The rich are not like you and me…

January 2nd, 2012 Comments off

Pity The Billionaire by Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank spends this book doing what he does best – analyzing why, in spite of historic trends which say otherwise – much of the politically active population of the United States espouses and defends policies and ideas which are contrary to their own best (economic) interests.

This is a restatement of Thomas’s thesis from “What’s the Matter With Kansas” with a focus on the political situation post-Great Recession. Like his earlier book, Thomas is puzzled why so many average Americans are seemingly choosing ideology over what actually benefits them economically. In this case, sympathy for billionaire bankers and their political supporters (couched in the rhetoric of defending capitalism and free enterprise) over policies – such as economic and health care reforms – which might actually benefit middle class folks directly.

I approach politics from a liberal viewpoint, but Thomas seems to fall into the same bit of blindness that affected “Kansas” – namely, he is shocked to see a group of Americans hewing to ideology over their own material self-interest. At least it is shocking and dismaying when these folks are middle-class Americans from the flyover states. This shouldn’t be surprising. Ever since the late 1960s and the rise of the modern political environment, large swaths of Americans focus more on ideology over their own self-interest – liberals and conservatives (how many wealthy Manhattanites voted for Obama in 2008 even though his proposed policies might have hit them in the pocketbook?)

Nonetheless, Thomas has written a fairly incisive book, and one which is rather depressing, if only as a catalog of the myriad of ways that a more imaginative or energetic Democratic party or President could have responded to the crisis. In the end, the President ceded the ideological battleground to his opponents, and like French generals in World War II, seemed most interested in negotiating his own defeat rather then using imagination (and the significant resources still at hand) to try to actually win.

Thomas’s book is a depressing reminder of the state of American politics today, and a fair look at the Tea Party and other forces (including a great side-trip into the depths of Ayn Rand’s oeuvre) who have been driving the debate in the country the past two years. He tells it like it is, and depressed liberals (as well as triumphant conservatives who aren’t afraid to read a book by someone on the left) will be both enraged and enlightened.

Categories: Books, Politics Tags:

The best 20 books I read in 2011 (and the worst)

December 7th, 2011 Comments off

Last year I blogged about the 21 best books I read during the year. Unlike some other lists of this type, not all the books were published that year; most were, but it was a list of my favorite books. I am doing the same this year, 20 of the best piles of dead tree matter I came across, and one bonus pick of the worst for the late great 2011.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
My pick for best work of non-fiction for 2011
Pinker’s simple idea: violence – of all kinds, from bar fights to wars between nations – has declined throughout history and today it is lower then it ever has been. He backs his thesis up with extensive data and masterful research, presented with the precision of a scientist and the passion of a novelist. A fine, fascinating book.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My pick for best work of fiction for 2011
Set in a near-future where society is run down and most people spend their days in a virtual world, Cline’s debut novel tells the story of a young ‘hero’ who solves a series of puzzles, based on 1980s pop-culture geek nostalgia, to win control of a Willie Wonka-ish empire. A fast, fun, imaginative exercise in world-building which is a no-brainer bit of awesomeness for anyone who remotely considers themselves a geek, or who grew up in the late 20th century.

11/22/63 by Stephen King
This is one of King’s most ‘humane’ books in a long time. There’s almost no horror or supernatural elements; instead it is a bit of a real, honest-to-goodness love story, along with a bit of time-travelling action and even a tiny bit of science fiction. Probably his best full-length standalone novel since It.

Reamde by Neal Stephenson
Stephenson doesn’t do short, and “Reamde” is no exception at over 1000 pages. It is less science fiction and more a technothriller, and a very good one at that. WHat makes it great are all the Stephensonesque touches, such as long digressions into topics like MMORPG development. Some great, memorable characters, including a top-notch villain.

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
A personal, philosophical and psychological look at what the experience of combat is like, and ideas for how soldiers, commanders, political leaders, and civilians can better deal with the reality of war.

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick
A straightforward autobiography by one fo the best-known and most accomplished computer hackers that reads like a thriller.

