Minor Thoughts from me to you

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 [★★★★☆]

Maskerade

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

Review: Carpe Jugulum [★★★★☆]

Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum
by Terry Pratchett

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 18 March 2015 - 19 March 2015
Goal: Flotsam & Jetsam

Amazon description:

[This book] involves an exclusive royal snafu that leads to comic mayhem. In a fit of enlightenment democracy and ebullient goodwill, King Verence invites Uberwald's undead, the Magpyrs, into Lancre to celebrate the birth of his daughter. But once ensconced within the castle, these wine-drinking, garlic-eating, sun-loving modern vampires have no intention of leaving. Ever.

Only an uneasy alliance between a nervous young priest and the argumentative local witches can save the country from being taken over by people with a cultivated bloodlust and bad taste in silk waistcoats. For them, there's only one way to fight.

Go for the throat, or as the vampyres themselves say...Carpe Jugulum.

The best part of the book is the fact that Lord Magpyr is aware of every single vampire trope—and is determined to be unaffected by any of them. He intends to be the first of a new breed of vampire: invulnerable to anything. The main hitch in his plan isn't the witches. It's his servant Igor, who thinks that the old ways are the best and that his new master is a disgrace to the memory of the old Lord Magpyr.

This book is a humorous send-up for anyone who's ever enjoyed a Frankenstein movie, a Buffy episode, or Dracula itself.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Time [★★★★☆]

Time

Time
by Stephen Baxter

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 07 March 2015 - 22 March 2015
Goal: Hard Science Fiction

I like hard science fiction, but I don't like it for the stories. Most of the hard SF stories that I've read are a little bit thin in the plot department. Mostly I don't care, because I'm not reading them for the plot or the characters. I'm reading them for the ideas. It's a more enjoyable way to learn about science than actually reading journal articles.

This story isn't an exception to that generality. There wasn't a lot of plot and the characters weren't very deep. But the science was interesting. It had a lot of elements that I enjoy. There's a company called "Bootstrap" that exists to, well, bootstrap humanity into space, mining the incredible wealth in the asteroids.

Bootstrap uses cheap, disposable rockets and its initial flight is piloted by an intelligent squid. The flight is to an asteroid called Cruithne, which appears to orbit the earth in a very odd pattern. The launch date is sparked due to the Carter catastrophe.

The characters also use something called a Feynman radio, to pick up signals from the future. As things progress, we see a vision of a possible far, far future where humanity's distant descendants mine the stars themselves, and blackholes, for energy. The characters also witness a succession of universes, showing that our universe is but one of an evolutionary tree, with universes evolving from each other. It turns out that blackholes could be the means by which daughter universes are spawned.

All of these science elements are either real or quite plausible and Baxter gives a list of references, at the end of the book. Don't read this for the plot, but do read it for the ideas and the exploration of what could, quite possibly, be.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Yesterday’s Kin [★★★☆☆]

Yesterday's Kin

Yesterday’s Kin
by Nancy Kress

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 10 March 2015 - 11 March 2015
Goal: Interesting Hooks

I put this book on my reading ideas list because of the author's description of the story.

I wanted to portray contemporary biological science as it is actually done: with sophisticated equipment, as part of an international conversation, with career-impacting mistakes and triumphant corrections. Too often, the “science” in SF is of the cloning-in-a-basement-by-a-mad-scientist type, or else gibberish hand-waving (“If we hook up the actofrabble cycle to the Hartford drive, we can create galaxy-spanning life insurance!”). I have enormous respect for science and scientists (all right, I’m a science groupie) and I wanted to show biological discoveries being made under pressure, with the inevitable competition as well as the teamwork, as realistically as I could.

I don't feel like I saw that in this story. The science seemed real enough. (I don't have nearly enough knowledge to speak confidently on the subject.) But I don't feel like I saw any career-impacting mistakes or triumphant corrections.

The main viewpoint character didn't really do any science in the story. It opens after she's already published her groundbreaking paper. Everything else she does, throughout the story, is described as the type of thing that a lab assistant could do. As a result, I didn't see "biological discoveries being made under pressure", either with teamwork or competition.

