Reviews

A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year

The New Year is always greeted with great expectations and the belief that it cannot possibly be as bad as the past year. This belief is the triumph of hope over experience. A brief review of the year:

JANUARY
The unforeseen “fiscal cliff” looms. The Bush tax cuts of 2001 were to expire on December 31, 2012, and planned spending cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011 were to come into play. (The latter had been enacted because the 111th Congress, in a fit of absent-mindedness, had forgotten to pass a federal budget.) None of the policy wonks in DC could possibly have foreseen it and they suppose it must be caused by the Tea Party or by talk radio. The crisis was averted by kicking the can down the road and everyone in government agreeing to continue spending way more money than they actually had.

A second crisis followed immediately with the second inauguration of B. H. Obama. Since he no longer faced re-election, he no longer had any reason to postpone implementation of Obamacare.

The Iranian Space Agency sends a monkey into space and brings it safely back. They promise, no foolin', that won't ever replace the monkey with, say, a nuclear warhead or anything like that.

FEBRUARY
Another crisis looms: the “sequester,” set to trigger automatically unless Congress can agree on a budget.  Since Congress cannot agree to whistle Yankee Doodle together in the same key, this is akin to having a dead man switch in a mortuary. It takes all the policy wonks by surprise and the media declare it is a plot by the Tea Party and talk radio to implement "draconian cuts."  "Cuts" is a word that means "increase government spending a little slower than previously planned."  Policy wonks panic and begin planning for the aftermath in which they will blame the Other Side.

Pope Benedict XVI resigns causing a media frenzy which is blamed on the Tea Party and talk radio. The Church shrugs and says, we had a pope resign before, only 600 years ago. To the Ents of Rome, this is like yesterday; and wouldn't you know it: they have procedures covering the contingency. To the mayflies of the Post Modern Age, this is like before the Big Bang.

MARCH
The sequester comes and goes and no one seems to notice much.   

The College of Cardinals, in its on-going effort to befuddle the main-stream media, elects the first Argentinian pope in, well, forever. The new pope is immediately hailed as just the man to reverse the Church's slide into orthodoxy and catholicism, and the media sit back and wait for him to start ordaining women and blessing homosexual unions, which they suppose will happen Real Soon Now.  A controversy immediately erupts over whether to call the new Pope Francis I or just plain Francis. When asked, the new pope says, "What the hey, call me Frankie."  This is immediately hailed as a signal of the Church's new dedication to informality and predictions are made that Good Friday will soon be replaced by Casual Friday.  Francis thus accomplishes the hitherto untoward feat of uniting the far left and the far right in a single set of beliefs.

APRIL
Hundreds of Christians are besieged inside Cairo’s St. Mark's Cathedral by security forces and local residents. At least one person was killed and 84 injured in a festive celebration of the Arab Spring. Policy wonks debate possible motives for the attacks on Christians in Egypt and suggest possible Tea Party involvement.

Two bombs at the Boston Marathon kill three people and maim and injure more than 200 others. Media suspects the Tea Party and/or talk radio. The suspects are identified later as Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and the media racks its brain trying to come up with a possible motive.
Per Dave Barry: In Masters golf action, Tiger Woods, after hitting a ball into the water, drops a replacement ball two yards from where he should have; this turns out to be just about the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the history of golf.
Syriac Metropolitan Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Orthodox Metropolitan Boulous Yazigi are kidnapped in Syria while en route to a hostage negotiation involving an Armenian Catholic and a Greek Orthodox priest. The kidnappers are believed to be Chechens. But because they are rebels fighting the evil Assad regime and the victims are only Christians, nothing much gets said in the media, lest the public be confused about who the good guys are. The bishops have not been seen since. There is no word whether the original kidnappers of the priests are tworked with the latest kidnappers for snatching the bishops they were negotiating with.

MAY


The Internal Revenue Service admits it has been scrutinizing conservative political groups, like the Tea Party, which is believed to have had a role in engineering the fiscal cliff, the sequester, the resignation of Benedict XVI, and the Boston bombing. Everyone agrees this is all very suspicious.

