Books of 2014, #8: Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I can say two things right off the bat about Paolo Bacigalupi.

First, he’s a solid writer with a great imagination. Unlike lots of science fiction, his stories are well-crafted and well-written for the most part. I enjoy his prose.

Second, Jesus FUCK what a downer this guy must be at parties. I kid; I have no actual idea. What I do know, though, is the bleak vision he has for the near-ish future. Bacigalupi’s stories take place generally in a world not far removed from our own, and extrapolate from current trends to produce a vision that’s disturbingly viable. A few of them in this collection take place in the world he created for his 2009 novel The Windup Girl; therein fossil fuels are exhausted or otherwise nonviable. Food energy and genetic engineering created the fallback position where springs and gene-hacked elephants are used to run machines. The world is dominated by the big “Calorie Companies” — ie, the agribusiness concerns that control the food supply with sterile GMO seeds and bio-engineered plagues created to destroy the naturally occurring foodstocks.

It’s not a happy place, to say the least, but it’s not his only disturbingly plausible future scenario. Pump Six comes with several other futures, and none of them are optimistic in the least (the title story posits a future that makes Idiocracy look upbeat, for example). This is not to say that you shouldn’t read the book (or Windup for that matter); they’re really well done. But you might need a unicorn chaser afterwards.

Books of 2014, #7: A Wanted Man, by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #17)

Yep, running out of Reacher. There is only one more in print. Another is schedule for publication in September.

This one’s not as much fun as either of the last couple. It starts out inventively enough by placing a hitchhiking Reacher in a car he quickly realizes contains two bad guys and an abducted woman despite their best attempts to conceal this fact — but, unfortunately, we end up in a sort of bog-standard one-man-vs-army-of-baddies endgame relatively quickly as Child wraps it up in a very by the numbers manner.

The most interesting aspect to this installment is probably Child’s continued experiments with interbook continuity. Like all such series, it usually helps to know what sort of adventures the protagonist has had before (and some are even explicit callbacks), but you could read them out of order without missing much — up to a point. Since 61 Hours (the 14th installment), though, Child has carried some aspects of Reacher’s own larger context through each story. This book-to-book story is its own narrative at this point.

For example, 61 Hours actually ends in one of those non-cliffhanger cliffhangers wherein his survival is nominally in question. Obviously, he’ll live; the only real mystery is how. We find out how in the next book, Worth Dying For (#15), wherein he carries a short-term injury earned in that escape that affects the way he handles the inevitable Deeply Corrupt Criminal Family Dominating Small Town. During his inevitable triumph, though, he has his nose broken.

The sixteenth book (The Affair) is a prequel, and tells the story of Reacher’s last case as an Army cop, and how he came to leave the service. However, when we rejoin the main continuity in A Wanted Man, his recently broken nose is a plot point, and he’s still headed to the destination he picked out during the final chapters of 61 Hours (after, of course, handling the situation with the abducted woman and the inevitable terrorists).

This sort of book-to-book continuity is new for Child; I’m choosing to see it as a positive development, though it remains to be seen if it’ll be more than window-dressing.

From the “we don’t care if it’s 100% true, it’s still awesome” files

Suppose you’re underage in the early 1990s, and live in Austin. Suppose you really, really want to get into shows, and suppose further than a friend of yours comes by an actual Texas drivers’ license that at least vaguely resembles you — except it’s for a slightly older person. Old enough to get into the bars.

You’ve hit the underage jackpot, for sure; FAKE IDs are risky and rarely work, unless you spend big bucks forging (which is itself illegal). But a real DL that looks like you? FLAWLESS VICTORY.

Turns out, though, the story gets better, largely because of the circumstances under which, in 1994, the ID became utterly useless to our young hero.

Curious? You know you are..

Recap on *Ibrahim vs. DHS*

Ars Technica has a great retrospective of the 7+ year odysessy of Rahinah Ibrahim and the super-sekrit government no-fly list.

Go read it. Here’s a summary, in case you forgot:

Rahinah Ibrahim was admitted to the US on a student visa to study at Stanford’s graduate school in 2000. Five years later, when attempting to fly from San Francisco to Hawaii, she was denied entry onto the plane, was handcuffed—despite being wheelchair-bound at the time—and was placed in a holding cell, detained for two hours, and then questioned. During questioning, a police officer attempted to remove her hijab. Eventually, she was released and told that her name had been stricken from the no-fly list.

