Monday, September 30, 2013

Musical Monday - Fuck You by Lily Allen

This song is dedicated to the members of the 113th Congress. More specifically, it is dedicated to the members the 113th Congress who are also members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and even more specifically to the members of the House who are "Tea Party" Republicans, who are getting set to be proximately responsible for shutting down large portions of the Federal government, including the part for which I happen to work.

Under our Constitutional system, the U.S. government is prohibited from spending money unless authorized by a law passed by Congress and signed by the President (as process one of my sadly departed colleagues frequently described as "Bicameralism and Presentment"). Agencies may only spend money after funds have been appropriated by law. Spending money without an appropriation would violate a law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act (31 U.S.C. § 1341) which says:

(a)(1) An officer or employee of the United States Government or of the District of Columbia government may not—
    (A) make or authorize an expenditure or obligation exceeding an amount available in an appropriation or fund for the expenditure or obligation;
    (B) involve either government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made unless authorized by law;

Note that it is not only the Federal government affected here - the District of Columbia government will also be shut down in the event there is a lapse in appropriations. Another fact that is important here is that the Federal fiscal year begins on October 1st, and runs until midnight on September 30th. This means that as I am writing this, it is the last day of fiscal year 2013 for the Federal government.

To fund the government, Congress must pass spending bills on an annual basis, setting the government's spending priorities for the next year. This is the most important function of Congress. In some years it is the only thing of any importance that Congress does. It is, in effect, their one real responsibility. Traditionally, Congress would pass thirteen bills, funding the government in large chunks, and every year thirteen bills are proposed. In recent years, Congress has not normally actually passed thirteen bills. Instead, Congress has dithered and bickered, and usually passed some sort of omnibus bill a couple of months late. Last year, Congress couldn't even do that, and instead passed a bill that told agencies to just do whatever they had done the year before.

But if the appropriations bills are late every year, you may wonder why the government doesn't shut down every year. The reason is that Congress usually passes short term stop gap legislation that tells the government to keep spending money to stay open for a couple of days, a couple of weeks, or a couple of months. These laws are called Continuing Resolutions, are are more or less intended to just keep the government operating until the real appropriations laws can be passed. The difference between previous years and right now is that Congress has been unable to even agree on a Continuing Resolution, and as a result, Federal agencies will have to shut down because they cannot spend money without a funding bill.

The disagreement is over funding the Affordable Care Act, colloquially called "Obamacare", which is due to go into effect tomorrow on October 1st. (As a side note, anyone who, prior to this point, has talked about the problems caused by the ACA is lying. The ACA isn't in effect until tomorrow, so it can't have caused any problems yet). The Republicans in the House, having voted several dozen times to repeal the law, and having failed to get such repeals past the Senate and even to the White House (which would veto them anyway), have decided to throw a hissy fit and try to "defund" the ACA by including language in the Continuing Resolution that would do just that. One problem with this idea is that it is kind of silly - the ACA will remain law even if it is "defunded", and all of the requirements it imposes upon citizens will still be in place. The only thing that defunding the ACA will do is prevent the government from meeting its obligations under the law. As an example, a "defunded" ACA would be unable to provide subsidies to low income individual to purchase coverage under the Health Care Exchanges that are already funded and which will go into action when the ACA takes effect (i.e. tomorrow). Those low income individuals, however, will still be required to purchase coverage. In short, "defunding" the ACA will mostly just make life harder for ordinary Americans by keeping all of the burdens of the ACA, without any of the offsetting benefits that would make the law beneficial.

Another problem with the idea is that it is dubious whether the President could even agree with the proposition that the ACA could be "defunded". The ACA is law. The President is required by the Constitution to faithfully execute the duly enacted laws of the United States. Even if the ACA were to be "defunded", it would still be law, and the executive branch would still be obligated to enforce it. The executive branch would just be prevented from using funds to operate it. But you, good citizen, would still be expected to abide by the law, because it wouldn't be repealed, just defunded. Not only that, much of the ACA simply cannot be defunded this way - the legislation funding its implementation already passed, and nothing that is put into this Continuing Resolution will change that. The whole process is just grandstanding on the part of a select group of House Republicans who can't seem to grasp the fact that their ideas have lost decisively before the electorate. After all, if the American public wanted to repeal the ACA, they could have elected Mitt Romney, who promised to do exactly that. But they didn't. They voted for Obama and returned a Democratic Senate to power. And a majority of voters were in favor of a Democratic House - the Republican party only controls the House due to the way Congressional districts are determined. When polled on the provisions of the ACA, the American populace is overwhelmingly in favor of it. The Republican members of the House are, in effect, running uphill to try to do something that is incredibly unpopular.

But the real point here is that a Continuing Resolution is a terrible place to try and wedge this sort of provision. Neither the Senate or the White House are going to accept a Continuing Resolution with this sort of provision in it, and the House Republicans know it. Their proposals have no chance of being enacted. Instead, the government will shut down and the national economy will be sabotaged. Ironically, one of the talking points that the Republican Party has pushed for repealing the ACA is that it will cause economic disaster if it ever comes into effect. I don't happen to agree with them - there is simply too much countervailing evidence that the ACA will be neutral or somewhat beneficial for the economy - but that has been their public stance up until now. On the other hand, one thing we do know will cause economic malaise is a government shut down. How do we know this? Because every time that the government has shut down, an economic downturn has followed. The certainty of an economic downturn is so apparent that even the threat of a shut down, such as the one that took place in 2011, is enough to cause an economic contraction. In short, to prevent what they say are economic troubles that they claim may result from the implementation of the ACA, the House Republicans are willing to cause an event that they know will cause economic troubles. And they will do so pointlessly, knowing they have no chance at getting what they want.

The upshot of all this is that unless Congress can agree on a Continuing Resolution by midnight tonight, the Federal government will partially shut down. The only portions that will continue to operate are those that preserve human safety, such as air traffic controllers, and those that are funded by trust fund and other non-annual funds, such as Social Security. But those air traffic controllers who are expected to show up to work? They won't be paid until the shut down is over. And Social Security won't be doing much other than cutting benefit checks. Most government websites will more or less go dark during a shut down, so if you wanted to go to the Social Security Administration's website to find out how to apply for benefits, you'll be out of luck. And even if you do get an application in, the people who would process your claim won't be working, since they, like all other "nonessential" government personnel, will be sent home without pay until the shut down is over. Between seven hundred thousand and one million Federal employees will be furloughed and sent home without pay for the duration of the shut down. Another couple hundred thousand "essential" employees will be expected to come to work without pay. Government contractors will not get paid. Most non-emergency services will be stopped. The national parks will close. Some services will remain open for a few days or a few weeks, but their money will run out - school lunch programs, food stamps, the State department are all in this category. And all because Congress is incompetent at their one critical role.