The overall story also seemed flat, like pieces were missing. Everything was painted in with a brush that was just that much too light. We needed more more detail than we got. The story worked fine as a pitch for a longer novel, but didn't work all that well as it is.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Beyond the Shadows [★★★☆☆]

Beyond the Shadows

Beyond the Shadows
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 8 March 2015 - 10 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

This book was better than Shadow's Edge, the previous book in the series. The action moved along at a brisk pace and there was plenty of it. Much more action than you normally get in a book of epic fantasy.

The action comes at a cost though. This entire series spent much less time on world building than typical epic fantasy novels do. I think that's a weakness of this action packed approach. Because it's epic fantasy, Brent Weeks created a large world with multiple different nations, complex politics, varied religions, and multiple different magic systems.

Weeks spent comparatively little time actually describing how everything worked. I spent a lot of time confused, wondering what was going on and what the significance of certain characters or actions was. Things were unexplained enough that I spent parts of the story wondering if I'd missed a previous book that set things up or if parts of this story were missing.

The story was also prone to sudden bouts of info dumping. Often, it would come as characters suddenly paused and "realized" what had been going on for the past 10 chapters and thought threw a whole chain of events. Or characters would suddenly start explaining things in-depth in a way that rarely felt natural. These info dumps served to inform the reader, but in a way that magnified the story's flawed structure.

Weeks created characters that I liked and magic systems that were interesting, but I didn't completely enjoy the books that contained the stories. I read Brent Weeks as an experiment. After concluding the experiment, I'm not sure I'll be reading more of his books.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

My View on Unions and the Middle Class

This morning, a friend linked to an article on Salon.com, "The conservative plot to destroy the middle class: Scott Walker, 'right-to-work' and America’s new Gilded Age". I read it and I had some issues with how it portrayed the labor history of the last 100 years. In order to agree with Thom Hartmann's polemic, you have to agree with his assumptions about what happened and his implications about what caused various changes.

Allow me to summarize. Pre-unions, Americans were split into the super poor and the super rich. Then FDR passed the Wagner Act, giving unions the strength to fight for workers. From that time forward, the US middle class sprang into being and grew into a strong backbone of society. The forces of evil fought back and worked to weaken unions. The American middle class began to stagnate and to fall behind. If we don't fight to keep unions strong, the American middle class may disappear forever.

I disagree with Hartmann's history of labor and the middle class. I think unions helped some, but also caught the pre-existing wave of economic growth. The growth before WWII was caused by technological innovation, aided by the Harding and Coolidge efforts to cut government spending and debt.

The tremendous economic growth after WWII came out because the European economies had been literally bombed into oblivion. American factories grew explosively, producing all of the goods that European citizens were demanding. American workers were the beneficiaries of this flood of wealth.

Over time, the European economies recovered and the Europeans rebuilt their manufacturing base. The Japanese began to emerge and fight for their own slice of the global market. As worldwide competition increased, American businesses had to economize and cut costs, including labor costs. This eroded the wage premiums that unions had previously demanded for their members.

As American businesses were facing competition from abroad, American workers faced increased competition at home. During the 70's and 80's, more and more American women entered the workforce. This increase in the labor supply had its own impact, helping to hold down wages and benefits.

The American family also began to change, with more single parent households and more single (working) women. This increased the number of households in the country and decreased the average number of wage earners per household. This, in turn, caused the measured statistics of "income per household" to decline. The net change was that, even as the economy continued to grow, the statistical picture looked as though the middle class was stagnating.

That's my story and, given enough time, I can conjure up links to various charts and graphs that explain why I believe this story.

Right now, I'd rather point out why I don't like Hartmann's story. I'll list out the points of disagreement and give a thumbnail capsule of why I disagree with each point.

From the Gilded Age to the Great Depression to today, the economic agenda of conservatives has been easily summarized in two words: “cheap labor.”

That's an opinion and it's Hartmann's opinion. As a libertarian who supports right-to-work, I'd summarize my agenda as "freedom". I believe it leads to cheaper labor for some, more expensive labor for others.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Republican efforts to make as many states as possible “right-to-work” states—more accurately described as right-to-work-for-less states.

