Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Almost Girl Reviewed

From Chapter One, Amelie Howard's young-adult novel The Almost Girl effectively employs elements from the reader's own youth to give a familiar feel to an unusual teen's underslept, overscheduled life in a new school surrounded by people she neither knows nor understands in a world that has much bigger problems than the semester project she learns is half her physics grade. The disconnected teen we've known if not been becomes the building block for the reader's view into a coldhearted killer from another universe, sent here to blend with teens while evading military-designed fast-zombies – no, no, she says there are no zombies … but the commandos she used to lead before being given her secret mission are against her now and she must change gears rapidly from ninja warrior to vapid schoolchild as she tries not to lose her prize to other hunters.

Why To Read The Almost Girl

The strength of The Almost Girl is its use of what we already know to evoke our feelings. Who hasn't known tattling teacher's pets, naïve goodhearted victims, thuggish jocks, scowling and territorial popularity queens, and teens who notice with great force when an empty room has only a boy and a girl in it? The protagonist's alienness makes all the more credible her alone-ness, her separation from the rest of the world, the weight of what she's doing alone – things we've already sensed from the elements painted with the familiar experiences found in teen life. The fact the protagonist's stakes involve an inter-dimensional war and the life of a dying prince and so forth merely amplify and explain the anxieties and fears Howard paints with our own experience. Who hasn't seen – or been – a student called on the carpet before a teacher? Who hasn't been busted by a parent, smooching in a house thought to be empty? Come on, you at least came close. You've been there. You'll feel it, too.

You'll also feel the personal betrayal and guilt and pride and anger in the various relationships Howard provides with siblings, acquaintances, your best friend, incomprehensible parental figures, and seemingly everything else you did and knew as a teen.  Howard leverages this to great effect, so we feel the peculiar fear of being identified, caught, and punished each time we're led into another episode that echoes in our own lives.  Howard depicts relationships and interpersonal tensions with great mastery.  The author gently pulls the curtain on certain scenes before they go too far for a YA audience, or else fuzzes the camera so we don't get detail you couldn't notice through frosted glass, but this does nothing to impair our view of the conflicts that drive the story.

Howard appears to understand completely that what makes a story work is the characters, their conflicts, and keeping the reader in sympathy with the plight of the protagonist. And make no mistake: this book is about the characters and their insecurities and triumphs in the face of shifting circumstances and relationships and allegiances. If the story closed on an unambiguous Happily Ever After, there might not be a sequel. But the narrator is ambitious and driven so, in a tragic tradition dating back thousands of years, risks the rewards she's fought to win in a bid to fulfill her sense of mission despite the apparently easy alternative of happy retirement.

To watch broken people try to make their way in the world, not knowing whom they can trust, is much more intriguing than many of the fairy-tale worlds assembled for book buyers. And it's exciting to read a yarn about people operating with limited information under pressure. It's easy to sympathize with the main characters. It's particularly delightful to find one's self liking so many of the characters who are in conflict with one another. The Almost Girl is a fun read, and the perspectives from which it draws are surely as accessible to those who are still struggling through their teen years as to those of us who see them only in a rear-view mirror.

Content Warning

It's a tradition at The Jaded Consumer to provide a content warning to readers who might be set off by contact with some pet peeve that might not be revealed in a cursory overview or a read of the back-cover copy.  Content warnings don't imply a book isn't a good read – but what book is for all people?  Eliza Crewe's Cracked was extremely hard to put down, though its review included a warning for people who want their urban fantasy without central, overt religious content of the sort that began bothering a small set of Jim Butcher's readers some years back once The Dresden Files got underway.  The review of Steven Brust's and Skyler White's The Incrementalists notes that readers unwilling to tolerate real-world political commentary in their fantasy might want to look into the authors' politics before delving in.  They're wonderful books, but like Neil Gaman's shirt says,  
de gustibus non est disputandum. (There's no accounting for taste; literally, "there's no argument about the hors d'oeuvres." The brain cross-section shirt really gives new life to the old quote.)  As with the review of The Incrementalists, effort is spent to prevent this section from consuming undue space.

The Almost Girl is a book is about people and their relationships and their conflicts.  It is not a book about technology or security.  If you are a hard-core sci-fi fan who expects to experience shakes if high-tech super-suits from another Universe turn out to use halogen lamps for external illumination, or you think you will be unable to read further if that civilization manufactures thermometers that show temperature measurement that make senses to those of us who grew up using the Fahrenheit scale, you may want to think carefully before upsetting yourself. If you're a military reader with unshakable convictions regarding sentry removal techniques or security procedures, you may need to take a chill pill before getting too far into The Almost Girl. The cover evokes a delightful cyberpunk vibe, and it may attract scifi readers with demanding expectations regarding the made-up gadgets and technologies that inevitably color such work, and it is to some of these folks to whom the warning is largely directed.

Unless your OCD is out of control, or you have a special peeve involving the above, you should enjoy the book juuuust fine.


The Almost Girl uses an impending inter-dimensional war – and the need to keep ahead of a dimension-shifting cadre of conscienceless fast-zombies in supersuits (but no, says the narrator, there's no such thing as zombies) – to raise the stakes on a plausible-feeling teen suffering otherwise ordinary-looking stresses involving boy/girl interactions and siblings and parents and classes and teachers.  There's lots of action, to be sure. But the best gem in The Almost Girl is the work we all have in life, to find a place for ourselves however crazy it gets.  Amelie Howard's world is just painted a little crazier than yours.  It's worth a visit.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Criminal (in)Justice System At Work

Perhaps you've heard that Michael Morton was freed after almost twenty-five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Good news, that.

But the other side of the story is ugly.  After intentionally withholding physical evidence and witness statements that would have shown the prosecutor's alligator tears (yes, he cried while imploring the jury to convict) begged for the conviction of the totally wrong man – one the suppressed eyewitness confirmed wasn't present – it appears the state's attorney was apparently so busy doing similar work with so many other cases in order to keep his prosecution rate up that he was unable to recall any details of the Morton case. Because, you know, they were like every other case in which he needed a conviction.  The state's lawyer, Ken Anderson, went on to become a judge.  Because the purpose of the machine is to get convictions, and success is rewarded with advancement.