After flying back to Hawaii and then to Malaysia a few days later, her student visa was revoked, and she was denied reentry into the US. That was the beginning of a nine-year fight over whether she could travel back to the US, which Ibrahim said she considered her “second home.”

As explained in Alsup’s opinion, **the whole dispute stemmed from an errant check placed on a form filled out by FBI agent Kevin Kelly. At trial, Agent Kelly admitted his mistake, and government lawyers actually conceded that Ibrahim doesn’t pose a threat to national security and never has. ** The mistake was not a small thing, Alsup wrote.

At long last, the government has conceded that plaintiff poses no threat to air safety or national security and should never have been placed on the no-fly list. She got there by human error within the FBI… the FBI agent filled out the nomination form in a way exactly opposite from the instructions on the form, a bureaucratic analogy to a surgeon amputating the wrong digit—human error, yes, but of considerable consequence. Much of the litigation took place even while Ibrahim was unable to get much information about the government’s case against her. In December, Alsup denied Ibrahim’s request to see the classified evidence submitted by the government in its defense against her lawsuit.

That they went to war over this case, and fought for 7 years, when they knew Ibrahim was not a threat means that someone deserves to lose their job or worse. That’s absurd, ridiculous, and borderline criminal. These people are the enemy of anyone who values the principles which we usually insist form the foundation of our country.

This is awesome

The NLRB has said that athletes at Northwestern can form a union, which is likely the beginning of the end for big-time college sports.

Even if this decision doesn’t stand, this is the beginning of the end. The whole system of college sports is going to have to change or collapse. The problem is that, in their shortsightedness and their greed, the NCAA and the college presidents it represents almost have guaranteed that the process will be sudden and bloody. If they had worked with their athletes toward some sort of soft landing over the past 20 years, all of that might have been avoided. I always has reminded me of how Bill Veeck once warned his fellow baseball owners that the reserve clause was blatantly illegal and that it would one day fall and, if they were smart, they’d abandon it so that they could better control the fallout. If they didn’t, Veeck cautioned, then some judge would strike it down all at once and baseball would be thrown into chaos. The other owners ignored Veeck, and his scenario came to pass, and we were treated to 30 years of labor strife because of it.

The current system of college athletics is doomed. It is untenable, and now it’s under assault from too many directions. There’s the O’Bannon case in Los Angeles, and Jeff Kessler’s anti-trust suit against the NCAA, and now this. Somebody better seriously start thinking of negotiating the terms of the inevitable surrender.


Dear U of Alabama: Please stop this.

U. of Alabama Greeks Win Fight For Their Right To Be Racist Dicks.”

It was ever thus.

I am not surprised that it’s still this way; it certainly was when I was in school there. But — and this is important — I didn’t really parse the University itself as a particularly racist place outside of the Greeks when I was there.

For years I would’ve assumed that this meant it wasn’t, at least by my own baselines (which I willingly admit are probably warped by my Magnolia State origins). But with a few more years under my belt I realize that I have no fucking idea if the University was a particularly racist place, at least vs its surroundings, because I have always been an upper-middle-class white guy with traditional upper-middle-class white guy obliviousness about my own privilege.

So I don’t really know. I’d like to think it’s just the greeks, and in particular those unreconstructed motherfuckers in KA, who used to throw a party every year commemorating the Lost Cause wherein they’d all dress in antebellum clothes and Confederate uniforms, I shit you not. (Lest you think this was just something back when I was in school, the practice continued until 2009.) But I don’t. My bullshit alert, though, chimes loud at attempts to make this just a Greek problem. And the fact that the Greek system enjoys institutional sanction at the University makes it a University problem.

It sure would be interesting, though, to have some more information — in particular about the racial diversity of greek systems (esp. in the older, traditionally white greek organizations) at other major universities. How diverse is Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Ohio State? How about Chi Omega at USC?

The mistake would be expecting Scalia to be intellectually consistent

Scalia is widely viewed as the most hostile Supreme Court justice to Obama in general, and to health care and birth control specifically, so it’s no surprise that progressives see him as the enemy in the upcoming case challenging the requirement that most businesses provide health coverage that includes birth control. However, it turns out that Nino’s own rulings in the past establish a strong legal precedent for precisely the kind of requirement that Hobby Lobby, et. al., are challenging.

