Thursday, December 25, 2014

Gotham: A Review

I recently read Devin Faraci's pan of the TV series Gotham, and felt obliged to respond.

Gotham is for people interested in what Batman's world looks like without the Caped Crusader to rescue anyone.  Without Batman, the city retains all its grit, corruption, deceit, danger, and weirdness – just no Batman to save the day.  This makes it much more like a gritty crime story, except that the weirdness of a superhero's city is added – without offering a built-in rescuer to save the city and its inhabitants.  Gotham is Batman for the self-help crowd, as it were.  But it's a it more: because it's set in Batman's Gotham before Batman comes into his own, it offers a view of Gotham from an angle we've never seen.  Gotham's pre-Batman history isn't delivered in flashback to inform some years-later adventure, but in its own story: how Gotham created Batman and the villains he opposes.


This isn't just back-story for Batman fans, though. Batman fans will enjoy watching Bruce Wayne's eventual foes develop into the supervillains only Batman can battle – some, as they ascend in the criminal ranks … and some, as they work alongside the protagonists as apparent allies, not yet having turned to the dark side, or perhaps not yet getting caught.  But the villains' ascent and Gordon's fight against Gotham's corruption offer story enough without needing to see how young Bruce Wayne becomes Batman (a story we've seen depicted enough not to be exactly on the edge of our seats about).

The writing is patient: it shows us characters we know become major parts of the Batman canon, building anticipation for their development into the personas into which we know they will evolve.  It doesn't rush this.  At the same time, though, the writers understand viewers want to see stories end with episodes: we get fully-formed stories involving characters with which the audience is unfamiliar, which allows surprises. And it does more: it allows us to look at the characters while they are still malleable, still fully human, and before they have become roles in a comic book.  The show's chief, Bruno Heller, understands exactly why these characters are more interesting before they don their capes and masks:
Frankly, all those superhero stories I’ve seen, I always love them until they get into the costume. And then it’s, “Oh, okay, they’ve ascended, they’ve stopped becoming humans.” It’s their apotheosis. They go to heaven and they’re Superman. There have been so many great versions of it. This is a version of something else entirely.
Bruno Heller, interviewed by Entertainment Weekly
And the acting is outstanding.  Just.  Outstanding.

Although the show is built around the police work of James Gordon, it's hard not to start with Gotham's rising villains.  Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney is such a gloriously ambitious crime boss, just waiting to take the crime-lord crown from the old guard gangster running Gotham, that you can't help cheering for her bloody advance.  She's that good.

Robin Lord Taylor's Oswald Cobblepot begins his ascent-to-supervillany character arc in the very first episode, in which he acts as Fish Mooney's umbrella-holding toady and must suffer jeers and sleights with stoic endurance as, for example, his post-leg-injury gait earns him the undesired nickname "Penguin".  He's so obviously not a supervillain – yet – that it's hard not to ask how this pipsqueak becomes a feared Gotham crime lord.  It's delightful to see just how awful the timid-looking toady proves to be once set in motion, how he develops in strength as he manipulates and threatens and kills … hard not to watch.  It's a much faster development than we see from the child Bruce Wayne, which offers us patience for the longer plot arcs.  And Taylor's so compelling in the role you can't help cheering his Cobblepot against his criminal competitors.

When is Cory Michael Smith's Edward Nygma going to snap?  We keep seeing him as a crime scene tech.  But one day – one day ….  Selena Kyle, portrayed by Camren Bicondova, isn't a villain yet, just a street-smart survivalist with sticky fingers.  (And a host of survival skills to teach young master Bruce!)  There's plenty of mid-level thugs, including one played by David Zayas (as "Don" Sal Marone), but they become burdensomly numerous. Behind them all stand John Doman's crime boss "Don" Carmine Falcone – maybe the most vanilla villain on the show, but plenty scary for all that.

But the show is built around James Gordon, long before he becomes Commissioner.  Benjamin McKenzie portrays James Gordon as a newly-minted Detective in a crime-ridden city that suffers corruption so deep it eventually surprises even jaded TV viewers familiar with the Batman universe.  Gordon's effort to retain his life without losing his soul is the heart of the show, and it's wonderful to see.  Occasionally grounding him with his as-yet unfulfilled promise to find the boy's parents' murderer is David Mazouz' Bruce Wayne – who's done an outstanding job – who in turn is being raised by his badass butler and guardian Alfred Pennyworth (absolutely beautifully done by Sean Pertwee), who has some firm ideas how a boy should be raised.  Heh, heh.

Gordon's older, jaded partner Harvey Bullock (masterfully portrayed by Donal Logue) is a piece of work from the start: friend or foe? Both?  Gotta love Gotham.

But, the bit players are important, too.  People who've never appeared in the Batman canon – blank-slate characters whose fates a viewer can't know in advance – make the episodes possible.  It's these whom Heller uses to shape the personalities of the canon characters, and they offer us delight after delight as we see characters we know learn for the first time lessons that later define them.

Cinematically, it's gorgeous.  Filmed in HD, the grim and gritty Gotham is as full of people as it is of litter.  The streets, the buildings – it's got the beauty of a feature film without the distant-as-Olympus feel of some of the sets shot in the Batman movies.  It feels like a city you could see destroyed by greed and corruption while you watch.  Backed by the superb acting of a huge cast – crime bosses and their lieutenants, rank after rank of police, crime witnesses and victims, administrators and prosecutors, nascent supervillains, crooked politicians – there's little so big on TV.

I'm dying to go to the defense of the Balloon Man episode that drove Faraci from the show (it taught Bruce the hunt for justice can't itself be murder, a lesson we know survives into Batman), but it contained all kinds of graphic-novel-ish goodness and irony.  For one, the scheme: corrupt government employees are handcuffed to a weather balloon and launched to a fatal altitude … until their corpses plummet back to Gotham.  What's better than this for a vigilante murder scheme?  Imagine the fear as the cuffs click, once officials know what's coming.  But, it's murder – and Gordon is sworn to bring murderers to justice.  The fact he sympathizes with the killer's frustrations with Gotham's broken government is a bitter pill to swallow.  And then there's Bullock's preference to let the Balloon Man soar into the stratosphere himself.  Critics have attacked the fact that a dark show like Gotham uses something as whimsical and comic as a balloon for a villain's calling card.  This is exactly backward, for two reasons.  The Balloon Man isn't a villain at all, he's an anti-hero being busted for the felonies he commits in his misguided attempt to set Gotham straight.  He is, in fact, exactly what Batman must not become.  The whimsical balloon motif is perfect for Gotham: it's a nod to the culture that must exist to produce the weird future full of costumed villains with which the city is doomed to be inundated.  The bizarro scheme is exactly what Gotham needs; the anti-hero collar is exactly what Gordon needs to taste, sour in his mouth, to prepare him for a future in which Batman running free feels a reasonable compromise;  and all the little conflicts with other characters are perfectly balanced to nudge everyone where they need to go.  Oh, and the epidode's story problem is solved while moving everybody a little forward in his or her appropriate character arc.  It's a solid work, fun, awful, and in every other way a delight.

Fans of Batman can hardly find a better show.

Friday, November 21, 2014

NYPD Rookie Kills Unarmed Innocent Who Took Stairs

In a continuation of earlier coverage, The Jaded Consumer notes that NYPD rookie Peter Liang killed Akai Gurley with one shot to the chest when he and his girlfriend decided not to wait for an elevator but to use the stairs.  There, he was shot by the uniformed officer while doing nothing but trying to walk down the stairs.  Although many of the news accounts do not discuss the race of the participants, New York Daily News published a photo that makes clear that Akai Gurley was African American.

The witness Melissa Butler, who entered the stairway with Gurley, reported that officers never identified themselves, never gave any warning, fired without provocation, and called for no medical assistance.  Butler and Gurley fled the gunshot until Gurley collapsed, dead, three floors below.  No ambulance was summoned until Butler called one after pounding on a neighbor's door.

When asked about killing Gurley with a single gunshot to the chest, Officer Liang said, "I shot him accidentally."

Uh-huh.

In other news, crime in New York is down.  Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected last year on a platform that included reigning in the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practice that in 2011 targeted minorities so heavily that 87% of frisk subjects were African American or Latino.  Contrary to assertions that reforming the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices would "end in buckets of blood on city streets[,]" a 75% drop in police stops – from about 700,000 in 2011 to 50,000 this year – has not prevented New York's murder count to drop by 20 deaths compared to the same period last year.  New York City's crime rate hit a 20-year low.  The NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices were ruled unconstitutional last year.