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox
This book is another entry in the trend of history books covering some esoteric aspect of life, in this case, artificial light. Brox, uh, illuminates her subject with verve and, dare I say, makes us see things in a…new light?

Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others by David Livingstone Smith
A superb review of the biological, social and psychological reasons why human beings seem to to demonize other groups of humans. This isn’t just a survey of “bad things in history” but rather a look at the why of dehumanization, in all its different forms, and whether it can realistically be overcome.

Flashback by Dan Simmons
Simmons takes a step away from historic fiction and sci-fi opera to write a near-future political thriller/police procedural. In spite of positing some rather unlikely political development, Simmons does a really nice job with world-building, and creates an exciting, fast-moving story that really works.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
It’s the near future, and our robot servants become self-aware, and decide that there needs to be a change in who’s running things. The story is unoriginal, but the wit and graphic joy in which the author tells the various stories of individuals fighting the vast electronic hordes make this a damn fun read.

In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos
An extended philosophic essay on criminology specifically focusing on whether it would be a worthwhile reform to allow convicted criminals to optionally trade their sentence for a medically-supervised public flogging. The premise sounds bizarre, but it is less an end in itself and more the “hook” upon which to base a great discussion of the failure of the modern criminal justice and rehabilitation system in America.

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell
A deeply-satisfying work of historic fiction, following the career of an archer in the English Army during the Hundred Years’ War. Richly detailed depictions of medieval life and warfare, a serviceable love story, knights, ladies, and even a lecherous priest make for a fun (and historically accurate) read.

How It Ends: From You to the Universe by Chris Impey
How does it end? A simple question leads to a great book about how everything ends, starting with your own mortal coil and leading to the heat death of the universe. In between the author is quick to weave scientific anecdotes about everything from how aging works to the odds of various cosmological disasters hitting Earth. Spoiler: we all die.

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh
I reviewed this in more detail earlier, but suffice to say, this harrowing and believable story of ordinary people trying to survive during the slow economic and ecological collapse of modern civilization is an instant classic in this genre.

The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel by James Howard Kunstler
And speaking of the apocalypse, peak oil cassandra Kunstler has written a great piece of PA fiction about the lives of some ordinary villagers living in upstate New Yorks after Peak Oil has ended national civilization. “Witch of Hebron” is actually a sequel which tops the original (“A World Made By Hand”) because unlike the original, the sequel is more about (fine) storytelling and less about ideological axe-grinding.

America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield
It wouldn’t be the 150th anniversary of the Civil War without some great books on the conflict, and this is one of the best, telling what is essentially a moral history of the war, focusing on the cultural and social aspects (of both sides) and showing how the war really built modern America.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
This wide-ranging survey of the history of information, in all its forms, covers an impressive panoply of topics – biology, anthropology, physics, information theory, computer science, and mathematics. Anyone who is an informational omnivore – and if you are reading this list, you probably qualify – will probably really enjoy Gleick’s book.

The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick
Another “history of physics” book – there have been lots of these, but what make Dolnick’s book a bit different is both the freshness of his writing, and the focus on the intellectual and social world before, during, and after the age of discovery. He gets down and dirty describing day-to-day life in London during Newton’s era, and how the experience of daily life drove the mental state of the various scientists who travel through his pages.

Perilous Fight by Stephen Budiansky
A swashbuckling collection of nautical tales of derring-do, which have the added benefit of being both true and quite relevant to the history of our nation. We are approaching the 200th anniversary of this little-known war that gave our country its navy and national anthem (along with the burning desire to invade Canada!) and Budiansky’s book is a great (nonfiction) survey of the naval aspect of the war, told with the storytelling skill of a good work of fiction.

The March by E.L. Doctorow
A beautiful panoramic novel about Sherman’s March, told through the eyes of a cast of dozens of characters, ranging from Sherman himself, to slaves, Southerners, and everyone in between. All of humanity’s foibles, and glories are laid bare in this stunningly well-written novel.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
The heartbreaking and heartwarming true stories of what life is like in one of the world’s most impenetrable nations. It is hard to comprehend the amount of suffering the subjects of this book underwent, all while keeping their humanity under harrowing conditions. The book is written beautifully and the storytelling does the subjects justice.