Never mind that the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct expressly bar the behavior brought to light by attorneys working for free or with charitable funding to undo the evil committed by the state with the public's tax revenue. Never mind that prosecutorial irregularities are, in fact, regular.  I suppose it's nice that Ken Anderson lost his law license over this, but how many lives did he wreck before he was caught? Certainly the next murdered woman – whose killer wasn't being sought because Ken claimed he had the right man when it was obvious from the witness testimony and concealed physical evidence that he didn't – would claim her life was affected.  But what about all the other bogus convictions, the plea deals forced on people too terrified to risk their fates to a system bent on consuming their freedoms, the fortunes in defense costs required by bogus prosecutions?

And what about real crimes the district attorney's can't be bothered to prosecute – embezzlements by business partners, white-collar crimes that affect whole communities, and other less-than-first-degree crimes – what happens when they go unattended because all available resources are expended shooting fish in a barrel using tainted prosecutions to destroy lives that aren't protected by unlimited defense budgets?

The system needs serious work.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Offline Password Attacks Getting Easier and Easier

Ars Technica describes how an updated cracking tool leverages the parallel-processing power of GPUs to attack long passwords. Given the amount of money being poured into "whole drive encryption" and other techniques that require the passwords' hashes to be stored with the encrypted data, advances in offline attacks have real relevance to those concerned about real security.

The Jaded Consumer advocates multiple-factor authentication for security.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

New England Journal of Medicine: "Chicken" Nuggets A Misnomer

In a sample of two nuggets bought from national chains, neither nugget had chicken meat as the predominant ingredient. This is problematic, as chicken white meat is recommended to patients as a highly efficient source of protein, and patients who order faux-gets thinking they're following their physicians' advice are getting something very different than they and their physicians expect. A beautiful photo at io9 puts an entertaining spin on this consumer fraud by suggesting the faux "food" is the product of massive clone factories.

via Delilah S. Dawson's Twitter-tag #SoylentKindaChickenTM, in which she eats crow: nuggets aren't made of donisaurs, either.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Samsung's Performance Swindle

It's not like mobile device vendors haven't been caught BSing the public about their products' hardware performance before.  But this time, the problem isn't just something gone off the rails in the marketing department. 

Samsung's Note 3 phone games performance benchmarks.  Although Samsung denied intentionally rigging benchmarks, the Note 3 ships with software designed to detect when a performance benchmark is being run so that it can present a radically different performance profile to the benchmarking tool than it presents to any other application.  When triggered, it changes clock speed and denies all four processor cores any power-saving sleep.  Presumably, the benchmark Samsung is gaming isn't the battery life test.

Details at Ars Technica.

The next question: why lie about numbers nobody will bother with when they shop?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists Steven Brust Skyler White cover revealThe Concept

You've seen the one about the big, long-enduring, highly organized secret society committed to maintaining a secret lock on the world's key resources.  And you've seen the one about the secret organization that just got ready to launch its long-prepared bid for dominance of the world.  But Steven Brust and Skyler White don't recycle either in The Incrementalists.  The Incrementalists comprise a scrappy little (dis)organization whose uncoordinated efforts focus on tiny actions to make the world a little better.

Isn't that a change from the secret plotting you're used to being led to believe is behind ancient secret organizations that wield weird powers over the mortal realm?

It's about time.

The Plot
Once you've been introduced to a leaderless band of potentially long-lived personalities, you have to start wondering what happens when they disagree with or misunderstand one another.  And guess what?  The confusion generated by their misunderstandings and disagreements immediately reveals mysteries the reader wants to see solved.  Who killed Celeste?  Who's after Ren?  Why?  The Incrementalists presents a mystery, and an adventure:  come join a secret society that's being torn up over your joining it.  Some of whom blame you.


The Pace
The pace isn't a Dan Brown thriller's:  The Incrementalists' conflict is largely mental.  Who's the victim, who's fooling whom, who really loves whom, who's the villain hiding from whom and where … and behind everything: why?  There aren't so much car chases and shootouts as arguments and poisonings.  In comparison to other Brust books, this is paced much more like Dzur than, say, Jhereg. The Incrementalists' pace feels suited to a story about people who are trying to remain secret, and show real antipathy for unnecessarily being made to expend effort to keep hidden, when there's something interesting that'd be more fun to do instead.

Pretty soon, the reader is treated to debates about the merits of attempted revolution, and whether shadowy organizations should Save The Known World (for some definition of "Save", if you can sort out just what that means – the characters are refreshingly willing to disagree what that means). The tale teeters as if it might careen into a big story about a battle for control over the future of humanity.  But panic within the Incrementalists' own order derails debate.  The bulk of The Incrementalists is about individuals and their fears, not some scheme to save the world. 

Sure, the characters have ideas how best to save the world.  There ideas fuel suspicions, but not the immediate conflict.  It's about the Incrementalists themselves, and how they conflict with one another.  And the fun in that is exactly that it's new:  we've seen secret societies used to fuel battles for control of the world before, and we will see them again – this is a chance to enjoy a story about people who are fighting to survive the secret society from the inside.

The Plausibility
Look here.  I've already compared this to Dzur and then Jhereg, and you want to hear about plausibility?  Please.  It's a fantasy.  People with super-normal powers, plotting.  Entertainingly, they seem to want to plot for humanity.  But the fact that the world in it contains cities with names we know and technologies with which we're familiar doesn't mean it's really the world we know.

Of course, there is the wonderful fourth-wall-breaking self-referential fun at the end – maybe they want to meddle in our world as much as their own.  It's fun.