And lest you think that this will help the budget get balanced - it won't. Shutting down the government and then restarting it later costs a lot of money. Contracts that have lapsed have to be reinstated. Planning that was done for the upcoming fiscal year has to be redone. Termination or cancellation fees for government contracts that the government didn't honor during the lapse will have to be paid. The last time the government was shut down in 1996, the government incurred hundreds of millions of additional costs as a result - the Congressional Budget Office estimated the total cost to be about one point four billion dollars. In effect, not only is this conflict going to cause problems for the U.S. economy, it is going to cause the government to spend more money than it would have otherwise to do it. And this doesn't even get to the human cost that will be imposed if the shut down lasts for any appreciable length of time. In the past, furloughed government employees have been paid retroactively once the shut down was over, but there is no guarantee that this will happen again. And even if employees are paid retroactively, they won't be paid during the shut down. If the shut down lasts until Friday the 11th of October, hundreds of thousands of Federal employees will not be paid. These are people with children, mortgages, and other financial obligations that they will be unable to pay, but who stand ready and willing to work and are being prevented from doing so by a government that refuses to honor its financial obligations because an intransigent minority in the House of Representatives - the so-called Tea Party Republican Caucus - that won't gets its way no matter how this ends, is throwing a temper tantrum.

So, to this Congress, and especially to the "Tea Party" Republicans, I say fuck you.

Previous Musical Monday: Get the Party Started by Shirley Bassey
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin

Lily Allen     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, September 27, 2013

Follow Friday - 125 Is the Sum of the Squares of 10 and 5, and the Sum of the Squares of 11 and 2

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Words and Tea Bottles and Musings of a Blogger.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Reading Nook Tour: Give us a tour of your favorite reading spots.

I don't really have a favorite reading spot. Instead, I have a couple of spots that just happen to be where I do most of my reading, although I don't particularly like any of them over the others, or even particularly like any of them much.

My most typical reading spot is riding the bus, specifically the Loudoun County commuter bus which I ride every day to and from work. I don't have a picture of the interior of the buses, but here is a picture of one of the buses. Ideally I would get an hour to an hour and a half of good reading on each round trip, but like so many other things in life, I rarely achieve the ideal. And although this is probably the spot where I read the most, it is not my favorite reading spot. Sitting on the bus, crammed next to another commuter for an hour each way either going to my moderately stressful job or home after a long and usually exasperating day simply isn't a place that I would call my "favorite".

Another place that I do a lot of reading is sitting at my desk, which happens to be where I am sitting while I write this. It is not a great reading spot because there are a lot of distractions nearby - my computer is the most obvious. I also keep my work phone here, and on those occasions that I am working from home, my work laptop as well. I can also see the television from this spot, and it is right next to a window that overlooks a golf course, which makes for more comedy viewing than one might expect. On the other hand, it is kind of nice to read while sitting here, because when I need to write something down about the book, I am right in front of the computer and able to put my thoughts down immediately. Because it is next to the window, the spot also gets lots of natural light during the day, which is nice for reading. I'm not sure if those make up for the fact that this location is rife with tempting distractions, but they are at least something akin to offsetting benefits.

The once place that I probably should do most of my reading is on the couch in the living room (which happens to be on the other side of my desk, in the picture you can see the back of my computer monitor sitting behind the couch). Granted, it is still pointed directly at the television, but it doesn't have any of the other distractions that come with actually sitting at my desk. This spot also gets a lot of light, which is good for reading during the day. Most importantly, it is probably the most comfortable spot in the house, which, when you get right down to it, is something of a mixed blessing. Sure it is nice to read while sitting comfortably, but if you get too comfortable, it is very tempting to take a nap as well. Paradoxically, even though this is probably the best spot for me to read, it is the location that I use the least for reading. This means that I do the most reading in the place that I like the least, and do the least reading in the place that I like the most. I'm not sure what this says about me, but it is probably not good.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Gilgamesh Ruled Over Uruk for 126 years

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review - George's Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl

Short review: George's grandmother is a mean old biddy, and George makes her some medicine to take care of that problem.

Mixing chemicals
Create magic growth potion
And then shrink Grandma

Full review: George, the central character of George's Marvelous Medicine, is unusual for a Roald Dahl protagonist. He's not an orphan, nor is he impoverished. His parents even seem to be fairly normal, caring people. He only really has one problem - his grandmother is not a particularly nice person. In fact, we are told, she is mean and evil, although the evil she displays in the book amounts mostly to bossing George around.

In response, George decides to replace his grandmother's normal medicine with his "marvelous" concoction. He wanders about the house when his parents are away pouring everything he can lay his hands on, from toothpaste and shampoo to animal pills, hot peppers, and motor oil, into a single pot, which he cooks up with a helping of brown paint to make the brew look like his grandmother's usual brown medicine. (Oddly, the one category of things he doesn't add to his recipe are the pharmaceuticals intended for humans in the medicine chest, on the grounds that that would be dangerous). He then feeds the result to his grandmother.

As this is a Dahl book, the mess doesn't kill her immediately, but rather makes her grow ridiculously tall, and farm animals grow to champion size, which pleases George's farmer father immensely. George can't remember the recipe, so once they have used it making animals on the farm huge, he has to try to make more. After a couple experiments, George's gigantic grandmother grabs a batch and shrinks to nothingness. And the story ends.

Of all the Dahl stories, this is one of the weakest. George's animosity for his grandmother seems out of proportion to her actions. Although she is bossy, obnoxious, cranky, and even downright mean, shrinking her to nonexistence seems to be a bit over-the-top as a response. The concoction itself seems to be little more than poison, and no explanation is given why this would work, or why George would think feeding his grandmother antifreeze laced medicine would do anything other than kill her.

While most Dahl books involve outrageous stuff, the trouble with this book is that everything seems entirely out of proportion to the provocation, Unlike The Witches, where the witches want to turn all the children in England into mice, or the evil giants in The BFG, where the man-eating giants run off to eat a couple dozen people every night, the nasty nature of George's grandmother seems tame. Also in most of Dahl's books, the silly plans to counter the villains are usually backed up by some sort of explanation, even one as simple as the bag of magic the kicks off the action in James and the Giant Peach. In George's Marvelous Medicine, George simply decides to wander around the house one day mixing all the household chemicals he can get his hands on to feed to his grandmother.

The story has moments such as the silly reactions that some of the animals have to George's later efforts to recreate the medicine. These keep the book from dropping below merely average, but the weakness of the story prevents the book from rising above that mark.

Roald Dahl     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review - The Witches by Roald Dahl

Short review: A young boy loses his parents and gets permanently turned into a mouse, but he manages to get rid of all the witches in the world. That's a victory in Roald Dahl's world.

Grandma's from Norway
She knows all about witches
And then you're a mouse

Full review: For a story aimed at children, The Witches is decidedly dark. A young boy living in England is orphaned, and goes to Norway to live with his Grandmother, who happens to be an expert on witches. In the story, witches are real, and their sole purpose in life is to kill young children. One can determine who is a witch if one knows what to looks for, but the witches are able to cover them up in various ways - claws on their hands are hidden by gloves, bald heads hidden by wigs, and so on.