Sure. Let's go ahead and redefine terms to create an emotional preconception against the thing that you're arguing against. It's a fine demagogic technique, but let's not pretend that it's entirely honest. This also ignores the fact that working for less can be a good thing. If a business is struggling, would you rather work for less or be laid off because your union refused to agree to a wage cut? If you're an inexperienced worker, would you rather work for less while you gain experience or be frozen out of a job entirely, because you're not worth the high starting wage that the union negotiated?

Only two entities have the power necessary to stand up for working people against the massive control of oligarch employers: government and unions.

There are three assertions in this sentence. I don't agree with any of them.

  1. Employers are oligarchs who exert massive control over working conditions and compensation.
  2. Governments are capable of protecting all employees.
  3. Unions are capable of protecting all employees.

I'd say the first is only true if you can easily list off all of the employers in your area. If you can and the list is small, those employers may have oligarchic control. If you can't, if there are too many employers to count, it's likely that none of them have oligarchic control over employment in your area.

Governments are often captured by special interests and used by those special interests to give themselves special privileges. An especially egregious example was when white southerners, of all economic statuses, used Jim Crow laws to mandate discrimination against minorities. In that time and place, the government most emphatically did not have the power to stand up for working people of color.

Unions are the very definition of a special interest. They exist to protect the employees in specific businesses and industries. They do this by fighting for special conditions; whether in wages, working conditions, or benefits; that are not available to all employees everywhere. They make life better for employees in the union at the expense of employees outside of the union. (If they weren't able to do this, there wouldn't be a reason to freely join the union.)

Instituting right-to-work-for-less laws is a not-so-subtle plot to starve and destroy one of the only two institutions that can stand up and demand a decent living wage for American workers.

Biased assertion of motive. As a backer of right to work laws, that's absolutely not my motive, nor is it the motive of the other backers that I know.

Right-to-work-for-less laws ensure the cheap labor conservatives have sought for generations.

This is an assertion of debatable fact, without evidence.

Unions have been a bulwark of the middle class ever since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Prior to Roosevelt’s 1935 Wagner Act, which guaranteed workers’ rights to unionize, America had been mostly either very rich or very poor.

... Following the Wagner Act’s implementation, and Roosevelt’s raising of the top marginal income tax rate on multi-millionaires to 90 percent, the first true American middle-class came into being.

This is an assertion of debatable fact, without evidence. Additionally, Hartmann commits the post-hoc fallacy, in asserting that the Wagner Act gave rise to the middle class.

[The Taft-Hartley bill] was an early domestic version of the “free trade” disaster we’re seeing now with NAFTA, GATT/WTO, CAFTA and coming soon, the TPP—a race to the cheap labor bottom that started to take root in the American south right after passage of Taft-Hartley.

As I discussed above, the downward pressure on wages is a result of the fact that America lost its manufacturing monopoly as the rest of the world's economies grew out of the post WWII era. The increased competition in producing goods and services strongly limits the prices that any one manufacturer can demand, in turn limiting the salaries that they can pay. It's not a matter of employer greed but a result of consumer demand for more affordable goods and services.

From then until the end of the Jimmy Carter presidency, unionization, and thus, average worker wages in the United States, only gradually declined.

This is a repeat of the assertion that unions were responsible for keeping average worker wages high. If I wanted to engage in my own post-hoc fallacies, I could say that this proves that Taft-Hartley didn't actually have that much of an impact on the middle class.

When Ronald Reagan came into office, a quarter of the American workforce was unionized, meaning half of Americans could raise a middle-class family on a single salary.

There's an important unstated fact here: roughly one-half of the potential American workforce was sitting on the sidelines, as unemployed (mostly married) women. I would argue that this limited supply of labor had something to do with the level of wages and that changes in the workforce had something to do with average household income falling.

But then Reagan declared war on the middle class, starting with the air traffic controller’s union (PATCO) during his first year in office.

Uhhhm... PATCO was illegally striking. It's hard to argue that opposing an illegal strike was an assault on the middle class. Hartmann gives no evidence of Reagan's war on the middle class except for this one supposed example.

While gutting the American middle-class, conservatives also launched a well-funded propaganda campaign, using right-wing “think tanks” and talk radio to convince workers that their growing economic woes were the fault of minorities (“affirmative action”) and the poor (“welfare queens”).