And on that point …

The Politics
One probably shouldn't need a content warning in fantasy.  And The Incrementalists isn't about politics.  But I will make what I hope is a short note for those who aren't predisposed to enjoy a story with this politics in the scenery.  In my review of Cracked, I included a similar warning to those readers who turned on Jim Butcher when religion appeared in his Dresden Files, and said that Cracked's religious content ratcheted up much more quickly: readers too thin-skinned about religion to tolerate its presence (even in the context of a story that treats with equal seriousness the politics among faeries and the purpose of the Winter Queen) should be aware before reading that characters are motivated by and believe in some real-world religious tenets.  A similar situation exists in The Incrementalists, but with politics.

So here it is.  The Incrementalists is full of characters who are interested in making the world better.  A few of these characters espouse … (surprise!) … political convictions.  And the authors don't make the heavens fall on them as a result.

Now, the plot doesn't turn on politics or their correctness (though if it had turned into a world-domination thriller it certainly could have), so a reader needn't adopt a single political view in the book to enjoy the characters' mystery or its investigation or the ensuing conflicts and their resolution.  You should be just fine.  But if you're particularly sensitive … well, be warned the characters have political views, and assign good and bad values to historic events that involve politics.  And it shows up in more subtle ways: a main character is shown using PowerPoint for work, but Google products in her off-hours.  She's described as once accusing a boss of making Gates look like Stallman.  Details of this sort are part of how the character is sketched.  You don't need to put the GNU license on your own code to enjoy the book, though.  So, like … chill.

If you want to read a Brust fantasy in which the politics of the people out to save the world don't remind you of the things that bother you about the politics in the world you know, consider his hilarious and fun homage to Alexander Dumas, The Phoenix Guards.  Or – set in the same world – most of the books about Vlad Taltos (Brust's character Khaavren, appearing in both, shows up in this site's sidebar among my favorite characters).

The Point
The Incrementalists involves a new superpower, with new types of things to go wrong.  And its structure isn't a retread of some well-established world-domination plot.  In fact, the main characters' biggest disagreement in life seems to be how best to save humanity.  The conflict between good people about how to do good is a change from the war against Voldemort and his hoards of power-hungry thugs.

It'd spoil the story to describe in much detail what the story is about.  But it's no danger to expose that it follows people who struggle with whom to trust, whom to love, whom to protect, whom to attack … and whether to act at all.  Maybe it's new in defining a new set of rules for the superpower that makes the Incrementalists work as an organization, but let's face it:  in dealing with human failings and human struggles, it's very old indeed.  The authors' decisions whom to make antagonists and how to motivate them say some important things about what they think the real problems in the world are – problems much more basic than – and beyond – politics.  The authors avoid intercontinental battles for world domination to comment on what's worth fighting for – and worth living for.

It's not by chance that one of Brust's characters sits on the right of every page of this site on a list of all-time favorite characters.  Are there more exciting page-turners?  Sure.  But a good character is worth her weight in gold.  How much of The Incrementalists do you spend fearing for Ren?  And why?  How much of the book do you spend hoping one of the do-gooders will figure out what the only obviously good thing to do is?  What (beyond the fact they aren't reading her first-person narrative) keeps them from seeing what they should be doing about her situation?  These questions are much more important to the story than whether some world power will be nudged into nuclear disarmament.

The Incrementalists says something about personal values, priorities, or character.  Maybe it'll assure you what you treasure most in your life is treasured even by immortal superheroes, and you have it made already.  Maybe it'll remind you of your own struggle to conquer the only part of the known universe that matters.  The point of The Incrementalists isn't to explain how to save the world, but how a few people fought to save themselves – and, maybe how everyone can.

It's a murder mystery with no corpse and an adventure without leaving town and it's a lot of fun.  It's absolutely worth reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Crewe's Cracked

Eliza Crewe's new novel Cracked kicks off a series whose protagonist Meda has an appetite for eating souls. Well, life force, at least.  As one might expect, she promptly meets people not particularly excited about the protagonist roaming free, sating her appetite without oversight.  But the story is not just a getting-away-from-capture tale; it's Meda's journey to discover the world about her and its perils, and to learn what she is and where she came from.

Meda's snark, sass, and disinterest in traditional hero activities make her an entertaining departure from the evil-vanquishing fantasies we grew up expecting.  She's perfectly happy to attack from behind or kill those she's rendered helpless, and she's unafraid to admit these things to the reader even though she's very careful to hide the truth from those she meets.

The book doesn't depend on the novelty of a killer protagonist, though.  The hungry huntress has been long depicted in vampire fiction, after all.  But Cracked doesn't give off a vampire vibe;  there's a much closer parallel to Meda in character feeling. It's not far into the book that one is tempted to think about Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter and its protagonist's similarly insatiable need to murder.  Sure, Meda and Dexter are driven differently.  But how differently, really? Each is subject to an awful compulsion to kill, and neither perceives much of a choice.  Each plans with patience, and takes a certain delight in the work.  Both appeal to the reader in part because they've initially resolved to hunt only confirmed bad-guys. Both confront circumstances in which it'd be terribly convenient to kill a witness for convenience.  And both have a keen interest in avoiding capture because neither has any real expectation of being vindicated if caught.  Both begin basically alone, unaided in the fight to remain alive and free while sating a hunger that inspires vicious crimes.

But Meda and Dexter Morgan have very different journeys.

In Dexter, the humor is largely carried by the narrator's obliviousness to human feelings. Not so Cracked.  Meda, the narrator, is well aware of how humans feel – she feels it all herself.  Instead of inspiring laughs with an oblivious confusion over the meaning of human interactions, she entertains readers with a combination of remorselessness and deep empathy with her victim.  She follows this with shameless readiness to display over-the-top manipulation of musclebound males who want to believe she's "good" inside.  The real good guys, out to destroy soul-eating evildoers everywhere they can be found, end up eating out of her hand.