Grandma tells her charge all about witches, including the frightening ways they killed some children she knew. She tells him about the worldwide witch organization and how it is run by the grand high witch, a vile person that no one has ever been able to track down. She also says that witches can smell children, and that he should rarely bathe, which I'm sure is advice many young readers would like to hear. After some legal problems concerning his parents' will, the two move back to England, a place that is supposed to have the worst witches.

While on vacation, our hero stumbles into the annual meeting of England's witches, and none other than the grand high witch. While in hiding (having not taken a bath for several days), he overhears the witches' plan to eliminate all the children in England by turning them into mice, whereupon their teachers and parents will inevitably kill them.

He witnesses them turning a boy named Bruno Jenkins into a mouse, and is discovered and turned into a mouse himself. After many adventures, he and his grandmother turn the tables on the witches, turning them into mice to be killed by the hotel staff. He and his grandmother than plan to find the grand high witches' castle and kill the rest of the witches in the world, making for a happy ending.

Sort of. As they don't have a counter spell, he remains a mouse, although that only seems to inconvenience him a little. Bruno is not so fortunate, as the two speculate that his parents probably had him drowned. As a mouse, his lifespan is shortened to nine years or so too. So, while the good guys emerge victorious, they pay a significant cost. The Witches is a scary, bittersweet story, and nothing less than I would expect from Dahl.

Roald Dahl     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 23, 2013

Musical Monday - Get the Party Started by Shirley Bassey

The internet can be a magical place. Sometimes you are wandering about and you run across something that you weren't looking for and didn't expect and it turns out to be brilliant and wonderful. When I was wandering the internet recently, I came across Shirley Bassey's cover of Pink's song Get the Party Started. I didn't know what to expect, or even what it was when the video first started, but within a short time I was wondering why I had never seen this before.

Bassey is best known as the singer of several Bond theme songs, and with this arrangement and Bassey's voice, Pink's mediocre pop tune was transformed into something magnificent. I'm not sure what the Bond movie would be about, but in Bassey's hands this song could be used as a theme song for a 007 adventure. This video could be used as the opening credits for a Bond movie. Alternatively, this version of the song could be used as the anthem of a Disney animated villainess.

Either way, what this video shows is the transformational ability of timeless talent. A bland and somewhat forgettable pop song about drinking and dancing can be completely changed when it is handed over to someone with a brilliant vision and the skill to execute it. And Bassey gives the song atmosphere, mystery, and a little bit of menace that was completely lacking from the original. Pink's version made me think of sweaty nightclubs and cheap beer. Bassey's version makes me thing of tuxedos, caviar, vodka martinis, and insanely complex death traps. I never much liked the song when Pink sang it. I love the song when Bassey sings it.

Previous Musical Monday: Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin
Subsequent Musical Monday: Fuck You by Lily Allen

Shirley Bassey     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, September 20, 2013

Follow Friday - 124 Is an Untouchable Number

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Fantasy Is More Fun and Simply Sensational Book Fanatics.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What were some of your favorite picture books as a kid? If you have kids, what are your favorites to read to them?

This question is somewhat interesting mostly because it made me think about the theoretical difference between what I remember as my favorite books as a child, and what were likely my favorite books as a child, which I strongly suspect were different from the books that I recall. To be perfectly honest, I am sure that I had favorite books as a child, but having watched my own children grow up and not remember the things they absolutely adored four or five years ago, I am also sure that I am extraordinarily unlikely to actually list those books here. But what I can do is list the books that I have remembered most fondly since I have grown up. I was, like most children in the United States, exposed to the books of Dr. Seuss, the books of Maurice Sendak, the books featuring the Berenstain Bears, and so on. I also had slightly more obscure books like Wish Again Big Bear, Mog the Forgetful Cat, Earnest in the Wild West, and My Mama Says There Aren't Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins, or Things. But even though I liked all of those books, none of them were my favorite books.

The closest I can come to identifying a book that was a favorite of mine when I was a child, it would have been one of Gene Zion's books about the canine adventures of Harry the dog. Of the series, my favorite was probably Harry the Dirty Dog, a story in which Harry runs away from his bath and wanders through the town where he lives and spends the day playing in all kinds of places getting progressively dirtier until he is transformed from a white dog with black spots to a black dog with white spots. This causes some grief until Harry dives into an available bath and everyone recognizes him once again. The other books contain similar adventures, usually involving Harry disliking something new, like the singing of a lady living next door, or a new sweater covered with roses, which he responds to with some doggy rejection that causes him even more trouble than the original source of irritation, leading to a series of comic events before the problem is resolved at the end.

The interesting thing about the Harry books is that while Harry is the central character of the series, he is very much a dog and isn't really anthropomorphized in any way. He doesn't speak. His reactions to those around him are those of a dog. Everyone around him treats him like a dog. Unlike many other series featuring animals, he never adopts human-like characteristics or ways of thinking. And yet the books are enjoyable enough to hold the attention of the four or five year old me. I loved the Harry books so much, that when my parents got us a dog and asked me what to name him, I immediately picked the name "Harry". It didn't matter that our Harry was a black cockapoo and looked nothing like Harry from the books, he was my dog, and he was going to be named after my then favorite book character.

As much as I loved the Harry books, they aren't the ones that I remember most fondly looking back as an adult.One group of books that I loved as a child and which I still love reading are those written and illustrated by Richard Scarry, which are actually full of anthropomorphized animals going about their daily business just like humans would in their place. I loved Scarry's books because they were full of interesting stuff. Each page was covered with detailed pictures that in the hands of many other illustrators would have been busy and cluttered. Scarry somehow made an illustration of more than a dozen cars and trucks on a single page complete with little notes describing each vehicle and many of the occupants seem natural.

Each page of a Richard Scarry book was an little mini-story by itself. I remember hunting to see where Goldbug was hiding on a page, or trying to figure out what Lowly Worm was up to, or just going through and making sure that I read every single label on a page. Scarry's world was one of fun-filled adventure, where going on a family picnic could include driving over a snow covered mountain, and where going to work was something people looked forward to. It was also a benign place, where the worst mischief anyone got up to was a dingo running over some parking meters in his sports car, and a fox riding a bicycle would tirelessly chase him down over the course of an entire book. But what I really loved about Scarry's books is that they were full of information. Yes, it was just labeling fairly mundane things, but for a six or seven year old, these were books that showed you what things were called, and in many cases, showed you pictures of things you have never seen before in a context that showed you their uses. For me, this was a window into new worlds. worlds full of pigs and dogs and worms working as cobblers and policemen, but also worlds where everything was labeled and explained.

When I was just a little bit older, in that reading netherworld a child goes through when they are moving on to "grown-up" books, but still crack open a picture book once in a while, I fell in love with the Charlie Brown's Super Book of Question and Answers, a book that I think my mother got for me to get me to stop asking questions about everything.I quickly moved on to the similarly named sequels, loading my brain with piles of modestly useful information and probably contributing to the obnoxious know-it-all personality I cultivated as a nine or ten year old. Like the Richard Scarry books, what drew me to these books were the reams of facts and explanations that were loaded into them, and which I was then able to unload into my brain. The fact that this information was provided by Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt, and Snoopy was a bonus.