These talking points coming to you courtesy of left-wing "think tanks" and Hollywood personalities. No, I don't actually think that left wing think tanks are made up of morons. But it would be offensive if I did. And it's equally offensive for Hartmann to imply that think tanks he doesn't agree with are nothing but fakes staffed by enemies of the middle class.

At the same time, they began stacking federal benches with conservative judges, and passing thousands of federal, state, and local laws, ordinances, and regulations that further weakened the powers of organized labor and their ability to unionize.

Such as? I'm not impressed by assertions without any evidence whatsoever.

The result has been an explosion in CEO and executive pay, a rush of wealth to the conservative elite (the top 10 percent of Americans now own 75 percent of the nation’s wealth), and preferential capital gains taxes continue to consolidate wealth for those who “earn their living” by sitting around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive.

I have three complaints in one sentence. First, post-hoc fallacy of nebulous "federal, state, and local laws, ordinances, and regulations" that were responsible for changes in CEO and executive pay. Second, an unsubstantiated assertion that most of America's wealthy are conservative (without Googling can you name wealthy conservatives other than the Koch brothers?). Third, an implicit assumption that capital gains taxes are a good thing and that low capital gains taxes contribute to income inequality.

“fair share” union fees—money paid by workers who decline membership in their union, but receive massive benefits (in increased pay, benefits and job security) from their union that is required by law to represent them, even though they are not members and don’t pay full dues.

“Fair share” fees help curtail the problem of these “free riders.” And the Supreme Court upheld them in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Ed.

Again, this is an assertion of opinion, not a fact. I would define "fair share" union fees (if Hartmann gives me the scare quotes, I'll use 'em) as the reward that the union gets for forcing you into a job contract that you may not agree with, negotiated by people that you may neither agree with nor like. It may be my share, but I don't agree that it's fair in all circumstances.

There are other points I could quibble with. But those are the things that bothered me the most.

This entry was tagged. Unions Income

Review: Shadow’s Edge [★★★☆☆]

Shadow's Edge

Shadow’s Edge
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★☆☆
Read From: 3 March 2015 - 7 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

I really enjoyed The Way of Shadows, the first book in this series. I thought it was exciting, fast paced, and a real page turner. I did not feel the same way about this book.

I wish I'd been taking notes as I read this book. There were several instances where the dialog was downright pedestrian or things were awkwardly phrased. The pacing felt odd in places. There was a lot less action and a lot more moping around and traveling from place to place. This definitely was not a page turner.

I'm hoping this was just a sophomore slump or a middle book muddle. I'll be disappointed if The Way of Shadows was the highpoint of this series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: The Way of Shadows [★★★★☆]

The Way of Shadows

The Way of Shadows
by Brent Weeks

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 28 February 2015 – 2 March 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

I put this book on my reading list for 2015 because Brandon Sanderson described Weeks' writing as "epic fantasy novels that read with the pacing of a thriller". After reading this novel, I can confirm that Sanderson wasn't exaggerating. This book is an absolute page turner, even as Weeks paints a world worthy of epic fantasy.

And it's a gritty, dark, painful world. Pain, viciousness, and brutality are everywhere. Don't spend too much time hoping for things to come up roses for our heroes—no one will make it to the end of the story uninjured. Azoth is a 10-year old member of a criminal street guild, barely able to survive. He wants to become a "wetboy" (an assassin with magical Talent) because he's tired of being afraid and powerless; he wants the security that kind of power can give him. His desired mentor and teacher is Durzo Blint, the best wetboy in Cenaria.

This is the story of how Azoth becomes Kylar Stern, the wetboy that he always wanted to be. He has to make painful decisions about whether or not to have friends and how to protect the people that he cares about, in spite of trying not to care.

This isn't a great story. But it's a good story that's written very well. I read it to see if Weeks was an author that I wanted to follow closely. Given that I read a 659 page novel in 3 days, I think I've got my answer. I'm already looking forward to the next novel in the Night Angel series.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Review: Times Three [★★★★★]

Times Three

Times Three
by Robert Silverberg

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 23 February 2015 - 28 February 2015
Goal: Specific Authors

Time travel stories are my favorite sub-genre of science fiction. I've always loved the idea of visiting other times. I'd like to experience history directly. I'd love to sit in the audience for the first performance of Handel's Messiah or one of Beethoven's symphonies. I'd love to experience Teddy Roosevelt's charisma for myself. What was imperial Rome like, at the height of its power?