Caliphate by Tom Kratman
My pick for worst book I read in 2011
I picked up this turd of a book essentially for free when our local Borders went out of business, and sadly, I still paid too much for it. It is essentially Starship Troopers, with a fascist 22nd century American Empire as the good guys and the part of the bugs played by an Islamic Caliphate that has taken over all of the Middle East and Europe. The storytelling is hackneyed crap, filled with one-dimensional characters that make a 1930s comic book look like Wuthering Heights in comparison. The plot (involving the rescue of a Christian slave girl from lecherous Islamic masters while trying to stop a doomsday device) got lost beneath the continuous grinding of the author’s ideological axe – and unlike the excellent world-building and sharp plot of “Flashback” (see above) also written by an author with similar political leanings, “Caliphate” is just awful.

Categories: Books Tags:

I, the jury

October 28th, 2011 Comments off

I just spent the past two days of my life doing jury duty – something that I have never done in my lifetime.

Serving on the jury was actually quite rewarding. You know the good feeling you get after you vote, where you realize you did your duty as a citizen and you think about how awesome our country and system are (even if you are the cynical type who otherwise thinks everything is gone to shit?) I felt that good feeling – I was an important part of making our justice system work, making sure a fair trial happened and justice was done as best as we can. It sounds unremarkable, but for 99% of human history and in much of the word even today, that doesn’t happen, but when things are working, it does here, and you and me are a big reason why.

The jury itself was interesting. We were 12 strangers, but together in a very intimate environment. I joked it was kind of like air travel – you are in a small space with total strangers and you can’t use your cell phone! During the two days we mostly made small talk (the same kind you’d make with folks in an airport) – we were not allowed to discuss the case until deliberations, and once those started we pretty much stuck to business. Everyone was friendly and willing to debate and discuss in an open and respectful manner – there were no “angry men” or serious arguments; it was very collaborative. Demographically, there were more retired folks then I would have expected based on random chance, and the male/female split was 7/5.

The actual mechanics of how the case is run and how the courtroom works is surprisingly casual and almost banal – I wasn’t quite expecting the crisp severity and scintillating drama of Law and Order, but even so, it was interesting how, well, ordinary everyone was. The lawyers for both sides spent a lot of time looking through their papers between questions, and everyone was polite and laid back. There were no dramatic objections (in fact, objections were discussed between counsels in whispers in front of the bench, all the better to prevent the jury from hearing anything we shouldn’t), the witness examinations and crosses were very mellow, and even in the closing remarks there wasn’t much Sam Watterson channeling Clarence Darrow. The judge kept things moving, but in the relaxed way of an experienced teacher interacting with students while moving things along in a classroom.

The judge made it very clear that we were only permitted to consider the evidence presented in the courtroom as jurors. We were not to talk about the case with anyone outside the jury, and we were not allowed to do any independent research (including electronic) while the case was underway. Specific mention was made of 21st century distractions like Facebook, Twitter and blogs (the judge even joked that we couldn’t tell anyone on MySpace, but that nobody used MySpace anymore!). She also noted that phones needed to be off while in the courtroom. Mentally, I kind of thought of this like some kind of “cone of ignorance” – everything we needed to know would be in court, it was the job of the two sides to give us what we needed to make our decision – we are not detectives. I understood all of this intellectually, but it was still a big responsibility – this was someone’s life that would change based on what we decided.

So, the actual case (and now that the trial is over, this is all public record and we are permitted to discuss it and anything about the deliberations).

Essentially, the defendant (technically called the respondent because he was under 18 when the crime occurred) cut off another guy in traffic while making a turn onto South Iowa Street from 23rd. The guy who was cut off made his displeasure known, via the usual yelling and bird-flipping, and the guy who cut him off responded in kind. The victim tailgated the first guy on down Iowa Street, and they got into it, just like two guys with more testosterone then common sense are wont to do. So, two guys acting like jerks. However, it got very serious when the first guy (the one who originally did the cutting off) brandished a gun – basically held it up to let the other guy know he had it (without actually pointing it at him). At that point, the second guy (the victim) fell back and called 911, while continuing to follow the first guy at a greater distance. They continued down into rural Douglas County, and the sheriffs eventually pulled over the assailant.