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review - Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology by Joseph J. Bailey

Short review: A humorous book giving farcical tips on how to be a better gnomish paratechnologist and avoid blowing yourself up. Or blow yourself up with style.

An essential guide
To paratechnology
A bit silly too

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology is an incredibly silly book. This isn't a pejorative statement. Featuring discussions about how not to blow yourself up while experimenting, how to select what incredibly esoteric branch of inquiry to follow, including the development of hovering tool boxes, lintless shirts, anti-plaque dental force fields, and polymorphic, polychromatic, self-applying tattoos, as well as tips on proper beard and mustache care, Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology is clearly meant to be a completely, gloriously, unreservedly silly book. And this book hits directly on the funny bone, resulting in an always absurd and frequently hilarious work.

The book is very similar in subject matter, tone, and format to Bailey's other book Mulogo's Treatise on Wizardry, consisting of a series of short, pithy pieces of advice for gnomish paratechnologists, who might best be described as diminutive mad scientists with access to magic, on topics ranging from "Making the Perfect Laboratory" to "Shiny Is Better" to the "Proper Disposition of Minions". Each mini-chapter is one or two pages long and written in a staccato style with short, punchy sentences laying out snippets of somewhat misguided advice, complete with frequent footnotes that serve to make the twisted advice even more twisted, and funnier.

Everygnome's Guide to Paratechnology is somewhat longer than Mulogo's Guide to Wizardry, and that is somewhat unfortunate because that means that the jokes wear thin before the end of the volume. There are only so many ways one can warn the reader against lab mishaps and give advice concerning odd beard grooming habits and devices before what were once funny lines become just a little repetitive. The book also suffers somewhat because the fictional author "Spreesprocket Goldulley" is not nearly as well drawn as the cowardly and somewhat duplicitous wizard Mulogo. Further, there is no equivalent to the character of Mulogo's assistant Ludaceous, whose somewhat contentious relationship with the egotistical Mulogo drove a large chunk of the humor found in the footnotes of the book. Without these two personalities to focus on, the book feels directionless at times.

Even so, this is a delightfully absurd book filled with piles of hilariously insane suggestions and comically obsessive interest in bizarre and probably completely impractical inventions. The final section of the book turns slightly away from this humorous tone and provides a glossary that outlines what appears to be an interesting fantasy setting, suitable for use as the backdrop for some interesting fantasy novels or for use in a role-playing campaign, making the book more interesting than it would have been if it were just a collection of farcical advice.

The final product is a book that aims to be funny that is, in fact, consistently funny that also packages some interesting world-building on the side. Excepting the minor caveat that the book runs just a little bit longer than the jokes stay fresh, this is a delightfully silly and enjoyable look into the comical side of a fantasy world.

Joseph J. Bailey     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 16, 2013

Musical Monday - Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin

During my teenage years, Led Zeppelin was nerd armor. No matter how geeky you were, you knew that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were probably just as big a pair of geeks as you were, because their music was laced with Tolkien references. While you were reading your piles of fantasy books, there was no better music to put on than Led Zeppelin, because they were right there next to you, writing and singing songs about Gollum, ringwraiths, hobbits, and faerie women.

This song, for example, is very (very, very) loosely influenced by the ideas contained in a 1915 poem by Tolkien titled Over Old Hills and Far Away, about an encounter the narrator had with some elves dancing in the moonlight, with just a little hint of influence from The Hobbit thrown in for good measure. When I say "loosely influenced" I most emphatically mean loosely. There aren't any lyrics that map from the poem or the book to the song, and the themes are really only tangentially related. But the song captures the tone and atmosphere of Tolkien so very well that none of that matters. The song sounds like a Tolkien story put into musical form, and that's what makes it so very good.

Subsequent Musical Monday: Get the Party Started by Shirley Bassey

Led Zeppelin     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, September 13, 2013

Follow Friday - Mitch Kapor Became a Millionaire by Designing Lotus 1-2-3

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. This week, for unknown reasons, Parajunkee has had to bow out of hosting, so there is only one featured blogger. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Fiction in Fiction in Fiction.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: It is up to you to do a Kickstarter campaign for your favorite book!!! Who are you casting for the main characters?

Most of my favorite books have been made into movies already: Dune has been made into both a tediously long movie and a much better pair of miniseries. Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings into a trilogy of quite good movies, and is currently beating The Hobbit to death in film form. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is currently dominating HBO's lineup with an excellent television series.

But some of my favorite books that has never been filmed (and probably never will be) are the books in Gene Wolfe's four volume series The Book of the New Sun consisting of The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch. For the most part, the story is the story of a single man, the torturer Severian, and as a result he is the only character who is in the entire tale. As a result the key casting choice is who should play Severian, and my pick for that role is Eric Schweig, who I believe would be perfect in the role. Because of the setting of the story and because of the role he plays, Severian must be a physically impressive man, and Schweig fits the bill perfectly. In my mind, when I read the Book of the New Sun (and the following story The Urth of the New Sun), I see Schweig in the part. He is the perfect actor for the role, and would be the foundation that you could build a brilliant cast around.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Jeanne Calment Was 122 Years Old When She Died
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: 124 Is an Untouchable Number

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review - Doctor Who in Time and Space by Gillian I. Leitch (editor)

Essays included:
Event TV: Fan Consumption of Televised Doctor Who in Britain (1963-Present) by Andrew O'Day
Social Spaces: British Fandom to the Present by Andrew O'Day
Don't Call It a Comeback by Aaron Gulyas
Whose Doctor? by J.M. Frey
In and Out of Time: Memory and Chronology by Kieran Tranter
Effecting the Cause: Time Travel Narratives by Paul Booth
Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations, and Marketing in the New Doctor Who by Racheline Maltese
Nostalgia for Empire: 1963-1974 by Maura Grady and Cassie Hemstrom
A Needle Through the Heart: Violence and Tragedy as a Narrative Device by Lindsay Coleman
Everything Dies: The Message of Mortality in the Eccleston and Tennant Years by Kristine Larsen
"Ready to Outsit Eternity": Human Responses to the Apocalypse by Andrew Crome
A Country Made from Metal? The "Britishness" of Human-Machine Marriage in Series 31 by Kate Flynn
"Whatever You Do, Don't Blink!" Gothic Horror and the Weeping Angels Trilogy by David Whitt
Doctor Who's Women and His Little Blue Box: Time Travel as a Heroic Journey of Self-Discovery for Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble by Antoinette F. Winstead
Spoiled for Another Life: Sarah Jane Smith's Adventures with and Without Doctor Who by Sherry Ginn
Chasing Amy: The Evolution of the Doctor's Female Companion in the New Who by Lynnette Porter

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Doctor Who in Time and Space is a collection of essays about the Doctor Who television series covering topics that range from the inception of the series to the present. The book focuses on Doctor Who fans, media perceptions, characters, thematic elements, and the history of the show. The essays in the volume are more than mere nostalgia pieces, but represent a serious attempt to put the phenomenon of the longest running science fiction show in television history into context and evaluate it and its adoring cadre of fans.

