Thursday, August 27, 2015

The End of All Things

I decided to finish up the novels on my iPad by kind of "known authors" who I have enjoyed in the past before moving on to new stuff. Next up was "The End of All Things", by John Scalzi. This is the latest (6th?) installment in The Old Man's War universe. Scalzi again serialized this book, I think as 4 $2.99 novellas, before releasing it as a novel. I'm guessing he makes more money that way, good for him.

It is a very enjoyable read. It has many of the same characters from the previous 1 or 2 novels. A different narrative voice for each of the 4 parts. Scalzi seemed to be somewhat less snarky, which I think is not bad for him.

Note that 2 of the 4 narrators are female voices. Scalzi, who was prez of SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) for a few years recently, has been one of the main warriors fighting against the dumbasses who finally coalesced into Sad Puppies (and GamerGate) - poor oppressed white males, who just want everything to be the way it used to be: manly men without all this obviously wrong politically correct support for feminism, multiculturalism, LGBT rights, etc. [sarcasm] These guys stuffed the ballots in the Hugo award nominating process to create slates where all the candidates were mostly inferior but mostly WASP males (I don't know, maybe they snuck a Slav in there somewhere). But, yay, a couple of days ago they mostly got their butts kicked with "No Award" taking all the categories where they had allowed for no real worthy alternatives. They are, of course, vowing vengeance! You all just wait until next year!

Plus ca change, plus ca la meme!

In the light of that, in addition to the 2/4 female narrative voices, I am going to guess that at least 1/2 of the characters in this novel, lots of whom are Colonial Marines, are female. That wasn't hard, was it? It does not affect the story at all to do this. It does not create any cognitive dissonance.

If all the scripts coming into Hollywood did this, it might fix a lot of the problems with underrepresentation of females in their productions. I personally feel, the more women in any production the better. The FIFA Women's World Cup, particularly the 5-2 final win over Japan, was some of the best soccer I've ever seen - and I coached soccer 9 years and refereed for 12, so I know the game.

Go wimminz!!!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Aurora

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading "Aurora", by Kim Stanley Robinson. Somehow KSR seems to have become scifi's Elder Statesman. In addition to his Mars novels and his "Science in the Capital" series about climate change, I really liked his prior novel "2312", blogged here. That one was the closest to Ian M. Banks' Culture of anything I can remember recently. I was hoping for more of that - I need the vision of a post-scarcity, anarchist, socialist utopia to keep me going!

This novel is a generation-ship story. There is a complex computer program that maybe approaches AI levels. I think it was in the discussion of this that KSR brings up several times various cognitive errors:

ease of representation, probability blindness, overconfidence, and anchoring.

Even those aware of the existence of these genetically inherited cognitive errors cannot seem to avoid making them.

Very interesting stuff, I would have liked to have seen it explored in more depth.

The plot has several interesting twists - and probably some bad news for the concept of exploring other planets. It is a great read, I don't think KSR can create anything else. We just need to get him pointed back at post-scarcity, anarchist, socialist utopias!

Monday, August 03, 2015

The Annihilation Score

"The Annihilation Score" is the 6th Laundry Files novel by Charles Stross. These stories are H.P. Lovecraft meets Dilbert meets James Bond. The first 4 Charlie was paying tribute to different spy novel styles. The 5th one, he decided to riff on vampires. This one the secret sauce is superheros. Additionally, the protagonist is Dr. Mo O'Brien, the wife of our normal protagonist Bob Howard.

Charles Stross is one of the leading lights of modern science fiction. He knows code and coders. He skewers both corporate mentality and modern political trends. There are, as usual, several LOL zingers scattered throughout the book.

But, as much as this series is a money maker for him, I think he's getting tired of it. The pacing is off in this novel, particularly through the 2nd half of the book. The ending winds up being somehow a totally foregone conclusion.

I will always read everything Charlie writes, but, I would rather he turn his energies to new universes (which he of course is). Maybe 1 or 2 more Laundry Files and I think I'll have had enough.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Water Knife

"The Water Knife" is the second adult novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. Paulo is one of the bards of the coming climate crisis.