In 1990, the issue was whether or not two men fired from their jobs for smoking peyote could collect unemployment, which is ordinarily not available to those fired for cause (i.e., for using drugs).

Scalia said no:

“[T]he right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability,” Scalia wrote in the 6-3 majority decision, going on to aggressively argue that such exemptions could be a slippery slope to lawlessness.

“The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind,” he wrote, “ranging from compulsory military service, to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.”

Fortunately, the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, and the criminal are all MUCH OLDER than we are.

Apparently, today, March 24, 2014, is the 30th anniversary of the day depicted in The Breakfast Club.

(The title is a lie. While Estevez, Sheedy (both born in 1962) and Nelson (1959!) definitely are, Hall and Ringwald were born in 1968, i.e. only two years before the Official Heathen Birth Year. As the film came out in 1986, this means the athlete and the basket case were 24, and the criminal was 27 — but at least the other two were roughly high school age, if you squinted a little.)

Great lede, or GREATEST lede?

Time’s obit for Fred Phelps begins:

Fred Phelps, a colossal jerk, died Thursday in Topeka, Kansas, at 84, after a long life in which even his few admirable achievements (a series of civil rights cases that he filed as an attorney) stemmed from a deeply disagreeable personality (he loved to pick fights with his neighbors). He was the kind of person no one wanted to be around: a lawyer disbarred by his colleagues, a preacher disowned by every denomination he ever espoused, a father rejected by his children—even, in the end, the children who emulate his worst characteristics.


Back in the 1980s, when Dungeons and Dragons was fairly young, it was frequently attacked by religious nutjobs (along with pop music, dancing, etc.) as a gateway to the occult, or at least something likely to brainwash your kid into believing he really was an adventurer!

Today, this sounds kind of bizarre, but it really was a Thing. Two pieces of pop culture ephemera survive to tell the tale: Rona Jaffee’s terrible 1981 novel Mazes and Monsters, which was turned into an equally bad made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks a year later; and the inevitable Jack Chick tract first published in 1984, “Dark Dungeons“.

Seriously, take a minute and click through to read the TERRIBLE TALE of an innocent young co-ed seduced into the occult via polyhedral dice and graph paper!

Don’t you sort of wish there was MORE to the tale? Well, wish no more, gentle heathen, because someone’s turned that tract into a movie — with Chick’s blessing, amazingly.

Here’s the trailer.

(H/T: MeFi.)

There’s no two ways about this: If you buy one of these, you are a goddamn idiot

I’m all for classic and throwback style, but this is fucking ridiculous.

Some hipster company is selling a canvas, center-pole tent. You know, the kind that needs a dozen or more stakes and probably external support to stay up (or stay what passes for up), and that will fall down at the slightest insult. It’s the kind of tent that has a HOLE IN THE ROOF for its support pole, and therefore allows an inappropriately intimate relationship with any rain.

It’s the kind of tent that lurked in the very back of our troop gear closet when I was a Scout, that the only the doubly unlucky kids got stuck with because (a) they didn’t have their own tent and (b) they didn’t get to the campout quickly enough to snag one of the modern ones. BECAUSE EVEN IN 1981 YOU COULD BY A NYLON TENT FOR ALMOST NOTHING, so there was no need to deal with overtly shitty leftovers from the Boer War.

These godless fashion-victim goatfuckers are charging one thousand dollars for this abomination.

I remind you all that we live in the year of our Lord two thousand and goddamn FOURTEEN, and that you can get a completely awesome tent at REI for about a hundred bucks. You could probably go cheaper at Academy or CampMor or Sierra. These modern tents will keep you dry and out of the elements, and will withstand clumsy campmates, wind, rain, and will not require you to carry a fucking hammer to nail it down. Oh, and they’ll weigh substantially less, and can be pitched all by yourself.

Jesus, Mary, and Batman, these people are absurd.

Absolutely the happiest video you’ll watch today

You may have heard that physicists have found “fingerprints” of the Big Bang; it’s now more or less indisputable evidence that this theory, and the related idea of cosmological inflation, are in fact correct.