After an introduction by editor Gillian I. Leitch, the first essay is an examination of the evolution of Doctor Who fandom by Andrew O'Day titled Event TV: Fan Consumption of Televised Doctor Who in Britain (1963-Present), providing an assessment of how lovers of the show watched it over the years. describing the Doctor Who show as "event television" that people would make sure to watch, O'Day talks about how ardent fans of the series would go to great lengths to make sure they were able to view the show in the days before home video recorders, how fans would gather at conventions to view beloved episodes of the show that were otherwise inaccessible, how the development of the VCR changed not only how many times fans could watch a show, but also changed how they watched it to begin with, and eventually discussing the modern development of public viewings where fans gather to watch the show at pubs. The essay is an excellent start to the book, because it shows quite clearly how the fans' relationship with the show changed over the years.

Before I go any further I must make a confession that will, no doubt, damn me in the eyes of many die-hard Doctor Who fans: I have never seen an episode of the show that featured Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. Though I have seen a few episodes featuring William Hartnell, the earliest Doctor Who series I can say that I have watched a substantial portion of is that featuring John Pertwee, and my first exposure to Doctor Who involved episodes in which Tom Baker was playing the role. Prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Troughton other than him being the guy who preceded Pertwee in the role, and had no idea how private and reclusive he was when alive.

The second essay in the book is Social Spaces: British Fandom to the Present also by Andrew O'Day, focusing on how Doctor Who fans have interacted with one another through the history of the show rather than how they have interacted with the show itself. The essay details how technological changes mostly resulted in the replacement of conventions and clubs with internet forums and the replacement of fanzines with webzines as the primary mediums of fan interchange. But O'Day also points out how these new methods of communication also served to enhance the older forms, revitalizing them even as they were being relegated to secondary status. This essay is less engaging than O'Day's first entry in the book, mostly because the bulk of it is merely recounting what conventions, fanzines, and websites there have been and who created them, but there is a brief discussion concerning the transformation of Doctor Who fandom from a mostly white straight male-dominated affair to one in which women, minorities, and gay people are now well-represented among its ranks. This element is only briefly touched upon, which is unfortunate, as it is the most interesting segment of the piece.

Also dealing with the relationship between fandom and Doctor Who, Aaron Gulyas' essay Don't Call It a Comeback focuses on the wilderness years between the end of "classic" Doctor Who in 1990 and the return of the show to television in 2005, an unsettled period for Whovians punctuated only by the Paul McGann movie in 1996. During this time the only source of new Doctor Who related material was a collection of non-television media such as novels, comics, and audio productions, leaving fans to try to decide what "counted" as real Doctor Who and what did not. This led to some rather furious infighting as different fans accepted certain things as "canon" while others vociferously rejected them and accepted others. As Gulyas points out, this was exacerbated by the Paul McGann movie introducing him as the 8th Doctor, a movie that tried to mollify old fans with several nods to the "classic" show, but managed to enrage many by not being enough like the old show to suit their tastes. As happens with so many fictional properties in the genre world, fans desperately wanted new material, but they also wanted it to be exactly like what had gone before. The dominant message that came through in this essay was that the overwhelming sense of fan entitlement, though an indicator of the deep love fans had and have for the series, was probably the biggest obstacle to getting the show back on the air, and it was only with deft handling, and leaving a lot of the details vague, that the writers of the new series were able to accomplish this feat.

J.M. Frey's essay is titled Whose Doctor? which highlights the many connections between Doctor Who and Canada, and then gripes that the Doctor has never had an adventure set there. The most obvious connection is Sydney Newman, the Canadian head of drama for BBC who originally brought Doctor Who to the screen. In addition, the television show is partially funded by Canadian tax dollars, through contributions made by CBC to the BBC for that purpose. But aside from a few oblique references here and there, Canada is entirely absent from the Doctor's universe. Frey also tries to argue that the character of the Doctor is fundamentally Canadian in nature, mostly by arguing that virtually every good characteristic that could be attributed to a people, such as a willingness to stick up for the little guy and respect for indigenous peoples, should be attributed to Canadians, while all bad attributes, such as a yearning for empire and a love of colonialism, are absent from Canadians. While I like Canada and Canadians as much as the next resident of the United States, I'm not sure that I'm convinced that the population is so unwaveringly admirable. This portion of the essay, attempting to claim all of the virtuous traits of the Doctor as being essentially Canadian at their root, is the weakest portion of the essay, and serves to detract to a certain extent from the true injustice of the complete absence of Doctor Who stories set in the country.

Kieran Tranter's essay Memory and Time attempts to explain the enduring popularity of Doctor Who by referencing the show's relationship to time. This makes sense, given that the show is about a time traveler, although most of the episodes don't have very much in the way of time travel within their narrative. The critical element of Doctor Who, Tranter writes, is that it is both timefull and timeless: The Doctor is a character out of time, who flits from era to era, crossing paths with himself and others, but he is also a creature of time, filled with memories of his own past and aging as the years go by. Tranter weaves together instances throughout the run of the show in which the time travel nature comes to the fore, and in which the passing of the years has an impact upon the Doctor and those around him. But Trantor also notes how the Doctor seems to be outside of time, with a special dispensation to alter it to suit his aims or merely his whims even though the show writers have tried to constrain him several times, with limited success. As the one long-running science fiction franchise that has time travel firmly at the center of its being, it is probably inevitable that this would be the attribute that is acknowledged as the source of the longevity of its popularity, and Trantor does a good job of explaining just why the Doctor's oddly paradoxical relationship to time, has made the show so successful.

Also dealing with the use of time travel in the Doctor Who series, Paul Booth's essay Effecting the Cause addresses some of the inherent contradictions posed by setting a narrative within the "wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff". Booth is primarily focused on how time travel and all of the odd paradoxes that come with it are dealt with in the show, or, in many cases, not dealt with at all. Booth focuses primarily on the "new Who", mostly because "classic Who" for the most part ignored the various paradoxes, time loops, and other issues that the ability to travel through time can present. Much of the essay relates to the relationship between the Doctor and River Song, as they travel more or less in opposite directions in time, and the episodes The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, which presented a looping narrative in which the Pandorica serves as both the cause of the plot, and the effect that is caused by it. Booth touches on a number of other issues - for example even though the Doctor speaks of eliminating the other Time Lords in the past - because it happened in his past - the reality of the narrative is that he eliminated them throughout time, resulting in a universe in which the effects of the existence of the Time Lords can still be seen and felt, but in which the Time Lords were never present to begin with.

