Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why the Republican Party Sucks: Part 1 of an Infinite Part Series

To get a sense of the priorities of the two major parties in American politics, I took a look at their platforms from the 2008 election. I searched each document for two words: "taxpayer" and "citizen". Here are the results:

Republican Platform:
"taxpayer" = 12 mentions; "citizen" = 17 mentions

Democratic Platform:
"taxpayer" = 3 mentions; "citizen" = 29 mentions

Just for reference, "taxpayer" is not mentioned at all in the U.S. Constitution, while "citizen" appears 22 times.

It is pretty clear that the Republican Party is more concerned about the size of your wallet than anything else when they consider your status as a taxpayer of equal or more importance than whether or not you are a citizen.

Wal*Mart pays taxes; Wal*Mart doesn't get to vote.

Taxpayers don't have rights; citizens have rights.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip

Today: The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip, consisting of The Riddle-Master of Hed, copyright 1976; Heir of Sea and Fire, copyright 1977; and Harpist in the Wind, copyright 1979. All three of the editions I have were published by Del Rey Books.

Back in the days when I was but a wee Bok globule, I read a trilogy called the Lord of the Rings. Being greatly excited by this work, I looked for other, similar books that I might enjoy as much. Alas, there was not much on offer in those days, but eventually I did come across a book called The Riddle-Master of Hed, the back cover of which promised wizards, riddles, dead lords, evil forces, shapechangers and perhaps most importantly, that it was book one in a trilogy.


Morgan is the Prince of Hed, and island state in a land ruled by the High One. Shortly before the events at the start of the book, Morgan's parents die in a shipwreck, and the "land-rule" (a magical divine right including near-complete knowledge of land itself) passes to him. He's at the College of the Riddle-Masters in the town of Caithnard being trained in riddle-mastery when this happens. On his way home he decides to detour to the kingdom of An (also part of the High One's realm), a land where the dead are only loosely bound to their graves, and a crown awaits anyone who can win a riddle contest with a dead king. Morgan wins the contest, takes the crown, and sneaks home to Hed without letting anyone know. At this point the story begins.

The High One's harpist, named Deth, arrives on Hed to express official condolences over the loss of Morgan's parents. In the course of conversing with Morgan, he figures out that Morgan is the one who won the riddle contest in An, and tells Morgan that the entirety of the High One's realm is gossiping and puzzling over the mystery. Raederle, the daughter of the king of An and the sister of Morgan's College friend, has been betrothed in advance by her father to whosoever wins the riddle contest. Morgan decides the time is right for him to travel back to An, this time as a suitor for her hand.

On his way to An he is almost killed in a shipwreck, almost killed by complete strangers, and almost killed by the Queen of Ymris -- who turns out not to really be the Queen at all, but a shapechanger instead. All these events seem to be related to three stars that he has on his forehead. It's never quite clear to me, but I assume he normally grows his hair long enough to cover them. The stars appear to be part of a centuries old prophecy, and the attacks by shapechangers compel Morgan to start investigating their meaning. This takes Morgan on a years long tour of all the kingdoms in the realm, where he picks up clues that seem to involve the High One himself.

Book 2, Heir of Sea and Fire, focuses on Raederle, Morgan's betrothed and her quest to find him after he mysteriously disappears. To say much more would give too much away, but she does discover that she has familial ties to the shapechangers who've been hounding Morgan across the realm. In book 3, Harpist in the Wind, Morgan and Raederle join forces, both of them having learned some potent magic during the course of their adventures in the first two books. Together they learn the significance of the stars on Morgan's forehead, and what the shapechangers are after, and in the process make some unpleasant discoveries about the founding of the High One's realm.

My Opinion:

A good tale, compactly told, especially in light of today's behemoth, multi-volume fantasies (Jordan, Martin, Erikson, I'm looking at you). Combined, all three books would barely amount to a medium sized volume in Erikson's Malazan series. But McKillip gets the job done. I often find it amazing that I like these books at all. Her prose is often described as "lyrical", which to my mind often means "intrusive and showy", and that has been my experience with a few others of her books that I've tried.

The short length also means these books lack the detailed world building that is more or less standard in epic fantasy today. McKillip manages to invoke a detailed world without actually showing all the details. Sometimes this reveals holes in the fabric of her world, for instance a political system featuring feudal overlords with millenial lifespans, everyman farmer-princes, and law and order imposed from above by the threat of magic of the largely absent High One. I just don't get the feeling that such a system could last a normal lifetime, much less a millenium.

Magic is shown as being, well magical of course, but also utter without any rhyme or reason. This despite the fact that a wizard's school flourished in the realm for hundreds of years. What were they teaching, if magic was not amenable to being understood by an organized framework.

