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Karl Gallagher's Journal
40 entries back

Date:2014-06-04 13:16
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 26
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Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something

I used to believe institutions were reformable. A new administrator and focused mission would make NASA a useful contributor to getting humans into space again. Sanctions could force Baathist Iraq to back down. Companies could adapt to changes in their market.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger was a big part of ending that belief. The story of how the shipping industry changed from putting cargo in random piles to fitting everything into a forty-foot box is straightforward, technologically. But no institution adapted to it. The shipping companies went out of business as new ones sprang up. Old ports went out of business. Major unions shrank to a bare handful of men. The government agency regulating rail rates was quietly disbanded.

At first I thought it was a unique story of one odd change happening to cut a wide swath which made it hard for companies to adapt. But if it was just hard, then 80% or 90% of the old guard should have survived, the most nimble fraction. Instead they're all gone. Which crystallized a feeling I've gotten from watching other areas: mature institutions don't adapt. Growing organizations can change as they find their niche, but once they settle down they won't change. Sometimes one gets replaced while carrying over the name but in general they keep doing the same thing until the collapse.

So now I don't look to reform an organization that's not working well, I look for ways to by-pass it.

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Date:2014-06-03 13:03
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 25
Security:Public

Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most

Leo Graf, the liberator protagonist of Falling Free by Lois MacMaster Bujold. Leo is an engineer, assigned to inspect the construction of a new space station and train junior engineers. The juniors are even more junior than he expected, not just newly educated but a newly created species designed to live in free fall. The company considers them property, not people, and Leo leads a rebellion to take the "quaddies" to someplace they can be free.

I identify with Leo because he's an engineer first and last. He comes up with his plan to save the quaddies by redefining the situation as an engineering problem. Early on he gives a stern lecture to his students on how reality cannot be fooled that's a model for one I'd like to tell engineering students.

(Sidenote: the edition I linked to above has the worst cover I've ever seen for it, one of the worst book covers ever, which is a true shame considering how many very good ones have been done for this book)

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Date:2014-06-01 21:48
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 24
Security:Public

Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read

There's a book I'd like lots of people to read: The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. This looks at progress in the long view, going all the way back to prehistory. The trend is improvement: more knowledge, more options, more babies growing up. There's been a constant drumbeat of pessimism but the longterm trends are always improving. Trade has been the driver of progress, not just in material goods but in ideas. "Ideas having sex" is Ridley's catchphrase for new concepts being spawned from the meeting of different old ones. (More comments and links at my original review of the book)

My hope is that the more people read it the less our politics will be dominated by fighting over a fixed pie and the more we'll work at increasing growth so there'll be more for everyone in the future.

Honorable mention: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which explains facets of human behavior that can drive us in unproductive directions. My original review is here.

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Date:2014-05-31 21:51
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 23
Security:Public

Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. A classic I've heard much about but never stumbled across in the bookstore. Still not available as an ebook. I may have to get it as paper after all.

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Date:2014-05-30 12:00
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 22
Security:Public

Day 22 – Favorite book you own

My college graduation present from my mother was a hardcover first edition of Starship Troopers. She knows me well. It's one of my favorite books and that's a beautiful edition of it.

As for why it's my favorite: Heroism. Duty. A hard look at what governments are, why we have them, and discussions of some alternatives from the defaults we grew up with. Encounters with aliens who are actually alien. The eternal issue of how a boy becomes a man.

Someday someone should make a movie of it.

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Date:2014-05-29 15:38
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 21
Security:Public

Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood

I don't remember when I first read it, but it goes way back: Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein. Wonderful story, wonderful science fiction. It examines what's constant against what will change. Human nature is fixed, no matter what cultures it forms into (and we see four in this book). Evil people will do evil things when they can get away with it. Good people must keep fighting the evil ones. People want you to conform to society's rules, even when nobody's bothered mentioning what the rule is. All among newly settled worlds, alien races, spaceships, and other bits of the future.

A graphic novel version of the book is in work. I got to see the artist and some of his work in progress at Dallas Comic Con. I've ordered a copy, I hope the kids will like it as much as me.


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Date:2014-05-28 11:39
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 20
Security:Public

Day 20 – Favorite romance book

Venetia by Georgette Heyer. The author took two stock characters, the decadent rake and sheltered ingenue, and played them against type to make a wonderful story. Then at the point where some romances would have wrapped up the whole thing, she knocked over the gameboard and sent Venetia away from her love, much against her will. And I'd love to go on but I'd be spoiling some amazing surprises. The whole story is a dear delight.


