Saturday, August 28, 2010

Secret to Wall Street Riches Revealed

Closed-caption transcript of an investment banker describing how his firm's half-percent fee on the sale of $100 million worth of securities somehow results in the firm making $5 million, or 10 times that amount.

The interview with the banker is part of a video explaining the financial system. It plays on a continuous loop at the Museum of American Finance in New York.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: The Big Time

Fritz Leiber
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This book is really abstract and way out there. I think much of it was beyond me. But what I did get I really enjoyed.

The Big Time’s main premise is that the time in which we live is actually an enclosed environment, and that there is a zone surrounding us, a gray misty space outside of and separate from our time, where other beings live. These other beings can come and go into and out of our time at will, plopping onto our world at any time in our past or future that they choose.

Two groups of these beings, which we never actually see but which are called “Spiders” and “Snakes” by the main characters, are fighting a massive war against each other, using our time as their battlefield. This war involves them: (a) recruiting recently-dead people to be soldiers and support staff for their side, (b) resurrecting the ones who agree to sign up, and (c) sending the resurrected soldiers into different eras of our time to fight the forces of the other side.

Through this process, the Spider and Snake soldiers have managed to screw up history in all kinds of ways, like by changing the outcomes of important battles in ancient Rome and assassinating key people during World War II who had never been assassinated before.

The entire book takes place in the misty realm outside of our time, in a sort of behind-the-lines R&R spot for Spider soldiers. The spot is populated by resurrected formerly-dead people who serve as entertainers, prostitutes, counselors, and doctors for the troops. These “ghosts” are pretty satisfied with how things are going until one visiting soldier decides to mutiny against the Spiders, breaks the connection to real time so they’re floating lost in the timeless zone, and then starts the countdown on a portable atomic bomb.

The main character who narrates the story is one of the prostitute/counselor/entertainers. She is very appealing; she has a laid-back attitude and uses a lot of slang. She is the reader’s guide, but she doesn’t feel the need to explain a heck of a lot. I also really liked the variety of the other characters. Since the Spiders can recruit from any place and time they want to, their support staff and soldiers are necessarily from all different countries and all different eras, including the future.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Great Deal on Roasted Mealworms

BOGOs are always irresistible; sign me up. I do wonder if the birds prefer the roasted mealworms or the plain. I would have thought plain.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: Blue Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT (For Red Mars and Green Mars)

This is the third book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about the colonization of Mars. It is, on the whole, not quite as awesome as the first two books in the set, but it has its own strengths.

After the more than one hundred years of construction, terraformation, feuds, sabotage, and war that were described in Red Mars and Green Mars, Blue Mars rewards the colonists’ perseverance (and yours) with a Mars that is now warm enough that its ice is melting and forming oceans. Plants and animals are rapidly adapting to the Martian environment. And, at sea level, humans can breathe the air without special equipment.

The people of Mars have turned the planet into a habitable world and have created a unique system of government with which to manage themselves. They actually are now doing much better than the people of Earth, who are dealing with environmental catastrophes and political chaos.

Robinson is an absolute master of the super-hard science fiction that makes up his Mars trilogy. He describes in minute, realistic detail what the colonization and terraforming of Mars could be like, and at the same time understands the emotional reactions the colonists might have to their situation. There are two themes in Blue Mars that particularly show how wise Robinson is about what people would feel at this point in their progress.

One is the colonists’ need to have some ritual way of looking back and celebrating what they have accomplished.

All three of Robinson’s Mars books explore the complicated tensions between “greens,” who want to change Mars to make it habitable for humans, and “reds,” who want to keep Mars as it originally was. Obviously, by the time of Blue Mars, the greens have won. But the reds get a victory of a sort when everyone agrees on a set altitude on Olympus Mons above which nothing will be grown or built and the atmosphere will be preserved in its original state. Greens and reds (and everyone in between) begin to use this zone as a remembrance space; once a Martian year, they hike up and build a city of temporary tents like those used by the first colonists and they spend a while there remembering what it was like in the beginning and thinking about the friends who have died along the way.

The other theme I really liked was the effect of super-long lifespans on the minds of the First Hundred colonists.

In Blue Mars, fewer than 35 members of the First Hundred survive; the rest have been killed in accidents, murder, and battle. Those remaining have all taken the life-extending treatments invented in Red Mars and are now over two hundred years old.

There are a number of side effects of living this long. For example, as time passes, the original colonists find they have more and more in common with each other and less and less in common with either the newer colonists or the native-born Martians. This makes them tend to draw together, even if they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum or if they originally hated each other.

Another side effect is that even though their brains are perfectly functional, so many things have happened to them that they start to forget or misremember the details of events from a hundred and fifty years ago when they first arrived. Sometimes they say they feel like their early experiences happened to someone else, not themselves. And some of them are unable to keep up with the constant changes that surround them and retreat emotionally, living only in the past.

In general, Blue Mars is a good conclusion to Robinson’s Mars trilogy. There are a couple down sides to it, however. For one thing, it is extremely long, even compared to the first two books. And also much of the last part of the book deals with the expansion of human space colonization into the rest of our solar system, which I found more abstract and less interesting than the original colonization of Mars.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review: Beast in View

Margaret Millar
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This murder mystery takes place in Los Angeles in the 1950s. A wealthy, antisocial woman, Helen Clarvoe, starts getting weird, threatening phone calls from an old acquaintance. The calls scare her, so she hires her family’s financial advisor, Mr. Blackshear, to try to find out who is calling her and why. This leads Mr. Blackshear on a nice investigation in which he uncovers all sorts of interesting secrets about Helen’s past and the other members of her family, and during which one of the people he is investigating commits suicide and another is murdered.