Despite the fact that it sometimes feels as though McKillip didn't think through the consequences of the world she was setting up, I still really like these books, largely for the characters. Morgan and Raederle carry the books, and Raederle in particular is one of my favorites. I first read these books almost thirty years ago, and only infrequently re-read them (maybe twice), but I can still remember the slow developement of a relationship that they were tossed into by prophecy and the arrogance of rulers. Even at the end of the third book, they are still trying to figure out if they can be together, even though they clearly love each other.

The Round-up:

If you like your fantasy dark and gritty, where you can smell the urine in the back alleys, then these books probably aren't for you. If you like your fantasy with a strong, self consistent underpinning of magic and politics, then these books aren't for you. If you like your fantasy high, and let's go ahead and say lyrical, with an actual plot, then these books may be for you. McKillip's fantasy isn't like anyone else's I've read (not necessarily a good thing in this case), and The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy isn't really like any of her other work I've read (definitely a good thing). Although the resemblence isn't strong, the books I'm most strongly reminded of when I read
The Riddle-Master of Hed are Le Guin's first three Earthsea books.


What other people have to say about the Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy:

Lela Olszewski at SF Site

Robert N. Tilendis at Green Man Review

Laurie Thayer at Rambles

James Schellenberg at The Cultural Gutter

A review by Russ Allbery

Monday, February 23, 2009

Introducing: The Ho Ho Diet

Feeling a need to purge all that wholesome food from your body? Need a quick boost of sugar and preservatives to get you through that long, boring meeting at work? Want to stick it in the you-know-what of all those smug eco-shoppers who park their bloated Escalades in the compact spots at Whole Foods? Then the famous Ho Ho Diet may be for you!

The Ho Ho Diet has a multitude of benefits:
  1. It's cheap! One pack of 3 Ho Hos has 250 calories. You only need to eat eight pack, or 24 Ho Hos a day to get a full 2,000 calorie diet. At an average price of $1.50 per pack, that's just $12 a day!
  2. Low sodium: 24 Ho Hos per day give you less than half your daily amount of sodium, but simultaneously provide a solid 32% of your recommended amount of protein.
  3. Great taste! People who eat Ho Hos are happy. You can't say that about someone shoving celery and rice cakes in their yap.....
  4. Chocolatey goodness: Ho Hos feature rich chocolate cake inside, wrapped in a scrumptious chocolate frosting. Chocolate has been linked to many health benefits, such as lowering cholesterol, reducing risk for heart attacks, increasing serotonin levels, and causing mild euphoria.
  5. Iron! The chocolate in Ho Hos contains iron, an essential nutrient. Deficiency of iron in the blood can cause anemia. Some of the symptoms of anemia include weakness or fatigue, general malaise, and poor concentration -- all of which are statistically linked to being a Republican.
  6. Cylindricity: food presentation is important, and who can resist those little brown cylinders? Arrange them on a bed of white rice for effect (but don't eat the rice!!).
Some doubters will claim that you can't lose weight by eating only Ho Hos. Guess what? They are right! but it's all a matter of perspective. You're a good person, aren't you? So making more of you is like making more of a good thing. And that's a good thing!


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

New Word: autophotovisualization

Autophotovisualization: noun. The process of using a camera to take a photograph of one's self. Normally this is done by holding the camera at arm's length, pointing it in the general direction of one's face, and hoping for the best. Most often photos taken using autophotovisualization wind up on one's Facebook or My Space pages, or else are featured prominently on one's blog. Autophotovisualization is most common among computer users, especially Facebook or My Space account holders, as these individuals spend so much time on-line that they have no face-to-face (ftf) relationships anymore, and thus have no friends who will hold the camera for them while a photograph is taken.


The Big One

Just my luck to start a blog about ranting (and books) at a time when my reasons for ranting have suddenly gotten scarce. So I'm having to dig back into my mental rant archives for something..... Luckily the previous eight years have provided enough rant fodder for a lifetime (or maybe not so lucky). This one's been brewing in the back of my mind since the year 2000.

So it is pretty much a given at this point that the presidency of Little Bush was a complete disaster, except for bazillionaires who don't plan on ever having children. Those guys at least got their tax cuts. What's not so clear is who is responsible. I mean, sure, Bush is responsible, as well as whoever was pulling his strings (Cheney???). But how did such a person, one of such questionable qualifications for high office, get into a position so that he could steal the election with a minimum of handwringing by the people?