Moving away from the use of time as a narrative device, Racheline Maltese considers the use of the media as another form of narrative device in her essay Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of the Media. Maltese considers how the writers of Doctor Who have used insertions of the media into their stories as a method of injecting verisimilitude into the fantastical. The essay focuses primarily on the "New Who",  with only a scant nod to the "classic" version of the show, but it also presents commentary concerning the media portrayal in the Doctor Who spin off shows Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures, contrasting the way the media is presented in each show, and evaluating what that means in terms of the fictional tone that results. The most obvious contrast is between The Sarah Jane Adventures on the one hand, and Torchwood on the other, with the darker, conspiracy laden tone of Torchwood leading to a portrayal of the media as a means of spreading disinformation, whereas in The Sarah Jane Adventures, with a journalist as a central character, the media is presented as a means of disseminating truth. Doctor Who itself, on the other hand, sits in a middle ground, showing how the media can be used to verify factual accuracy, but also showing how the media can be manipulated for good, as it is in The Christmas Invasion, or for ill, as it is in The Long Game. But, Maltese argues, through all of this, the portrayal of the media is seen as an element that grounds the series for the viewer, giving them reassurance that no matter how fantastical the events become, if there is a reporter present, there is an air of veritas about the plot.

Doctor Who was originally created at a time when Britain was coming to grips with the dissolution of its empire and the loss of its position as one of the primary world powers. It should come as no surprise that during its early years the show reflected the resulting nostalgic national yearning, an issue that makes up the subject of the essay Nostalgia for Empire, 1963-1974 by Maura Grady and Cassie Hemstrom. Focusing on the episodes created during the tenures of the first three Doctors, Grady and Hemstrom examine how the series served to reassure British audiences that their English society was the pinnacle of civilization, emphasizing that their comfortable and familiar culture was superior to the alternatives. And at the same time, the evolving and conflicted attitudes towards indigenous peoples resulted in a show that ran from markedly chauvinistic to at least giving the appearance of concern for the colonized natives. Early in the show, even when the Doctor counseled caution when interfering with the practices of non-English cultures, such as in The Aztecs, such caution was couched in a way that although it was considered inappropriate to change the ways of the natives, everyone considered it to be obvious that they would be better off if the natives chose to adopt English mores. By the end of the period examined, the attitudes of the series had morphed to sympathy for, and at least mouthed respect towards the cultures of the natives, as reflected in episodes such as The Mutants. By placing the early Doctor Who years in cultural context, Grady and Hemstrom put the Doctor himself into context showing how the character evolved as England's relationship with its former possessions evolved and yet retained his central message that being British was special and valuable.

Lindsay Coleman's essay A Needle Through the Heart sets about examining how Doctor Who has used horror as a narrative device throughout its run. For its entire existence, Doctor Who has been something of a self-contradiction, being ostensibly a show aimed t children, but also a show that seems, through the years, to have scared children into hiding behind the couch. And despite the many exotic terrors that have appeared on the show, Coleman points out that the most terrifying, and the ones that drew the most criticism were those firmly rooted in the mundane world such as a child's doll, a plastic couch, and ultimately, the police in Terror of the Autons. In the classic version of the series, the horror seems to have ramped up to hit its high point during Tom Baker's first year, possibly peaking in Revelation of the Daleks with Tasambeker  stabbing Jobel in the heart with a needle, and then slid backwards until the commencement of the new series. But the horror included in the series was required for the sort of moral balancing that the show aspired to put on display. Without it, there would have been no nobility in the Doctor's opposition, and that is what drove the show. Lacking the horror, the show devolved into comedy, then farce, then self-parody. As Coleman ably demonstrates in her essay, without horror, Doctor Who is simply not itself.

Kristine Larsen's essay Everything Dies focuses on the message of mortality during the Eccleston and Tennant years of the series. As Larsen points out, the series immediately began focusing on the theme of mortality with the episode The End of the World focusing on, naturally enough, the death of the Earth, and ultimately, the death of the last living human. As noted by a character in the very first new episode, death follows the Doctor like an old friend, giving the entire show a theme that has served to define the series. Even when a character manages to evade death, such as Jack Harkness who is returned from the dead by an overzealous superpowered Rose Tyler, there are consequences for defying one's mortality. In Doctor Who everything dies is a repeated mantra, and even the Doctor himself is subject to this maxim, dying on occasion and returning in a transformed state. Larsen makes a convincing case that the central theme of Doctor Who is not time travel, or aliens, or space, but rather coming to grips with the fact that everything comes to an end. And also that it is this that makes the show so compelling to viewers.

Ready to Outsit Eternity, subtitled "Human Responses to the Apocalypse", by Andrew Crome addresses how the series has dealt with the various doomsday scenarios that crop up so often in its episodes. After discussing how the series has incorporated apocalyptic themes in various ways, Crome gets to the meat of his essay and discusses how the Doctor features in averting, reversing, and even creating the various apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios that play out during the show, including how the Doctor has taken on an active role in most cases, a merely advisory role in others, and an almost messianic role in still others. Overall, the essay is quite good, and quite insightful, but since the topic seems to almost boil down to "how do people react when the Doctor saves the world" the scope is almost too large to do justice to in a single piece.

The most focused essay in the volume is Kate Flynn's A Country Made from Metal, which focuses exclusively on the relationship between Amy Pond and Rory in series 31 of the show, and limits its attention to the theme of the literal and figurative mechanization of the two. The essay is at its strongest when it focuses on Rory, probably because Rory is the less popular and more interesting of the romantic pair. Because the Doctor has to be presented as the dominant leader, Rory has to be more or less emasculated by the writers so as to not be a threat to the Doctor's position. But because they wanted him to be a love interest for Amy, he couldn't be completely neutered. Consequently the show worked to play down his masculine identity for much of the series - placing him in the traditionally female profession of nurse, giving him a ponytail, having Amy "choose" the Doctor over him as a partner, and so on. It is only after the human Rory dies and comes back as a plastic construct built from Amy's memories that he is able to assert himself, and even then, he must be separated from the Doctor to do so by spending a couple thousand years guarding Amy's prison while the Doctor takes the shortcut through time via the TARDIS. Flynn weaves all of these facts together to make a convincing case that the mechanization of Rory is a critical thematic element that helps hols all of the series together, but her attempts to argue that Amy is figuratively mechanized as a displaced Scot being forced to live within a stereotypically English village feel quite forced. In short, half of the essay is brilliant, and half seemed less than convincing.

Whatever You Do, Don't Blink! by David Whitt is another very focused essay, ostensibly about the three series episodes featuring the Weeping Angels. While the bulk of the essay is about Blink, The Time of the Angels, and Flesh and Stone, the essay does, however, offer some additional insight into the nature of Gothic horror and how Gothic horror themes have been used in Doctor Who. The essay then goes on to provide synopses of the three episodes and then sets out to show that they deserve the label of Gothic horror. As this is a somewhat trivial observation, and as the additional observation that the episodes are all fairly frightening is also somewhat less than surprising, the essay is more or less a banal exercise in defining a genre and then pointing to a couple examples that clearly fall within that genre.

