benign presence -- some would even say lucky -- until he started killing people. The sudden rash of bizarre backstage deaths now threatens to mar the operatic debut of country girl Perdita X. (nee Agnes) Nitt, she of the ample body and ampler voice.

Perdita's expected to hide in the chorus and sing arias out loud while a more petitely presentable soprano mouths the notes. But at least it's an escape from scheming Nanny Ogg and old Granny Weatherwax back home, who want her to join their witchy ranks.

Or as I'd describe it: "the one where Gytha Ogg and Esme Weatherwax go to Ankh-Morpok and meet the Phantom of the Opera." I quite enjoyed it. Pratchett had some great humor around the inherently nonsensical nature of opera. And, of course, it's great fun to see what happens anytime that Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg interact with unsuspecting innocents.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review