Obviously Republican voters bear the brunt of responsibility for this. Without their 47.9% of the vote, Bush could never have beaten Gore's take of 48.4% of the vote. What about the other 3.7% of the vote, you might ask? Well thanks to the winner-take-all system of the Electoral College, these votes tend not to mean much in presidential elections, and this has pretty much been the case for over 200 years! When the election isn't close, or when both major party candidates espouse similar view on the issues, voting third party can be an important expression of dissent. Please note, however, than neither of these two conditions held in 2000. As we've seen (and as was clear even before voting began) the election was very close. As for anyone who can honestly claim that there's no difference between Bush and Gore, all I can say is get your head out of the toilet because after eight years of being submerged in your own vomit you probably need a bath. Or is that stench the rotting corpse of our civil liberties?

From an Electoral College point of view, Florida turned out to be a pivotal state in this election. It was razor close in votes for the major party candidates, and whoever got its E.C. votes would win the big banana. Included among the third parties on the ballot in Florida were the Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law, and Constitution parties. Voters in these parties are nutjobs who didn't want to vote for Bush because he refused to adopt the following into the Republican platform:
  1. Paying out all monies in the Federal Treasury to "tax-payers", i.e. members of the Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law, and Constitution parties.
  2. Disbanding the Federal Government in favor of home rule by the States, or else into smaller political units, the size of which will be determined later on the basis of effectiveness of allowing conservative nutjobs with guns to boss everyone else around.
  3. Grinding up all people who are not True Americans -- those not Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law, and Constitution parties -- and disposing of the remains in vast toxic waste storage facilities constructed in Sodam and Gomorrah (i.e. Hollywood and New York City).
The only effect these voters were going to have on the election was to reduce Little Bush's votes, which is really a good thing, so more power to them.

But there was another third party at play in Florida, one whose voters were ardently opposed to all the principles behind Little Bush's candidacy. These voters were also in favor of many, if not all, of the proposals put forward by the Gore campaign, the difference often being one of quantity, not quality. Even for those who did not find much common ground with Gore would admit that he was by far better than a patently unqualified candidate whose policies would run the country into the ground (which is exactly what happened). Logic, common sense, call it what you will, even self interest, would suggest that in an extremely close election, voting for someone you don't like is better than shooting yourself in the head.

Yet these voters did exactly that, shoot themselves in the head. Not only that, but the bullet passed through their empty heads and managed to bring down the whole rest of the country. According to the Federal Election Commission, Little Bush won Florida by 537 votes. If even six-tenths of one percent of these voters had put the interests of the country over their own selfishness, held their noses and voted for the anti-Bush candidate who actually had a chance to win, then Little Bush wouldn't have been able to steal the election at all.

These people voted for Ralph Nader, and they "elected" Little Bush. They bear almost as much responsibility for the eight year long national nightmare as Republicans do, and no amount of clicking their ruby slippers together and chanting "there's no vote like IRV, there's no vote like IRV" is going to raise eight years worth of dead, heal eight years worth of wounded, or restore eight years worth of lost opportunity.

Eight years later I'm still pissed off, and it makes me hope that the religious nutjobs are right, that the Devil exists and that Hell is a real place, because the Green party presidential candidate from the 2000 election has a lot to answer for.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

How you know your kid is gonna be a geek.....

S. Jr. (holding hands up): Daddy, how come I can't generate a forcefield?

S.: ??? Uh..... ???

I am so proud.....



Today I begin my forty-third orbit around Sol.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Firearms: The Life Story of a Technology by Roger Pauly

Here's a cool book for you: Firearms: The Life Story of a Technology, by Roger Pauly, copyright 2004. My copy was published by Johns Hopkins University Press and is a reprint of the original by Greenwood Publishing Group.


A short (208 pages!) summary of the development of gunpowder small arms. Artillery and rockets are given a passing mention, but the primary focus of this book is guns. Pauly begins with the invention of gunpowder and its likely initial use in primitive "flamethrowers", covers intermediate forms like the wheel lock, matchlock and flint lock, discusses the transition from smoothbore to rifle, and the development of pistols, finally ending with modern assault rifles.

My Opinion:

A good short book on an interesting topic. I don't think there's anything here an expert in this field wouldn't already know. Thank goodness I'm not an expert. I did find the details of the various types of lock tedious after a while, and my eyes started skimming. Some nice information about the first time certain technologies are found, either in extant devices or written about. The analogy between living organisms, which have specific births, follow a (usually) well-known pattern of growth, and then finally die, and technologies such as firearms is labored at times. The main point Pauly is making, however, seems right on target (har, har) -- that is that the underlying technology behind firearms hasn't changed in a major way since the early 1900's. We've merely refined the techology that had been developed at that point.