President Obama did not know this was going on. The Justice Department admits that it secretly seized phone records from The Associated Press. Obama was shocked, shocked to learn this has happened, and immediately accepts the responsibility of George W. Bush.

JUNE
Much to Obama's surprise, the National Security Agency has been collecting massive amounts of data on the phone calls, emails and other electronic activities of millions of American citizens. The nation is gripped in fear that the federal government will actually be able to make sense of this mish-mash; especially after they learn that the analytical engine was designed by the same firm programming the Obamacare debut later in the year. Surely, for the president's signature accomplishment only the very best will be used.

The leaker is former CIA computer specialist Edward Snowden, who was evidently hired because he hacked the entrance exam and lied about his background, thus bypassing the iron-tight security curtain protecting employment at the Agency. Then Snowden was shocked, shocked to learn that the Tea Party had infiltrated the government and was spying on our friends in China, Russia, and elsewhere. He immediately fled to China, then Russia. He was celebrated world-wide for not releasing confidential documents implicating China, Russia, al-Qaeda, or other innocent third parties. 

JULY
The Egyptian military ousts President Mohammed Morsi, proving once again that the Middle East is the only spot on earth where a military coup is an agent of liberalism. Egyptians celebrate by burning Christian churches and killing Christians.  Unable to grasp the reason for this, the media decide not to mention it.

The White House delays for one year the Obamacare mandate requiring businesses to provide health insurance.  Earlier, they had forced a government shut-down rather than acquiesce to this delay.

Detroit, MI, once the fourth largest city in the US and the hub of the automotive industry and Motown Records, files for bankruptcy after spending a gazillion dollars that they did not have. Possible reasons include shrinking tax base caused by declining population, program costs for retiree health care and pension, borrowing to cover budget deficits, poor record keeping and antiquated computer systems, unpaid property taxes (47%), and government corruption. (Two city workers pension plans had for nearly 25 years been paying out 13 monthly checks per year.) However, the greatest suspicion lay on the Tea Party and talk radio.

The birth of His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge in the UK proves the wisdom of keeping a monarchy around as a decorative accessory and high class reality show. The young lad demonstrates that the UK has no shortage of names and he will one day grow up to rule the country, assuming it still exists by then.  (See Scotland.)

AUGUST

Miley Cyrus demonstrates the complete collapse of Western Civilization as we know it by twerking all over everyone at the Video Music Awards and causing a burst of sentimental nostalgia for more dignified dances like the macarena. 
Per Dave Barry: Secretary of State John Kerry, making the case for a military strike, calls Syrian President Bashar Assad “a thug and a murderer” who killed nearly 1,500 people, including children, in a chemical attack. Citing the urgency of the situation, the administration prepares to launch an attack without congressional approval. But then, in a surprise move, the president announces that he has decided to take the matter to Congress after all, raising the distinct possibility that nothing will actually happen during anybody’s lifetime. 
SEPTEMBER
Kerry compares Assad to Hitler, then declares that any strike against Assad will be an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort." just like that used against Hitler.  Just how unbelievably small is revealed when, asked if there is any other way out, Kerry scoffingly says, "Well, duh! Russia could make sure all the chemical weapons are put in a lock box." The next day, Putin announces that Russia will oversee putting all of Syria's chemical weapons in a lock box, taking Kerry (and Obama) by complete surprise. Tea Party efforts to embarrass the president are suspected; but when asked, Tea Party officials say, "Why bother? He's doing a good job on his own."

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the first Hispanic, and the first minority to be elected U.S. Senator from Texas, launches a massive 21-hour personal filibuster against the immanent launch of Obamacare, thus successfully causing Americans to transfer their irritation from Obamacare to Sen. Cruz. In a turnaround of unprecedented scope, Tea Party involvement really is suspected.

