Reviews: The Historian, 1634: The Baltic War

September 10th, 2008

I finished Sovereign on the way out to Gananoque (via Chicago and Syracuse), so on the way back I had to pick up something from the airport bookstore, and wound up with The Historian, which is actually a novel about Dracula.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - 7/10
This book was basically baroque description in search of a plot. The action in this 900+ page excursion happens pretty much solely in the last ten pages. No, seriously. All the rest is varying forms of reading about Dracula, meeting people and talking about Dracula, and lots and lots of travel to places in Europe that have one or another vague association with Dracula. All while under an air of constant menace from Dracula, which is frankly rather inexplicable. It was a decent read but Ms. Kostova needs to incorporate more actual plot development before I'll pick up another novel of hers.

1634: The Baltic War by David Weber and Eric Flint - 7/10
Ironically, 1634: The Baltic War suffers from exactly the same problem as does The Historian - there's a single major event in the book, it happens at the very end, the entire book is spent talking about that event, and when it happens it's over in an eyeblink and seems ridiculously anticlimactic. I am a major fan of alternate history. I enjoyed 1632 greatly; but the follow-ons degraded in interest until after 1635: Cannon Law (which was released first) I gave up in boredom. The Baltic War did not reverse that trend.


September 5th, 2008

I have never in my life used illegal drugs. No marijuana, no ecstasy, no nothing. Did nitrous once or twice, but that's abuse of a legal substance, and frankly I got nothing out of it and wouldn't recommend it over, say, lying around staring at the ceiling.

That said, my position on drugs is that they should remain illegal, but that no purely drug-related offenses should carry any more than fines. No jail time for possession in any amount. The DEA should be dissolved entirely. This whole 'war on drugs', like any 'war' against a noun or a verb, is stupid, wasteful, dangerous, and stupid. Did I mention stupid?

Cop finds you with a joint? $50 ticket. Plants in your backyard? $3,000. A trunk full of black tar heroin? Confiscation of the drugs, and $1,000 a pound. All that stiffer penalties serve to do is to increase violent crime.

This post wasn't meant to head this direction, but since it did I'll state it flat out: People change their behavior if they think they will get caught. Once they have decided that they won't, jacking up the penalty doesn't do shit. Ever-stiffer penalties don't do anything but make moron voters feel like they've done something, and cost us billions putting folks behind bars where they evolve from grabastic lawbreakers into seriously hardened criminals.

But that's a rant for another day. No, the real reason I am posting this is to observe that, whatever your opinion about drugs and our societal approach to them, the fact remains that marijuana, and the people who use it, are funny.

Witness marijuana-laced candies: Buddafinga, Mr. Greenbud, Stoners; Munchy Way, Puff-a-Mint Pattie. Admit it, you got a chuckle from those wacky stoners and their goofy candy names. It doesn't take Cheech & Chong or even Harold & Kumar; your average dope-smoker is by and large a genial doofus. Not a recommendation to toke up, clearly, but hardly public enemy material.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to listen to "Smoke Two Joints". Not the Sublime remake, either, but the 1984 original by the Toyes.

Comcast Service Travails

September 4th, 2008

So we moved house last weekend. The move was within a zip code, so not far, and we still have a reduced stuff set owing to the size of our previous temporary residences. (Although we will now, finally, summon the rest of our stuff from storage. Meaning that the next time we move, we're paying someone else to do it for us.)

I run out of my house, on a little Dell box. I'd had Speakeasy DSL for years, going back to the founding of in 1997, and been largely quite happy with them. However, at the place before the new one they could only offer me speed of 768Kbps down, which was unacceptable. So I switched to Comcast high-speed Internet via cable.

It's been great; fast and very reasonably priced. Until, that it, I attempted to move.

The service appointment was set for Saturday 1-5. I unplugged that morning, moved it to the new house, was ready to go.

No one ever showed up. At 5:30 I called their tech support and fought my way through the gnarled limbs of the phone tree; the upshot was a new appointment on Sunday morning, 8-12.

No one ever showed up. At 12:30 I called tech support and hacked an entirely different, half-hour path through the phone tree until I reached a live person in Fargo ND, who was able only to inform me that the ticket was open and someone should, in fact, have showed up.

Monday was Labor Day.

Full story »

The History of University Lectures

August 28th, 2008

Good post over at Brad DeLong's blog today about the origin of Big University Lectures.

# A manuscript hand-copied book back in 1000 cost roughly the same share of average annual income as $50,000 is today.
# Hence if you have a "normal" college--eight semesters, four courses a semester--and demand that people buy and read one book a course, you are talking the equivalent of $1.6M in book outlay. Can't be done.
# Hence you assemble the hundred or so people who want to read Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy in a room, and have the professor read to them--hence lecture, lecturer, from the Latin lector, reader--while they frantically take notes because they are likely to never see a copy of that book again once they are out in the world administering justice in Wuerzburg or wherever...

And Speaking of People I Like

August 27th, 2008

As long as I'm on the subject - Charles Barkley.

I'm not much of a basketball fan, but I've always had a soft spot for Charles Barkley, even when he was losing his temper. He's refreshingly honest. And as he's aged, the temper has mellowed but the honesty hasn't.

In a ludicrously slanted segment on CNN about McCain's tax plan compared to Obama's tax plan, wherein they presented the effect on various income levels starting with $161,000 and going up (yes, totally ignoring the other 95% of American households), Wolf tried to bait Barkley into complaining about Obama's plan.

Barkley wasn't having any of it.

"Well, I think that if you’re rich — I thank God I’ve been very successful — if you’re rich, you’re always going to be rich. If we pay more in taxes, I got no problem with that. If you’re making that kind of money, a couple hundred thousand dollars here or there are not going to change your life.

Let’s be realistic. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed. I did a great job of saving my money. But I got no problem if I’m making that type of money, paying more in taxes to be honest with you."