The Round-up:

Worth reading, but not worth owning. Get this one at the library.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Review: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S.M. Stirling

Today's review: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S.M. Stirling, copyright 2008, published by Tor Books.


In an alternate version of the Solar System, Venus and Mars are not the lifeless planets we know today. Instead they are very much as science fiction writers (and some scientists) in the early days of the twentieth century pictured them -- inhabitable and chock full of life forms, both native and transplanted from Earth.
The situation on Venus is dealt with in The Sky People, in which an intrepid American explores the wild, rugged Venusian jungles, meets the natives and falls in love with the girl of his dreams.

Things are a little different in the Mars of In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. Instead of being a lush, almost primeval jungle full of dinosaurs, Mars is a dry desert planet, slowly dying from the loss of a limited supply of water. A civilization exists, founded by humanoids brought to Mars from Earth long before homo sapiens sapiens developed. These evolutionary cousins of ours have a civilzation that is many millenia older than ours, with language, culture, and technology simliar to and yet different from that on Earth.

Jeremy Wainman is an American sent to Mars by the U.S. government, in the context of the Terrestrial East/West Cold War (which is still ongoing in the year of the nove, 2000). He's an anthropologist/archeologist specializing in Mars and he's waited all his life for the chance to go there. Because space flight is so expensive, his is a one-way ticket, but he doesn't mind. His main goal is to find the long lost city of Rema-Dza, a kind of Martian version of Atlantis and El Dorado combined. For reasons he doesn't understand, his quest has been approved by the Cold Warriors of Earth, but he's willing to work with them to get what he wants. An expedition is outfitted with a Martian landship crewed by natives and rigged with sails to cross the vast deserts on Mars. With a native guide/bodyguard and a minder sent by U.S. military intelligence, Wainman sets out on his search. Complications arise when he inadvertently runs afoul of Martian political intrigue and things climax when he ends up involved in the Imperial succession of the rump city-state that remains from the once mighty, planet wide empire of the Crimson Dynasty.

My Opinion:

Excellent read. One of those books you don't really want to put down until you're finished, even though you really ought to, because you have to go do stuff, like sleep and things..... The setting invokes a sense of nostalgia for the science fiction / planetary romance of 60, 70 or 80 years ago, but does it without seeming dated. The idea of setting it as an alternate history is good, and this definitely plays to some of Stirlings strengths as a writer. I've greatly enjoyed some of his other alternate history books, including the Island in the Sea of Time series, and most especially, The Peshwar Lancers. If you liked those books, and you don't absolutely hate Burroughs, then you'll probably like In the Courts of the Crimson Kings too.

The book is full of adventure, action (not always the same thing....), political intrigue, and good world building, all things that are high on my list of what makes an enjoyable good. The characters can seem a little bland at times, but the characterization is not outright bad, so it wasn't a turn off for me. The book is full of references there for devoted SF fans, including the name of the main character, Wainman, a play on Carter, from Burroughs' Mars books; the presence of a real Martian Princess along the way; and a ship named the Brackett, among others.

The Round-up

Buy it, read it, and maybe he'll write some more! There's certainly room for more books in this universe, and mysteries that were raised in both this book and The Sky People that remain unresolved.


What other people have to say about In The Courts of the Crimsion Kings:

Paul Di Filippo at (the sadly departed) Sci Fi Weekly.

Carlos Aranaga at SciFi Dimensions.

Jerry Wright at Bewildering Stories.

Brian Brown at The Dragon Page.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Guilty Pleasures

I'm not one much given to guilty pleasures. If I like something, and it doesn't hurt anyone when I do it, I don't feel guilty. Ice-cream, Trader Joe's candy-cane Joe-Joe cookies, baiting Republicans: these are all pleasures, and I feel no guilt about enjoying them. Although the last one can feel a little too easy sometimes.....

But the other night I was reading a book, and was really into it. Ten PM came around and I looked at the thick sheaf of pages still unread, and I thought to myself that I wasn't going to finish it tonight, but I could read for another hour before I turned in. Round about eleven PM the thickness of unfinished pages was less, but still fairly substantial. Getting to sleep at midnight would still give me a solid six and a half hours of shut-eye, and that's not too bad. So around midnight I checked and noticed only about thirty or so pages left. Well, that's not enough to bother with putting the book down and starting up again the next day, so I might as well just finish it. And that's just what I did. Then I crawled into bed around 1:30 AM and got about five hours of sleep.

I really should have gone to bed earlier -- job, kids, etc..., but I did enjoy reading the book. Doing something you shouldn't do and enjoying it -- that's a guilty pleasure, right?

I still don't feel guilty.