What I liked about this book most of all was the author’s clear, straightforward style. It was a pretty complicated story, and Millar certainly doesn’t use a simple vocabulary, but her writing is easy to read. She is not deliberately obscure or pretentious or too obvious about trying to create suspense.

The book was also small, a tidy 156 pages. I think that Millar knew the story she wanted to tell and didn't feel that she needed to add a lot of unnecessary fluff around it. Which I appreciate.

I also enjoyed reading a mystery about post-war non-Hollywood society in Los Angeles by somebody with a very different take on it than Raymond Chandler.

One notable aspect of this book is that one of the key characters, Helen’s brother Douglas, is gay. I thought that his character was handled amazingly well, considering that this book was written in 1955. Douglas is a full, complex person, not a monster or a silly stereotype. And when his mother finds out and wants to take him to a clinic to get “cured,” he explains to her (and the reader) that this is a part of who he is and it isn’t anything that he can be cured of.

The back cover of the 2000 edition of this book advertises that it pulls the main characters into a world of “extortion, pornography, vengeance, and murder." I don't know if it's really all that exciting, but it was a good read, with a clear style and plot twists that kept me interested through to the end.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Boulder, Colorado

Pearl Street

Recently Closed Tabs

Greenspan, Stockman, now Voinovich. Why are the leading voices against extending Bush tax cuts all emeritus Republicans? 

Old-timey ads for Facebook, YouTube, Skype.

Enormous wiener impaled on fork. 

Problem: Need to use up 1 lb each of peaches and tomatoes with only one day remaining before leaving on trip. Solution: Peach-and-tomato gazpacho

Friday, August 06, 2010

Book Review: The Claw of the Conciliator

Gene Wolfe
Awards: Nebula, Locus
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

The Claw of the Conciliator is the second book in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quadrilogy. It takes place on Earth (“Urth”) a very, very long time in the future. It is one of these futures in which everything is in decline; the sun is dying, the world is getting colder, and humans have forgotten how to use most of their technology and have regressed into a middle-ages-type society full of magic and lore and superstition.

In this society, most professions are organized into guilds, where young boys are taken in as apprentices and work their way up to be journeymen and then – if they’re lucky enough and good enough – masters. The four books of the New Sun series follow the life of Severian, who, as a child, was adopted into the guild of the Torturers.

The Torturers are a sort of necessary evil. They are feared and reviled by most people but they’re the only ones who are willing to do the punishing and executing of criminals. They maintain a professional, emotionally-detached front but their medieval methods for the “excruciation” of their “clients” are brutal and disgusting (and entertaining, for those of us who enjoy bloodcurdling tales of horror and the macabre).

I figured that for me to evaluate The Claw of the Conciliator accurately I should first read the first book in the trilogy, The Shadow of the Torturer. I really liked Shadow but did not feel the same way about Claw.

The first half of Shadow tells the best part of the story, when Severian is a boy apprentice living in the dorms in the Torturer’s Citadel. Things go well for him until, right after he graduates to journeyman, he makes the mistake of showing mercy to one of his “clients.” His masters show leniency on him by not killing him for this infraction but they do have to cast him out. They get him a job as a local executioner in a hick town way up north called Thrax. The second half of Shadow describes the first leg of his journey on foot to Thrax, in which he runs into strange characters and is challenged to a duel fought with carnivorous flowers and has to learn how to do freelance executions to make money.

The entire book of Claw (and, I assume, the third and fourth books in the series) describe more of Severian’s adventures on the way to Thrax. Unfortunately, the book gets increasingly magic-based and riddle-filled as it goes on, and the things that happen in it aren’t very interesting. Yes, he stumbles into an underground cave filled with hundreds of man-beasts that he has to tame with the light of a magical gem. And he does take part in a weird ceremony in which he eats the flesh of a dead person and afterwards has that person’s memories as well as his own. But he also falls in with an unappealing group of itinerant actors and hefty chunks of the book are taken up with descriptions of the incredibly boring plays he performs with them as they all travel northward together.

It was a real struggle to keep reading to the end of Claw. This was too bad because I liked Severian and the way he had to be in a certain amount of denial about the profession he was trained in from childhood. The third and fourth books might make for a fabulous recovery to the story but I don’t have the energy to find out.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Target Reaps Political Donation Backlash

Back in January when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Citizens United case allowing coporations and labor unions to donate to political candidates, I was pretty sanguine about it, thinking it might clarify links between donors and candidates.

Talking Points Memo highlights a recent controversy involving Target that illustrates the sort of situation that I had in mind:
We noted recently that Minnesota-based Target had availed itself of the new freedom created by the Citizen's United decision to give $150,000 to support far-right Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. And in so doing they reaped a big backlash. Target's aim seems to have been to support Emmer's economic policies. But the backlash came over Emmer's extremely anti-gay policy stands. (He's also really against waiters.)

Target's CEO has now taken the pretty extraordinary step of issuing a public apology for the donation.

Target, as it happens, has a quite good corporate record on LGBT issues and workplace policies. So it's a fascinating example of how cross-cutting and complicated Citizen's United giving may turn out to be.

If Target had donated to Emmer under the old regime, via 527s and other shadowy routes, would we have even heard about it?
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