Maybe the way to reduce crime isn't to escalate oppression.  Who knew?

Friday, November 7, 2014

American Capital's Pre-Split Value Per Share

Seeking Alpha posted my article ("American Capital Ltd.: What A Share Is Worth") outlining the company's post-dilution NAV in the event all outstanding options were exercised.  What's not yet clear is how the impending split effects the options.  If they're not repriced, then any options not exercised before the dividends are paid will be worth quite a lot less.  It'll be something to watch as the transaction unfolds.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Islamic State" Sex Slavery, Personalized

Putting a human face on the sexual slavery practiced by the "Islamic State" declared in Syria and parts of Iraq, CNN is running a story about a 19-year old aspiring physician abducted at gunpoint.  Apparently, the "Islamic State" offers a compensation package to fighters that goes beyond $2,000 cash and drugs to stave off flight from battle:  they offer the opportunity to rape captive women.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rite-Aid's Payment Processor Prejudice: Unlawful Tying?

Rite-Aid, which supported both Google Wallet and Apple Pay until just recently, halted its use of both payment processors – apparently in favor of a payment processor it will co-own.  Is Rite-Aid alone in this, or is it a boycott?  Even if it's not a boycott, isn't tying the purchase of a service to the purchase of some other good or service an indication that a market participant is using market power to create a monopoly?

More news as the payment processor competition heats up.

Friday, October 17, 2014

FBI Director Worried 1st, 4th Amendments Might Mean Something

The Director of the FBI expressed concern recently that technological advances might render practically meaningful the First Amendment's right to free assembly and the Fourth Amendment's right to freedom from unreasonable search.  Instead, it might be necessary to get a court order to snoop on U.S. citizens.  Poor G-man.

Incidentally, nothing in the tech interferes with government collection of metadata, only with the encrypted message contents.  Mapping networks of connected individuals is apparently still fair game for government agencies interested in snooping warrentlessly into the relationships of those presumed innocent.

UPDATE: The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking Congress to create federal law that would interfere with genuine privacy of the sort already required by federal law in areas like credit card transactions and health care privacy.  Apparently those technologies are too dangerous for Americans, after all.

On Fuel Prices, Taxes, and Profits

ExxonMobil's fuel tax map of the United States shows regional variation in tax policy:

The page's author presents a defense to the charge that oil companies are scamming government out of tax money: the government earns in taxes an order of magnitude more on each gallon refined, shipped, and sold in the United States than ExxonMobil earns in profit on the same gallons.

The defense is interesting, but I think it dodges the charge.  Those who accuse multinational oil companies of running a tax scam aren't focused on sales taxes imposed on locally-sold products, but the international business of companies that historically paid U.S. income taxes on income earned in foreign jurisdictions.  From the point of view of ExxonMobil, of course, the government collects not only 40 to 60 cents per gallon refined, shipped, and sold in the U.S. – but also 35% income tax on ExxonMobil's 5.5¢ profit per gallon.  From the perspective of ExxonMobil's detractors, what has that to do with ExxonMobil's 'right' to use U.S. resources to build and defend a global business empire from which it gathers income free of U.S. taxes?

It's an interesting situation that invites inquiry into local competitive conditions globally and examination of the practical effects of tax policy.  With the elimination of the double-Irish scheme, international tax planning will take another wave of innovation (and consultants in the area will make another fortune).  Is there a tax policy that will result in more tax collected and less resources wasted avoiding taxation?

Monday, October 13, 2014

American Capital: Profit From Hated Shares

In a new article at Seeking Alpha, I outline why American Capital Ltd.'s shares are in the crapper (compared to peers), what management plans to do about it, and what impact this will have on the company's resulting value.  Upshot: while ACAS remains hated, there's an opportunity.

The article is American Capital Ltd.: Loving The Hate.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

ISIS Explains Enslavement Policy

The Islamofascist organization sometimes known as ISIS has apparently published a position paper supporting its people-trafficking, which it describes as consistent with shariah.  The self-declared "Islamic state" previously admitted it peddled flesh for cash, but the position paper seems a propaganda step taken to defend its position against genuine Muslims reacting to seeing their religion employed in this manner.  Or maybe it's an advertisement to young males, unable to get dates back home.  The would-be caliphate doesn't strictly require females to serve domestic roles, though; they're also employed to oppress women in public in ways males might find hard to explain.

It'll be interesting to see what response results from these killers' formal announcement of their outrageous position.  Presumably nobody will now mistake their outlook for something less sinister.  Certainly the women who are hunting these misogynists with rifles have already gotten the message.

Apple's Oct. 17 China/India Launch: A Big Deal for Apple

On Friday, Apple's worldwide iPhone 6 (and "6 Plus") rollout progresses a bit further, as that's the date it reaches China and India.  The China rollout is a huge deal for Apple's quarter, and will illuminate Apple's future competing in China now that it's got mobile carrier partners and larger screen sizes.  For the full article on this, check it out at Seeking Alpha: "Apple's iPhone Launch: Predicting A Strong 2014 Holiday Quarter?"

One thing to look out for over the quarter will be news about Apple's payment processing network rollout.  Since it's limited to the iPhone 6 – other phones lack the security hardware that enables Apple to get "card-present" treatment from card issuers – the size of the user population and the scale of the profit to Apple won't be the metrics to watch.  Look for reports on ease-of-use, availability at merchants, and merchant efforts to promote the service (Apple may be using transaction processing fee reductions as a tool to grow the network – fee reductions that Apple may simply pass along to merchants after negotiating its own discounts from issuers).  A payment processing network that cuts incumbent processors out of the picture to provide security to merchants and fraud-protection to card-issuing banks has the potential to grow significantly over time, while reducing Apple's costs on every transaction consumers have with it as a merchant.  This move – predicted here in 2011plays to Apple's existing strengths while growing its vertical integration.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

If She's Arrested There Must Be Something To It, Right?

A woman found in possession of a spoon with SpaghettiOs sauce on it spent a month in jail after officers wrote a report that described the spoon as bearing "a residue" they alleged showed she'd used the spoon to prepare meth.  While incarcerated she was so worn down she considered taking a plea deal to be freed, despite that it would falsely have branded her for life as a felon drug user.

When the overloaded lab's test results came back it became evident the state had no case.  At least the prosecutors didn't bury the exculpatory evidence as occurred elsewhere, and the error was discovered while its victim was still alive to free.

Has our zeal to make it easy to arrest bad guys reached a point that nobody is safe from losing valuable rights – like the freedom to sleep at home – on a mere accusation?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Grand Jury: OK To Shoot Man For Buying Unloaded BB-gun at Wal-Mart

Today an Ohio grand jury "decided that the police officers were justified" when they killed Cincinnati resident John Crawford III when they found him shopping in a Wal-Mart, and trying to buy one of the unloaded BB-guns for sale lawfully at the store. (Video at link)

Sean Williams, the officer who shot Mr. Crasford while he was turned away and on a cell phone had previously killed a civilian in 2010.  In that incident Scott Brogli, a retired Master Sergeant, was shot dead at his apartment in front of his 17-year-old son.

Unlike the Brogli killing (which police stated involved a knife), Mr. Crawford was facing away from his shooter, was on a cell phone, and was holding an unloaded BB-gun when he was shot twice.

The other officer involved in the Crawford shooting, David Darkow, is already back at work.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Statue Raised to Innocent Man Who Died Imprisoned

In Lubbock, Texas, a statue has been raised honoring Timothy Cole, a nonsmoker who was convicted of an aggravated sexual assault committed by a smoker.  Cole died in prison years after the real perpetrator, Jerry Wayne Johnson, wrote prosecutors to confess he'd committed the assault.  Johnson had heard Cole weeping in a nearby holding cell, but didn't risk confessing until the statute of limitations had run.  The Lubbock County prosecutor who procured the erroneous conviction sent no response to Johnson's letters, and Cole died in prison without ever learning the guilty man had confessed.  Cole died in prison of a severe asthma his family believed would have been better treated in the free world, – treatment that would have extended his life.  Cole's asthma was one reason he never smoked.


Cole had been offered parole if he confessed to the assault, but refused to lie to be set free.  He encouraged his sister to stick with her law school plans, saying he believed in the justice system even if it didn't believe in him.