This is an extremely violent book. I think it is intended to shock us into realizing how desperate the lives of refugees are. In this case the refugees are primarily Texans, trying to flee future drought into the southwest and California. Their desperation is probably not that different from African refugees who are trying to escape drought right now. I have to admit, Texans are acting like such jerks lately, say with their reaction to Operation Jade Helm for example, that I got a guilty pleasure from having the victims here be mostly Texans.

The novel's pacing is very tight and the cast of characters is relatively small. The plot is very nicely twisted, worthy of Film Noir. I would guess the movie rights to this are already sold, and it will make a great film. Too bad Danny Trejo is too old to play the title character.

There are some nice insights into the various cognitive impairments that are allowing us to ignore or deny the climate crisis.

“If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”
Another major component of the story is the book "Cadillac Desert", by Marc Reisner. Published in 1993 and subtitled "The American West and Its Disappearing Water", it is apparently the roadmap for what is going to happen with water in the southwest, winding up in the dire straits in which "The Water Knife" is set.
“It’s wallpaper. Every water manager, every bureaucrat — even you got that damn book. All of you with your nice hard-copy first editions, all of you pretending you know shit.” He opened his eyes blearily. “Acting like you all saw this shit coming.”

He closed his eyes again and slumped back against the door. “That guy Reisner, now. That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They’re the ones who stood by and let it all happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren’t listening back then. Back then no one gave a shit about what that man said.”

I probably won't read "Cadillac Desert". I have seen projected drought reaching as far north as Kentucky by 2100. I will probably keep living in the Ohio Valley, 13 miles from the Kentucky River and 54 miles from the Ohio River, the greatest waterway between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. But meanwhile, good luck to people in the southwest in the coming decades.

William Gibson said "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." Unfortunately this is and will be very true for the climate crisis as well. The countries in the temperate zones who put most of the carbon in the air will be affected much less severely than countries in the tropics. We can only hope that Climate Justice will win the day.

Friday, July 17, 2015

How Does Walter Tunis Do It?

Walter Tunis is the Lexington Herald Leader's music critic. We moved to Lexington in 1981, and he had become their music critic just before that, so he has been the music critic for our entire Lexington history. I follow his blog, which normally means I read his pieces before they hit the paper.

He goes through I'm guessing 2x the new music that I do. So the question is, how does he do it? I listen to new music most afternoons, and it still doesn't seem like there's enough time for the music to sink in to where I can form an opinion on it. So how do he do it? I'm guessing he's 5-10 years younger than me, but, I really think it's that his brain is wired for it somehow.

OK, enough excuses, down to new music. A little sparse lately, but lots of good stuff in the spring. This goes back to March.

  • Bjork, "Vulnicura". Another fine effort from our greatest living modern composer. 4 stars.
  • Modest Mouse, "Strangers to Ourselves". This is more reminiscent of their earlier stuff, particularly "Good News For People Who Like Bad News". 3 stars.
  • The Lone Bellow, "Then Came The Morning". I believe a Krugman recommendation. From Brooklyn, 3 great singers. I was going to move it from Alternative Rock to Folk, but then thought, Country? Some songs have pedal steel, and then they came through Lexington as the opening act for some male country singer. But I left as Alternative Rock. Great vocalists, 4 stars.
  • Will Butler, "Policy". The non-frontman brother from Arcade Fire. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of the songs. 3 stars.
  • Van Morrison et al, "Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue". Van does the standard duets album, with a more varied group of artists than you would expect. He and Taj Mahal have fun with "Now Can A Poor Boy?" off of his latest album. I worked it up but I think it's too repetitive for the jam. "Some Peace of Mind" with Bobby Womack may be one of Bobby's last recordings. Also nice to hear Mavis Staples, George Benson, Joss Stone and Steve Winwood. Also fun was the nicely self-referential "Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby" with ... P.J. Proby. 3 stars, 4 stars for "How Can A Poor Boy?".
  • Sufjan Stevens, "Carrie & Lowell". An ode to his parents. He has become my exemplar of Emo. I love his high, reedy vocals. 4 stars. Here's the 1st track.