Congress is unable once again to agree on a budget, thus demonstrating the learning ability of a Pet Rock.™

OCTOBER
The federal government partially shuts down and hundreds of government employees wait anxiously to learn if they are considered "essential employees" or not. This is the first time the federal government has shut down since the last time it shut down. The Department of Education SWAT team is mothballed, the bunny inspectors are furloughed, the Internal Revenue Service stops delivery of refund checks to identity thieves, the Federal Railroad Administration delays the ruling that all trains must be painted with an 'F' at the front, so we can tell which end is which, and the US Air Force announced it will spend no more money to install a fire pit for cadets professing made-up "earth religions." 

Haha. Of course, we jest. None of these vital federal programs were cut, thank goodness. Instead, the White House furloughed air traffic controllers and blockaded open-air federal monuments in an effort to make the shutdown as inconvenient as possible.  However, they make the mistake of barricading the Iwo Jima monument just before a busload of retired Marines arrives on vacation. The Marines mobilize and hit the beaches, seizing the monument on D+1.

The long awaited roll-out of Obamacare demonstrates the peril of employing campaign donors as software developers. Despite the administration's constant delays, amendments, and changes of specifications, things do not go smoothly. Obama is taken by surprise: how could a company that has botched so many other software packages botch this, his signature achievement?  Obama takes swift action, declaring that Obamacare will henceforth be called by the euphemism "Affordable Care Act," just in time for many voters to realize how unaffordable their new insurance will be. The media blames the Tea Party for the confusion.

NOVEMBER
Americans learn that they have lost their current insurance plans even though they liked them. This is because Tea Party operatives are sneaking into their houses and stealing their policies. Obama tells us that these policies are being canceled because they are substandard. Many policies, such as those for men and older women, do not include free contraception. The combined result of the cancellations and the increased costs of replacing old policies with policies guaranteed to cover people who don't buy policies until after they get sick may well be that more people will lack insurance than before. Obama is taken by surprise and learns that "insurance is complicated." Perhaps too complicated for policy wonks to redesign a nationwide system in toto.

DECEMBER
Amazon announces it is proposing to deliver parcels weighing up to 5 pounds via drones. Al-Qaeda announces its interest in delivering some of its own packages the same way. In an effort to control such rogue drones, the Strategic Air Command launches a pre-emptive strike against unscheduled flying objects that takes out Santa Claus, Mary Poppins, Tinkerbell, Peter Pan and the whole Darling family.

Obama declares that the "glitches" on the Obamacare Affordable Care Act website have been "significantly improved."  Users will now encounter a better class of glitches.  The hope is that no one will think to ask whether people who screwed up a web portal this badly can redesign the entire the insurance system.

Two Boko Haram gunmen open fire on a wedding party in the mainly Christian village of Tashan Alade, in Nigeria, killing twelve people. Boko Haram means "books are evil" and the organization is against Western schools and learning, which is liable to include girls. Policy wonks are puzzled as to the motivation of the attackers.  Igbos wonder if they gave up on Biafra too soon.

Chechens set off two bombs in Volgograd in order to protest Tea Party involvement in the Russian government.  It is unclear if they used kidnapped Syrian bishops for tinder. Policy wonks struggle to find the common denominator in all these acts. 

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2013/12/30/5445936/dave-barrys-2013-year-in-review.html#storylink=cpy

Time Out

Another of those ancient college-days poems lately unearthed in moldering drawer.  Traces of high school project to study G.M. Hopkins. Retouched a little. Needs work.

Times

I
Birdsung blooming
   with flowers and love
   and groundhogs and grasses.
Mudstained snows
   melt and slough
   the tears of hope.
Colors burst,
   fresh-snapped, pure,
   promises proposed.
Spring (like love)
   is open.

II
Sunbright laughing and leaping
Stretching wide her arms,  she
        kisses
        talks
        plays
        jests:
Summer grows, a promise kept.
   Streams chuckle full,
   Trees stretch tall,
   Wingstretched bridds take flight.
With tears of joy,
   the unbound wind blusters
   cross fields and furrows
   and hums down cold tall
   concrete caverns.
So (like love)
   is summer free.

