Book Review: Newton’s Cannon by Greg Keyes (Three Stars)

Book Review: Newton’s Cannon (Age of Unreason, #1) by Greg Keyes

Three Stars

“A reasonable man … can always find a reason to justify what he wants to do.”

Think: The Three Musketeers meets The Da Vinci Code.

“Living amid corruption was no excuse for becoming corrupted.”

A fun alternate timeline story set in the early eighteenth century, but little like the time we learned in school. Keyes takes us into a world where ancient theories of matter and energy are true, resulting in “modern” contrivances which run on etheric power, looking like magic to us but governed by rules and formulae to them.

“Actually doing something almost always produced unexpected results.”

The protagonists, unknown to each other, dwell in colonial American, Georgian London, and Paris during the late (and extended) rule of the Sun King. One is drawn from the historical Benjamin Franklin Continue reading

Elections and the Constitution

The 2016 voting starts, finally, with the Iowa causes. Caucuses, of course, poorly represent what people really think. They are meetings of the party faithful. Even in—especially in Iowa during a blizzard. They are skewed toward the politically active few. Folks who like the Electoral College love caucuses.

Folks who decry the Electoral College forget that the framers of the constitution did not believe in one man-one vote. Not for slaves; not for women; not even for all white men. To them only people who had a stake in society merited the vote. They left that definition to the states, but it generally meant owning so much land or having so big a bank account or paying so much taxes.

Talk about your one-per-centers. Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were not representative of their fellow citizens. They may have been the best and brightest of their day, but they were no democrats.

The framers believed in an oligarchy of rich men passing laws, like Plato’s philosopher king, for the good of everyone else. And they didn’t trust each other. Therefore they established a republic, not a democracy, where everything was decided at least one- step removed from the great unwashed masses. And checks between the three, supposedly-equal branches of the federal government.

We’ve come a long way. Most of it good; some not. Our form of republic is not the best type of government possible, it’s just the best we’ve managed to create with what we have, which is a lot of imperfect people.

Book Review: First Kill by Jennifer Fallon (Three Stars)

 

first killBook Review: First Kill by Jennifer Fallon

Three Stars

“Killing is not the same as murder.”

Nice. Straight-forward medieval-ism short story. Quick, effective world building. We’ve all read enough fantasy to recognize the givens, preparing us for the twists. Inside the protagonist’s head all the way. The stakes are high; a mistake means death; all is not what it seems.

Good job.

Nice cover art by Tommy Arnold

If you enjoy science fiction and fantasy short stories, tor.com is a great place to find good ones.

Repeating the Past

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Many quote George Santayana’s famous quote, but we seem to forget that the point of remembering the past is to not repeat it.

T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1921) reminds us how British (and other) armies in World War One used tactics from the Napoleonic Wars one hundred years earlier. Generals, relying on tactics appropriate for smooth-bore muzzle-loading muskets, slaughtered millions of their own countrymen sending masses of troops against machine guns and trenches. And they kept using those failed tactics. (Modern historians excuse the million plus casualties in the 1916 Battle of the Somme as a learning experience. Really? What was learned?) More recently we find the same tactics that didn’t work in Vietnam not working in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Winning wars is hard; making peace is harder; changing mindsets is hardest.

Not just the military fall into this trap. Almost every training program which is not a hands-on apprenticeship depends on someone to teach the skills, presumably the skills already known by the teacher. And, unless that teacher is currently involved in the cutting edge of research and implementation of new practices, he is teaching what he was taught by those who learned it from other teachers. Business, law, medicine, teaching, seminaries, you name it. Seldom is the instructor a current practitioner.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” Moderns add, “And those who can’t teach, teach the teachers.”

Western culture has institutionalized repeating the mistakes of the past. Credentials shield the unqualified and unions protect under-performers. Protecting the very ones who might be weeded out by the market place. Today credentials protect professionals from staying current, even when the credentialing body mandates continuing education. Why? Because the student returns to be taught more out-of-date practices.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, hands-on experience is worth a thousand pictures.

People of a certain age see a pattern. History is repeating itself. Modern technology masks the pattern to those distracted by the noise and flash.

Apparently we have learned nothing from history. Therefore …

Book Review: Faith that Prevails by Smith Wigglesworth (Four Stars)

Book Review: Faith that Prevails by Smith Wigglesworth

Four Stars

“God has something better for you than you ever had in the past.”

Excellent series of seven sermons on baptism of the Holy Spirit, among other things. Based solely on scripture and anecdotal examples. Wigglesworth (1859 – 1947) was an American Pentecostal. In his day as today Pentecostalism was a minority view within Christians. Wigglesworth believed in the sole authority of the Bible, the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, faith healing and glossolalia (speaking in tongues) all of which are reflected in this work.

“When someone received the gift of the Holy Ghost, there will assuredly be no difference between his experience today and that which was given on the Day of Pentecost.”

Though this book was “first published” in 1966, Wigglesworth died in 1947. It serves as an excellent study in the essentials of Pentecostal Christianity.

“There are two sides to this Baptism: the first is that you possess the Spirit; the second is that the Spirit possesses you.”

One thing I really appreciated. The book is only 64 pages long because that’s how much material he had to publish. Modern authors would have stretched it to twice that (presumably to justify a higher price) with blank pages, side bars, and repetition. This is a more honest approach.

“Are you hungry? God promises you shall be filled.”

Loving Our Enemy?: the Politics of Hate

Recent readings in the Bible, fiction and the media awoke me to considerations of friends and enemies, both personally and nationally.

Hate is a potent weapon which seems to be today’s default emotion of many people and nations. Hate mobilizes unity of effort and sacrifice to defend oneself. But hate eats at the hater as well as attacking the hated. Hate tears down.

And hate lasts longer than joy or other emotions. It’s not a switch we can flip at our convenience, as portrayed in Orwell’s dystopic 1984. National or cultural hate often carries across generations. Some nationalities have hated others for centuries. When I was a child, my parents’ generation were still damping the fires of hatred generated during World War Two against the German and Japanese people, then becoming our allies against the threat of the Soviet Union and Communist China. The twenty-first century finds us clinging to antipathy toward Russia and China, who should be our allies against the ethnic and sectarian evils of our day.

I’m not talking about whether they deserve our love or our hate; I’m talking about us. Perhaps we focus too much on their threat and too little on our joint humanity. No, we can’t just hold hands and sing “Kumbayah,” but we should also eschew knee jerk calls to hate our neighbor.

Because that’s the point, isn’t it? The illegal immigrant or the Islamic jihadist is as much our neighbor as the person who lives next door. And aren’t we supposed to love our neighbor? Who is my neighbor? You know. He who needs my mercy. (Luke 10:29-37) Even though he may not want it.

Love? Love the guy who’s trying to kill me? Love those who threaten all that I hold dear? Love that man, or this woman, and those people? Yeah, pretty much. But you don’t know what they’ve done or intend to do. So?

That’s our example from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. They loved their neighbor more than life.

All three were murdered.

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (Three Stars)

Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan Saga #16) by Lois McMaster Bujold

Three Stars

“Don’t let your fears eat the happiness in front of you. Or your grief consume the future.”

Another treat from the creator of the Vorkosigan sagas. This novel continues the expanded family history with hardly a drop of blood spilled. Not sure I’ve read such a peaceful space opera; no one dies, and the worst injury is accidental. Positively domestic.

“Any man who can field strip a weapon can learn to change a [diaper].”

What with all the winding down and tying off loose ends, it reads like a coda to the series. Hard to believe Bujold would break such a popular chain. Perhaps this summation is for Mile’s mother, Cordelia (who, I hasten to add, doesn’t die. See above). All the talk—external and internal—does lapse into preaching at times. But Bujold is such a gentle nag that the reader need not fell badgered.

“You’d think they’d know better than to piss in the bucket they’re trying to drink from.”

Bujold’s internal monologue is entertaining and insightful, however it occasionally gets so involved that the sense of the external conversation is lost. More than once this reader had to go back and read just the dialogue to recover the thread of the conversation. Disturbs the verisimilitude.

“Sucks … to have all these boys with guns and not be allowed to shoot anybody.”

Recently tor.com asked ten authors to discuss hard versus soft science fiction. Most of them dodged the question by trying to define it away. My take is that hard SF relies on science that is possible given the current state of our knowledge. Soft SF allows Continue reading

Book Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Emperor’s Blades (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #1) by Brian Staveley

Three Stars

(Potential spoilers)

“There is no should; there is only what is.”

As I read the opening chapters of this book I kept asking myself if I’d read it before. My Goodreads.com database reported I hadn’t, but it sure felt familiar. Having read all 480 pages I’m sure it is a new story, but many of the elements are familiar.

“No blade is as keen as surprise.”

Perhaps the familiarity stems from this story including all the current de rigueur epic fantasy tropes (and a few borrowed from science fiction): all of them. Nihilism. Maps. Mysterious murders. Ninjas. Assassin orders. Inscrutable monks. Yoda. Alien monsters. Extinct super races. Hints of extraterrestrial origins. Aphorisms. Rigid soldiers. Sadistic trainers. Hypocritical churchman. Lesbian waifs. Gentle-hearted giants. Prideful nobles. Incredibly accurate archers. Traitors. Magicians. Blood by the gallon. All it lacks are lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

“Every son should have a chance to know his father, not as a child knows his protector, but as a man knows a man.”

All that and a decent plot. Good storytelling and character development. Not too many typographical errors, which should be a given but isn’t these days.

“Resist faith. Resist trust. Believe in what you touch with your hands. The rest is error and air.”

Uncommon for series these days, it even brings the current volume to a satisfying close while sets hooks to draw the read into the next.

“Low expectations are the key to success.”

Why only three stars? Because it’s all been done. Almost every twist and turn felt like a re-run. It was good; it was competent; it didn’t hook my heart. I liked it, I just didn’t love it.

“A man wants to die with his limbs and his dignity intact.”

Digging Out from Jonas

24snowOut early Sunday to snap pictures of our snow-covered houses. Hard to tell due to the blowing, but we got at least a foot of accumulation. (Glen Allen reported 14.0” and Ashland 15.8”.) Of course, it settled overnight. The Richmond and both DC airports reopened to a trickle of flights. The 11.4 recorded by the NWS for Richmond was its eleventh greatest snowfall. (RIC is east of downtown and often reports milder, warmer weather.)

digging3We don’t plan going out today. Maybe not tomorrow. Let the plows work in peace. The pack varied from four inches deep to over a foot. Fair layer of slush under it.

Treva and Eric did all the serious digging. I documented their efforts. ;-)