There are no words.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Apple Entering Payment Processing

Although Apple's had a toe in the payment-processing water with its Passbook system (which allows coupons, gift cards, etc. to be used through an iPhone as if the card were present), and Apple's position as the world's largest music store has put it in close connection with all the major credit card companies, Apple hasn't before taken the step of eliminating the middle-men and connecting credit card companies more directly with the vendors selling goods on the store.  As explained in my new article at Seeking Alpha, Apple's position supports its launch as a payment processing enterprise.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Islamofascists Sell Sex Slaves for Fundraiser?

Not long ago, the so-called Islamic militants Boku Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls then announced they were for sale.

Now the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is in the news selling as "spoils of war" captive females they claim converted to Islam in order to marry Islamists.

While it's not clear what established governments are willing to do to protect women from being treated as property (U.S. planes apparently engaged in search activity), it's evident that private individuals are willing to take steps to free captives.

This isn't to say that fascist-government-sponsored sex slavery is new (it isn't), or that established governments do better (if Russia is "established", definitely not), or that it can't thrive where local law is otherwise effective (if we doubt law in the U.S., there's at least a tradition of the rule of law in Canada, no?).  There's room for improvement everywhere, apparently.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

JAMA: Legal Weed Reduces Painkiller ODs?

And now, for something completely different.

New research in JAMA Internal Medicine (formerly Archives of Internal Medicine) finds a 24.8% reduction in annual opiate overdose mortality in states that allow physicians to prescribe cannabis for pain.  The nontrivial improvement in so concrete a metric as mortality represents an interesting fact in the discussion of cannabis regulation.  The association of prescription availability of cannabis with the mortality reduction strengthened over time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ready Player One, Reviewed: Yummy '80s Nostalgia Feel-Good

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a feel-good rags-to-riches '80s-nostalgia quest set in a dystopic future and the immersive alternate reality in which its residents transact most of their online existence.  The story is a sort of Brewster's Millions meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Unlike the protagonist of Brewster's Millions, the narrator isn't predestined to get a crack at inheriting – he's in a race against everyone else looking for the dead man's loot.  As in Brewster's Millions, he's beset by cheats looking to sabotage his quest in their own self-interest.  Worse, the route to victory is much less clear than in Brewster's Millions – in that book, it's at least evident how one should behave to accomplish the mission (also, Brewster's Millions has  only one contestant).  Ready Player One presents a multiple-stage quest driven by riddles that depend on knowledge only dyed-in-the-wool geeks steeped in '80s lore could possibly unravel.  The payoff? In the tradition of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the prize is fantasy-land itself, and the right to run it.  The end echoes Brewster's Millions: the hunt for the "Easter Egg" hidden in the VR universe forces the narrator to immerse himself in a pretend world that ultimately teaches him he must live in the real one.  It's an uplifting story made all the more hopeful by the miserable dystopia in which it's set.  Loved it.


Sympathy for the downtrodden protagonist is built quickly enough that the occasional, hefty block of multi-paragraph infodump worldbuilding is easy to accept in what feels an earned confidence the story is worth the effort.  The sense of infodump was greater on re-read than on first pass; much is also historical trivia that can be fun to experience in the context of the '80s-nostalgiafest that is the in-game contest.  And some is really unavoidable: historical computer game details and how to exploit their bugs turns out to matter, and the reader can't be assumed to know the huge variety of '80s trivia the protagonist has amassed in order to master the in-game quest.  Several scenes clearly show the author intended a specific image appear in a film adaptation, but this break from storytelling to film direction doesn't come often enough distract one too badly from the story.  And maybe they won't distract you enough to push your head from the story as they did me.  Maybe you'll like them.

The book is a fun read.  Loaded with pop cultural references, it's hard not to giggle eventually even at such things as the names of VR planets.  Anyone who grew up with computers from the era of text-based games will adore the competitions laid out before the characters.  I can't say what people will think about the story that haven't lived through the '80s, but the book's nonstop celebration of fandom will appeal broadly to those for whom music, movies, or games ever formed an important facet of life.    A strong female character is revealed early on – and not simply to rescue.  Although some late-appearing pro-gay and pro-minority elements have a bolted-on feel, the gender equality is baked-in and can be tasted throughout.

Part of the story's triumphant feel comes from its Cyberpunk sensibility, depicting individuals awash in a sea of overwhelming social and corporate powers that seek to crush them into industrial lubricant – the perfect place to showcase human triumph at the individual level.  And that's part of the book's charm: it doesn't depict Conan (or even Molly Millions) wiping the floor with corporate goons, it shows individuals working for a common cause – as individuals – to triumph personally over the dehumanizing social machine.  In an interview on urban fantasy, author Jim Butcher pointed out that Mark Twain advocated a formula: for every plausible-feeling fiction the author must mix two parts truth.  Ernest Cline provides, first of all, a plausible environment – who doesn't believe people flee their real-world lives for an online experience even now? – then populates it with plausible villains.  The corporation seeking control of the OASIS online system evidences motives and intentions readers will find extremely plausible in the current age of targeted advertising and e-snooping.  The fact that it also turns out to be a credit card company that collects debts using indentured servitude none are expected to repay simply mines history for mining towns, company stores, debtors' prisons, indenturement, and a host of other real-world evils that aren't hard to imagine returning to vogue as individual rights continue to erode.  Half the setting's feel comes from the fact there's no effective government to keep wrongdoers in line – precisely why the online OASIS is crucial to preserve: it's a place a benevolent omnipotent caretaker is not only possible but has become (at least in the fictional world) necessary.  The dark world is close enough to the one people know – or at least, the one they fear coming – that it's an easy sell as a future setting.  The plausible dark future and its plausible greedy villains are a perfect place to put good-hearted people in jeopardy in order to prove their mettle.

And save the Universe.

If you spent much of your formative years in the '80s, you must read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Security Problems in Paris

In Paris recently, an armed crew hit a Saudi prince's convoy to heist his suitcase of cash.

This isn't the only evidence of security problems in Paris.  Earlier this year, French officials confirmed they'd deploy Chinese police to patrol parts of Paris in which Chinese tourists were likely to desire additional security.

Imagine that in your neighborhood.  Crazy, no?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Healthcare Shopping Lunacy

After my disastrous bait-and-switch experience at healthcare.gov, I finally (after more than four months and several hours of on-the-phone troubleshooting) get confirmation the plan that didn't include my kids' pediatrician (despite the pre-enrollment search that listed all the docs I cared about) was cancelled.  Then L's coverage terminates, and we are in the market again.  My existing insurer can't add L to my plan because its employees can't figure out who to transfer me to in order to get a quote, until they finally transfer me to someone whose incompetence (I shudder to think his abuse is intentional, but it certainly could be) prevents him from obtaining from me the information needed to provide me a quote.  He interrupts me over and over; I hang up and try back for someone else in his department, but he answers again and is no more helpful the next time, either.  So, bye-bye Aetna.  This is how you lose healthy insureds.  That's why I'm on a private exchange looking for health coverage.  The private exchange is pleasant in that I could get a human to walk me though it and answer questions and email me documents about the various coverages available.  It looks pretty good.

I enter detailed information about everyone I want covered in order to get plan cost information, and when I click to "apply" for the plan … I'm required to enter it all over again. 

I do. 

Then, I get a page that informs me I haven't applied until I've made a medical application. 

Guess what?  I get to re-enter all the information, yet again.

I click to add a spouse, and the webform demands I answer whether this spouse is married.  I mean, really.

Then I get this:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires us to be reasonably assured that you and each member on this policy have coverage for pediatric dental services that are essential health benefits. The Affordable Care Act requires these benefits even if there is no one on the policy who is eligible for these services.
The government's own web site makes crystal clear that this is a lie: there's no obligation to purchase dental coverage, only an obligation to make it available – and no tax imposed on persons without dental coverage.  After doing some math based on expected dental costs, I conclude I'm better off putting premium dollars in a health savings account.  But the "medical application" requires one to claim to have dental coverage, or purchase it for over $40/month/person.  Just crazy.  The law doesn't require the coverage, but the idiots who coded the site do.

This just goes on and on.

Beam me up, Scotty.  There's little sign of intelligent life in the insurance industry.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Government Killings: What Defines An Epidemic?

Supposedly one is an accident, two a coincidence, and three a pattern. Stories about uniformed government peace officers killing Americans without trial raise concerns not only about the safety of life under its rule but the endurance of the rights with which the government has been entrusted – the rights that are, in fact, the government's purpose for existence.  How iffy must those rights become before something must be done?  When is it an epidemic?

In Oklahoma City, two police officers murdered the man dating their daughter. (The man was black.)