III
Leaf-rustled, silence cloaks:
The birds are soft
   and ready to
                      depart.
Children gaze in wistful reminisce
   through dustreaked windowpane
   while teachers
                         drone.
Windsong in scarlet woods
   lilts no promises,
   but broods in crustling quiet
   and remembers.
Tears that fall
   fall for the past
   unaccomplished.
Autumn (like love)
   is wistful.

IV
When snow enshrouds
   the windshorn trees,
Close, cold stars
   behold the world
   with dispassioned gaze.
The air is clear of song and hope.
   Winter must be night:
A time of solitude
   to watch the stars
   wheel the years
   without censure
   without regret.
Speak only now in whispers
   and never cry.
All tears are ice,
   and winter must be brave.


©2013 Michael F. Flynn

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Inflation Put the Hindenberg in the Air



Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy tracked grades at numerous colleges from 1903 to 2006.The plot is here:

Each gray dot is the average grade awarded at one university for one year. (The number of universities included in the analysis has also been increasing.) By 1970 or so, as TOF reads the chart, the lowest university average was higher than the highest such average in the 1950s. This at a time when admissions were increasing for all classes of the population.  One possibility is that college students in the mid-late 1960s got suddenly smarter than their older brothers and sisters. As a college students from the mid-late 1960s, TOF finds this an attractive possibility; but it fails to account for the steady state 1975-85 and the second, slower rise beginning after 1985.

The study authors have this to say:
The rise in grades in the 1960s correlates with the social upheavals of the Vietnam War. It was followed by a decade period of static to falling grades. The cause of the renewal of grade inflation, which began in the 1980s and has yet to end, is subject to debate, but it is difficult to ascribe this rise in grades to increases in student achievement. Students’ entrance test scores have not increased (College Board, 2007), students are increasingly disengaged from their studies (Saenz et al., 2007), and the literacy of graduates has declined (Kutner et al., 2006). A likely influence is the emergence of the now common practice of requiring student-based evaluations of college teachers. Whatever the cause, colleges and universities are on average grading easier than ever before

This Little Light of Mine

...I'm gonna let it shine.  For 112 years.

Bulb-cam keeps live watch on world's oldest light bulb
The longest-lived light bulb is in a fire station in Livermore CA. Live more in Livermore?

From the site:
First installed at the fire department hose cart house on L Street in 1901. Shortly after it moved to the main firehouse on Second. In 1903 it was moved to the new Station 1 on First and McLeod, and survived the renovation of the Firehouse in 1937, when it was off for about a week. During its first 75 years it was connected directly to the 110 Volt city power, (subject to the power outages) , and not to the back-up generator for fear of a power surge. In 1976 it was moved with a full police and fire truck escort, under the watch of Captain Kirby Slate, to its present site in 1976 at Fire Station 6, 4550 East Ave., Livermore, California. It was then hooked to a separate power source at 120V, and UPS according to Frank Maul, Retired City Electrician. There was one interruption in May, 2013, when the UPS failed and it was off for at least 9 1/2 hours. When it was plugged back in it shined at 60 Watts. It is still brighter, months later, than it's former 4 Watts. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Crimes Committed Inside Other People's Heads

A intriguing comment on another writer's blog responds to the plaint that too few today read or even know of the seminal works in fantasy and science fiction. The anonymous commenter writes :
so much of what is Classic or Seminal in this genre (along with many others) is problematic or inadequate in some fashion. You mentioned the sexism in one story, which is enough to keep me from reading it. You can get past it, perhaps, because sexism doesn't affect you the way it would me. And that's fine and I'm not pointing fingers and calling you a name, I'm just saying it would be a bigger problem for me.

And then there's racism, homophobia, antisemitism, and any number of other bigoted attitudes lurking in those old stories and stories. No, thanks.

Then there's the issue of how much early SF/F is decidedly Western. Euro-centric, US-centric, and all about the superiority of anglo white men. These days there are so many amazing novels and stories that arise out of non-European/non-Western modes of thinking and folktales or myths, why would I bother soaking myself in a history that erases or ignores such things?