  • Derek & The Dominos, "Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs", 1970. Somebody told me I needed to get this. Some great material, 3 stars. Note, I have started creating smart playlists such as "Eric Clapton +", which has this, Cream, his solo work, etc. Fun to listen to sometimes.
  • Passion Pit, "Kindred". Not as good as their last, but I still really like this kind of peppy pop. 4 stars.
  • San Fermin, "Jackrabbit". Seems like less than a year since their 1st release. Still very different. Another Krugman pick. 4 stars.
  • My Morning Jacket, "The Waterfall". The pride of Louisville delivers some great tunes. A very consistent effort. 3 stars.
  • Mumford & Sons, "Wilder Mind". Very different than their prior (1st?) album. That was one of the epitomes of modern Power Folk, this has lost the folkiness and is just more poppy alternative rock. 3 stars.
  • Todd Rundgren, "Global". What a great album! I particularly liked "Blind", which calls out climate change denial.

    Also a nice feminist anthem "Earth Mother". I went on and posted, mansplaining be damned.

  • Rainy Milo, "This Thing of Ours". Thank you WRFL. I am such a sucker for Britpop like this - I love the cockney accent. 4 stars. I posted the title song twice already, might as well do it here too. I love the harmony on the chorus.

  • Eric Clapton / B.B. King, "Riding With The King", 2000. Bought this and the next just after B.B's death. This has some great tunes, 4 stars. I love this album cover too. It shows the proper respect.

  • B.B. King, "Live At The Regal", 1965. Someone, I think maybe Clapton, called this out as one of the finest collections of some of B.B.'s early stuff. I totally agree, I love the band, and the upbeat, syncopated arrangements. 4 stars.
  • Of Monsters And Men, "Beneath The Skin". Nice tunes, not as good as their last tho. 3 stars.
  • Florence + The Machine, "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful". This apparently went to #1 with a bullet. There were some very interesting, very complex vocal arrangements. But, overall the tone of her singing is I think a little too uniformly strident for my ear at this point. 3 stars.
  • The Pimps of Joytime, "Jukestone Paradise". From my friend guitarist Dane Sadler from Richmond. He posted this tune:

    I was like, what is this, hiphop rockabilly? The band has bass/macbook, drums, guitar/vocals/macbook, and 2 female vocalists/percussionists a la Sheila E. As I listened to more of it, I got strong memes of Prince and Sly & The Family Stone. High praise indeed. From Brooklyn via New Orleans. 4 stars.
Ok, that's up to the middle of June. It's been a bit slower since then, phew!

Value and Capital

"Value and Capital", subtitled "An Inquiry Into Some Fundamental Principles of Economic Theory" was published in 1939 by J.R.Hicks. Hicks is credited as being the inventor of IS-LM. This was the first major economic work published after Keynes' "General Theory"

This was really a tough read - 3 months? And I got very little out of it - no mention of IS-LM. Rather it explores how to extend static models - taken at a given moment at time - to dynamic models, which include the time dimension, primarily in the form of agents' future expectations. This is used to build an Equilibrium Theory of the general economy.

We learn about resource classes, including money and securities, that are related in 1 of 2 ways: as being complementary, meaning that increased supply for 1 resource will drive increased demand for the other resource; or as being competitive or substitutes, where increased supply for 1 resource will drive decreased demand for the other resource.

On expectations, we learn that these can be elastic or inelastic. Elastic means that a price increase now implies price increases in the future; inelastic means that future prices don't depend on the current price change.

Similarly, the current supply of a commodity depends not so much upon what the current price is as upon what entrepreneurs have expected it to be in the past. It will be those past expectations, whether right or wrong, which mainly govern current output; the actual current price has a relatively small influence.
He notes that his models to not adequately take risk into account.
It is important to realize that the allowance for risk, the percentage by which the representative expected price falls short of or exceeds the most probable price, is not determined solely by the opinion of the planner about the degree of uncertainty. It is also influenced by his willingness to bear risks, by an element which in the last analysis depends upon his scale of preferences. An increased willingness to bear risks will therefore be represented in our analysis by a change in expected prices in favour of the planner.

Further (and this is the most serious weakness of our treatment), the willingness to bear any particular risk (to plan to buy or sell at any particular future date for which expected prices are uncertain, and to act on that plan) will be appreciably affected by the riskiness involved in the rest of the plan. I can do very little about this on present methods, though some consequences of the interrelations of risks will come to our notice now and then.