There were two charges, making a criminal threat (and I am paraphrasing, I don’t recall the exact title of that charge), and aggravated assault.

We had the following pieces of physical evidence made available to us (“published to the jury” in the parlance of the court)

  • The tape of the 911 call
  • A map upon which both the defendant and victim marked where events occurred.
  • The gun itself (which was a realistic-looking BB gun)
  • A videotape of the police interview with the defendant
  • A videotape of the police interview with the defendant’s sister, who was in the car with him.
  • The written statements of the victim, the defendant, and the defendant’s sister.

    The state called the following witnesses:

  • The victim
  • The defendant’s sister – as a subpoenaed witness (she didn’t want to testify against her brother)
  • Three police officers; the sheriff who made the initial stop and the two officers who did the interviews

    The defense only called one witness, the defendant himself (he didn’t have to testify, but chose to).

    The general outline of what occurred wasn’t really questioned by either side, but there were some inconsistencies in the various details that made it less then an open-and-shut case.

    I am not going to give a play-by-play of the trial or deliberations, but the things we paid attention to and ended up being important included issues like:

  • How was the gun actually held and displayed
  • Did the victim have “reasonable” fear of “imminent bodily harm”
  • Was there any claim to self-defense by the defendant
  • What was the relative position of the two vehicles during the back and forth down Iowa Street, and what could be seen from where?
  • Did the defendant flash the gun the get the victim to ‘back off’ from the continuing tailgating/road rage or did he mean to actually attack with it.

    We also looked at the written statements that the parties provided to the police. It ended up that of all the people, the defendant’s sister seemed to be the most reliable witness.

    After the closing arguments, we deliberated for about four hours. The bailiff made our lives as jurors easier by baking us brownies (yes!) and bringing in lunch from Free State while we deliberated.

    We found the defendant guilty of the lesser charge of making a criminal threat, but not guilty of the assault charge – primarily because assault required the the threat of imminent bodily harm, which we felt was not proved.

    I am glad that I had this experience. It was just two days of my life, during a relatively slow time at work. If it had been two weeks during a crunch time, I might not be as sanguine, but regardless, I felt honored to do my part as a citizen, and proud that I did my service diligently and responsibly. There’s not much that our society or our government really asks of citizens any more. We don’t have t vote, we don’t have to join the army, and don’t get me started on taxes – but serving on a jury really helps the system work – and it did work. This was real life; although the crime was relatively minor, it affected peoples’ lives on both sides, and involved everyone from the 911 dispatcher who answered the call to the cops who did their job investigating and the district attorneys, the judges, their clerks and assistants, and even the defense attorney who did her job representing her client as best she could, making the state prove its case. Everyone did their jobs. All you have to do is look around the world and look in history books to see that although we take this for granted, how rare this is in human history.

    Fundamentally, the jury fundamentally helps our legal system work in a fair way, is a check on the power of the state, helps see justice done, and I was happy to have been able to do my part.

    And, for Google’s sake, here’s some information about serving on a jury in Douglas County Kansas that isn’t covered by the county’s FAQ

    1. Yes, you can bring a book or crossword puzzle or whatnot to do while you wait. Don’t count on using your phone for entertainment or to pass the time; frequently it must be off, but you can always read a book during breaks or while waiting (although obviously not while in the courtroom).

    2. Casual dress is fine. By that, I mean even a nice pair of jeans and a collared shirt. You don’t need a suit or even Dockers (although nothing’s stopping you from looking nice!) Nothing torn or ripped, no shorts, and no T-shirts or shirts with writing on them.

    3. Cell coverage in the judicial center sucks. AT&T simply didn’t work at all anywhere inside the building. So even when you can use your phone, don’t count on it working. However, there is a Knology hot spot in the building, so during breaks when you are allowed to use your phone, you can get online this way.