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Date:2014-05-27 10:36
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 19
Security:Public

Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie

This is a tough one. Starship Troopers? Hanging the title on a disgraceful movie doesn't make it a movie of the book. Puppet Masters? Not as bad a movie, but it's a long way from the book. I liked the "Ender's Game" short story but thought the book version was bloated (and haven't seen the movie yet). So, gratuitous plot changes and all, this will have to go to The Lord of the Rings. Great book, great movie, lots of overlap.

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Date:2014-05-26 13:26
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 18
Security:Public

Day 18 – A book that disappointed you

I was very disappointed by a book not long ago, though in retrospect I was being a bit unfair. The book in question: The End Is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure by Kevin D. Williamson. It's a lovely anarcho-capitalist manifesto, detailing everything wrong with our current system and how much better things would be under completely decentralized voluntary arrangements. Not that I agreed with all of it, but I enjoyed it quite a bit (I'd picked up because I loved the writer's blogging so the style was to my taste as well).

In fact I enjoyed it all the way to the end. When I got there I was angry that Williamson had laid out why things can't go on as they are, and described a better way of doing things, but not put forth any plan for getting from A to B. My review focused on that lack, and how there were much worse places than B we could end up in. This is my main worry about current politics and I'd been hoping the book would have reassurance or at least useful suggestions for the transition. Instead the author skipped the transition. I was mad.

Which was unfair--Williamson hadn't promised a transition plan, and if his book wasn't the one I wanted it to be that doesn't make what he did produce any less. Someone else writing up the transition plan I was hoping for eased my worries a bit and let me look back at The End Is Near more evenly.


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Date:2014-05-25 21:20
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 17
Security:Public

Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book

In terms of morals, there is no such thing as 'state.' Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.


From Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. This is a key point in my personal philosophy. People argue about whether certain tasks should be done by the government or businesses or by families. To me, there's nothing magic about any of those institutions that will get a job done better. It's all individuals responding to their incentives. The worst situation is when someone is given power without any accountability for the results. Large organizations are prone to it because they have enough support (through taxes or other profitable parts of a corporation) to carry someone doing damage a long time.


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Date:2014-05-24 18:18
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 16
Security:Public

Day 16 – Favorite female character

This one is a tough choice. Some Heinlein characters, some Heyer characters, many Bujold ones. I think I have to come down with Fawn Bluefield, of The Sharing Knife series. Fawn starts out as a very naive and powerless character, but she still has the moral strength to keep herself together in a situation of horror she'd never imagined. She seeks out her own happiness in defiance of both cultures in their society. She's brilliant without a lot of education and grabs all the info she can. Which lets her save the day repeatedly in ways big and small.


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Date:2014-05-22 12:14
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 15
Security:Public

Day 15 – Favorite male character

The natural follow-up would be to pick a Heinlein character, but none of them are actually my favorite. This is partly because true love of a character takes multiple books, and for Heinlein that would leave me looking at Lazarus Long. Who has his points but won more respect than love. The male character I love is Miles Vorkosigan, hero of Lois Bujold's space opera series. He's a combination of brilliance and determination. The latter often lands him in holes it takes even more brilliance to dig him out of. What really makes me love him is his own loves and loyalties, to people and family. Most artfully expressed when he discovered his enemies had made a clone of him as part of an assassination plot . . . and since the clone is a blood relative of course his priority is trying to rescue the clone and set him up with a free life.


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Date:2014-05-21 11:19
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 14
Security:Public

Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Fighting for freedom, battles in space, settling a new world, breakthrough technology, and a strange and different culture. This book hits my top buttons as a reader. It's not a checklist either. All those pieces fit together. The conditions of the new world created the culture. The cultural clash drove the battle for freedom. The new technology (Mike the AI) allowed them to win.

The story holds up pretty well for a 1960's work. CGI was invented much earlier and didn't require AI. Most other technological differences are excusable because of the poverty of the lunar colonists (hence no cell phones). I've seen negative reviews recently but what offended them most wasn't the SF elements, it was the teen marriages that were routine in Heinlein's rural childhood.

There are some other contenders for my favorite Heinlein book, but they'll be showing up later in this meme.


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Date:2014-05-20 12:28
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 13
Security:Public

Day 13 – Your favorite writer

My favorite living writer is Lois Bujold. But my favorite writer of all time is Robert Heinlein. I grew up reading his books, not just the juveniles, but all the adult novels my father had collected. I've filled in the collection since then. It's difficult to measure how much of an influence his books had on me. My desire for military service, my profession as an engineer, my marriage right out of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress or Friday--all are on the recommended track for a Heinlein hero.

Not that I love all his books. Some are so-so, some are bad, and having read For Us, the Living I understand why he tried to erase its existence and wish he'd succeeded. But the best are brilliant.