Doctor Who's Women and His Little Blue Box by Antoinette Winstead discusses three of the Doctor's more recent female companions: Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble, placing them into the wider context of companions in general, and evaluating how they are different from most of the companions that appeared on the classic version of Doctor Who. The most critical difference alleged between the women on the "new" Doctor Who and their predecessors is the the lack of schoolgirl naivete, which is replaced instead by a level of intelligence and drive sufficient to meet the Doctor on equal terms. Winstead references Miriam Polster's "heroine's journey", asserting that each of the new companions makes her way through this process during her sojourn with the Doctor, and then sets about evaluating each one's story in turn. Just the fact that Winstead can have a story arc to evaluate for these characters is a substantial indication of the difference between them and many of the companions from the classic version of the show and supports the truth of Windtsead's arguments. Overall, this is one of the most interesting essays in the volume, as it clearly marks how the new show took the original, kept the fundamental core of what it was, and then built upon it to produce a final product that was so much more than what went before.

Following Winstead's exploration of the changes in the nature of the Doctor's female companions, Sherry Ginn's essay Spoiled for Another Life focuses on the one companion from "classic" Who that was most unlike her contemporaries and most like the companions from the "new" Who: Sara Jane Smith. Ginn notes that Smith was a revolutionary character when she was introduced in 1973 - a woman who was not willing to simply be a damsel in distress, and gives a brief indication that this character trait was in part the result of Elizabeth Slaydon's insistence. But in her rush to gush over the character, Ginn glosses over the dismissive way that Pertwee's Doctor treated Sarah Jane, and only briefly mentions how her character devolved into a damsel figure during her tenure with Barker's Doctor. On the other hand, Smith is the only companion character to have two different spin-off series designed to showcase her, and is one of the few characters brought from the "classic" Who into the "new" Who, in large part I suspect because she is one of the few classic characters who would be considered palatable by the modern audience. Ginn's evaluation of Smith moves on to evaluating her character development in the context of Jean Piaget's Cognitive-Development Theory, fitting Smith's choices into this framework. Oddly, after singing the praises of an independent liberal woman, Ginn proceeds to explain how Smith's "wrong" choices led her to make compensatory choices in the course of the Sarah Jane Adventures, seeking a husband and surrounding herself with adoptive children. To fit Sarah Jane's life into an early twentieth concept, Ginn has to point out how the character had everything that made her unique stripped away, a fairly depressing observation.

The final essay in the volume is Lynnette Porter's Chasing Amy, which continues the analysis of the Doctor's recent female companions by focusing very closely on Amy Pond, one of the most recent and most sexualized companions. Porter traces Amy's story from the Doctor's first appearance in her backyard while she is a small child through her resurrection of the Doctor with the force of her memory at her wedding to to Rory. The essay focuses on how Amy is both like and unlike previous companions that have appeared on the "new" Who seasons, evaluating her character traits in light of her predecessors. Porter also comments on Amy Pond's more overt sexuality, and what she clearly believes to be the unjustified criticism leveled at the show as a result. When combined with the previous two essays, Porter's work gives a thorough and comprehensive overview of the evolution of the companion characters in recent years up through the end of the eleventh Doctor's first season. For any Doctor Who fan, this trilogy of essays should be required reading.

In fact, most of the essays in this book will provide illumination for even the most die-hard Doctor Who fan. Covering topics ranging from fandom, to themes presented through the show's history, to explorations of individual episodes and characters, the collection of essays contained in Doctor Who in Time and Space gives a wide ranging account of the series, although the focus does tend to be on the more recent incarnation of the show. However, even fans of the older version will find much to like here, and all fans are likely to find something new that they didn't know before, a thought-provoking angle they had not previously considered, or simply something interesting in this collection. The bookshelf of a Doctor Who fan would not be complete without this book on it.

Gillian I. Leitch     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 9, 2013

Musical Monday - The Trouble With Tribbbles (Andy Fark) by Five Year Mission

Five Year Mission, for those who do not know, is a band dedicated to writing a song for each of the episodes of the original Star Trek series. They are currently in the middle of recording the third set of sixteen songs for their Year 3 CD, and the extraordinarily popular episode The Trouble With Tribbles falls in this group of programs. Rather than simply handing the episode off to one of the band members to write a single song about this near definitive episode of the show, Five Year Mission decided to change things up a bit and have every single member write their own song about Tribbles and then release them all on an EP.

This change of pace inspired drummer Andy Fark to write his first song for the band, the song featured here. Fark normally doesn't write songs. Or really do much of anything in the band except play drums. He's really good at playing the drums, but one of the running jokes that the band has used is to list all of the different things that the other members do in their recordings and performances interspersed with cuts of Farks saying, "and I play drums". Well, that joke is now somewhat outdated, because now Andy Fark can add "songwriter" to his list of contributions. He can also add "shown playing every part for the song in a music video" as well, since that's him in the video not only playing drums, but also playing guitar (twice), bass, and singing lead. Don't worry about the other members of the band though, they still have jobs: Mike has a sweet gig as a janitor, Chris is working the sound board, and Noah and P.J. are selling merchandise and drinking beer. At least that's what they are up to until Andy wakes up from his dream.

Previous Musical Monday: Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Subsequent Musical Monday: Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin

Five Year Mission     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Follow Friday - Jeanne Calment Was 122 Years Old When She Died

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Primrose Musings and Bookworm Brandee.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Bookshelf Tour! Take us on a tour of your shelves.

Because I'm living in a space that is just a little too small to hold enough bookshelves to keep all of my books, the majority of my books are stacked in boxes right now. I do still have a fair number of books on shelves though, so I'll show them to you. I didn't have the time (or the technical skills) to make a decent video, so you'll have to make do with still photos. This first picture, to the left, is more or less my primary "active" bookshelf next to the bookshelf on which I keep my unread review copies. As the review copies get read, they get moved over the the white shelf and placed in alphabetical order by author with the rest of the books. Yes, that is a "Don't Panic" towel hanging over the shelf, and yes, those are NASA themed Legos on top of the other one.

These shelves to the right hold most of my professional books - my history books, my law books, my math and science books, and so on. They also hold my various Time-Life collections, a pile of magazines that I've held on to, and, at the bottom of one shelf, some bookcase games. The white binders are filled with notes and material that I've written over the years, mostly for role-playing games. Except for the reference books, like the couple of dictionaries shelved here, I've read all of the books in these pictures, which is the basic requirement for a book to get "shelved" rather than stored. Because I have more stuff than space, the tops of the shelves are where I store things that I want to have handy, or just that look cooler than the stuff I keep in drawers and cupboards.

Starting with the first picture, the things on top of the shelves are a couple of tae kwon do trophies, my atlases and some of Angela's art books that are capped off by my Jack Skellington Christmas hat. Yes, I said Christmas hat. The Nightmare Before Christmas is my favorite Christmas movie. Next to that (straddling the two photos) is a box of miniature figures upon which sit my dinosaurs - if Wash from Firefly can have dinosaurs in his spaceship, I want them on my bookshelves. Next to that are my two unopened commemorative Olympic bottles of Coke, my Cal Ripken, Jr. baseball, a rack of old cassette tapes, my replica Luger, and my Darth Vader gloves. Next to that are card catalogs with statistics for summoned monsters to use in 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, and a box of my Babylon 5 cards, topped off with a Communist era eastern European military hat of undetermined origin. One of these days I should ask my friend Dave where he got it. Yeah, I have a lot of odd stuff. I'm a nerdy guy who writes a science fiction and fantasy oriented blog.