    4. Our judge was pretty savvy and actually mentioned this during her instructions, but to be clear, you just can’t talk about the case or search for information about it on the internet during the trial. For those (like me) addicted to social media, that means no Tweeting or Facebook or anything. This seems obvious, but a lot of us are so used to casually mentioning things that it would be easy to slip up if you didn’t make a specific effort not to. You are allowed to say you’ve been called for jury duty, but that’s it – you can’t mention what trial you are involved in or any details. I checked in to the Judicial Center on Foursquare but never became the Mayor (Chief Justice?)

    5. The court day ends around five PM – it won’t go any later; and it starts whenever the judge says, anywhere from between 9 and 10. There are relatively frequent recesses, so you’ll have a chance to stretch and get water. On the day we deliberated, they brought us lunch, but on the trial day, we got an hour and a half to get lunch on our own. They give you temporary employee badges so you can get in and out of the building without going through the metal detector in the front.

  • Categories: Life Tags:

    WWDC Wayback Machine: 1999

    June 14th, 2011 8 comments

    The WWDC 1999 Schedule. Click to embiggen

    Ah 1999. President Clinton, fresh from his brave conquest of Monica Lewinsky and the Serbian Air Force proudly led a nation in the grip of economic boom and millennial fever. Grateful citizens dialed in to their ISP and fired up their Netscape browsers to search Lycos for the latest and greatest. No iPod. No OS X. No iPhone. No iOS. No Youtube. No Twitter. No Facebook. No Hulu. Honestly, what in the hell did we do? I think we USENETed our Prodigy or something, but I can’t remember because I haven’t taken my pills today.

    Apple was just coming out of their mid-decade tailspin, and new Interim CEO Steve Jobs was presiding over a company on the rebound. The iMac was fresh, colorful and awesome, and the stock was rocketing into the 20s. And yes, there was WWDC so developers could learn about new technologies. MacOS 8.5 was coming, and MacOS X was the future. WWDC itself was held in the San Jose convention center. It was smaller, less then a fifth the size of today.

    Home from the recently concluded 2011 version of WWDC, I found one of the original 1999 WWDC schedules in my office, and used the poor man’s scanner (i.e. the iPhone camera) to reproduce it for your pleasure. It is a fascinating trip down memory lane of both old technologies, and how WWDC used to be structured. The Stevenote still kicked things off, but Steve shared the bill with Avie Tevanian. The evenings has a lot more ‘official’ activity then today, with events like Apple Masters, Movie Night, and a conference party that was separate from the Beer Bash. The technologies? Some you’ve probably heard of (Java, Carbon, Cocoa), and some have faded down the memory hole (Game Sprockets, anyone?). WebObjects was in big, with numerous sessions, and there is a big focus on Java as well. There’s also numerous IO hardware-specific session on topics like USB and Firewire. There were also tons of Feedback Forums for the various technologies and teams at Apple.

    Anyway, click the photo above to see the full-size version, and party like it’s 1999.

    Categories: Apple Tags:

    My favorite end-of-the-world books

    May 20th, 2011 2 comments

    As we all know, the world is coming to an end tomorrow (and if you’re reading this after May 21, then you obviously weren’t good enough to make the Rapture), so why not kick back and spend the last few hours on the earth reading a good post-apocalyptic disaster novel? I’m a fan of the genre, and these are a few of my favorites, organizaed by the means to mankind’s demise….

    Water
    Flood and Ark by Stephen Baxter.

    Water wells up from below the oceans, inundating the world.


    Plague
    The Stand by Stephen King

    Bio-engineered flu wips out humanity.


    Nanotechnology
    Blood Music by Greg Bear

    The original “grey goo” novel.


    Earthquake
    The Rift by Walter Williams

    The Big One hits – at the New Madrid fault, tearing America in two.


    Meteor
    Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Purnelle

    Big meteor. Bigger bang.


    Nuclear War
    The Last Ship

    There are tons of great post-nuke books, but this unique one, from the perspective of a Navy ship at sea, is an underrated gem.


    Aliens
    Out of the Dark by David Weber

    A nice solid, fun alien invasion set in the Internet era.


    Zombies
    World War Z by Max Brooks

    Hungry zombies. Lots of guns.