Over the weekend, one of the Stanford physicists who ran the new experiment, a man named Chao-Lin Kuo, went to visit one of the key authors of the inflation theory (Andrei Linde) to surprise him with the news.


Because a movie studio could fuck up a wet dream, that’s why

Faced with amazing fan response, uncontestable financial success, and unprecedented goodwill following the Kickerstar-backed Veronica Mars movie, Warner Bros. managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by completely ruining the digital download of the film they’d promised the Kickstarter backers.

The movie came out last week to very good reviews… but leave it to Warner Bros. to totally muck it up, screw over the goodwill from all those backers and scare people off from such future collaborations. That’s because one of the popular tiers promised supporters that they would get a digital download of the movie within days of it opening. But, of course, this is a major Hollywood studio, and due to their irrational fear of (oh noes!) “piracy” they had to lock things down completely. That means that backers were shunted off to a crappy and inconvenient service owned by Warner Bros called Flixster, which very few people use, and then forced to use Hollywood’s super hyped up but dreadful DRM known as UltraViolet.

Nice job, fuckheads.

So terribly proud

The idiot represesntive being aggressively, arrogantly wrong in this story about copyright infringement hearings in Washington is, of course, our own.

The ignorant right-wing anti-gay Poe, by way of a truly shameful degree of gerrymandering, represents both distant exurbs AND most of Montrose, i.e. one of Texas’ oldest “gayborhoods.”

We’re completely sure that district was rationally determined and not constructed to minimize the Democratic vote bloc that is Montrose.

In conclusion: Fuck Ted Poe.

Just so we’re clear: the anti-choice right is objectively anti-birth control

This should be obvious, since they want to both ban abortion AND make it harder to get access to any family planning services — hence the hostility to Planned Parenthood, and their ongoing support for folks like Hobby Lobby, who are suing to avoid having their insurance plan cover contraception at all.

You’d think that, if their actual desire was to reduce the incidence of abortion, they’d work super, super hard to make sure all women had access to highly effective means of birth control. But that’s not what they want. What they want is for sex to always carry the significant risk of pregnancy, for everyone, all the time. They see the fact that we’ve decoupled sex and childbearing as a problem, not an advance, and they’re desperate to roll back the clock.

Cases like Hobby Lobby’s force them to drop their veil just a bit, so we can see what they want more clearly. My guess is that even the notoriously halfwitted American public don’t really agree with them here; the Democrats should remember this issue come fall.

Right, so…

…it’s my birthday. I’m 44, which is my first palindromic age since 2003.

Pretty sure this won’t happen again, as it did fourteen years ago when my attorney ran down Heights Boulevard with a shopping cart full of fire:

Edgar cart2

And I’m pretty sure there will be no need to subdue needlessly cheery meat-and-whiskey-filled piñatas, as we did four years ago:

IMG 5053

But some tomfoolery, either today or tomorrow, is more or less guaranteed.

Books of 2014, #6: A Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews

Harry Crews has been on my radar for a long time, but for some reason I never actually took the plunge. I was shocked this was still the case when he died last year, but it still took me until this month to read one of his books. I picked this one because, honestly, it was for sale in a local bookshop when David MacLean was in town reading from The Answer to the Riddle is Me. I felt bad about the fact that I’d pre-ordered MacLean’s book from Amazon, so I spent about $80 on other books while I was there for the reading, and so Crews found his way into my bag.

I can’t speak to Crews’ entire output, but Feast is something I might call “Faulknerian Modern.” If you read books like As I Lay Dying, or generally other books that touch on the Snopeses, it’s hard to miss the utter disdain and disgust Faulkner holds for most of his characters. Anse Bundren is a horrible, ignorant jackass of a man; of that there can be no question. It’s impossible not to read it and see a harsh critique of the South Faulkner knew well.

When I read Faulkner, that South is, temporally at least, far from me. I don’t react viscerally to the ignorance and general embrace of brutality, because I live in a more modern world, and his people don’t. I see them as awful, but they don’t make me HATE.

With Crews, though, it’s different. He’s doing much of the same thing here in Mystic, Georgia with Feast, except it’s set in 1975, and consequently resonates a great deal more. Frankly, I hate every one of these ignorant fucks, and by the end of the book sort of wished for a massive cataclysm to wipe Mystic off the map.