If this were all Cracked offered, it might end at a fun romp.  But it doesn't.  At seventeen and lonely, Meda ends up genuinely connecting with some of the companions/adversaries/friends she meets.  The complexity of their relationship provides readers good fun.  Meda's desire to learn who she is and what the forces are that seem arrayed against her is a convincing basis for her willing (and overconfident) acceptance of an adventure that turns out to be much more than she expected.  On the way she learns the difference between people who like her and people who understand her;  she grows as she feels for herself how friendship, values, and love make life worth living.  A loner, Meda's sucked into circumstances that require her to trust or die – and to inspire trust or be destroyed.  Meda learns to be the human she pretends.

In that way, Cracked is a supernatural fairy tale about what it's like to be normal, and how magical it is to have a friend.  It's easy to cry reading it.  When the hour ran late, I had a hard time putting it down. I think readers will enjoy it.

[spoiler] Content Warning: Religious Belief
Cracked Cover in IndiaSome fans protest loudly when an urban fantasy author includes elements of mainstream religion without immediately punishing proponents of such beliefs for foolishness or the like.  For example, Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files contains a cast of characters that includes Christians whose faith plays a significant role in their lives and their superpowers; the series eventually depicts supernatural beings that are fallen angels, demons, angels in good standing, etc. I kidded in a review of Butcher's work that complaints about religion in urban fantasy were hard to credit in the midst of a story that treated with equal seriousness subjects like the Laws of Magic and the politics among faeries. But, beware: readers who were irritated with Jim Butcher over theological commentary may find themselves extremely exercised as Cracked progresses.  Sure, it opens on an irreligious murderess occupied at the task of luring a victim into her trap, but it's not long until the author begins depicting The Battle Between Good And Evil, complete with demons and holy warriors.  Although this also occurs in The Dresden Files, this development occurs over the course of several novels;  it happens much faster in Cracked – and doesn't have wizards and vampires and faeries to distract people from the religious aspect of the underlying conflict.  The book's cover in India (on right) gives better notice of this.  (Both covers are available on the author's press page.)

I'm not particularly fond of reading material designed primarily to appeal to religious convictions, but I tolerated The Chronicles of Narnia and love The Dresden Fines. I had no trouble enjoying Cracked.  If you gave up on The Dresden Files over religious content, though, Cracked may not be your cup of tea.
[/End Spoiler]

BONUS: Cracked vs. Dexter
It's tempting to say Cracked differs from the Dexter novels in being urban fantasy.  But is it true that Dexter is not urban fantasy? Lindsay's third book [SPOILER for Dexter, not Cracked] Dexter in the Dark outs Dexter Morgan as the vessel of an immortal being related to Moloch, the ancient deity who sacrificially consumed immolated children, and whom the Israelites were eventually barred from propitiating.  So Dexter Morgan is ultimately depicted as possessing supernatural powers on loan from an ancient unkillable psychopathic intelligence to which he plays host – it is this that is his Dark Passenger.  Without his Dark Passenger, Dexter just isn't the cold calculating killer we knew; he's uncertain, lost.  But for the reader of the Dexter novels, this development doesn't result in the feeling of Urban Fantasy; it's a crime thriller.  Only, reversed: the "protagonist" is the serial-murdering psychopath trying to avoid capture by "normals" whose motives and moral decay make them less honest and more offensive than many of the criminals they pursue.

A problem of this nature faces the narrator in Cracked, too. Unlike Dexter Morgan, Meda seems to like having friends – and not just as camouflage. But she's fallen in with a bunch of evildoer-hunters who don't seem likely to embrace an addicted soul-eater with no hope of being reformed … and these new companions include people who'd apparently be perfectly happy to kill her for thrills. (Or misdirected vengeance? Or zealous rage? Meda doesn't review their psychiatric records once she takes their temperature.).  Like Dexter Morgan amongst the Miami P.D., Meda among her new companions seems continuously at risk of discovery and destruction.  The fact that she feels emotions and can have human interactions, like normal humans, makes her more sympathetic than Dexter Morgan, whose support from the reader seems generated largely by a combination of (a) a conviction the other monsters are worse, (b) a hope his hunts will safe the people about whom readers care, and (c) a perverse thrill at rooting for – let's face it – a dyed-in-the wool villain.

Craft Notes
As one who writes (though mostly not fiction), I was interested to see a tale told in present tense.  As I've written short pieces in present tense, I appreciate both its limits and the gymnastics occasionally required to make sure the reader can see everything the author requires to follow the story.  Doing a novel like this, breaking into past only for reflection on the past or where characters would use the past in dialogue, is impressive.  The limits of the first-person voice and present tense are interesting constraints in which to work – and it is work.  I did spot one past-tense verb committed by a late-appearing character during the denouement, but it's not a cheat on the decision to go present tense: it's almost assuredly an error.  Everybody gets a couple.  This is no big deal.  And it's probably easy for the reader to miss entirely.

The front cover of the ARC warned that reviewers should not review on the basis of seeming errors, and should check that text didn't change in final before reviewing on the basis of the ARC text.  Unfortunately I've been unable to get the busy editors to respond to my email.  They are, you know, busy putting out books.  It's not like I can gripe.  So I don't know whether a continuity concern in the first half persists into final.  What I do know is that while it's not unexpected to see some kind of issue to pick at in a first novel, it is unexpected to find myself unable to put down someone's first novel down at 1:38 AM.  So you can see the net effect of my "concern" didn't impact my interest in finishing it. 


Cracked sets up a series about character redeemed by her friendships, and grounded by the people she values rather than by rules (which she doesn't).  It depicts a world in which The Forces of Good depend on teenage reprobates skilled in slipping locks, breaking and entering, and clipping fence-chains on others' property.  God help the people.

Cracked is a fun read.  The sass, the frienemy-ships, Meda's heartless manipulations of others and the ever-present risk of being caught – all fun. The big battle's turning point is foreshadowed hard enough to make it not only easy to believe, but to have readers dying to see the characters put in a position to pull it off.  This prevents it from constituting a surprise twist, but it builds good anticipation for the moment of choice – will the characters trust each other enough to try?  Or will feelings of betrayal poison their prospects? So non-surprise is not a problem: predicting how the tables will turn isn't really what the show is about.  The show is about what choices Meda will make when it really counts, and why.  And whether, in the end, she's learned to be human enough to love.  The consistency concern I have doesn't detract from the climactic choice or how it is made: events leading up to the scene plausibly place all the characters in a plausible position of doubt and desperation so the reader sees the right choice isn't easy (and why the easy choice is useless).  There may be bumps on the road, but the journey is enjoyable.