I agree that an understanding of the history of this genre is important, but that doesn't mean having to actually read that stuff. 
Sure, and it is a burdensome life when even the act of reading fluffy entertainment and adventure stories must be a political act. To the contrary we have the well-known dictum of M.Tullius Cicero, in Orator Ad M. Brutum:
"Nescire autem quid antequam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum."
("To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.")

Crimes Committed Inside Other People's Heads


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Putzing Around

The newspaper here runs a feature that reports on stories covered "100 years ago today" as well as 50 and 25.  We note in passing that today is the birthday of a man with many devoted followers; viz., Jimmy Buffet.

In any case, both yesterday and today the 100 Years Ago feature mentioned marvelous putzes. Yesterday's was a putz set up by the South Side boy scouts, and today's was set up by the Central Fire Station.  Both items mentioned how wonderfully detailed the putzes were and TOF was transported to his youth when Christmas time meant a lot of putzing around as we trooped from house to house to view people's putzes. 
#

Sunday, December 22, 2013

On the Natural Law

There is something in the human heart that recognizes wrong. As long as it is in other people. Ze'ev Chafets once wrote that "Mainstream Protestants tend to locate sin in the moral malfeasance of others—slaveholders, colonialists, capitalists, settlers, oil barons, and the Bush administration." Perhaps distance lends perspective. Or perhaps it is easier to spot a hole in front rather than one behind one's own eyeballs.

Friday, December 20, 2013

TOF's Secrets of Life

  1. Walk around with a serious look on your face and a clipboard in your hand. It's amazing what you can get away with.  A hard hat and a roll of blueprints under your arm will also serve.  
  2. The key to dealing with deadlines is to learn to enjoy the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
  3. If at first you don't succeed, don't try skydiving.
  4. A day without sunshine is like... night.
  5. To be at your best all the time, strive for mediocrity.
  6. TOF plans to live forever.  So far, it's working.
  7. Talk is cheap, except in Congress.
  8. The reason that talk is cheap is economics. Supply exceeds demand.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Quotes of the Day

"For historians looking back, the sign of a dark age is the lack of comprehensive, consistent and canonical records. The actual history that unfolds may be marked by progress or decline. The European Middle Ages, once known as the Dark Ages, are now widely regarded as a period of widespread cultural development. It just wasn’t of the Greco-Roman variety that preceded it, or the Renaissance variety that followed."
-- Venkat, "Our Diurnal Civilization" (ribbonfarm, 12/9/13)


"The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time."
-- Alasdair MacIntyre (quoted in Paul D.Miller, "Book Hunters in the New Dark Ages (The City, Fall 2013))


As late as 1900 Ernst Mach still thought of atoms as a convenient fiction without any physical basis in nature.
-- Alan Wall, "Lux, Lumen and the Lights of Science." (The Fortnightly Review)


People often question the utility of philosophy. One use of philosophy is to protect us from bad philosophy, pseudo-philosophy, the 'philosophy' of those who denigrate philosophy yet cannot resist philosophizing themselves and as a result philosophize poorly.
-- Bill Vallicella "Nonsense about Descartes from the Science Page of the New York Times" (The Maverick Philosopher, June 10, 2012)


"Globalization can also have the paradoxical effect of fostering intense localism and nativism, frightening people into taking refuge in the comfort of small, like-minded groups. One of the unexpected results of the Internet, for example, is how it can narrow horizons so that users seek out only those whose views echo their own and avoid websites that might challenge their assumptions."
-- Margaret MacMillan, "The Rhyme of History" (Brookings Essay, 12/14/13)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dennis

Some folks here may know that my beloved son is named Dennis, whose birthday was yesterday.
Dennis Michael Flynn

He gets his name from my late beloved brother, also Dennis, whose birthday is today.