I”m not sure that Crews has the same sneering contempt for his characters that we see in some of Faulkner’s work, but it seems likely. Writers, like any other kind of intellectual, are generally unwelcome in the poor, rural south, and I’m sure Crews had some of the same scars that Faulkner had. At the same time, Crews includes a single learned character — the new boyfriend of a local girl come home from the University of Georgia — and treats him just as poorly, so there’s something in the rural south’s ignorant brutality that Crews seems to think as justified, too.

All that said, the book is solid. Despite my feelings about Joe Lon Mackey himself, I followed his story with the same horrified attention you’d give a train wreck (and, in that sense, was not disappointed). He’s the sort of person we have all seen: ignorant as fuck, but a star football player in a rural high school, so worshiped as a god until he graduated. College was never going to happen, so he is stuck in his backwater shithole town forever, endlessly revisiting his past while a profoundly shitty future stretches before him. No one we encounter is any less fucked up, or any less hopeless.

Should you read it? That, I’m not sure of. It’s harsh and brutal. There is endless violence. There is a brutal dogfighting subplot, the details of which make it clear Crews has been exposed to it in some detail. There is sexual assault. My takeaway was really just to be thankful that I do not have to live in a shithole like Mystic, or be around ignorant, ruined people like Joe Lon.

So that’s something.

Update: Apparently you don’t have to go all the way to Georgia for a ridiculous snake festival.

Books of 2014, #5: The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers

There’s not really much to say here other than that Nic Pizzolatto and HBO have done more interesting things with the material than the original author.

I only heard about this because it turns out to be part of the mythos, if you will, for HBO’s True Detective; Amazon jumped on the bandwagon and made the Kindle edition of The King in Yellow free a few weeks back, and so I snagged it to read on vacation. (It’s still free, if you want to sample it.)

Honestly, it’s kind of bland, and not really worth your time. Only the first few stories even reference the titular King, and in those it’s generally in a very Lovecraftian thing-you-should-not-know sense. My advice: skip it.

Frankly, you pod-coffee freaks deserve what you get

Those goofballs who make the execrable Keurig machines are annoyed that people make “compatible” pods, so they’re working out a way to keep them from working by using something akin to DRM.

But since people aren’t generally very excited about reduced functionality, they’re lying about why they’re doing it. What tools.

But, as the title says, you pod-coffee people deserve whatever you get. Grind your own, use a pour-over device, and be done with it. Cheap AND delicious!

In which we quote wisdom from, of all places, Tumblr

I think the most important thing that facebook is going to do for humanity in general and the United States in particular, as a society, is inform us which of our friends/relatives/acquaintances are fucking idiots that we really should not associate with at all.

From Will’s Tumblr.

This maps closely to another quote, the specifics and citation for which I’ve lost, to the effect of “Twitter makes me want to buy drinks for people I don’t know, and Facebook makes me want to punch my friends and family.”

911: Stuff you need to do RIGHT NOW if you haven’t already

Use an Apple device? And by this I mean any iPad, iPhone, or Mac?

Then you need to install all available OS updates with a furious quickness, for there is a security bug to end all security bugs in the SSL code on your device. All platforms are affected.

It’s a seriously bad, bad, bad bug. It may be the worse security bug of all time. No certificate validation is happening, which means that site you think you have an encrypted connection to might not be who they say they are. That’s an ID thief’s dream come true.

This bug is bad enough that it’s entirely possible that it was deliberately introduced at the behest of the NSA. The crypto we use daily relies on provably unbreakable encryption, so the only vulnerabilities they can exploit rely on broken implementations; this is a known tactic that the NSA and similar organizations have used. The timing certainly works.

More here.

You can check to see if you’re vulnerable using this site. On a Mac, you’ll need to use Safari to get the best possible reading, but it’ll mostly work with other browsers.

Shoring up the argument that it’s part of a deliberate effort: an even worse bug has subsequently been discovered in the Linux GnuTLS code.

Skipping the technical stuff, the takeway for you, the Heathen reader, is that you absolutely MUST upgrade your iOS devices and Macs today, right the fuck now. Full stop.

Fortunately, Apple makes this pretty easy. Just go to Settings -> General -> Software Update on an iPhone or iPad, or to (Black Apple) -> Software Update on a Mac.