I'm happy I read Cracked, and look forward to Eliza Crewe's next in her soul-eaters series.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Soviet Traditions Alive and Well in Russian Penal System

Old traditions die hard.  At Mordovia camp, a penal colony operated by the current government of Russia, deputy chief of the facility Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov declared to a recent inmate, "I am a Stalinist." 

Traditions like ignoring regulations to impose 16-hour workdays and mandatory punitive periods standing in the cold have driven the inmate into a hunger strike as described in a letter translated for The Guardian.  Group punishments, punishment for association with politically charged inmates, punishments that deprive one's friends of parole or get them beaten, punishments administered by inmates put in charge of other inmates and left unsupervised … the results are predictable.

It's a sad commentary on life under a state without an enforceable law or enforceable rights.  It's a situation that's becoming all too common in the modern world, and is with disturbing regularity discovered in places where one would like to find real rights, Constitutional protections, and so forth.

What are rights without meaningful enforcement?

It's not surprising to hear, but it's sad.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How I Spent A Night Addicted To Crewe's Cracked

This is The Jaded Consumer, and I'm a book addict.  Heh.

I've written a review of Eliza Crewe's Cracked.  My review was longer than the "I loved it" at The Book Smugglers, but mine's not up yet. The ARC on which mine was based contained a warning about the possibility that changes might appear in the final version, and to check with the publisher before reporting on certain things.  So, it waits while I wait for a response on some questions to the publisher about whether certain elements were altered in the final version.

But I can share that I couldn't easily put it down.  Sure, I managed to do so long enough to feign normalcy in connection with some social obligations, but it didn't take.  Unwillingness to stop reading at 1:38 PM gets you a different look than does unwillingness to stop reading at 1:38 AM, which is when I noticed the time.  Not that I was done yet.

Cracked didn't brook interruption well.  I have a longer review coming, but the short answer is that it was a lot of fun.  The Book Smugglers has a few days left on a Cracked book giveaway, so if you like urban fantasy you know where to go.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

If You Clap, Tinkerbell Will Beat D.C. With A Clue Stick

Granted, my relationship with Harley Quinn is grounded in the televised Animated Series.  And granted, I'm not one of the people to whom D.C. is selling its attempted-suicide issue of Harley Quinn.  But D.C. has probably reached a new low in trying to raise awareness of and interest in its comics by inviting fans to submit naked-suicide-attempt-preparation drawings of The Joker's madcap minion.  Since it's asking for submissions of four suicide scenarios, it's likely these panels represent alternatives she will reject in favor of a more direct strategy to confront the source of her ills. Like, say, ditching The Joker to take off on her own as a freelance villain, which would explain why there's a new Harley Quinn comic coming.  But the eye-rollingness of delivering Harley Quinn fanservice in the form of her naked body in a bathtub situated beneath an array of power-on toasters, blenders, blow-driers, and preparing to pull the drop-cord ... it's in outstanding bad taste even for an industry already so famous for unrealistic fanservice poses that it's got a lampoon blog all its own.

Some fans are, not unexpectedly, put out by D.C.'s latest tasteless gaffe.  The last link also illustrates D.C.'s effort to transition Harley Quinn from the lithe pixielike character who seemed to find a way to show innocent fun through all the awful crimes in which she was involved, into a hypersexualized object of the sort generally lampooned at Escher Girls. The start of the new comic – as a fanservice machine – isn't exactly the most auspicious way to start the series.

Re-envisioning the slight Harley Quinn as a valkyrie with a man-crushing hammer and a big bust bursting from her brassiere is, to me, all the promise this reader needs that the comic's gone wrong.  We've already got butch babes in Wonder Woman, She-Hulk, Red Sonja, and a whole host of others … why not let the one clever little girl show the world what clever is worth?  Why not have a comic book that busts its chops to be … you know … comic?

But, no.  D.C. has made a marketing decision that girls must bear big boobs, and she's got to be naked in the bathtub as soon as possible.


Why We Have Divorce

Nobody goes around claiming to be pro-divorce, but there's a reason no-fault divorce is an important right.  The couple in Montana whose marriage of one week was terminated in a clifftop homicide should be a lesson why people need to understand their options.

No guns. No drugs. Just "reservations" about being married that led a woman to text her friend "Oh well, I'm about to talk to him" then "But dead serious if u don't hear from me at all again tonight, something happened" before she shoved her new husband over the cliff to his death.

Of course, that's according to the criminal indictment. Time will tell.  But … seriously, people.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Apple's Next Ad

Maybe not really the next ad, but ...
... and maybe it'll be prescribed as durable medical equipment for those with impotence.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Microsoft's New Margins Strategy

There's nothing like buying a money-losing hardware vendor to improve margins at an over-the-hill software powerhouse.  Right?

In what may be Ballmer's latest best idea for Microsoft (his last best idea, retiring, worked like a charm), he's moving Microsoft from subsidizing its hardware partner's operations by $1B/year to paying money to accept all Nokia's losses.

Anyone care to guess how this turns out, in a world already well-occupied with successful incumbent vendors?  It's competing with Google, which is happy to give away its platform and is also selling hardware.  (See the Jaded Consumer article at Seeking Alpha, part One and part Two.)  Smartphones is a dog-eat-dog world, and Microsoft is charging into the teeth of high-volume vendors like Samsung with a product it must price to compete with feature phones … or actually sell feature phones.  But fear not.  It's not like Microsoft's never tried selling phones before.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Scalzi's Redshirts Takes 2013 Hugo, And No Surprise

Although you might have missed it if depending on Siri ...