I'd also like to experience the planet as it existed in the past. I'd love to see what it would be like to walk through the forests that used to sit where Buffalo now stands. What would it be like to hear Niagara Falls from a distance and walk up to it through the trees? What did the Great American Plains really look like, during the pioneer days?

In this collection, Robert Silverberg provides three time travel stories that touch on these elements. I've read a lot of time travel stories and these three are all worthy of a place in my personal top ten list.

Hawksbill Station

Hawksbill Station is the perfect prison for political dissidents. Instead of spending money to guard them or courting political dissent by executing them, just exile them to the past instead. In this case, the late Cambrian era. The only form of life is trilobites; everything else is rock and water. There are no trees, no grasses, no ferns, no birds, no fish, no mammals, nothing. There's nowhere for the prisoners to escape to and no way they can interfere with history, to change the world of their past.

When I first read this story, I fell in love with Silverberg's description of the bleakness of the late Cambrian era. It's haunting, in the best possible way, and makes me excited about that part of the Milwaukee Public Museum's pre-history exhibit in a way that probably mystifies everyone else.

But the setting is almost the least important part of this story. "Hawksbill Station" is really a character study of Jimmy Barrett, the King of Hawksbill Station. He was a reluctant revolutionary long before he was a political prisoner. Silverberg invites us into his life, both at the beginning and end. It's a moving story where the time travel, as fascinating as it is, is the least important part of the story.

Up the Line

This is a more comic story. Judson Daniel Elliot III is a bored young man, who allows himself to be talked into a job as a Time Courier, a tour guide of the past, because of his love for historic Byzantium. A job as a Time Courier gives him the opportunity to criss-cross Byzantium's history, seeing all of the great events, people, and places.

Don't picture the Time Couriers as lantern jawed heroes, in love with the past and devoted to their duty. You should picture them more like a group of clock punchers, more dedicated to having fun on the job than to the job itself. And, well, with all of history to play around in, hijinks will ensue. Things will go wrong, and the police (the Time Police) may get called.

As is typical with Silverberg, the story revolves more around the characters than around the gizmos. It's a human story, but also a bit of a farce as we get to witness how human nature mixed with time travel can be a recipe for trouble.

Project Pendulum

Two identical twins: Eric and Sean Gabrielson are the subjects of the very first human experiment in time travel. They'll start their journeys through time together, from the same platform. They'll both move through time, like a pendulum that's gradually increasing its swing. First Eric will move five minutes back while Sean moves 5 minutes forward. Then Eric will move 50 minutes forward (from the fixed reference point), while Sean moves 50 minutes backwards. They'll continue alternating swings through time, each swing taking them an order of magnitude further into the past and future.

That's the hook. Silverberg uses it to paint one vignette after another of both humanity's past and humanity's future. With the twins, we see an inauguration parade for President Harding, have an encounter with neanderthals, and get to experience the majestic grandeur of California's redwood forests, centuries before they were overrun by development and tourism.

This is another story, like "Hawksbill Station", that I'll love just for its beautiful descriptions of lost worlds. I'll never be able to see them in person, but Silverberg has a genius for helping me to see them in my imagination.

This entry was tagged. Book Review Review

Becoming Steve Jobs →

Cover photo for Becoming Steve Jobs

I just saw this book announced on Daring Fireball. This is the book that I wanted to read, when I read Walter Isaacson's dreadful biography of Steve Jobs.

A brilliantly reported, compellingly written book that overturns the conventional view of Steve Jobs—the Jobs that is frozen forever as half genius, half jerk—Becoming Steve Jobs answers the central question about the life and career of the Apple cofounder and CEO: How did a young man so reckless and arrogant that he was exiled from the company he founded become the most effective visionary business leader of our time? Drawing on extensive interviews with Jobs’s inner circle, family members, friends, and competitors, veteran journalists Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli present a portrait of Jobs that is far more nuanced and intimate than previous biographies.