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Date:2014-05-19 12:33
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 12
Security:Public

Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore

David Drake's Hammer's Slammers and sequels, particularly The Forlorn Hope. Carnography doesn't appeal to me as much as it did in my younger years. I don't know if that's the effects of parenthood making me feel the impact of the human devastation more or just that I'm not as depressed as I used to be.

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Date:2014-05-19 00:32
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 11
Security:Public

Day 11 – A book you hated

I have, alas, been forced to discard books on occasion. Water damage. Spilled drinks. The glue on the spine giving up completely (though some wound up rubberbanded or ziplocked). The one I loaned out and the guy dropped it in the creek. But intact books stay or are sent to good homes.

With two exceptions.

Alan Drury's The Pentagon went into the trash when the Marine Corps refused orders to invade an island until the development of a new generation of landing craft was complete. This was after the affair between the Chairman of the JCS and the Chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and naming the plan "Operation Frio" because the Spanish word for "cold" would keep anyone from realizing they were targeting the tropical island that was the current top crisis.

Mother of Storms by John Barnes I actually finished. And regretted it. The main plot didn't bother me much, it was the recurring instances of death-voyeurism, pedophilia, and other perversions that made me never want to see any of those characters again.

To give you an idea of how hard it is for me to make such exceptions, I still have my copy of 1491 despite the cat knocking it into the diaper pail. Did have to cut a chunk out of some pages to make it fit to go back on the shelf. I might not have made the effort if I didn't want to be able to back up my nasty review with page cites though.

(This is counting as Sunday's post because I haven't been to bed yet)

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Date:2014-05-16 23:51
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 10
Security:Public

Day 10 – Favorite classic book

Thinking of classic books . . . which is to say anything published before 1900 . . . I'm not really coming up with a favorite book. I think I'm too steeped in the modern writing style (post-1940) and can't get into them. There are a lot of classic plays I love. So I'm going to go with Shakespeare for this one. Not that I love all of his plays, but most of them. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is my favorite, at least until I see a performance of another that beats out the one I saw in Topanga.

(This post is up early because I'm going to Dallas ComicCon with the kids Saturday)

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Date:2014-05-16 13:04
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 9
Security:Public

Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving

For this I can't think of a specific book. But I can think of an author--Georgette Heyer. celticdragonfly and other Bujold fans kept recommending her so I gave her books a try. Romances aren't my favorite genre. Aside from Heyer, I've probably abandoned more romance novels halfway through than I've finished. So I wasn't expecting to like hers. But I did. Black Sheep, Frederica, Venetia, The Nonesuch, The Masqueraders, all wonderful stories that I keep re-reading.

I think it does make a difference for me that they're Regency romances. I'm an SF fan because I like reading about strange and different situations. Regency culture is more alien to life today than most of the species on Star Trek. The rules of the culture also up the seriousness of the stakes for the hero and heroine. Missteps in the mating dance can be life-ruining in a very literal way. That tension keeps me more involved in the story.

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Date:2014-05-15 15:37
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 8
Security:Public

Day 08 – Most overrated book

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It keeps getting talked up as a universal explanation of human history, and I think it's terrible. Well, it's not completely worthless. It's a decent explanation of the development of societies up to about Bronze Age technology. The more easily accessed resources a society has, the faster it can develop. But that breaks down over time. Diamond winds up completely handwaving to justify European ships arriving in China instead of the other way around. The theory's even more useless for recent history. Resource-poor Japan is doing well while well-endowed Argentina goes down the tubes.

It's a popular book because it excuses history's losers from having any responsibility for their situation. This lets the winners write aid checks to assuage their guilt instead of urging lower trade barriers, less corrupt governments, and capitalist economies. I've ranted about it a couple of times.

Honorable mention to 1491, a error-ridden tale of the Americas before the Europeans arrived.


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Date:2014-05-14 18:39
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 7
Security:Public

Day 07 – Most underrated book

One of my favorite books is Bujold's The Spirit Ring. This is another book with engineering in it, though engineering of magic items. Our heroes save the day by figuring out how to scale up a spell intended for a ring to an eight foot high statue. After lots of adventure, action, and romance, of course. It's a YA work--protagonist is a teenage girl suddenly orphaned and trying to survive in a world turned upside down--but I love it.

Naturally I urged it on my eleven year old daughter. She abandoned it halfway through because the villain killed a cat. The viewpoint character has lost her father, first love interest, and lots of random friends and neighbors at that point. Then there's an offhand mention of a stray cat being sacrificed and she declares it too violent. Shows what her priorities are. :)

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