... WorldCon 2013 ended yesterday.  (The above text reflects the results of asking for first WorldCon Twenty-Thirteen then asking for WorldCon Two Thousand Thirteen. And no, I've never heard anybody refer to a time of day with thousands.)

Hosted by Lone Star Con 3 in Austin, Texas, the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention was (as each is) also the place to be to see the Hugo Awards announced.  This year, those of us who'd read John Scalzi's Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas were completely unsurprised to learn it was voted Best Novel.  On the one hand, it enjoys much that went right in Galaxy Quest's awesome sendup of Star Trek – the main characters are surprised to find they're living the fiction that's been off the air for years, and it's not a happy surprise to discover they face real risks – but on the other it mixes the horror of being a bit character in a story about somebody else, the writers of which are fond of killing extras for dramatic impact while exploring the characters' desperate efforts to keep their sanity, and safety, in a world gone mad.  And it asks some interesting questions:  who are the bit characters in life?  Who's this story really about?  Geeks with a thing for fiction will enjoy the three endings, each told not only from a different point of view but from a different person.  It's a fun Trek spoof and a serious story and an intellectual riddle and it's the winner of the 2013 Hugo Award.  Those of you who haven't had a chance to enjoy this one can get Redshirts' first four chapters from Amazon free, right here.

As for the rest of the 2013 Hugo winners ... I now have my autumn reading list.

Monday, August 26, 2013

NSA Dishonest With Its Secret-Court Overseer

Those interested in the ethics surrounding Snowden's disclosures regarding the NSA's surveillance program to the American public may be interested in another data point.  Recently-declassified judicial opinions show the NSA was repeatedly caught by federal judges misrepresenting what it was doing with its surveillance authority in its communications with the secret court charged with overseeing its actions.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

World Votes On MSFT's Value Without Ballmer

I saw MSFT up over a buck on the ticker Friday when I dropped by to make a deposit, and I couldn't figure out why.  Then I saw that Steve Ballmer announced his retirement within a year.  The market's reaction to regime change in Redmond?  You be the judge:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Jim Butcher Update from Space City 2013

I've reviewed several of Jim Butcher's books with what may be all the apparent objectivity of a fawning fanboy (but really, they're great).  But this blog is about what's offered to consumers, and he consistently offers a solid product.  Of course the good news gets reported with the bad.

The current news? At Space City 2013, Jim Butcher confirmed that his September draft deadline for Skin Game will be met with a September-ish submission, making for a year-end or early 2014 publication date.  Also year-end?  The short-story from the point of view of Harry Dresden's apprentice Molly, excerpted here, will finally appear in print December 3, 2013 as part of the George R.R. Martin-edited anthology Dangerous Women.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Amanda Palmer Explains How To Address a Lazy and Obnoxious Press

The glorious thing about the freedom of the press in the age of the Internet is that anyone can take their story to the world.  Performing artist Amanda Palmer had choice words to say about the Daily Mail's decision to "review" her inadvertently exposed nipple after a performance at the Glastonbury Festival.  The Daily Mail said of a slipped bra that it evidenced she'd "made a boob of herself."  I don't think she'd have begrudged them their adolescent giggle if they'd also said something honest about her performance, but they couldn't be bothered to talk about the art from which she makes her living; they ignored it completely to insult and demean her with derogative commentary about her wardrobe problem.

So Amanda Palmer, wife of the celebrated author Neil Gaiman, wrote her own piece about the Daily Mail.

And she's surely right when she predicts they won't review that, either.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Telling Americans About Their Government Isn't Treason

With Wikileaks source Bradley Manning on trial and David Snowden in hiding, and the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence upon us, it's a good time to talk about what it means when the government tries to keep citizens in the dark about its activities.

Before we can talk about the morality of public education regarding government activities, it's essential first to take a few moments to discuss what this topic does not include.  This isn't about workplace obedience.  Both these men have lost their jobs.  Neither will ever work anyplace an American security clearance is required, ever.  

Bush has gone on record that he was willing to institute the spying program outed by Snowden only because Americans' "civil liberties were guaranteed."  But Snowden's report was that NSA analysts had unfettered access to information about Americans and their communications – that there were, in fact, no guarantees of the liberty interests of citizens.  If true, this means that the safeguards that were the sine qua non of the program are a sham.  If true, it's critical that Americans understand it, and that the bureaucracy paid to perform it not be given unlimited discretion whether to self-report that its conduct is, in fact, completely different than was promised to the President when the intelligence operation was green-lighted.  Maybe an investigation will clear the government of what Snowden alleges … but from what I've read so far, the government's response in defending the program suggests that what he says is probably true and that its perpetrators simply believe the "cost" in lost liberty is worth whatever benefit (their salaries and prestige, mostly) might be demonstrated from the program.

And the Manning trial.  Let's get one thing straight first. The Manning trial isn't about copying files without access, or even publishing them to the Internet.  Manning already plead guilty to a host of offenses involving his misuse of data access.  None of that is in dispute. 

The Manning trial is about whether what he did was also treason.  The prosecution is trying to prove Manning intended to aid America's enemies when he delivered for publication information that informed Americans about the government's relationship with Americans' supposed allies in the Middle East and informed Americans about wartime details Manning felt the public was missing.  Was it a misuse of his security clearance? Absolutely.  Was it good judgment? Only time will tell.  Was it treason?

That's today's question.  Is it a crime to tell Americans what their government is doing with their money, and in their name?

What This Is About
Does a democratic government really have a legitimate interest in preventing the electorate from learning what their officials are doing with the money taken from them by force in accordance with laws passed by their representatives?  (If you think taxes are voluntary, ask Wesley Snipes how that turned out.)  Another way of looking at it is to ask: how can voters make an informed vote when government conceals what it's doing with the resources entrusted to government?

Informing voters what government is doing (locally, with voters' supposedly-private communications, or internationally, when the disclosed sound bites vary greatly from actual on-the-ground policy) is a very traditional American past-time.  The reason libel law has been neutered in the United States is precisely to make it easier to publish potentially salacious things about government bodies and government officials.  This conduct is materially different from telling enemies where tired troops will gather for resupply when they are low on ammunition.  To hear government officials discuss Snowden and Manning, one would think they'd done the latter.