It's $14.99 on Kindle and I already pre-ordered my copy. It'll be published in just 3 weeks—on March 24.

This entry was tagged. Apple Reading Ideas

Reading Idea: The Golem and the Jinni

Golem and Jinni covert art
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wicker.

$9.78 on Kindle

I found this book recommendation in an unlikely place: a Tools and Toys roundup of Helpful Gear for Winter Weather.

Not everything on our list is necessarily for outdoor use. You may end up stuck inside your house due to severe snow, and on those occasions, you should have something great to read.

Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni is a nice, meaty story that will hold your interest from start to finish and while away the long hours. It’s about a female golem (Chava) who is marooned in the city after her Polish-immigrant master dies at sea, and a male jinni (Ahmed) who is accidentally released from an ancient copper kettle by a Syrian tinsmith, only to find himself mysteriously trapped in human form. Each of them struggles, in their own respective ways, to adapt to American society — just as human immigrants would.

The unique mixture of Jewish and Arab mythologies, along with American history, is quite compelling. We found it hard to put the book down after starting it.

Good enough for a spot on the list of reading ideas.

This entry was tagged. Reading Ideas

How Well Do You Estimate Time? →

That’s a little-known concept called the planning fallacy, which is a strong tendency to chronically underestimate task completion. The planning fallacy is one of the most difficult behavioral patterns to change, experts say.

…Roger Buehler, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, estimates that people on average underestimate task-completion time by as much as 40%. His studies have found the same issues for matters as small as mailing a letter and as critical as income taxes.

Researchers have tested several strategies that have been found to help people slow to finish their work. One involves predicting how long it will take to get something done based on past experiences. Another is breaking down a task into very detailed steps.

In a 2004 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Dr. Kruger and a co-researcher found that when “unpacking” a task—or breaking it down into detailed steps—individuals provided more accurate estimates of how long something would take to get done. The four scenarios studied were getting ready for a date, holiday shopping, formatting a computer document and preparing food.

I'd say that this is the biggest scheduling difference between my wife and me. I break things down in meticulous detail and she tends to just wing it. I think the end result is that we just annoy each other most of the time.

This entry was not tagged.

Icelandic Turkey: A Culinary Experiment →

I'd try this.

To make it, you cut a chicken in half, roll out a flour and water dough, cover it with sage leaves, cover those with bacon, and wrap each half chicken. Each ends up enclosed in successive layers of bacon, sage, and dough. You then bake it. The dough, especially the dough under the chicken that gets the drippings and the bacon fat, is yummy, the meat juicier than with an ordinary baked chicken.

This Christmas we decided to experiment with Icelandic turkey. The bird was about fourteen and a half pounds, that being the smallest we could get for five of us—my immediate family and my wife's mother. Out of respect to Christmas and Thanksgiving tradition I used the whole turkey instead of cutting it in half.

I made the dough with about ten cups of flour and three or four of water, enough to be kneaded into a soft but not wet dough. The turkey was stuffed, the dough covered with sage less densely than the chicken usually is, due to not enough sage leaves. The half of the dough that went under the turkey was covered with bacon strips, the rest of a pound of bacon went on top of the turkey and the other half of the dough on top of that. The two halves of the dough were sealed together.

… Anyone curious about the Icelandic chicken recipe can find it in How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes, webbed as a pdf on my site, available as a hardcopy from Amazon.

This entry was tagged. Food

Are We Headed Towards an Ice Age? →

This is the type of thing that worries me.

Holdren does do us a favor by raising a subject which doesn’t get nearly as much air time when this topic is debated in the media. No matter what you think about the viability of various climate models predicting the effects of various atmospheric agents on the biosphere, there has always been a long term question about what mankind will do when (not if) the next ice age comes. Rather than looking at hockey sticks for global temperature trends in the 20th century, a more alarming picture comes into focus when you look at our track record for the last half million years.

Temperature graph for the last 400,000 years.