This bookshelf mostly holds my role-playing game books. The entire shelf on the right hand side of the picture is role-playing books. The top three shelves are all for the d20 system, while the bottom shelf is mostly 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons stuff, with a little bit of 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons stuff mixed in. The left hand bookshelf has my GURPS books on the bottom, and then above them are my collection of Dragon magazine issues and my miscellaneous role-playing game books. There are a couple of binders on here, mostly full of law CLE materials, and a couple of video game guides. The top shelf has my favorite collection of books: My complete collection of the Babylon 5 script books and the five volume set of J. Michael Straczynski's Asked and Answered books. Yeah, I love Babylon 5. How did you guess?

In the previous photo you may have noticed a couple of shelves to the left and the right of the role-playing books. Those two shelves hold our DVD collection, and although it is reasonably extensive, I didn't include pictures of those shelves because I decided to focus on books and the shelves that hold them. On top of the shelf I have one of my Ray Harryhausen tribute figures, a couple of dinosaur skeletons, and all of our Skylanders figures. We don't own all of the Skylanders figures, but we're pretty close. In addition to books, I collect science fiction magazines. Because I am somewhat disorganized at the moment, they are all stacked on the shelf pictured to the right. They are organized by publication - Asimov's, Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, If, and so on. This shelf is between the kitchen and the computer table, so the top of it is mostly used to keep random stuff. It is also where we keep the flashlight in case we lose power.

The last shelf in the tour is the one where I keep all of my mass market paperbacks. To avoid wasting space, I double shelve the paperbacks on this shelf using little risers I made out of two by fours and incredibly cheap molding to lift the back row of books up so that they are visible. Like the books on the white shelf, these books are all organized alphabetically by author. I have read all of the books on the actual shelves. The books on the top of this shelf are stacked up in no particular order as they are mostly books that I have recently acquired, usually from a library book sale or via Bookmooch.

That's the tour. I didn't include pictures of the boxed up books, because that would have been fairly boring. I hope that at some point in the future I'll be able to move somewhere where I will be able to have enough book shelves that I can keep all of my books out on shelves, but I'm not there yet. Until then, this arrangement will have to do.

Go to previous Follow Friday: A Chinese Checkers Board Has 121 Holes

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Biased Opinion - Value Does Not Exist

Dubiously valuable
Or rather, value as anything other than a social construct does not exist. This is something of a tangent into the world of economics, but it is spurred by the gold-loving fantasies of people of a particular political persuasion. For anyone who doesn't want to read the whole thing, the short version is this: Gold coins are not much more intrinsically valuable than paper money, and the difference in their value is trivial at best.

If you ever watch television, you've probably seen the commercials - Buy gold in order to be safe in the event of an economic crisis, or in the worst case scenario, an economic collapse. If the world economy falls apart, then your dollars will be worthless and your gold coins or gold certificates will still be valuable. There's only one problem with this pitch: It is basically a lie. Gold isn't valuable due to some intrinsic property of gold. Gold is valuable because society says it is valuable. If society collapses, the value of your gold will probably collapse too.

You might have also heard some politicians saying that we should ditch "fiat" money and switch to using "real" money made from valuable metals like gold or silver. That way, apparently, our money will be backed with something of "real" value instead of the supposedly imaginary value that it has right now. The problem is, this line of thought completely misunderstands what gives things economic value. There isn't some sort of Platonic ideal value that we can ascribe to things that somehow reflects their "true" value. What gives things economic value is that we, as a society, agree that they have value.

How valuable are these?
Let me digress for a minute. Black pearls are expensive. As in, you better have a couple thousand dollars if you want to have a collection of black pearls to wear. A quick perusal of the internet reveals that the strand of black pearls shown here would probably cost you more than a thousand dollars to buy in today's market. They are generally considered more valuable than white pearls now. But when black pearls were first introduced to the market, they were considered to be substantially less valuable that white pearls. So people who had an ownership interest in black pearls asked some high end jewelers to display black pearls in conjunction with jewels that were seen as being of high value - sapphires, rubies, and so on. Black pearls were advertised using these sorts of displays, associating them with valuable items, and consequently, public perception of the value of the black pearls shifted, and now they are considered quite valuable. Nothing about the black pearls themselves changed. They are still just as rare as they were before. They still look exactly the same. They are still used for exactly the same purposes. They are just seen as being more valuable, and as a result they are more valuable.

And this pretty much true of everything. Some foods are more valuable than other foods, not because they are more nutritious, or tastier, or rarer, but simply because people regard them as being more valuable. Some cars are treated as more valuable than others not because they are better cars, or more reliable cars, or more powerful cars, but rather just because they are seen as being more valuable. This sort of socially assigned value permeates all of our lives, and is largely how the price tags of items are determined.

The thing to understand about value is that there is no "real" value separate from this socially determined value. You might have heard people talking about how diamonds are not valuable because of market manipulation by the diamond cartel, and if diamonds were to be sold at their "true" value, they would be far less expensive than they currently are. But this completely misunderstands value. Diamonds are valuable because people regard them as valuable. Part of that is a carefully managed advertising campaign - after all the idea that a man "should" spend the equivalent of six weeks worth of salary on a diamond engagement ring didn't arise spontaneously - but the reason people think diamonds are valuable pretty much boils down to the fact that everyone agrees that they are valuable, and basically nothing much more than that.

So the question of why gold is "valuable" is answered by the fact that people think gold is valuable. There's nothing about gold, or silver, or rubies, or silk, or caviar, or anything else that makes them "valuable" other than a social consensus that they are. And as the black pearls show, that social consensus can flip pretty quickly, either up or down. Fiat currency isn't any different than anything else in this regard, and isn't any more or less intrinsically valuable than precious metals. You might be thinking to yourself that in the event that people lost confidence in the dollar that the bills would only be useful to line birdcages, and that gold is still useful for all kinds of things. But the industrial uses of gold are actually fairly limited, and the usefulness of gold as jewelry is about as practical as the various uses that one can put valueless dollars to, so the "intrinsic" value of gold is pretty small.

But the somewhat magical thing is that even though there is no objective reference point for "value" for goods, we are all somehow able to agree on how valuable things are in general. But the key realization here is that this assigned value is, to a certain extent, pretty much arbitrary. We decide things are valuable and other things are not simply because we decide that they are. There is no more substance to the value of the book you are holding in your hand than there is to the value of the dollar, euro, pound, or yen that is in your pocket. Value is assigned by social consensus, and social consensus is essentially nothing more than the collective opinion of the individuals living in that society. There really isn't anything more of substance underpinning this concept.

If society somehow collapses, then the values we attach to things are likely to radically shift in unpredictable ways. Gold might still be valuable. It might not. There is simply no real way to tell one way or the other. One thing that is certain is that gold is no more likely to be regarded as valuable than anything else that is currently considered valuable. If you are buying gold because you think it is somehow safe from market forces, then you're wasting your money.

Home     Biased Opinions