    Peak Oil
    World Made by Hand by James Kunstler

    Life in small town after a sudden decline in the world’s oil


    Economic Collapse
    Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

    There’s nothing Great about this Depression, but the book is stunning.


    Magic
    Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

    The laws of physics change with devastating consequences to civilization


    Infertility
    Children of Men by P. D. James

    No more babies.


    Evolution
    Evolution by Stephen Baxter

    Life evolves. Humans do not (at least not anything like what we would expect). And yeah, Baxter’s on here twice. He’s that good.


    Supernova
    Aftermath by Charles Sheffield

    When a nearby star goes supernova, things do not look good for little old Earth

    Categories: Books Tags:

    AT&T: Our masochistic customers want to be capped

    May 5th, 2011 Comments off

    So, as most people know, AT&T has started capping their broadband internet packages. This is a thoroughly awful, consumer-unfriendly act, but, with a bit of doublespeak that would make a Soviet commissar blush, AT&T is claiming that customers actually asked for caps! Needless to say, I had to find out more, and, well, it sure looks that way according to this official AT&T press release:

    Joyful Proletariat Welcome New AT&T Internet Enhancements

    Peasants Cheer as Precious Bandwidth Allowance Distributed

    May 2, 2011 – As Reported by Official News Service of DPRK-AT&T

    As reported by the glorious Peoples Commissariat of Internet Resources (known to the decadent bourgeoisie as the AT&T Marketing Department) workers and peasants through the Peoples Republic of AT&T expressed their unalloyed joy at the latest culmination of the the glorious Five Year Bandwidth Allocation Initiative, which grants all members of the Outer Party an amazing 150 GB of precious bandwidth every month. The People's Congress has also agreed to award Inner Party members up to 250 GB of bandwidth, as a reward for loyal service to the Motherland.

    Bandwidth is a precious and limited resource of the State, and AT&T citizens are grateful and thankful that this precious resource is now limited. Prior to the new limits, wreckers and bourgeoisie infiltrators used more then their fair share of this resource.

    Winston Smith, a proud Party member in our great Workers Paradise, was quoted as saying "Previously, I lived in fear that I was inadvertently weakening our State by using too much bandwidth. I am so relieved that the I may now use only 250 GB of data. The strong, comforting hand of our Great Leader acts as a rudder upon the ship of my broadband connection!"

    It is expected that any workers who are not satisfied with their bandwidth allocation will engage in public Self Criticism at the next Party committee meeting.

     

    Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

    A soft apocalypse is a hard read

    May 5th, 2011 Comments off

    Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse” is one of the most emotionally intense and harrowing books I have read in several years. Set in the near future, it is the story of one man, and his friends, as they live through the terminal decline of our modern civilization.

    “Soft Apocalypse” is refreshingly different then most “end of the world” genre books – you see, this book is about you. Yes, you. You are no action hero. You don’t know how to grow your own food, and you probably aren’t a crack shot. If you were in a zombie movie, your brains would be in the digestive tract of the walking dead. This book’s author’s protagonists are all ordinary people like you and I, not action heroes.

    Throughout the entire book, the protagonist, Jasper, deals with life as society slowly crumbles. He doesn’t have any grand plan, he just muddles by, unheroically, with a circle or friends, as things gradually decay. The book takes place over a decade, and through the slings and arrows of Jasper’s daily life, you get a real sense of what it is like to live through the gradual decay of civilization. If most fictional ends of the world are the sharp bite of a cobra, this one is the slow, long suffocation of a constrictor.

    Our story opens with Jaspar and friends living as travelling nomads a few years after a major depression has led to 40% unemployment. While things are bad, modern life is still holding up. The power’s on, you can still find Oreos at the grocery store, and a text message is still the fastest way to stay in touch with friends. Yet, the middle class has declined, the armies of the poor are vast, and the rich live in secure privately-guarded enclaves while ostensible public servants such as the police do nothing to prevent or try to stop crime. In many ways, it is America as a third world country.