The relatively pleasant weather we’ve enjoyed throughout mankind’s rise across the globe is, traditionally, a fleeting thing. Eventually the glaciers come back and that’s something which our biggest brains have no clue how to stop once they start their southward march. Once the process starts, it happens pretty fast, too. (At least “fast” in geological time frames.) It might not spell the actual extinction of the species, but there wouldn’t be room for many people in the habitable areas. There are also theories out there which suggest that a sustained rise in temperatures can actually trigger a faster onset of glaciation. So when you’re done arguing about what to do when the ocean levels rise and swallow Miami, you can figure out how to grow corn on an ice sheet.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has an exhibit on the ice ages. It's a sobering thing to stand next to a scale replica of a glacier, looking up, and imagine everything that you know being kilometers underneath your feet.

This entry was tagged. Global Warming

Communist Medical Care →

David Henderson shares this story, from LCDR Ilia K. Ermoshkin, an officer in the U.S. Navy.

I grew up in the USSR and became familiar with the healthcare system both from the beneficiary point of view and from that of a provider, as my grandmother was a dentist. The government owned and ran all health care, and it was free to the people. However, the quality and the "care" in the health care system were dismal: long waits for specialists and advanced procedures, etc. But, as anywhere, people have developed ways to get around and get what they want. Here are some examples of wonderful free health care in the USSR.

Birth was to take place only at birth clinics, of which there were about half a dozen in a city of five million people. Husbands or any other family are not permitted to even enter, under the premise of keeping the place free of germs, etc. My delivery was very difficult for my mother, she was in labor for three days, and it was deemed unnecessary to give her any pain medication or do a Cesarean. So she roamed the hallways of this clinic/hospital howling with pain. Nobody was permitted to use the phone (there were only a few in the administrative offices), so she could see my father and her parents only through a window once a day. When I was finally born, I was taken away from my mother immediately to be placed in a post-birth unit (this was done to all newborns), and my mother did not see me until about 24 hours later. We were released from the hospital after 7 days, and that was the first time my father saw me. This is a story that was a fairly normal routine for the Soviet women, and no other options were available as it would be then nearly impossible to get a birth certificate for the newborn. When my mother told this to my wife, who is American, she was horrified and had nightmares about it. [DRH note: for similar stories about the birth process, see Red Plenty. I reviewed it here.]

When I was two, I got severe pneumonia. I was at home with fever of 42C [DRH note: this is over 107 degrees Fahrenheit] and the doctor decided that this was a lost case and would not even prescribe penicillin to try to fight the disease. It took my parents and grandparents pulling all their connections and bribing to get penicillin that fairly promptly took effect and saved me.

This entry was tagged. Healthcare Policy

The war on rape: the logic of the lynch mob returns →

Brendan O'Neill offers some historical context about whether or not we should immediately believe all rape accusations.

Automatic belief of rape accusations was a central principle of the KKK’s war on rape, too. This was one of the things that most shocked Ida B Wells, the early twentieth-century African-American journalist and civil-rights activist. ‘The word of the accuser is held to be true’, she said, which means that ‘the rule of law [is] reversed, and instead of proving the accused to be guilty, the [accused] must prove himself innocent’. Wells and others were startled by the level of belief in the accusers of black men, and by the damning of anyone who dared to question such accusations, which was taken as an attack on the accuser’s ‘virtue’. The great nineteenth-century African-American reformer Frederick Douglass was disturbed by the mob’s instant acceptance of accusations of rape against black men, where ‘the charge once fairly stated, no matter by whom or in what manner, whether well or ill-founded’, was automatically believed. Wells said she was praying that ‘the time may speedily come when no human being shall be condemned without due process of law’. No, rape suspects aren’t lynched today. But, as we can see in everything from the destruction of Bill Cosby’s career to the demand to banish from campus students accused of but not charged with rape, they are often condemned on ‘the word of the accuser’ and ‘without due process of law’. Now, as then, ‘I believe’ is the rallying cry of crusaders against rape, and now, as then, such ‘automatic belief’ reverses the rule of law.

It's always tempting to go with what we "know" to be true, without worrying about pesky things like standards of evidence, due process, and the right to confront your accuser. But throwing those things out doesn't increase justice. It just opens minorities up to abuse from the majority.

This entry was tagged. History Rape

Crunchy Granola Nature Lovers Can Cause As Many Problems as the ATV Nature Lovers →

It’s tempting for the muscle-powered recreation crowd (of which I’m a proud member) to argue that we’re lighter on the ground than those who roar into nature astraddle their growling snowmobiles and churning all-terrain vehicles. Surely motorheads are to blame for any problems in the forest.