In Cincinnati, a man was shot dead by police in the store where he sought to purchase a BB-gun. (The BB-gun buyer was also black.)

An unarmed teen walking with a friend in the street was killed after a police car approached, and its uniformed officer told the boy to get on the sidewalk.  Despite that the boy had no weapon and raised his hands in surrender, the just-graduated teen was shot dead in Missouri.  (Other versions of this story point out the killed man was black.)

Before then, New York City police killed a man they found standing unarmed at the scene of a reported disturbance (which the shooting victim had broken up before officers arrived).  This incident got more profile because it was filmed by bystanders, and because police reports purporting to describe the scene – made before police knew film existed – shows the police acted deliberately to conceal from the public the truth about the killing.  Although the incident has been described as illustrating a plague of brutality against black men, one wonders how anyone could feel "protected" by armed men who go unprosecuted despite doing this to other humans.  The police response?  Eric Garner wasn't killed by armed men employing a choke hold after their victim begged for air and warned them he couldn't breathe, he was killed for failure to respect the officers of the NYPD.  To make sure the news on the NYPD is appropriately respectful, the NYPD has begun writing its news itself.  Like Cesar trying to sound like a historian by writing about himself in the third person, the NYPD offers feels-like-news stories purporting to celebrate successes like recovering a single .22 handgun. On the bright side, the officer who arrested the .22's owner managed to do it without killing anyone. Yay?

In Houston, police killed a mentally ill double-amputee who was confined to a wheelchair.  According to police, the man attempted to stab an officer with a pen.  Lemme give you a hint, for the next time a schizophrenic bipolar patient who's confined to a wheelchair gives you palpitations over the risk he's unwilling to surrender his felt-tipped pen, consider fleeing for the high ground of the nearby bed, which the wheelchair will not surmount.  Just a thought.  In a metropolitan area exceeding five million souls, there's bound to be someone who's very ill and poorly medicated  – someplace – pretty much incessantly.  From the incident's description, two officers were in the room and neither bothered to attempt any kind of restraint – they just brandished weapons and issued commands to a man whose psychiatric disorder could very well have been causing him to hear things they never spoke.  It wasn't the first time the officer who pulled the trigger decided that the answer to his daily problem was to shoot a civilian.  The prior incident involved a man who'd attacked others with a knife.  The photo doesn't suggest the killed double-amputee belonged to a minority race, but he was mentally ill and had been a ward of Harris County since 2003.  Way to take care of your sick, Harris County.  Bullets are, what? About a buck apiece?

In Dallas, police who were dispatched to the home of a paranoid schizophrenic man based on a report that he had threatened suicide decided to yell at him, predictably escalating his fragile mental state, until after tazing him they chose to shoot him eleven times (including after he was already on the ground).  A home surveillance camera provides video.  Neighbors reported that they never felt threatened by Michael Blair, despite his odd behavior.  The 26-year-old was black.

The Dallas video contains something that appears in an account by a Washington Post reporter [*] regarding his own arrest: loud self-serving statements by police for the benefit of cameras and witnesses, intended to create some basis on which to find the officers' conduct justified.  There's nothing to the statements; they're just there to prejudice onlookers.  The golden example is this:
“My hands are behind my back,” I said. “I’m not resisting. I’m not resisting.” At which point one officer said: “You’re resisting. Stop resisting.”
Turn off the audio on the Dallas shooting and look for indications the officers attempted to subdue the mentally ill man using any means besides appealing to the rational fear we expect people to have when confronted with force (including fore like electric shocks or the threats of gunfire).  Once you know the civilian is mentally ill, and contemplating suicide, why on Earth would you expect a threat to kill him to represent a plausible strategy to de-escalate him so he could get treatment?

I don't know if there's a formal field of study for this kind of government/citizen interaction, but I wonder if some threshold exists for determining that an issue has progressed from a shocking aberration to an epidemic that demands prompt action.

Anyone know?

Anyone care?

[*] The Washingon Post reporter arrested covering a protest over a police shooting of a civilian wasn't the only one.  Another reporter (white) covering the same protest was not only arrested, but suffered having his face bashed into a fixed object by an armed police officer in riot armor, who sarcastically apologized afterward – another incident of abusive police employing language to create cover for inappropriate conduct.  If called on his assault, the response will surely be to claim the whole thing was an accident, as evidenced by his prompt 'apology'.  The result?
Ryan Grim, The Huffington Post's Washington bureau chief, noted in a statement that Reilly "has reported multiple times from Guantanamo Bay." According to Grim, Reilly "said that the police resembled soldiers more than officers, and treated those inside the McDonald's as 'enemy combatants.'"
So at home, we're treated as 'enemy combatants.'  So, it's true: freedom isn't free.  And bogus oversight isn't oversight at all. Public attention must be directed to the problem of reviving the dying rule of law if we are, in fact, to have "rights" as our predecessors understood the term.


==========
UPDATES:
In the interest of plotting the data points, I've also noticed ...

... Miami SWAT executing a narcotics warrant, and their behavior toward the 13-year-old boy in the raises house and their treatment of the glass picture frames through out the house; should it matter that conduct like this was committed in a house two blocks from the one specified in the warrant – or is there really anyone who seriously believes such conduct is appropriate even there?

... A multi-jurisdictional SWAT team in Georgia threw a stun grenade into a crib, putting a 19-month-old without health insurance in the hospital in a coma with burns that exposed his ribs. Does it matter the adult sought in their warrant didn't live there and wasn't present?

UPDATE:
Giving armed organizations immunity to prosecution seems to invite poor behavior, including extreme reactions to attempted oversight, even abroad.  Yet, proven misconduct doesn't seem to prevent our government from funding known killers.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Queen Takes Gold in Photobomb Competition

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Click and enjoy.

Proof John Cleese isn't a fluke: Brits are hilarious.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Southwest Airlines: Tweet About Us And We Ban You

When a man with kids was turned away from a plan on which he was an "A-list" passenger entitled to early boarding, he tweeted his displeasure at Southwest and its gate agent.  Southwest's gate agent said "You can’t board the plane unless you delete that tweet."

Southwest made good on its threat, too – denying him his paid-for seat until he deleted his social media complaint about how poorly he felt his family was treated.  And why shouldn't he? Southwest's personnel had reduced his kids to tears from fear their father would be arrested after the gate agent threaten to "call the cops" and claim the man represented a threat.

Obviously, the belief the man represented a threat was utterly false: they found no reason not to seat him once they twisted his arm into "deleting" his Twitter post.

So, it's true: ‘Wow, rudest agent in Denver. Kimberly S, gate C39, not happy @SWA.'

There aren't words rude enough for so despicable a person, willing to threaten harassment by law enforcement personnel for their personal benefit.  Just … ugh.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Noriega to 'Black Ops II' Game Develpers: "Show Me The Money"

Deposed Panamanian strongman "General" Manuel Noriega, who ran death squads and torture operations for years in support of his dictatorship and the drug operations from which he profited, became an international headline when he holed up in the Vatican embassy while it stood besieged by American forces bent on his capture.  His villainy has been so well documented that he's been immortalized as an adversary in Activision Blizzard's Call of Duty: Black Ops II.  Naturally Noriega, who has languished in a Panamanian prison since his 2011 extradition, has filed suit to share the proceeds.

On the one hand, what a system: everyone gets a crack at justice, even proven murderers.

On the other hand, what a farce: he's internationally reknowned as a corrupt dictator who clung to power through a program of murder and intimidation, and whose downfall followed not his murder spree at home but his soured relations with back-room kingmakers at the CIA. The craziest part of the story is that Noriega says Activision Blizzard somehow had the power to damage his reputation.  Really? Can a reputation possibly be worse?

On the bright side, the defamation case is a sure loser.  As a public figure being lampooned for entertainment in the subject area in which he's famous – in a game – it's doubtful that it's possible to maintain a defamation case under U.S. law.  Even straight-up news sources could plausibly defend such a suit.  The more interesting question is whether using the likeness of a living person for profit might entitle him to damages under the kinds of legal principles that allow the heirs of Elvis Presley both to make fortune in photo licensing and restrict republication of Elvis' image during the fat years.  The Jaded Consumer will report back.