Dennis Harry Flynn

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Darwin's Scythe

The Guardian reports in "Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?" that in Japan the ubiquitous search for self-fulfillment is leading to a strange, doomed society.  Guardian reporters, with their own prior commitments may not be able to read between their own lines, may not be able to connect these dots with others, may confuse correlates with causes, but at the end of the road lurks the demon-god Darwin with his deadly scythe, ready to pass judgement on the non-judgemental and whispering "This is the end toward which you slide when love is not directed outward toward something beyond oneself."
Too much trouble. Can't be bothered.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fermat's Last Stand

Okay, this is a hoot. The link gives the summary of the play, which involves such things as the Shroud of Turing and the Mathematical Pirates as well as an encounter with St. Thomas Aquinas.  The tunes I found hard to hear, but the YouTube site has the lyrics printed.  Herewith, three of the immortal songs:
The Mathematical Pirate Shanty
Thomas Aquinas' Song
The Battle Hymn of the Republic of Letters

Feast of St. Nicholas

The Mut, surrounded by those she nurtured, minus one.
IN THE CHILDHOOD OF TOF there was celebrated today the Feast of St. Nicholas. TOF's maternal unit, the Mut, was of German extraction and followed many German customs even though she was several generations removed from the Rhineland. Among such customs as the putz, the tree, and the Christkindl, there was the day when, to Martin Luther's quondam distress, we put our shoes outside our bedroom door (or, later, hung our socks under the mantlepiece).

Into these unlikely vessels were placed overnight various treats and treasures, none of very large dimension.  St. Nicholas, we were told, put them there, though kids even then were canny enough to suspect the old bishop had assistants. There was never any confusion that I can remember that "Santa Claus" was not simply an updated version of a real person. (Yes, Virginia.) 

There was always the threat that inside the sock would be a lump of coal. We must have been good kids because I don't remember receiving an anthracite endowment. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Olde Curmudgeon -- Chapter 8


...continued from Chapter 7.

Chapter 8. The Allegory of the Storage Tank Demurrage

When Jack Heller returned to his office, he found a stack of reports waiting for him.  One was the cost analysis of constructing a new storage tank.  It gave dollar figures for construction materials, contractor and subcontractor costs, delays caused by construction, and so on. 

Pump up the action!
What it did not give was any reason to suppose that the tank would solve the problem.  He toggled his screen to intercom.  "Molls, get a hold of Kelly in Purchasing.  Tell him I'd like a breakdown of demurrage costs by week for the past year.  I'd like it broken down by which chemical was involved, which carrier, which pumping station.  I think that will do for now.  I wouldn't mind knowing who was running the pump at the time, or what time of day it was; but those details might not be ready at hand."

"You got it boss," said Molly Colinvaux. "You think it might be clogged pumps or something like that?"

"I'm not going to guess ahead.  I just want to know the size and shape of this problem."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Olde Curmudgeon -- Chapter 7

...continued from Chapter 6.

Chapter 7. The Allegory of the Check Sorting Process

"The Check Sorting Process...," said Jack.

"Yeah.  You remember checks," the old curmudgeon said. "They were rectangular pieces of paper on which people promised, no foolin', that they had the money in the back to cover a payment."

Jack scowled.  "I know what a check is."

"More like was.  It's like printing with ink on hot lead.  They were printing that way since Gutenberg, and in an instant it was all gone.  An entire industry, a whole technology.  Pfft."  He snapped his fingers.

"The allegory...?" Jack prompted.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Olde Curmudgeon -- Chapter 6

...continued from Chapter 5.

Chapter 6. The Journey of a Thousand Miles

"I was hoping," Jack said, "that we would get back to that before I had to get back to the office.  So, tell me, Grumpy, how I can convince corporate to fund a new storage tank so I'll have enough capacity to off-load all the tank cars each month."

The old curmudgeon shook his head.  "It's all that salad you eat.  It goes to the head and turns it to cabbage.  Don't assume that the solution is a bigger storage tank until you've walked a mile in the symptom-cause-remedy shoes."

Jack scowled.  "Aren't you straining a metaphor there?"

"Best I could do.  I told you, you have to start from the symptoms.  The excessive demurrage."

Whoa, What's This?