The uncomfortable fact is, we’re all complicit. In a not-yet-published review of 218 studies about recreation’s impacts on wildlife, researchers found more evidence of impacts by hikers, backcountry skiers and their like than by the gas-powered contingent.

Cross-country skiers on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, for instance, can be more disturbing to moose than noisy snowmobiles, one recent study found. Grant Harris, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the main author of the study, explained that snowmobiles, while a noisy intrusion, announced their presence and then quickly departed. But cross-country skiers can sneak up on an animal without warning and then linger. Worse, animals “don’t know where the skiers are going to pop up next,” leaving them on edge.

This reminds me of my favorite quote about limited knowledge and unintended consequences.

"The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design." — F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit

This entry was tagged. Environmentalism

An Experimental Wireless Network from Artemis →

Artemis Networks, a start-up that says it has created a technology for increasing the speed and reliability of wireless networks, is getting closer to bringing that service to the public.

The start-up, which first announced its technology a year ago, said it planned to lease wireless spectrum from Dish Network, the satellite television provider, for up to two years. It will use the spectrum to introduce a wireless Internet service in San Francisco.

… San Francisco, like many big cities, is already served by all the major wireless carriers, but Artemis has developed a technology that it promises will increase wireless Internet speeds through an innovative method of dealing with the congestion that dogs cellular networks.

When too many users get onto the Internet in one area from wireless devices, speeds typically slow, like a freeway jammed with too many cars. Carriers try to mitigate the problem by putting up more antennas in busy places like stadiums, but there are limits to how much of that can be done without creating interference between the antennas.

Artemis, in contrast, has an antenna technology called pCell that it says embraces, rather than avoids, avoids wireless interference. The antennas on an Artemis network are connected to data centers that perform nearly instantaneous mathematical calculations to fashion a unique wireless signal for every person on the network, giving them access to wireless data speeds that are not degraded as other people use the Internet from their devices.

This is the type of innovation that makes me skeptical about the need for net neutrality. The entire push for net neutrality is predicated on the idea that internet access lacks the competition needed to keep internet providers honest.

New technologies can quickly provide competition where none previously existed. My iPhone's LTE connection is already as fast as my home internet connection. If it weren't for data transfer caps, I could use my LTE access as my only internet access, bypassing Charter.

This pCell technology could enable wireless providers to offer much higher data caps, providing competition for cable in every city in America. With that kind of competitive pressure, who'd need network neutrality to keep providers honest? Big cable would be falling all over itself to offer "true unlimited" internet access, at prices below that offered by Big Cellular. We should be looking for every opportunity to increase competition, rather than looking to increase regulation.

This entry was tagged. Innovation Regulation

What Is "Health Insurance"? →

Thanks to government policy, the word insurance has been fatally corrupted in the health care industry. Insurance arose as a way for groups of individuals to protect themselves against insolvency by pooling their risk of unlikely but highly costly happenings. Today, private and government health insurance is merely a scheme to have others—the taxpayers or other policyholders—pay one’s bills not only for rare but catastrophic events, but also for predictable and likely, that is, uninsurable, events—and even for goods and services used in freely chosen activities.

The system is so camouflaged that the privately insured are often simply prepaying for future consumption, but the prepayment includes a hefty administrative overhead charge, which means the policy would be a bad deal if customers were paying the full price with eyes open.

What makes private medical insurance look like a good deal today is that employers seem to provide it for "free" (or at low cost) as noncash compensation, or a fringe benefit, which is treated more favorably by the tax system than cash compensation. If an employer pays workers in part with a $5,000 policy, they get a policy that costs $5,000. But if the employer pays workers $5,000 in cash, they’ll have something less than $5,000 with which to buy insurance (or anything else) after the government finishes with them. That gives employer-provided insurance an appeal it would never have in a free society, where taxation would not distort decision-making. Moreover, the system creates an incentive to extend "insurance" to include noninsurable events simply to take advantage of the tax preference for noncash compensation. Today pseudo-insurance covers screening services and contraception, which of course are elective. (This does not mean they are trivial, only that they are chosen and are not happenings.)