After all, who doesn't like a good train wreck?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Cuinn's "Different League": Short Noir Fun

Carrie Cuinn's publications list includes several available online for free, including "A Different League", part of Akashic Books' 750-word-limit Noir series Mondays Are Murder.  I enjoy discovering authors I don't know, and I love the mood that makes noir noir, making this review a real pleasure.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the story is the range of lies the private eye and her client tell each other. Sure, the narrator isn't expected to disclose her financial desperation or her inability to afford what the client wears, so we let that slide without remark. But the end twist reveals how much more of the characters' interaction has been a deception – as it turns out, long before the curtain opened. And the reveal is fun. Cuinn's calculates how to dispense information, reverses the reader's calculation of the characters' motivations and stakes, and lands everybody in a much better place than they started.  How often do you find a noir with a happy ending?

I haven't read Cuinn's other work, but now I'm intrigued.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

School's Graduation Dis-Invitation Provokes Suicide

In another story of authority figures getting it exactly wrong, a boarding school – home to a female student since the age of four – barred a girl from campus because she had missed class to receive treatment for depression.  They decided to do this both for her middle-school graduation and the after-party thrown for all her friends and housemates.  Not entirely unsurprisingly, once the depressed student was forcibly cut off from her major life attachments and rejected by the authorities on whom she'd depended for years, she completed suicide.

The mind boggles.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

911: "If This Is An Emergency, Hang Up and Call …"

Americans have become used to being transferred into purgatory on "customer service" calls, but 9-1-1?  In New Port Richey, Florida, a married couple with a child and a visiting in-law called 9-1-1 in response to a home invasion in progress, only to be transferred to a recorded message.  The dispatcher who picked up the 9-1-1 call wasn't "qualified" to respond to a call requiring assistance from law enforcement, and transferred the call to the Sheriff's Department's non-emergency line, which played the emergency victims a recorded message suggesting they consider calling 9-1-1 if they had an emergency.

This didn't just happen once: the victims called back and got the same response again.

In a Kafka-esque twist, the person who was qualified to field the call was sitting right next to the dispatcher who proved incompetent to transfer the call.  You'd think that "help I'm being attacked" would elicit enough concern to hand the phone over, or grab the person who could help so the right assistance could be brought to the phone.

Alas.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Federal Government Makes A Lousy Insurance Agent

When the new federal healthcare marketplace promised to offer health coverage for families and individuals who didn't have access to group coverage, I thought it worth a look. After all, I have kids – and that means kiddo illnesses, checkups, and tons of opportunities for visits that cost 250% or more of what insurers pay if accessed without some kind of group discount.  (Mind you,  physicians and hospitals participate in shoving people into groups that abuse physicians and hospitals: in charging me extra to pay cash up front, instead of giving me a cash discount for saving the physician from repeated billing transactions and months of delays, medical care providers help insure that the only people with market power are the third party intermediaries.)

So the first thing I did was to make sure the plan I picked would include my kids' existing pediatrician.  As a plus, I wanted to ensure a doc I wanted to see for a physical would be covered by the plan. Else, why bother?  So I used the HealthCare.gov tool for searching physicians on plans and was confirmed: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas confirmed that Steve Alley participated in Blue Advantage plans. My doc, too.  Cool, huh?

The coverage was about what I was paying on my own for an individual plan from another insurer, but it promised to be free of some exclusions common in the individual health coverage market.  So, what the hell?  I clicked yes.

But I wasn't covered yet.  I had to figure out how to pay for the first month, before it began.  It was March, and I was in a race.  Every tool for paying for coverage required numbers that Blue Cross hadn't mailed me yet.  I became nervous.  Finally, the week before coverage started, I got a packet with the numbers.  Fighting my way through the web site to make a payment finally became possible.

I paid.

Oops.

I say "oops" because the minute the coverage went active and I could see what Blue Cross was willing to tell active subscribers, it seemed I and my children had been randomly assigned to some joker I'd never heard of, whose claimed credentials were of a kind I make a practice to avoid.  So I tried to change their assigned doc to their pediatrician … only to discover Steve Alley wasn't available through my Blue Advantage plan. Nor my own doc.

After an hour and a half on the phone I reached someone who told me it was my fault for signing up with the wrong plan, and did I want to pay more for a plan that included Steve Alley and my own doc?  Now, before you dismiss the hour-and-a-half as the rantings of an unhappy customer who hasn't bothered to wind his watch, I'll digress a little. The number on all the Blue Cross paperwork I had led me to a bank of people who – after I'd been on hold a while – offered to walk me through some kind of orientation to the health plan. None of them claimed to know anything about the physicians actually available through any of the plans and how to fix the problems I had signing my kids up for their pediatrician.  And none of them seemed to want to let me go without the orientation.  Several eventually allowed themselves to be persuaded to transfer me someplace else, but the hold queue felt oppressive and I was disconnected once and when I finally got to a human in a department that claimed to be in the know, I spent a long time repeating my story while getting escalated.  During this escalation I suffered repeated accusations that I somehow was at fault for failing to discern that when Blue Cross represented Steve Alley was covered on Blue Advantage plans, my specific plan was excluded.  I was even asked whether I used the HealthCare.gov marketplace portal search tool or Blue Cross', and honestly I had no idea where I'd been led by the link I clicked to search from HealthCare.gov – so I tried using its tools to search plans.

I was barred: HealthCare.gov decided that since it thought I had a plan, I didn't need access to information about any plans in the marketplace. Access forbidden.

So, who knows whose database steered me astray? It's hard to believe HealthCare.gov would offer anything but an interface to Blue Cross' database, or a link to Blue Cross, so I figured the problem was Blue Cross'.  It's not like I didn't look at the list of covered plans listed for each doc and try to work out whether the list did or didn't include mine. They both said Blue Advantage, though – just like the cards Blue Cross finally sent.  And that's why it was an hour and a half before I worked out Blue Cross never had any intention of allowing my kids to see their pediatrician under the plan it sold me through the healthcare.gov marketplace.  At least, not that it'd pay a cent to support.

And did I want to pay Blue Cross for having successfully duped me with a bait-and-switch?

Well, no.  I'd started out with a plan that included Steve Alley and my own doc.  I didn't need to pay more to someone willing to waste my time like this. I was told I'd have to cancel online. 

Okay.

So I went to the web site where the physician database existed, hunted for the way to do it. Finally I found a place that purported to allow secure communication with Blue Cross.  I briefly laid out the bait-and-switch, pointed out that the policy hadn't come into force yet, and gave a clear and unambiguous instruction to take any steps required to cancel the policy: I gave notice of cancellation.

I didn't hear back. A few days later I tried to verify the cancellation and saw I'd been given a form letter that didn't address my problem. I stated bluntly that I hadn't "asked about" changing policies or the like, I'd given a cancellation order. My only request was that Blue Cross confirm the cancellation.

What could be simpler?

So imagine my surprise the weekend the coverage was supposed to begin, when – never having been contacted by email or phone – I checked Blue Cross' web site to verify the cancellation.  I figured verification would take the form of inability to log in: the cancelled account would cancel my login credentials.  The idiots hadn't bothered to communicate with me using any medium that didn't require an active Blue Cross account to access.  But, the login worked.  Once I dug around and found the tool for "secure" communication with Blue Cross, I hunted down its latest note.

Blue Cross refused to cancel the coverage, or communicate my cancellation to anyone who could do it. And it didn't see fit to warn me it would do this before the weekend coverage was due to start.  Instead, Blue Cross had silently posted a notification accessible only though its own site, about which it never sent me a notice or called, despite the obviously time-sensitive nature of my concern.

At this point, you can see I wasn't happy with Blue Cross.  But in its note, Blue Cross blamed HealthCare.gov: I needed to cancel a marketplace-purchased plan through the marketplace.  This is a crock; the marketplace never in fact sold me anythnig – I had a minor war figuring out how to pay, and it wasn't through HealthCare.gov.  But, fine.  I struggled to work out how to log back into HealthCare.gov and then struggled through the site combing for some clue how to cancel.  When I stumbled onto it, it felt like dumb luck.

But then I had it: after a few screens, a page that said "Statis: Cancelled".  It gave an effective date one day into the coverage term, which irritated me.  But, I was finally done.

Or, was I?

I kept getting invoices.  I kept getting packets.  I even got a packet demanding I sign a waiver acknowledging that the coverage through the Blue Cross plan marketed through the federal healthcare marketplace did not include coverage for mandatory services the Texas Department of Insurance or a state statute required in every health insurance plan issued in the state.  Just sign to acknowledge and accept the inadequacy of the policy sold through HealthCare.gov.

Like hell.

I called back.  Damn long hold, but I got a human who said the coverage wasn't cancelled, that it was active, that it was a marketplace plan and could only be cancelled through the marketplace.