Money, money, money. Interesting how you can't seem to have an economic system without it.
Those kinds of securities which are money differ from those which are not money by the fact that they bear no interest; that is to say, their present value equals their face value, instead of falling below their face value, as is the case with bills. Looked at in this way, money appears simply as the most perfect type of security; other securities are less perfect, and command a lower price because of their imperfection. The rate of interest on these securities is a measure of their imperfection-of their imperfect 'moneyness'. The nature of money and the nature of interest are therefore very nearly the same problem.
This seems to ignore that securities can be offered, as they are now, at negative rates of return.

The definition of income:

Following out this idea, it would seem that we ought to define a man's income as the maximum value which he can consume during a week, and still expect to be as well off at the end of the week as he was at the beginning. Thus, when a person saves, he plans to be better off in the future; when he lives beyond his income, he plans to be worse off.

...

This leads us to the definition of Income NO.2. We now define income as the maximum amount the individual can spend this week, and still expect to be able to spend the same amount in each ensuing week. So long as the rate of interest is not expected to change, this definition comes to the same thing as the first; but when the rate of interest is expected to change, they cease to be identical.

Interest changes are more complicated than price changes.
The reason why the theory of interest-changes is so much more difficult than the theory of price-changes is this. When we are dealing with prices it is possible to proceed directly to the most interesting case-the case of a change in prices which is expected to be permanent. (We saw why this is: a permanent change in prices is equivalent to a proportional change in current prices and price-expectations, so that we become entitled to use the static convention of treating commodities due to be bought or sold at different dates as the same commodity.) When we are dealing with interest rates, however, we cannot employ the same convenient simplification.

...

Still, once the Austrian theory is put behind us, the only important thing which emerges is the general conclusion (which can be stated clearly enough for nearly all purposes without any of this rigmarole about average periods) that changes in the rate of interest affect the 'tilt' or crescendo of the production plan.

...

This would make the net income effect work in the same direction as the total substitution effect, and reinforce the conclusion that, for the market as a whole, a rise in the rate of interest will reduce current expenditure, a fall in the rate of interest increase it.

Hicks definitely sounds a clear warning about the dangers of a liquidity trap, referencing Keynes.
This is all very well; but when we turn to the converse case of a
fall in prices, a new difficulty presents itself. It is now necessary for the rate of interest to fall, in order for equilibrium to be restored. If the rate of interest was reasonably high to begin with, it seems possible that this reaction may take place without difficulty. But if the rate of interest is very low to begin with, it may be impossible for it to fall farther - since, as we have seen, securities are inferior substitutes for money, and can never command a higher price than money. In this case, the system does not merely suffer from imperfect stability; it is absolutely unstable. Adequate control over the supply of money can always prevent prices rising indefinitely, but it cannot necessarily prevent them from falling indefinitely. Trade slumps are more dangerous (not merely more unpleasant) than trade booms.

...

Taking all these things together, we may say that interest policy - which is monetary policy - gets very high marks as a means of checking booms, but very low marks as a means of checking slumps. It can set a point beyond which prices shall not rise; but it cannot ensure that they do rise to that point.

He also raised an issue that is still active in discussions today. In relating interest, inflation and employment, are changes dependent on the value of some quantity, or the rate of change in the value of that quantity?

Well so much for "Value and Capital". Next up, Marx, then a modern book on Behavioral Economics. But I have decided that I will start taking a vacation every summer from economic texts. So no economics until the Autumnal Equinox. I'm 2 months behind on the magazine stack, and have 20-something books to read in my iPad. Plus I have the latest Jared Diamond in hardback. Hopefully I can get caught up some by fall.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Nemesis Games

I finished reading "Nemesis Games", by James S.A. Corey. This is the the 5th installment of The Expanse series (soon to be a series on SyFy channel). The other installments I've blogged:
This installment brings us back to the solar system. Radical Outer Planet revolutionaries are determined not to let the Outer Planets become a footnote in history as mankind moves to the 1000s of planets to which the alien gate system has allowed access. So lots of politics and explosions, and several Motor Vehicle Chases (spaceship) - something you don't get everyday. We also have a character from the earlier books turn up, on what looks to be a recurring basis. I like how the authors do this.

The novel also has something in common with the previous novel I reviewed. It was kind of shocking to have that theme brought up in 2 successive reads.