    As the years pass, Jasper settles into a modicum of stability as a convenience store manager, moving in and out of various social circles consisting of old and new friends, as the world around him continues to crumble. The economy just doesn’t improve. A nihilistic tribal-ish terrorist movement called the Jumpy Jumps spreads random dadaesque violence. Strange new diseases and genetically engineered destruction accelerate the decay of both the natural and man-made environment.

    There are so many fascinating and well-written vignettes here – a bowling alley during a power outage, a trip to a virtual reality speed dating service, a flash rock concert, an abandoned carnival, canine-powered taxis, browsing an abandoned bookstore, and even (a bit too sterotypical) an emergency surgery via cell phonel.

    This is a challengingly violent book – brutal rapes, torture, violence against people and animals – that are frankly disturbing and in many ways reminiscent of accounts I have read from World War II. In one scene, paramilitaries are executing citizens, and Jasper spots a fondly-remembered teacher about to be shot, and all he can do is look away while the man begs for help. Even a riot which destroys a Wal-Mart is rendered in a way that is less about economic despair and more about pure nihilism. Many of the scenes of destruction are more heart-rending then other books’ nuclear wars, perhaps because those are massive, while this book is, in many ways, very intimate. As ugly as the violence is, it is never gratuitous or celebrated, and is presented as a necessary part of the plot.

    There is despair in “Soft Apocalypse” – the book in many ways seems the fictional representation of the famous poem by Yeats – the center definitely cannot hold, and a bevy of antagonists tear down society while decent people – including our protagonist, can’t do much other then survive the best they can as the rudiments of civilizations gradually seep away. The book’s strength is the author’s exposition of Jasper’s essential humanity, even after he sees everything he has cared about fall away and is forced, in the end, into making a terrible choice. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road , there is no happy ending, but like “The Road” the “Soft Apocalypse” is at its best when exploring the human condition, and how humanity can exist even in the most terrible conditions.

    “Soft Apocalypse” is not a fun read, but is a very good book, and has provoked hours of thought and reflection, even after I was finished. It also kept me up at night, and it has been a while since any book was able to do that.

    Categories: Books, reviews Tags:

    Top 10 cocktail party non-sequiturs

    January 14th, 2011 3 comments

    If you really need to end a conversation in a hurry, wait until the other party has made what they consider to be a witty or important point, and then say one of the following:

    (in random order…I don’t know which one is the funniest. I don’t know if any of them are funny!)

    10. “That’s fascinating, but I don’t think the Bishop would have seen things that way.”

    9. “What did you do with the marmot when you were finished?”

    8. “It’s amazing how the artist deconstructed the entire paradigm ontologically through the medium of inverse interpretive dance”

    7. “I don’t care what your favorite data pattern is, I still like the smell of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies!”

    6. “Colorless green ideas actually don’t sleep furiously. I know for a fact they have insomnia.”

    5. “How can you say something like that in presence of Her Majesty the Queen?!”

    4. “God is actually shaped like a slightly lopsided rhombus.”

    3. “I am working on a theory as to how the pigs procreate, being that they are green circles lacking in both legs and external reproductive organs”

    2. “The gleam in your eye definitely strikes me as that of a time traveller. Your secret’s safe with me, but tell me, how do you like things here in the 18th century?”

    1. “Sixteen badgers along with four raccoons, eh? And only three pounds of kidney beans, you say? Wow, you are amazing!”

    Thanks! I’ll be here all week, don’t forget to tip your hostess.

    Categories: humor Tags:

    Review: Across the Universe

    January 9th, 2011 Comments off

    Across the Universe by Beth Revis

    “Across the Universe” is an excellent, fairly fresh take on the generational starship theme written for teenage/young adult readers. The basic themes are familiar – a passenger in hibernation is unexpected woken up, the cloistered society of the ship has gotten really weird over hundreds of years, and a tyrannical leader rules with an iron fist (and some help from genetic engineering and drugs). However, the author deftly blends these themes together, creating believable, sympathetic characters living in an environment that is weird enough that you wonder how things really work. The story itself is fairly straightforward, told from the alternating perspectives of the two protagonists – the teenage girl unexpectedly awoken, and the son of the ship’s absolute leader.