"I did."
"No, if you did we'd have been sent a notification."
"I'm looking at a PDF of it. Where do you want it faxed?"
I took down the number.
"If I fax this, will that do it?"
"Oh, yes. It may take a few days."
I faxed it.

There.
Done.

But, no: another invoice.  More than a thousand bucks, demanded for a bait-and-switch I'd cancelled as unacceptable before delivery.

By this time, I'd worked out the number to call.  After only sixteen and a half minutes of abysmal hold music interrupted by a recorded voice, I had a human on the phone who told me I had purchased the plan through the marketplace and could only be cancelled through the marketplace.

"I did that. And I faxed you the confirmation."
"We need to get it from the marketplace."
"You did. And you got it from me. What more do you want?"
Apparently, to put me on the phone with HealthCare.gov.  I almost laughed.  A human had never been available to me when I'd tried HealthCare.gov – and I'd looked. Blue Cross needed me on the phone to tell HealthCare.gov it was okay for HealthCare.gov to send Blue Cross the cancellation I'd entered on HealthCare.gov to cancel coverage with Blue Cross.  I kid you not.  After thirty minutes on hold with HealthCare.gov we were connected with someone who required I recite my Social Security number, address, birthdate … then put us on hold while checking into the account.  Did I have an application number?
"Where would I find an application number?"
"I don't know."
"Is it this number on the cancellation form I'm looking at? Called an ID#?"
"Read that to me."

I did. Then, Blue Cross and I got put on hold.  I can't tell you how long we were on hold before we were disconnected.  Blue Cross, thankfully, called me back. Blue Cross: "Somehow I just got disconnected with them, so I'll have to call them back." Then, back on hold.  After another 16 minutes I was made to recite my Social Security number, my address, my birthdate, a number from the cancellation form (that nobody told me to save from March when I saw it on HealthCare.gov and had the good sense to save as a PDF), and then placed on hold while the attendant "reached out" to a "supervisor" who apparently told her she could confirm to Blue Cross the cancellation date of the coverage. This, of course, was useless: I'd told Blue Cross the date too, but they needed The Magic Form sent to whatever system processes cancellations from "the marketplace".  Blue Cross confirmed it was true: they needed the cancellation transaction conformation sent through some king of purpose-built channel for it to work, because there was apparently no human at Blue Cross with the authority to process it.

At 24 minutes into the next hold of the day, the healthcare marketplace came back to the phone to confirm my phone number. So that in thirty days, a case worker can call me about it.  They still won't assure me it's over.

My advice? If you have no existing coverage, or don't care who your doc is, this may be a step in the right direction. But it's not what anyone would expect after dealing with an insurance agent who expects to be paid for successfully concluding transactions.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mysogenist Murderer's Critics Too Generous

Emily Lindin, founder of an organization dedicated to combating misogynistic sexual bullying, wrote this of the murderer whose lengthy manifesto touched off the #YesAlWomen hashtag:
Rodger and others like him believe that sex is a reward to be earned, not a consensual activity between adults who respect each other, and that women are prizes to be won, not actual people with the agency to make decisions about their own bodies.
"In Killer's World, Victims Get Blamed" at cnn.com
It's too generous.  The killer seems to give no indication the indulgence he demanded for his whims needed to be earned in any way from those he chose to kill.  He illustrates instead a culture of entitlement, in which his disappointment in sexual wish fulfillment is all the justification he needs for unchecked violence.  He doesn't think women have the right to expect him to earn their attentions at all: he feels entitled to be indulged by women and entitled to commit violence against them when his demands aren't met. There's certainly a place to criticize males who are less outrageous than Rodger, but when dealing with such blatantly misogynistically entitled thugs we ought not sugar-coat the depths of their distance from civilization.

Civilization, unfortunately, is what epidemic violence against women exposes as a myth: we as a species haven't much of it, apparently.  Today's news from Pakistan shows that although local law allows violent crime victims to derail prosecution by "forgiving" their assailants, the effect of this doctrine on intra-family violence against women is stark: women's murderers go unpunished as a matter of course because the perpetrator's families "forgive" them for killing their female relative. In this instance, the murdered woman was killed while headed to court to testify that her chosen husband hadn't abducted her (an allegation made by her rejected suitor and their shared male relatives). Of all the attackers, only the woman's father was even arrested.  He admitted the whole thing, expressing no remorse – fully entitled to murder a woman who didn't submit to his demands. The legal and social environment surrounding the gang-beating makes men feel safe to murder their female relatives for exercising agency in their lives instead of acceding to their sexual demands.  This, in a country with laws, police, and courts.

This isn't an American problem, it's a global problem.  It's not be worst in the U.S., but it exists in the U.S..  The problem needs real thought.  Like drinking-related highway deaths, the solution is surely not after-the-fact investigations but social reform to change the cultural acceptance of the target behavior.  We need to get cracking now.  The anti-bullying work I see in schools is a start, but it must intensify.  Bystanders must not accept or condone victimizing conduct.

This doesn't mean we can't have due process for accused attackers, but it does mean we can't accept vicious assaults on victims whose reports expose them to unchecked ridicule.  The #YesAllWomen hashtag offers a look at the range of concerns included in the topic.  Most of those alive are women; this is a problem that, improved at all, will improve the world.

UPDATE: The story in Pakistan is even crazier than originally reported.  The man whom the victim intended to marry admitted he'd murdered his previous wife to make himself available to marry the woman murdered by her refused lover and his cousins.  Moreover, the intended husband had provided 80,000 rupees and gold jewelry to the victim's father to secure his approval for the marriage.  Read about the craziness here.  Apparently in Pakistan fathers take money for permission to marry their daughters.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Information Protocols and the Surveillance State

Just in case you thought Snowden's exposure of a secret spy program against Americans is okay because it centers on metadata rather than on message content, listen to what General Michael Vincent Hayden – former director of the NSA and the CIA – says eighteen minutes into this Johns Hopkins Foreign Affairs Symposium: "First of all, David's description of what you can do with metadata … is absolutely correct, okay? We kill people based on metadata."

This casts into better light the decision of the Internet Engineering Task Force in RFC7258/BCP188 that pervasive monitoring is an attack and that protocol designers must work to mitigate it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Race in America: An Update

Race and the persistence and extent of racial prejudice continue to be subjects of disagreement in the United States (at least, between members of different races).  One of the most eye-opening viewpoints I experienced as a child appeared in Black Like Me, whose white author John Howard Griffin used dermatological interventions to pass as black in the Deep South and kept a diary.  When a white man's framework for normalcy is applied to the daily life of a black man, a real opportunity exists to assess differences, their extent, and their personal impact.  The book is a must-read for anyone interested in race in America.

Black Like Me wasn't written this century, however.  "It's not like that anymore" – ever hear that one?  Is it true?  Surely the extent to which it reflects local experience changes with time and geography.  A recent report from New York City is educational: The Atlantic published a white man's thoughts about his observations of his own black son growing up in America.

It's worth having a look.  The Emancipation Proclamation sounded great but is insufficient to the ideals behind it.  When I think about Chris Smith's son, I think about the child I imagined in the last-linked article: "Are we free yet?"

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Go Read The Goblin Emperor

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076532699X/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=076532699X&linkCode=as2&tag=thejadcon-20Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is a coming-of-age story set in an Elfland empire during a time of airships and mechanical clocks. The titular Emperor – an outcast youngest son – finds himself not only unprepared for a position none thought he would inherit, but beset on all sides by opposition fueled by class, race, sexism, ambition, misinformation, ignorance, greed, tradition, and every other force acting on the empire and those who shape its future. The story's scope slowly broadens from one boy's bewilderment to an enormous intrigue involving the Empire's relations with foreign nations, the internecine competition within the Empire, political disputes over infrastructure development, and a host of prejudices.

Why You Want To Read The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor depicts an empire entangled in a complex web of internal politics, personal pride, public corruption, conflicting philosophy, international tensions, technological innovations, family ties, social customs, class division, economic competition, educational divides, and imperial traditions. The author weaves ignorance, greed, and hatred into a rich tapestry; opponents can't simply be murdered off or dismissed because many of them are perfectly good people in need of a few true facts.  The protagonist must choose whether to surrender or fight every time he's confronted, and the reader learns who he is by the battles he picks.  Along the way, he teaches himself and those about him who he is.  (At least, those who bother to look.)