This is as readable as the previous installments, a total page turner. Looks like the next installment will have to stick around the solar system to clean up the mess created in this one. And they still have the 1000s of worlds to explore. This series definitely is getting some legs on it.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Seveneves

"Seveneves" is the latest novel by Neal Stephenson (@nealstephenson). This one is pretty much straight hard science fiction, 880 pages - Neal don't do no short books.

Several reviewers have commented on the books beginning:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.
I guess the first line of a novel cannot be a spoiler??? I will also posit that the title of a novel cannot be a spoiler either. Nor can something listed in the table of contents. The point is, I am going to go into a little more plot details than normal, maybe these dispensations hold, maybe not, so, just to be safe, SPOILER ALERT.

Next the Neal Degrasse Tyson figure quickly figures out, oops, fragments of the moon will, in around 2 years, bombard earth and destroy all life.

The 1st 1/4 of the book follows the race to expand the ISS (now attached to Near-Earth asteroid Amalthea - wait a minute, Amalthea is Jupiter's 3rd moon???) to be the hub of a swarm of small modular spacecraft being launched ASAP by everyone who has launch capabilities. The candidates for survival in orbit are being selected and trained on Earth from all countries. Then, slightly ahead of schedule, the Hard Rain falls and Earth is trashed.

This part of the book begs for comparison to the gold standard "end of the world" sci-fi novel, "The Forge of God", by Greg Bear, 1987. There, the cause of the end of the Earth is known: it is being reduced to slag to be harvested for raw materials by Von Neumann machines dispatched by malevolent / indifferent advanced alien civilization. In "Seveneves" there is no discussion of why the moon blew up, other than limited speculation about aliens doing it, or god. In "The Forge of God", a tiny fraction of humanity survives due to the intervention of benevolent advanced alien civilizations. In "Seveneves", we engineer our own survival, which is I guess more uplifting.

The 2nd 1/4 of the book follows the survivors in orbit, where politics and equipment failure eventually wipe out all but 8 females. 1 of them is past menopause, hence "Seven Eves". With advanced genetic engineering they are able to keep their gene pool viable, and reintroduce the Y chromosome. But they somehow get into a discussion of to what extent they should try to correct / enhance what they each see as the weaknesses / strengths of humanity. They decide that each of them gets to determine the traits for which their offspring will be optimized.

The 2nd 1/2 of the book takes place 5000 years later. I found the jump rather jarring, it took me a while to get locked back into the narrative. There are now 3 billion members of the 7 human "races" living in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth. Most of the plot of this part of the book deals with political and other conflict between the 4 good guy races (blue) and the 3 not-so-good guy races (red) as they finally start to repopulate the earth.

I found the whole 7 races thing slightly ... repugnant, I guess? Like the race of the Malala figure Eve, who decided to remove competitiveness from her descendants, who are now health, child, or personal service personnel. It reminded me of the scene in the Star Wars prequel where the clone master explains to Obi-Wan how the clones have been bred to be great warriors but to be submissive and follow orders. Instead of killing the guy and calling for more Jedi to figure out how to restore the poor clones to full humanity, Obi-wan says "I'll take a million!"

Maybe in the far future, like in "Dinosaurs" by Walter Jon Williams, 1987, it will make sense for the human race to splinter into more specialized forms. But for the near future, we still have so much of a problem with racism that for the 7 Eves to go out of their way to create a new source of racism seemed off to me. It was to me a somewhat shocking lack of faith in the human race (general purpose model), which was not responsible for the Earth's destruction, for the 7 Eves to decide, in a very ad hoc manner, that they should start a eugenics program.

The book is of course a great read, Stephenson is one of our best modern sci fi authors. Lots of neat tech in both parts of the book. But, a little bit of a "yuck" factor to me for the engineered races. And, overall, I did enjoy "The Forge of God" more - I have reread it and its sequel at least once.

Stephenson did his thing with the title. His last book, it took me a few months to notice that the title was "Reamde", not "Readme". This one at least it was only a few days before I noticed the title was "Seveneves", not "Seveneyes".

Now, back to "Value and Capital", by Hicks, 1939. It's got 5 parts, I'm reading a part, then something else. My Unread shelf in my Kobo eBook reader has 22 books now, mostly sci fi and fantasy. Is it time to give up on economics? Or maybe just Twitter.