If so, show me.

Until then:

Especially when it ends their careers and places their liberty in danger from the government about which they inform the public, it's crucial to keep in mind who the villains are in the efforts to prosecute Americans who help keep their fellows informed what their government is doing.  Nothing is more American than warning Americans what their government is doing.  Especially on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it's crucial to distinguish between criticism of government and injury to the people convinced to elect it.  The principal author of the Declaration of Independence had this to say on the subject:
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
-- Thomas Jefferson 
 And that sums it up.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Next Advance: Child Molester Rights?

So here are the facts for today's problem:

An 18-year old dates a 14-year girl.  The child's parents confront the adult about the relationship with the minor, but the adult – who can not only drive lethal motor vehicles and serve in the armed forces, but also vote and sit on a jury competent to decide whether people should be put to death – ignores the parents.  One day, the minor's mother enters her little girl's bedroom only to find her missing.  She panics: where could she be? Who has her?

Of course, it's her adult lover who has her.

Do you have any doubt what happens to the person who is having sex with the child?

Normal Consequences Are Harsh:
Not if you've been awake any time in the last century. If you have, you've noticed that 13-year-old and 14-year-old children's "consent" is of no consequence at all as a defense against sexual offenses that require legal consent to make non-offensive.  You recall that when adults have sex with teens in school, they end up in the news.  While it sometimes involves an unwilling child, but as often it involves repeated contact with a willing victim.  Even victims aged 17 years create fact situations supporting felony prosecutions, sex offender registrations, and so forth.  Even if the two later marry.  We are totally unsurprised at the prosecutions:  we don't expect adults to be using our children for sexual gratification

This isn't a new policy, and it's directed against male adults and female adults – both of which make the news and both of which appear in the links above. It seems a fairly gender-indiscriminate law, and it seems to be applied to either gender when sex-crime prosecutors discover a case.

So, what should we do with the facts of today's little lesson?

Weird Discrimination Claims
If you're, you apparently host a petition in support of the defendant, claiming that felony prosecutions of the type that are absolutely routine in the criminal justice system are somehow a private beef against the perpetrator because of the perpetrator's gender or gender-preferences.

Say what?

Oh, and "the online global hacker collective" Anonymous will demand law enforcement officials' resignations.

Prosecutors offered the offender an opportunity to plead to felony less severe than the sexual assault charges ordinarily supported by repeated sex with a child of 14.  The defendant rejected the offer of a 2-year in-home "incarceration" that left open a possibility of avoiding sex-offender registration. Where I come from, hetero perpetrators would kill for a plea deal like that.  This case is supposed to somehow represent anti-gay discrimination?

CNN's reporter says, "This may have been a consensual relationship in high school ..."
But that description completely misses the fundamental issue underpinning the criminal case: a 14-year-old cannot legally consent to sex with an 18-year-old.  And after the parental communication with the defendant that the conduct must stop, it's pretty clear that the defendant acted with complete knowledge that the child's guardians believed the adult was behaving improperly toward their daughter.  (And guess what? There's a statute making the conduct a felony – so the parents were on to something.)  When the minor disappeared, what was her mother supposed to do, if not seek aid from law enforcement?

Now, imagine the opposite occurred. "No, ma'am, we won't prosecute the adult's seduction of your minor daughter, because we think lesbian relationships are not as serious as heterosexual relationships, or we think pairs of girls are cute and that only sex involving males can be a punishable offense. If your minor daughter goes missing, but we think she's smooching a girl, we won't try to return her, either."  We'd be howling, no?

Some reporters, learning the facts, are backing off of initial support for the perpetrator.  Apparently, the perpetrator's family lied about things that mattered – like whether the perpetrator was a minor or not at the time of the charged conduct.

If you want an example of idiots discriminating against women for being women, look at school dress code enforcement (even regarding hair; video here, gives a better view of the hair).  Now, that's discrimination.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

American Drones Kill 4 Americans On Purpose

The Attorney General says that four Americans were killed by drones, of which one was specifically targeted.

The good news? They're not in the U.S. (so you're still safe?) and they were at least allegedly working with the enemy (though they were never formally accused and never tried and will never be allowed to mount a defense to anything they might possibly have been accused of doing).

We'll keep following this.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Property Rights in China

A few years ago, China amended its constitution to provide an express right to private property. Presumably, this was intended to reassure foreigners that their investments would be safe from seizure by government officials.

But what does it mean for individual Chinese? Apparently, very little. When police showed up at the home of Shen Jianzhong after it was beset by a mob of 50 thugs bent on running him off the property to facilitate a developer's plans, the police told him to sign their contract.

The Jaded Consumer has covered China's official oppression over supposedly-protected property before.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rebels Plea For Aid: Send Forks?

A Syrian rebel appears on a video eating the heart and liver of a felled government soldier.  Questioned by outraged observers of the video, the rebel – whose identity is not masked – defended his snack as revenge for atrocities committed by Assad's vicious regime.  This raises a whole new question regarding the form that should be taken by international aid requested against the oppressive government regime.

The religious overtones of Middle Eastern conflict can't be escaped, even in a civil war as obviously about freedom from government oppression as the conflict in Syria has been. On the video, off-camera supporters are heard shouting "Allahu Akbar!"  I didn't think that meal was Kosher in Islam. Anybody have authority to offer on the matter?

Japanese Politician: Sex Slavery "Necessary" to War Effort

He may not actually represent the official position of the Japanese diplomatic corps, but the sitting Mayor of Osaka (Japan's third-largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama) says sex-slaves captured and systematically raped across the Pacific theater during the Second World War were a "necessary" result of the needs of Japanese soldiers who risked their lives for their country.

During the War, hundreds of thousand females were enslaved as "comfort women", a Japanese euphemism referring to military-governed sex slaves.  Japan's official support and funding for the maintenance of "comfort women" battalions was in direct opposition to the nation's purported position on slavery taken when it ratified the International Labor Organization Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor in 1932. Unlike consumer protection statutes in Texas, which have teeth because they provide individuals with a civil remedy for damages upon proven violation, the Convention Concerning Forced Labor asked all signatories to enact criminal statutes – so that the government would protect rights enshrined in the Convention. Since Japan enacted no criminal statutes to punish violations of the Convention, the nation's officials were free not only to violate it with impunity, but to profit in human trafficking designed to fill the ranks of the "comfort women" battalions.

National leaders continue to take absurd positions on the records of their own countries.  The gulf between law and justice is vast.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Butcher Announces Next Dresden Files Title

At Jim Butcher's web site, the title of his next book in the Dresden Files.  There's a reason this series' main character is in the sidebar on the right, and if you look at some of the reviews I've written here about buy the first of his books you'll get an idea why.

The next title is Skin Game.  At the time of this posting, there's no content there other than the title announcement. When Ghost Story ended, we knew what was happening next and it was easy to interpret the next-announced title Cold Days.  (The first time I read the title announcement on that one, I was sure it was Cold Day, which I liked even better. I wonder whether I was mistaken, or why it changed. Alas.) But the end of Cold Days left enough to happen next that it wasn't evident where it'd pick up, making the interpretation of the title more of an adventure.

But I'm keeping my theories to myself.  I wouldn't want to spoil anything for an unsuspecting reader. But you can always email to share theories about Dresden :-)

I especially won't spoil things in previous books, like what Butcher must be teasing regarding the name of the oldest queens of Summer and Winter. Muhuhahaha! And so we wait for the publication of the next Dresden book – let the suffering begin!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Siri Can't Find Asia Café

In the Heights area of Houston is a restaurant with the not-very-innovative name "Asia Café".  Ask for it by name while within a mile of it, and Siri says "I can't find things in Asia. Can you be more specific?"

If you get more specific by explaining that you are looking for a restaurant called Asia Café, it tells you about a Jade something-or-another, which is an Asian restaurant.

Ask Siri how to get to the intersection of I-10 and Bingle, and she says, "Got it." But Siri doesn't get it. And as Steve Jobs once said of Microsoft's lack of taste ... I mean that in a really big way:

(The actual spoken words were, "How do I get to I-10 and Bingle?"  It's an intersection big enough that Interstate 10 passes overhead on a bridge, and there are marked exits for it in each direction.  It's not some unheard-of stealth destination chosen for confusion.)

Slavery Alive and Well Today

I was recently speaking to some kids whose school left them with the impression that slavery was "over". As mentioned here before, slavery is alive and well in the modern world both abroad and in the U.S. Recently, two teen girls were busted for keeping a stable of sex slaves in Canada.

People need to understand that the Civil War didn't end slavery, it merely led to its illegalization in the U.S. Like theft and murder, slavery itself is still going strong.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Snipes Released After 3-Year Misdemeanor Tax Sentence

The definition of a 'misdemeanor' used to be a crime for which punishment could not exceed a year. So it's with some surprise that I read Wesley Snipes was just released following completion of a 3-year federal sentence imposed following a criminal failure to file or pay taxes. No, I wasn't surprised a person could be locked up for nonfiling – I was merely surprised that the 3-year sentence arose from a misdemeanor conviction.

On closer examination, the conviction turns out to be three convictions for the same charge – that is, one year per conviction – plus a year of probation. One charge per failure to file. The sentence, handed down by a judge, followed a jury's decision not to convict Snipes for any of the felonies with which he was charged.

Occasionally, when you hear the United States has a "voluntary" tax system, think of Snipes.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Apple: Some Perspective

This piece nicely illustrates the effect of a few years on tech giants' mudslinging.  Microsoft's bravado of 2010 is embarrassing to review in light of 2013.

And on another front, a longtime Linux advocate describes his experience as a user – rather than during his day-job as a developer – to describe why Linux fell to Apple on the desktop like some argue MS-Windows has.  (Of course, Linux seems to rule the realm of servers. Look in particular at the million busiest sites surveyed by Netcraft. For Microsoft, it seems a slow slide in favor of freeware.)

Anyone care to take bets on units and profit numbers for the next few years?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Archdiocese: Girl May Kick Ass

The Archdiocese of Philadeplhia has relented. Reversing its girl-excluding policy that prevented Caroline Pia from playing football with the Catholic Youth Organization team on which she played successfully, it has agreed to allow the 11-year-old to keep on the field.

There may be good reasons not to play football, but "you're a girl" isn't one. Good for CYO, and good for Caroline.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Drone Update

To stop a Senate filibuster on the confirmation of John Brennan as the Director of Central Intelligence, Attorney General Eric Holder answered Rand Paul's latest question on the current administration's view on its power to use drones against citizens:

The interesting thing is just how narrow the question is, and the fact that it offers no indication of the standard of proof to be applied in ascertaining whether some limit applies to stop a proposed drone strike. Given that Holder has previously taken the position that an extra-judicial decision within the Executive branch of government was capable of ascertaining whether an American should be killed for making war against the United States (notwithstanding the Constitution's position on such matters), one wonders just how much security Americans should feel in even the clearest-sounding reply to a question so heavily qualified and lacking in standards. (Not engaged in combat? According to whose allegation? And this limit applies only on American soil?)

Do we have a rule of law, or just the law of the jungle? I don't expect to see neighbors blown from their homes in the near future by drones, but I do expect Americans to hold concern for simultaneous disregard of the fundamental protections the Constitution affords those accused of treason: a fixed standard of proof and a public trial in which a jury decides the truth of the allegations made by the Executive branch. Secret decisions in the Executive to conduct executions based on Executive-branch decisions about the guilt of Americans accused of waging war against the United States are not just against the plain law laid down by every State ratifying the Constitution, but contrary to the American traditions for which we have spilled so much of the blood of our best.