Told in close-third, The Goblin Emperor follows Maia's ascent – from an ignorant boy under the fist of an exiled drunken bully, to a minority-race Emperor surrounded by courtiers who would happily see him sink into a soft life as prisoner in an imperial residence.  By actively involving himself to ensure the competent investigation of last emperor's death in an airship wreck, Maia makes himself  the target of those whose last assassination brought him to the throne.  Maia isn't drawn into defending all his dead father's policies, but he's brought to discover just what a complex world he's joined.

The prejudices that drive so much of the conflict in The Goblin Emperor aren't trite character tags, but plausible-seeming convictions as variable as the characters are diverse. As characters learn more from each other, the reader learns which quickly abandon false ideas, and which cling to their views despite the facts like the small-souled bigots the author clearly intends them to be.  Maia distinguishes himself not because he's got a magic wand (he's useless at magic) or because he was born to fulfill some great prophesy (he was born to die in exile). He also doesn't distinguish himself as a warrior (he gets the worst of every physical confrontation).  His distinguishing characteristic is that he possesses and maintains his humanity.  The coming of age story culminates not with a coronation or a marriage but with a decision to do something big for the people he rules despite the headwinds he faces getting it off the ground: he makes good on something that matters to strangers.

Traditional Jaded Consumer Content Alert

The Jaded Consumer generally includes a note or two on aspects of a reviewed work for readers whose peculiar sensitivities may be upset by some otherwise innocuous aspect of a fictional work.  For example, some readers may be sensitive to the appearance of genuine belief in real-world religions, such as appears in Eliza Crewe's Cracked.  In Steven Brust's and Skyler White's The Incrementalists, the Jaded Consumer noted a reader would find politicsMyke Cole's Shadow Ops series offers optimism about the human condition.  Naturally, none of these are fatal. A reader with the certain senstitivities may be, shall we say, mismatched to a book.  Content alerts are for these less-than-fully-omnivorous readers.  If you're made of tougher stuff, feel free to skip this part. The content alerts here are based on speed and politics.

Until the protagonist – Maia – becomes embroiled in the Empire's complexities, the reader sees nothing but his personal worries and fears.  The reader learns about the world no faster than the main character.  If you enjoy only action sequences, and lack patience to watch characters discover their world and themselves, this book is not for you.  This isn't a story about a conquering hero or a successful warlord.  The protagonist inherits his title when everyone ahead of him in succession unexpectedly dies.  The meat of the story is about what Maia does after inheriting – the choices he makes while dealing with people and exercising power.  This isn't to say Maia does nothing; his decisions have a enormous effect on the allies he makes and the success of his reign.  Without these decisions, he'd never keep his throne.  There's conflict, and there's decision, and there's change.  But if you require a heavy diet of fight scenes and chases, this is not the nail-biting thriller you were looking for.

Readers used to a breakneck pace may find this story's pace more stately than they are accustomed. The pace has definite causes.  Sentences are not whittled to their barest parts.  Facts are not bare; even pronouns are occasionally given long discussion. The non-English language of the Elves apparently has a formal first person (depicted as "we"; it's not the royal "we" because characters other than the Emperor employ it), a normal first person, and second-person pronouns that vary with familiarity.  Speakers of European languages may find this circumstance more familiar than English-only speakers, but the author spends time describing the effect of these pronouns' use in dialog between characters whose relationships are changing. This isn't surplussage or waste, but it's a level of detail that has an effect on the speed with which anything can be described: things can take a while. This doesn't mean they're boring to persons of normal sensitivity, but the fact may be of interest to readers who know they demand things move at top speed. 

Then, there's politics. [SPOILER] The Goblin Emperor drops lots of details on the reader to illustrate the brokenness of the empire Maia inherits.  Inequity in educational opportunity, gender rights, and all kinds of areas are all dropped on the reader as on the new emperor, and we sense the emperor intends working on all these things.  The protagonist articulates no promise or plan for them all, but the reader is given a clear idea that there's much work to be done in the empire, and plenty of evil to be had in unconcerned government.  The Goblin Emperor advocates social reform by condemning gender roles, bullies, and the apparatus of established power.  To the extent the reader wants Maia to succeed, it's because the political necessities suggested by the author resonate with the reader: we want the empire's victims saved from the laws and customs that drive artisans blind weaving fine silks, ruin women's educational opportunities over socially-assigned roles determined by gender, and oppress the working classes to the point the emperor is unable to fault a villain's conclusion that all the good accomplished by the protagonist has been made possible by an establishment-toppling multiple-murder just before the opening curtain of Chapter One.  [/SPOILER]  The Goblin Emperor is, therefore, political: it not only urges that genuine humans are needed in power (implying that the kinds of oppression depicted in the book prove they are not), but it comments on the role of violence in these reforms in ways that could easily upset persons of tender sensitivities.

I certainly enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, but those readers with peculiar sensitivity to pace or politics should be aware how each work in this book.

Details. Glorious Details.

The author spends considerable time showing the reader details.  For example, the outrageous ostentation of the top tier of society in the Empire is depicted in recurring descriptions of dress and adornment and the conduct of servants.  The author's recurring discussion of personal pronouns signals a willingness to examine minute details in the interest of painting The Goblin Emperor in full color for the reader. Despite clear willingness to slow to provide detail to readers, The Goblin Emperor did surprise with non-detail in two places.  Near the beginning of the book, Maia looks from an airship at a "beautiful" view of the sun on the horizon.  Later, he looks on a "surprising" gift clock. The build-up to each event engendered an expectation of some description why the adjectives were warranted. What sort of beauty? What kind of surprise? Colors? Shapes? Movement?  These things weren't important to the story, but the detail painted for the hair accoutrements and carriage attendants and jewelry and so many other non-critical things led me to blink in surprise that these descriptions were omitted.  But these details don't affect the story, so what does it matter?  Katherine Addison showers readers with beautiful details that depict the alien worlds of the Elves and their Goblin neighbors.

Readers who want to get all the information encoded by the author in her writing may wish to note that the book has a useful appendix.  "Extracts from A Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands" – purportedly a Crooked Stair Press product printed for the Royal Merchants Guild of Porcharn – may be worth bookmarking by those who want to understand when the author uses a family name to describe the whole family and when the author intends using a family name to explain the gender and marital status of an individual.  The author divulges the system for decoding the endings affixed to family-name roots, and this may be of real help to people hoping to keep straight which of two related people are being described (which could be disambiguated by gender, for example).  I personally found myself hard-pressed to keep straight the large number of long and alien-looking Elf names, but at least decoding them into gender and marital status is a help.  In a paper edition, dog-ear the "Handbook" at the end.  It's not essential to enjoyment, but it's an aid one should know exists.

Conclusion

The Goblin Emperor is an exciting look at a near-orphan coming of age in a hostile environment with nothing about him but his (largely uneducated) wits.  It's an underdog story.  Sure, the "underdog" is Emperor, but he's surrounded and outnumbered and bewildered, and his only "ally" in Chapter One is the drunk who beats him.  We want poor Maia to succeed, and we're interested to see his humanity as he refuses to become the monster his accession to power invites.  We want him to succeed not only in the sense of overcoming enemies, but in the sense of overcoming the urge to descend to their level to do it.

The Goblin Emperor comments on family, government, privilege, discrimination, and all kinds of things – but it's about the triumph of humanity on the only scale humans can really feel: one on one.  Maia must teach individuals he's worth taking seriously as a human, and he must rescue others from misery, one at a time.  There's a nation to save – perhaps a whole world – and it's too big for one person to fix.  But Addison's emperor shows us the only success that matters: one individual's triumph against despair by doing better for others than one's been offered one's self.  The victory of The Goblin Emperor is survival without losing one's soul.  It's a journey that's wonderful to see in print, just as we long to see it in the waking world.

The Goblin Emperor is well worth reading, and I'll look forward to more from Katherine Addison in the future.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Use Garamond and Save The Planet

A middle-school student's science project demonstrates that changing the font used in the government's annual publications can save so much ink – which has twice the per-unit-volume cost of imported French perfume costs – that $400 million could be saved from the federal budget alone.

In my own letterhead, I've used Garamond for years. Now I feel even smarter.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Russia Booted from G8. Um, G7.

Following Russia's propaganda-laden invasion of the Crimea, Western powers ejected Russia from the G8.  For the foreseeable future, the organization will presumably be called the G7.

This follows a series of tit-for-tat sanctions in which Russia banned various foreign officials' travel to the country after its own officials' visas and foreign accounts had been impounded.

For those just tuning in, Russia is a thugocracy led by the former KGB head Vladimir Putin, who claims not to remember meeting the owner of a diamond-encrusted Superbowl ring, and not to remember taking the ring from him in 2005.  (And whose Ph.D. thesis he directly plagiarized from KGB translations of earlier Western publications.)  When Russia's effort to reincorporate the Ukraine through a puppet government failed in the face of a popular uprising, Russia invaded the Crimea to obtain direct control of the port there.  Russia's story? The did it to protect Russians in the Crimea from dangerous Ukranians.  Putin has officially declared that the collapse of the totalitarian dictatorship once known as the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" and he appears to be well on the way to re-creating it. On concerns that Russia could backslide on democracy and human rights, Putin said "our place in the modern world will be defined only by how successful and strong we are."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Look at 'Lovecraft's Monsters'

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/161696121X/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=161696121X&linkCode=as2&tag=thejadcon-20Come tax day 2014, Tachyon Publications will offer even greater horror.  On April 15, it will to loose Lovecraft's Monsters upon the world.  The collection celebrates Lovecraft-crafted horror with short works that play in his sandbox.  H.P. Lovecraft's tales generally relate one narrator's exposure to new-discovered clues of looming supernatural threats from awful gods. This collection showcases diverse authors' depictions, from wildly different points of view, of different slices of life in a Lovecraftian community.  The result is a delightful array of little pieces that range in mood and subject.  Unholy sacrifice, forbidden love, a private dick on the trail of a murderer – there's something there for everyone.

The eighteen tales' breadth is sketched briefly through a few samples.

Niel Gaiman's short "Only the End of the World Again" offers traditional European horrors of folklore hunting the same world as Lovecraft's beasts and their awful worshippers. Werewolves may be the bane of man, but are they also the only thing between our world and the ascendance of unpronounceable tentacular horrors from the deep?

Laird Barron's "Bulldozer" follows a Pinkerton on the trail of a wanted man. Well, maybe not entirely a man. The salty feel of the hired gun is nothing like the prose of Lovecraft or the authors who cleaved to his style.  The tale gives a feel of Deadwood while it depicts how the weird world looks, approached from the outside.  Watching a normal drawn into a descent is quite a ride.  There's damned, then there's damned.

CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan's "Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl" gives a glimpse of love from the wrong side of the tracks – in a town where the elite aspire to consort with demons.  It's a beautiful romantic sketch, made horrible as one imagines the aspirations of the town's youths. Ugh. But … a happy ugh.  Come, read this, and wish good things on inhuman beasts.  It's not like they don't have dreams, too.

It you're a fan of the weird, this is your book.



Review: Wheeler's Fireblood

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/161218720X/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=161218720X&linkCode=as2&tag=thejadcon-20
Jeff Wheeler's novel Fireblood is the first volume of his Whispers of Mirrowen series. Like his Muirwood series, it spans three books.  Unlike the Muirwood series, its three volumes didn't share a single publication date: readers wanting the whole tale will have to wait until the third volume is published in the future.

This leads to my first gripe: like Connie Willis' time-travel story comprising Blackout and All Clear, no one volume tells a complete story.  When I read Blackout, I immediately realized that without access to its sequel I'd have been incensed to have been led into a book thinking I was getting a story, only to find it cut short with no resolution to any part of it.  I felt I'd been sold the result of one good book being fed through a buzz saw and vended in halves.  That's not to say the story isn't delightful and moving, but for safety's sake don't pick up Blackout without easy access to All Clear.  To be fair, cutting stories into bits and selling them in different volumes isn't new in fantasy. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy may have enshrined the practice from the genre's very beginning.  But it's this reviewer's fervent hope that writers will see what Jim Butcher has proved with his two separate fantasy series, each of which is comprised only of novels that tell satisfying and complete stories: people love to read reliably good stories and will buy them if you prove you can write them reliably, especially if you keep the same characters alive and evolving and interesting for fifteen volumes (and in the Dresden Files, heading past twenty).  But this is a gripe.  People read the Lord of the Rings, and they read the Oxford time travel books, and they'll keep reading volumes that don't tell complete stories so long as they feel confident the whole story will satisfy.

What's Right
Fireblood does several good things.

Unlike so many fantasy worlds, Whispers of Mirrowen decouples race from culture.  This doesn't sound like a big innovation, but the result is a much more complex social fabric in which national politics, social competition, and racial tension give a full-color feel to motives and enmities that in other worlds are simplified into elf/dwarf rivalry. Mind you, elf/dwarf rivalry worked okay for Terry Brooks in Wishsong of Shannara when readers were already committed to the story and distracted with other concerns, but the fewer things one must suspend disbelief about, the easier it is to get lost in the story. And isn't that why we're reading it anyway? (What did Brooks' elves and dwarves do to each other that we believe it?)

Whispers of Mirrowen offers interesting magic.  Many types exist, each with different costs and limitations. Since races and cultures cross boundaries of politics and faith, the powers that work for protagonists also work in equal measure against them. What readers learn about magic when it's working for protagonists hangs over the reader, creating tension as we see antagonists access the same kinds of powers.

Characters have believable conflicts, including among protagonists.  In several places one wonders whether villains will derail protagonists, or their own squabbles and fears.  Wheeler's third-person narrative shifts of focus between characters so readers can see enough of what characters secretly think and dream when they're alone to help them understand the collision of motives, but it leaves enough unexplained to raise tension when the collisions occur.

Content Alert
Jaded Consumer fiction reviews traditionally contain a variety of "content warnings" regarding various aspects of works. The warnings aren't for everyone, and need not keep people from finding work an enjoyable read. Whether it involves politics or religion or merely an optimistic outlook on the human condition, content alerts aren't intended to damn work but to alert people whose tastes run in another direction.

As intimated in the note above about the story-incomplete volumes in this series, it's the Jaded Consumer's conclusion that Jeff Wheeler read Tolkien.  Maybe … maybe the wrong way.  Here, the Jaded Consumer refers to the pace of the work. For instance, the first chapter introduces a character whose band of adventurers has been slaughtered down to a single ally and left stranded in the deepest depths of hostile territory, just as they're found by undescribed awful clawed things.  One would think his lost-ness and desperation would lead the chapter – they are what makes it interesting, and what must draw the reader if anything does.  They're the hook, right?  But, no. Fireblood opens with the weather.  This appears an intentional artistic decision – apparently for structure; the chapter closes with the weather, to which the scene outcome is attributed.  Once the real problem in the scene became evident, I wondered why it was I didn't care about the protagonists' desperate plight.  It felt buried in description to which I had no emotional connection.  The rest of the book picks up.  But as in Tolkien, sentences avoid quick subject-object-verb structure; the ideas curve lengthily about dependent clauses and description that feel like they insulate one from the story's grip.

And it's got a grip.  This is a story I'd like to see finished (see above; this is not the first story in a three-story episode arc, it's the first segment of a single story cut into three pieces).  People who require modern stories' fast pace may not want to stick with something written with the slow description of a book from another age.

Toward the end of the book, the story's grippiness takes another blow as the big mysteries behind the current conflict are revealed to the protagonists (and the reader).  It comes as description, with long dialogue giving secondhand encapsulation of facts that sound like they'd be exciting to see firsthand.  When Rowling faced the burden of heavy exposition in her Harry Potter series, she invented a fantasy gizmo that allowed him to see events firsthand – so the reader would see the action with the protagonist, instead of merely hearing about it. Fireblood's pace takes a hard blow under the weight of heavy exposition.

Culture Shock
I enjoy the multiple fantasy cultures depicted in Fireblood, but one bothered me.  Fireblood depicts a "Romani" people that appears to echo the worst stereotypes of the real-world Gypsies/Roma/Romani, down to child-stealing, human trafficking, misogyny, and an ostensibly pervasive culture of criminal enterprise.  This is a fantasy world; why do we need to trade on prejudices against a real-world ethnic minority?  It'd be easier to hate them as the author wants, if we weren't worried we were being urged against a real people nearly exterminated in some parts of the world by people preaching their difference.

Back To Our Scheduled Programming
Fireblood's sympathetic characters' intractable problems lead them not only into each other's orbit, but into inevitable conflict.  It's not trivial conflict, but feels important – not just to the characters, but their world.  If the characters weren't interesting, one wouldn't care. If the stakes weren't interesting, one wouldn't care.  Wheeler gives readers a real invitation to follow the story he weaves.

Conclusion


If you're suited to the pace, Fireblood offers a complex world full of interesting problems for characters that are easy to like.