    As both protagonists discover more and more about the truth of the situation on the ship, they are faced with a bit of a murder mystery as well as threats from both the ship’s dictator, Eldest, and the various forces that are keeping most of the people living on the ship in a state of almost animal-like somnolence. For those who like the science in their sci-fi, the author is quite believable, creating a realistic shipwide ecosystem, as well as not forgetting small touches, like the fact that the accents of the people living aboard would have gradually changed over hundreds of years to be difficult for a newly-awaked person to understand.

    This isn’t merely lightweight teenage reading. The author imbues even the dictator Eldest with humanity and you can really appreciate the reasons he made the choices he did, even if in the end you will probably not agree with them. No one-dimensional villains here. There’s a small amount of PG-rated romance between the protagonists, but also a few scenes of slightly less mild sexual and physical violence, but nothing outside of the scope of similar books. “Across the Universe” will appeal to both fans of dystopian young-adult literature (readers of the Hunger Games trilogy and the Uglies will likely enjoy “Across the Universe”) as well as anyone who enjoys science fiction or dystopian novels.

    Categories: Books, reviews Tags:

    2010 mostly sucked, but not entirely

    December 30th, 2010 Comments off

    The end of the year always brings some reminiscing about the good and bad, and 2010 is no different. Overall the year seemed pretty mediocre, but a couple things really stood out as being positive for me.

    In 2010, the virtual became real, and I actually made real social engagements via the various social media services, especially Twitter. Thanks to this new “town square” I have a lot more casual friends then I have had in the past, and have made real-world friends through the various tweet-ups, get-togethers and other random events, both organized and disorganized. Of particular note, are a few close real-world friends that initially developed purely via Twitter, such as Matt and Megen here in town, as well as numerous out of town folks like Ryan, Ben, Justin, AJ and several other neat people who I never would have gotten to know at all but for a “silly” microblogging service named after the sound birds make.

    I usually follow politics the same way a casual sports fan follow his or her teams – occasional moments of rapt attention and cheering/booing followed by long periods where you don’t pay any attention. In a year when the forces of intolerance were definitely on the rise, the unexpected and dramatic victory for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal was one of the most gratifying and exciting political events I can remember, especially given that it came through the sausage-making apparatus of Congress rather then the drama of a legal decision or an election. For a couple weeks in December, I paid attention to the minute-by-minute minutiae of the Senate, and followed the ups and downs, and in the end, against all odds, the good guys won, the forces of evil were routed, and a major step forward for goodness in America actually happened. That was really awesome.

    And on to miscellaneous ‘bests’ and ‘worsts’ of the past year…

    Favorite game of 2010: A three-way battle between Angry Birds, Worlds with Friends, and Plants vs Zombies. I have to go with the latter; that game was truly amazing fun, although I am frustrated that unlike Angry Birds, the Plants vs Zombie folks have disappeared from the planet with nary an update or sequel in sight.

    Favorite album of 2010: Weezer’s “Hurley” is simple, loud, catchy, and fun. Don’t need anything more complex.

    Favorite movie of 2010: After the greatness of 2009, 2010 kinda stank. Nothing really stood out. Plenty of OK movies, but nothing remarkable. So, no favorite movie. But there were some decent movies, “True Grit” being the most recent one that comes to mind.

    Biggest entertainment disappointment of 2010: The “Lost” finale. Ugh. Talk about finishing with a whimper. But hey, it was slightly better then the Battlestar finale.

    Best comeback of 2010:Futurama” – good news everyone, the show is as good as it was before, which is to say one of the funniest things on TV.

    Crappiest sports moment of 2010: Northern Iowa. Seriously. Ugh.

    Best sports moment of 2010: It’s a tie, between the first KU-KSU game where Sherron Collins single-handedly won the game for KU in the final minute, and the first quarter of the Nebraska-Missouri football game, where Nebraska went up 24-0 on Mizzou. I saw that in a sports bar filled with Missouri fans, which was quite enjoyable!

    Best election result: Lawrence voters passed the library bond. How about that, a vote in favor of both literacy and progress.

    Worst election result: Everything else.

    2010 in one sentence: “Don’t touch my junk!”

    Categories: meta Tags: