Archive | June, 2013

Operation Baen Bulk

30 Jun

I am now a participating author.  I must be doing something right <grin>.

Click on the banner below below for details.

In other news, check out my new article and timeline:

The Royal Sorceress Timeline and Background Notes!

An Introduction to The Empire’s Corps Series.

Movie Review: World War Z

29 Jun

World War Z is the most innovative zombie book I have read (it’s not my favourite genre) but I had grave doubts over its adaption to the big screen. Billed as an oral history of the Zombie War, the book is really a collection of interviews with various people over the world as they fought the war. It provides a global perspective that works surprisingly well, all things considered.

The movie is very loosely based on the book. I say loosely because while there are a few ideas that made the transition from book to movie, much of it seems to have been made out of whole cloth. While the book showed a long and brutal fight against the zombie hordes, the movie showed us a solution that, although imperfect, gave the human race a chance to win. There are other issues; in the book, Israel survives, in the movie, Israel is overrun by the zombies. I didn’t expect them to do a perfect adaption – it would have been impossible – but if you’re a fan of the book, there are lots of niggling little details that annoy. Why not try to show the Battle of Yonkers?

Taken on its own merits, the film isn’t that bad. It starts by a sudden outbreak of zombies in a major city, with the hero and his family forced to flee as society begins to break down. (Most of the tropes from disaster movies show up within the first fifteen minutes.) Eventually, they make it to an aircraft carrier … and there the story really starts, as the hero is sent on a world tour to try to track down the source of the outbreak. Eventually, he discovers that the zombies have a very specific weakness …

There are definite moments, I should admit. The zombies are fast-moving monsters, rather than shambling cripples, and there are some genuinely touching moments between the hero and his family. There are moments when they form human (undead?) chains to break into homes (and Israel) and moments when they actively avoid certain humans …

However, when it comes to adapting a well-known book, this movie fails.

Double Standards, Anyone?

28 Jun

Every so often, I am ashamed of my country. This is one of those times.

It was reported two days ago that Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, two prominent American bloggers, were banned from the UK by the British Home Office. Ms Geller, of the Atlas Shrugs blog, and Mr Spencer, of Jihad Watch, were both deemed too dangerous to enter the UK – apparently because of anti-Muslim statements they made while in the USA.

I have a question for the Home Office.

Precisely why are Geller and Spencer considered too dangerous to enter the country when Sheikh Mohamad al-Arefe, a cowardly (1) Saudi preacher who has been encouraging young Muslims to head to Syria to fight against the regime, was allowed to visit London and spend time enjoying life in the capital, no doubt finding time to encourage British Muslims to leave the country and join the fight? Why is one hatemonger allowed to enter the country and two others (if we accept the Home Office’s apparent classification) barred? And, as far as I can tell, Geller and Spencer are far less dangerous to Britain or Muslims in general than al-Arefe.

While we’re at it, Mr. Home Office, I would like to know why Anjem Choudary still in the country? Doesn’t he count as a hate-monger?

The pronouncement of Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, merely adds to the stench of rat surrounding the whole affair. “The UK,” he informs us, “should never become a stage for inflammatory speakers who promote hate.”

Dear me, Mr. Vaz, have you not heard Anjem Choudary? Or are you too busy making a mockery of the principle of free speech(you did join a march for The Satanic Verses to be banned)? Or … are you too gagged by political correctness to apply your fine standards to the entire community?

I cannot help feeling that Geller and Spencer were right, in their response to the Home Office’s decision.

The nation that gave the world the Magna Carta is dead.

(1) I say coward, because instead of putting his money where his mouth is and going off to fight in Syria, he went to London instead. This is a common pattern among such people, including Osama Bin Laden who remained behind when he dispatched his mass murderers to America and then cowered in Pakistan until the US finally caught up with him. How many young fools, in the meantime, went off to die?

The Next Month (Or So)

27 Jun

Things have been rather … odd here in Malaysia for the last week or so. To sum up a long story, Indonesia is engaging in slash-and-burn agriculture and a LOT of smog has been drifting northwards to Malaysia, Singapore and everywhere else in the area. Right now, when I look out the window, I see a haze that reduces visibility to less than one kilometre. There’s a faint smell of burning in the air and breathing leaves an unpleasant taste in my throat. And if it’s bad for me, it’s worse for the kids and old folks here.

Anyway, this leaves us with something of a dilemma. We originally planned to go to the UK for most of July. (Hopefully, the smog will be gone when we come home.) This means, practically speaking, that there will be a delay in my writing. I’ve completed The Empire’s Corps V: The Outcast and I don’t want to start a new project that I will have to abandon while travelling.

In other news, I’ve just completed the editing process for Sufficiently Advanced Technology and started the process for The Great Game (The Royal Sorceress II). I hope to see them both online shortly.

For what it’s worth, my planned future projects are:

The Empire’s Corps VI: To The Shores: The Empire is gone … and representatives of the three of the most powerful successor states are meeting on a neutral world to discuss the future of humanity. But when a revolution traps the diplomats in the capital city, the Marines of Avalon must break through enemy lines and save them before it is too late.

Knight’s Move (stand-alone): Humanity has just won a savage war with an alien race, but there is no peace in the aftermath of war. The Federation is trying to reunite the human race, the colonies want to declare independence and shadowy factions are already attempting to restart the war. Captain Knight and his starship, sent to patrol the colonies, are thrust into a nightmare where the wrong choice might destroy the fragile peace and see humanity plunged into madness and death.

Learning Experience (Schooled in Magic IV): As her second year at Whitehall comes to an end, Emily sets off with Lady Barb on a tour of the countryside, only to stumble across a nightmare from the pas that will make her stronger … or leave her broken forever.

Learning Experience (stand-alone): When an alien race came looking for humans to kidnap and turn into biological computers for their starships, they made the mistake of picking on humans who could actually fight back. Now, those humans have control of the alien ship, it’s tech … and the human race will never be the same. (Yes, I know that two books have the same title. There’s a reason for that.)

The Very Ugly Duckling (Bookworm II): Only a small fraction of the human race has magic, but when one is the sole member of one’s family without magic, life can be hellish. For UNNAMED, his lack of magic and family doom him to a life of obscurity, a life where he’s little more than a laughing stock. But when he is caught up in a magical accident, he suddenly finds himself gifted with powers beyond any normal magician.

Elaine had hoped to sink into obscurity, but instead she is forced to play mentor to the new magician … and save from others who will see him as a tool, a weapon … or a very deadly threat.

Powerless (Stand-Alone): Lord Henry is the most powerful magician in the country – and he never lets anyone forget it. Charged by the King to keep the other magic-users in line, Henry seems almost unchallengeable , the object of everyone’s envy – and fear. But when he loses his powers, he must learn to live without them … and stop a dark wizard with his eyes on the throne.

The Unseen: Magic is real, but immensely hard to use. Only a handful of magic-users are left alive in our world, using arcane knowledge to keep themselves alive. But when terrorists discover the key to unleashing demons, the handful of surviving magicians must work together to save the world before it can be utterly destroyed …

The Gunpowder Plot (Revised): Britain is on the brink of anarchy. The economy is in ruins, the streets are in chaos and the government is completely unable to come to grips with the situation. Sir Charles Hanover has a plan to save his country, but the cure might be worse than the disease …

Big Brother Is Your Friend (stand-alone): When a bored NSA staffer listens in to a couple’s telephone conversation, she becomes obsessed with their life … and starts trying to fix it for them…

Which one would you like to see?


Facing the Iron Law

25 Jun

[I touched on some of this in the afterword to The Outcast, but it should be restated.]

Jerry Pournelle is a gifted writer of science-fiction, but I have often felt that his takes on social science and modern-day life are just as important. One example is his Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which may be stated as:

In any organisation, there are two types of worker. First, there are those who are dedicated to the goals of the organisation. Second, there are those who are dedicated to the organisation itself. In any organisation, the second type is usually the one that winds up calling the shots.

To borrow an example from Dilbert, Dilbert and Alice spend their time trying to actually work while Wally and the Pointy-Haired Boss are interested in gaming the system to their own advantage. The Pointy-Haired Boss isn’t precisely a ‘thundering moron;’ he’s mastered the art of kissing up to his superiors, gathering power and empire-building. While this makes him look hopelessly incompetent from Dilbert’s point of view … the PHB is still the boss, still in charge of the company.

This is a common problem in large organisations of pretty much any description. As people rise in the system, they start trying to gather power to themselves in the hopes of maximising their position within the organisation. A lowly drone in the corporation has no power; the director of a research team has a great deal of power. In order to accomplish this, the PHB must justify his department’s existence. This tends to lead to hair-splitting, pettifogging regulations and a great deal of thinking that seems illogical. (It’s astonishing how logical illogical thinking can sound with the right person controlling the discussion.)

I don’t believe I need to give many examples of barmy bureaucrats in Britain, America or the West in general. Certainly, it wasn’t that long ago that the EU tried to ban unsealed jugs of Olive Oil. Or, as any gun rights activist can tell you, the precise specifications that take a weapon from legal to illegal in the United States can be painfully difficult to follow. You see bureaucrats insisting on schools banning games because someone might get hurt, bake sales cancelled because the kitchens were not vetted … the list goes on and on.

But this is inevitable. Those bureaucrats are trying to justify their existence. After all, they have to be seen to be doing something, right? And if their decrees are thoroughly illogical (or written to please vested interests, like the attempted ban on Olive Oil) who cares? You can’t fight City Hall. Anyone who has tried to argue with a bureaucrat or weave their way through a torturous appeals or complaints process will discover that fighting on their own terms is a waste of time. The bureaucrats can get very creative when they are trying to find a regulation they can use to get their way.

This has to be stopped.

The bureaucrats don’t realise – or don’t care – that they are doing considerable damage to our societies. Quite apart from communal events like bake sales and fairs that help bring people together, they are destroying the respect many feel for the government, the politicians and society as a whole. It is very hard to feel respect for anyone when common sense is ignored and ignorant fools are given the arbitrary power to penalise defenceless people. Or, for that matter, when the rules are followed and disaster happens anyway. The only winners out of this nightmare are the bureaucrats.

Is there anything we can do about this?

I have a proposal – strip the bureaucrats of their arbitrary power.

We have a principle for criminal trials – the suspect is tried by a jury of his or her peers, not by the judge. Nor does he have to prove his innocence; the prosecution must prove his guilt. Let us extend that principle to bureaucrats and their edicts, Instead of arbitrary fines, have them forced to submit their case to a jury.

To simplify this process, we might insist that they are allowed 1000 words to make their case – and, instead of quoting chapter and verse of ill-written laws, they must actually explain WHY something is wrong, dangerous or any other reasonable reason to take objection. The target would be allowed to write a response explaining why the bureaucrat is wrong. If a jury applies common sense, it would be able to decide if the case is actually valid.

If not, they can throw it out. And have the bureaucrat fired if he appears to be being particularly stupid.

Maybe that will convince them to focus on important matters.


People Kill People II

24 Jun

There is a problem most new writers face that goes something like this; they show their work to their friends, who (naturally) applaud it … and then they discover, when they post it online or send it to editors, that people who have no personal stake in their happiness don’t have to shower it with praise. It grows worse when strangers, who only know the writer from his writing, make unpleasant remarks about what sort of person the writer must be.

A writer can take this personally; indeed, one of the pieces of advice handed out to people who want to try their hand at writing is to develop a thick skin. Critical comments always hurt, particularly when the commenter accuses the writer of being mad/bad/dangerous to know/etc. However, when there is little else to go on, a reader may find his or her judgements influenced by the written word. SM Stirling, for example, took a great deal of flak for the Draka books; Tom Kratman has been accused (unjustly) of everything from racism to misogyny.

This problem only grows worse when a writer produces opinion pieces (like this blog post <grin>). It showcases the writer’s talents and exposes his flaws; for example, if I were to assert that Mars is the fifth planet out from the sun, my readers would accuse me of total research failure. Or, if I were to admit to something stupid, my readers might think that I was stupid.

Many writers miss the fundamental point in all of this. We have a right to write (hah), but not a right to convince. No one automatically embraces my point of view. I have to actually work to convince my readers of something – and while I have a right to try, I do not have a right to succeed.

The smart writers learn from their critics. They listen to them, they adapt their arguments … and they sometimes realise that they’re wrong. A fresh eye can point out mistakes that tired eyes might miss. The stupid writers either silence their critics (perhaps by barring them from their websites) or stop writing.

All of this leads back to my prior article on Heidi Yewman – and more recent developments.

My Month With a Gun was apparently intended to be a month-long series of reports, based around Heidi’s adventures with – shock, horror – a gun. Instead, according to several posts online (one of which appears to have vanished), the series has been cancelled. (And then moved to the Huffington Post, according to the comments.)  Apparently, the staff of Heidi’s magazine were overwhelmed by the negative comments they received from pro-gun advocates. These eventually included suggestions that she should be arrested (for reckless endangerment, perhaps?) to posting her address online.

[I should feel sorry for her, at least over the latter. But as anti-gun campaigners were quite happy to share the addresses of people who owned guns online, I find that my sympathy is limited.]

According to the GUN REPORT, Ms Magazine had expected a ‘high-minded debate about guns.’ If true, this was folly. It was folly because Heidi Yewman, while penning her opinion piece, comes across as someone inflicted with wilful stupidity. As I noted beforehand, she took possession of a deadly weapon without knowing how to use it, walked up to a cop with a weapon she didn’t know how to use (what would have happened if the cop had thought she was attacking him and shot first?) and took a weapon into a crowded coffee shop. (You know, the place she wanted to ban guns from in the first place?)

I don’t know her personally. To me, she comes across as an idiot who deliberately endangered innocent people (and herself). Maybe she isn’t this way in real life, but I – and almost all of her readers – have no way of knowing that. We can only go by what we read in her article.

In addition, as others have pointed out, Heidi may have misrepresented her facts in the interests of promoting her political point of view – or lied outright.

There is no point in entering into a ‘high-minded debate’ with a person who acts like an idiot and misrepresents the facts. To paraphrase a line from Dr Johnston, Heidi’s position and actions are simply not worthy of rational debate.

But why cancel the series?  (If, of course, it has been cancelled?)

The GUN REPORT asserts that this is a case of bullying, that the NRA forced the magazine to cancel the rest of the series. I have no idea if the NRA was actually involved, but could it be that the article was attacked because it deserved attack? The facts as presented by Heidi make her seem wilfully stupid and criminally reckless; the analysis of the article elsewhere make her seem either ignorant or a liar.

No one has a right to expect nothing but praise.

In this case, Heidi – and her editor – would have done better to listen to the critics. And hire a better fact-checker.

A Wasted Three Years?

23 Jun

When I was a child, I was given a tiny set of four books entitled – I think – How to be a Super Genius. They were basically a list of facts, with each book illustrated with pictures of someone being watched by admirers, ranging from their families to full audiences in theatres (or game shows). Unfortunately, being able to memorise so many facts (I didn’t) wouldn’t make someone a genius, but a know-it-all … if that.

One of the themes I meditated on in The Outcast was the value of education – in particular, the value of teaching students to think. A person with a critical mind can take facts and reason from them; a person without a critical mind can go no further than the facts. For example, to use a very simple math puzzle, one can be told that ‘x’ equals ‘5’ in ‘2x+5=15,’ – but without the background knowledge of how to break the equation down to ‘x=5’ one could not solve another equation. Knowing how something works can often be as important as knowing how to use it.

What brought on this chain of thought was the realisation, last night, that it has been ten years since I graduated from University. I won’t knock my time in Manchester. There were good times, I learned a great deal and had my mind broadened considerably. But I have grave doubts about the value of spending three years in university to emerge with a BA (HONS) in Library and Information Management … and very little else.

There was quite a bit about the course that interested me, I must admit. I actually enjoyed learning about censorship (upon which I wrote my dissertation) and other aspects of human society that might be of importance to the modern librarian. However, apart from the degree itself, the course failed to prepare me – and, by extension, my fellows – for working life.

What I discovered when I started applying for jobs was twofold;

-Jobs went to people with experience.

-I didn’t have any.

That isn’t entirely accurate, I will admit, but the work experience I had before university (and the official work experience I did in second year) was pathetic, certainly when compared to the experience of people who had been in the field for much longer. Even a very basic library job (shelving books) was difficult to get, no matter what fancy paper I had from the university.

This Catch-22 vicious cycle was summed up quite nicely by my former boss, who had a list of accomplishments and experience as long as my arm. “In order to get a job, I needed experience; in order to get experience, I needed a job.”

Not quite willing to give up and fall into dependency on welfare payments, I started trying to get that experience. This rapidly proved unfruitful; one volunteer place considered taking me, then changed their mind; several schools refused to allow me to work as unpaid labour so I could get experience … indeed, the only place that gave me semi-realistic experience was a charity shop. I found myself working in an old folks home for several months, an experience that was heartbreaking … and utterly irrelevant to my planned career. It was luck, more or less, that got me my first real (part-time) job in a library – and luck that helped me make the transition to full time.

The blunt truth, I discovered, was that very little I had been taught in university was actually important. We had been given a few brief weeks to study the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress system, hardly enough to master it as a customer, let alone a librarian. Everything I found useful in my job could have been covered in a few weeks; in effect, I would have been capable of taking on the position at 18, rather than going to university. Nor do my qualifications translate well into other fields.

I took out student loans to study in England. For much of the time after I graduated, I simply didn’t earn enough to pay back any of the loan. Even when I was working full time, my repayment rates were very low. Frankly, if I was in charge of distributing loans, I would consider myself a very bad investment.

If it was just me, it would be one thing. But it isn’t just me.

A brief search on Google suggested that Britain graduated 333’000 students in 2012. How many of those students are going to walk straight into a job? I would be very surprised if even 1% of them were hired within the first year. The rest … will have to make do with terrible jobs, welfare payments and staying with mum and dad. Incidentally, those students will also be competing with people who didn’t go to university and immigrants to the UK for what unqualified jobs are available.

We look down on young adults – particularly men – who live with their parents, at least unless there’s a valid reason. It just isn’t cool (if nothing else, it can be awkward when one is trying to date.) But tell me … what sort of choice do they have? Moving into a flat/apartment (let alone a house) can be hideously expensive. If they’re not earning, there isn’t anywhere to go.

You think not? Even when I was working full time, I didn’t earn enough money to consider living alone.

This problem has unpleasant implications for Britain (and, I suspect, every other Western country).

-There will be an expanding population of university graduates who will have no prospect of finding a good job, certainly not one that satisfies their expectations. A large population of dissatisfied youths is a recipe for riot and revolution. As this grows larger, expect some to give up, some to turn to crime and some to turn to radicalism. Why not? They don’t even have chains to lose.

-Those student loans will never be repaid. A large chunk of money will eventually vanish, setting off a domino effect that might well damage the economy. (Quite apart from the government-supported (i.e. taxpayer-supported) loan system, there will be loan companies (and outright loan sharks) threatened by the collapse.

-There will need to be considerable enhancement of the welfare state to support young men and women who can’t find jobs. This will mean a cut in government services elsewhere, Failure to do this will cause chaos.

In short, the value of higher education in Britain has gone downhill. We need to take action to deal with this problem before it’s too late.

The government has been talking about unpaid internships – basically, work experience, which is what I was trying to do after graduating. On the face of it, internships seem a great … but they have their disadvantages. Most notably, a young graduate cannot always afford to spend six months on an unpaid internship. Nor is there any guarantee that the company offering the internship would see it as anything more than a chance to use unpaid labour.

This is not going to be enough. Is there anything else we can do?

First, we can insist on additional work experience as part of a university course.

Second, we can expand the internship program (and perhaps tie it to welfare.) I had problems finding a library willing to take me, even as an unpaid volunteer. If it was compulsory to take someone, if there was a slot, perhaps it would have been easier.

Third, we can expand the number of vocational courses. Sure, being a plumber or a janitor doesn’t sound as good as being a librarian (or anything else, for that matter) but there is always work for them. (While we’re at it, we might want to say that anyone who claims benefits has to work as a street-cleaner one day a week. It would be very useful in certain places.)

Fourth, we can eliminate the degree requirements. Proven ability to do a job should count for more than a scrap of paper. (This will favour job hunters with experience, I admit.)



[I sent a copy of this to the writer of TEH BURNING STOOPID. Here is his response.]

You haven’t heard of the Education Bubble ??   It’s about to pop.  Endless utterly useless "degrees", imparting little, if any, useful skills.

Let’s look at my Master’s Degree, in Management Information Science, concentration in Information Security.  I actually learned very little in this program, primarily about ERP systems  and some academics in Computer Forensics (but no hands-on, because the software STARTS at US$12K/ forensics workstation.  They had ONE copy of it at the University.  In Nebraska.  Most of whose students were online  (about a third of my classmates were in Iraq, Saudi, or Afghanistan. . .)

Another 50% of the class were kids straight out of undergrad programs.  Who had writing, argument, and research skills, IN GRAD SCHOOL, that were considered the norm for College-track students in 10th Grade in the US  (14-year-olds, translate that to whatever letter-levels they are in the Brit Schools. . .)

[Standard Grades in Scotland, O-Levels in England (or at least that was the case when I was a student – Chris]

About 10% had no problems with outright plagiarization, even when called on it by peers.  And the reliance on group projects, and group GRADES for those projects.   (Note: the guy on my team who copy-pasted his piece of our project was called out by ALL the other members.  I kept the email trail.  And then when he refused to do anything about it. . .   I reported it to the prof, co-signed by the rest of the team.  He was expelled.  He then COMPLAINED TO MY EMPLOYER that I had gotten him thrown out of grad school.  Handy thing, that paper trail. . . )

The biggest problem **I** see, is the death of trade schools.  There USED to be trade schools, where you would learn machining, electrician, etc.

Nowadays, they’re all folded into "Community Colleges" which ALSO require all sorts of non-trade-related courses (to justify the existence of most of the professors)

Both my daughters are enrolled in one, and both complain about the idiotic "distribution" requirements for their trade programs (Oldest is doing Medical Records/Coding, youngest is doing Systems Administration/Network Security.  WHY do they need to take Art or Literature or Social Studies classes for a PROFESSIONAL certificate ???

Over here, King Jugears is trying to build up a frenzy because the Student Loan interest rate is about to double.  From 3% to 6%.   Funny, when **I** got student loans, they asked me WHAT I was studying, wanted a look at my transcript, and what career I was training for.   Because the loan, while government-guaranteed, was from a PRIVATE bank that levied interest based on the RISK they wouldn’t get it back.    Since Teh One was Annointed, all the student loans moved to the Feds, the "Student Loan Marketing Administration", or as it is better known over here, "Sallie Mae". . .    And generous loans are given to anyone who is enrolled in an approved program, regardless of grades or major. . .  .  when **I** got a student loan, it was tuition-only.  Nowadays, it’s Tuition + Student Fees + Books + Commuting Expenses + Living Expenses.   My daughters have far higher loans than me.

Oh. and Internships ??  Companies are now being SUED for not paying Interns, here in the States. . .

Now, let’s look at my Plan for Welfare and Training:

So you want benefits  ??  Great.  Come on in!  You sign up, and are allowed ONE suitcase of clothing and personal possessions.  The rest ?  Turned over to the Government for storage until you can pay your own way.

First up, medical:  If you’re a woman, you’re getting a birth-control implant.  If you object to birth control for moral or religious reasons, we show you the door and hand you your property, and wish you well.

Housing:  We call them "Barracks".  Which you WILL maintain and clean to standard.  Think the Marine Barracks in "Full Metal Jacket" and you get the idea.

Food: we call it a dining hall.  Enjoy. 

Medical: daily sick call.

Education: you WILL take classes in a useful skill.  If you cannot choose for yourself, aptitude testing will look at what you’re suited for, and the suitable jobs with the most openings are what you will train for.   2-3 days of classroom and lab work, 8 hours a day, plus homework.  And 3 other days of the week, you’re doing that work. 

Kids:  if you have kids, they’ll be in other barracks.  In class 5/6 days a week,  You can see them, in supervised areas, on your day off.

Etc. . .