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30th November 2015

6:50am: A day rich in relevant birthdays...
1835: Samuel Langhorne Clemens/Mark Twain
1874: Lucy Maud Montgomery
1924: Allan Sherman
1936: Abbie Hoffman
1950: Chris Claremont
1952: Keith Giffen
1962: Daniel Keys Moran

29th November 2015

9:48am: Many Birthdays
Louisa May Alcott: 1832
Empress Dowager Cixi: 1835
C.S. Lewis: 1898
Madeleine L'Engle: 1918
Kevin O'Donnell Jr.: 1950

27th November 2015

9:03am: And today is the 108th birthday of ...
... L. Sprague de Camp.

26th November 2015

8:52am: Only two birthdays today.
1856: Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of structuralism and co-founder of modern linguistics
1919: Fredrik Pohl, about whom the more said the better but I don't know where to start.

25th November 2015

6:35pm: Read: The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill (2015-68)
In the aftermath of the Pathet Lao's successful revolution, the elderly Doctor Siri Paihoun, a faithful warrior for the revolution, is "rewarded" for his service by having his retirement robbed - he is appointed Chief Coroner for Laos, though he knows next to nothing about forensic medicine.

Six months later, he is faced with a pair of puzzling bodies and a Communist bureaucracy that seems to want them to be quietly shuffled aside. Things are not that simple though: before he is finished, he will be involved with death squads, Hmong mysticism, and at least one traitor to the revolution.

Siri is a charming character, a crotchety old man with little fear, a wry sense of humor, and a strong sense of justice. Three assassination attempts hardly faze him, and - with a wonderfully assorted supporting cast - he pursues the murderers to the end.

Colin Catterill is a competent writer, with a pleasant style and an eye for detail that brings Vientiane of the '70s to vivid life.

If I have one complaint, it is with consistency; for example, there is one point at which Dr. Siri worries about the afterlife, and just six pages later we are told that he has "no spiritual beliefs." But this is a quibble, and the book is overall quite entertaining.
7:42am: 100 years ago today...
Albert Einstein presented the field equations of relativity to the Prussian Academy.

Also, we got birthdays:

Poul Anderson (1926 - would have been 89)
Chris Claremont (1950 - is 65)
Charlaine Harris (1951 - is 64)

24th November 2015

8:15am: A passel o' birthdays...
...well, a _small_ passel, anyway.

1713: Laurence "Tristram Shandy" Sterne

1826: Carlo "Pinocchio" Collodi

1916: Forrest "4SJ" Ackerman

1948: Spider Robinson

23rd November 2015

8:41pm: Read: Sewer, Gas & Electric (The Public Works Trilogy) by Matt Ruff (2015-67)
Though it calls itself a trilogy, _SG&E_ is a single novel, taking place over the period of a week or so in 2023 with flashes back as far as the '50s. Famous characters in one way or another include Walt Disney, J. Edgar Hoover, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, but none of them is a major character - for that you'd have to go to the holographic head of Ayn Rand.

_Sewer, Gas & Electric_ is a clear spiritual descendant of Shea and Wilson's _Illuminatus!_ trilogy, both in structure (multiple points of view, flashbacks, digressions...) and in tone. Our various heroes include:

- Harry Gant, gonzo industrialist and billionaire, who is building a mile-high tower in New York though he himself is afraid of heights;

- Joan Fine, Harry's ex-wife, who, as the novel opens, works in the sewers, where there are some very nasty things;

- Meisterbrau, one of the very nasty things in the sewer, a _Carcharodon_;

- Philo Dufresne, one of the few survivors of a plague that wiped out black Africans and African-Americans oer a period of a few days, and an eco-pirate with a polkadot submarine;

- Kite, a supercentenarian who claims to have served in the Civil War disguised as a man;

- Maxwell, a survivor of the War for Free Trade, who is missing a leg and a few other things.

Together with a largish cast of other characters, they uncover various aspects of a conspiracy so vast as to be ridiculous even as it is hideous. Tightly plotted, entertainingly written, it's a joyous, absurd, romp.

22nd November 2015

9:28pm: Read: Empress Dowager Cixi, by Jung Chang (2015-66)
When I was in China last year, a number of guides and such mentioned Cixi (pron. tsi-shi), the concubine who raised herself to Empress Dowager and ruled repeatedly, first behind her son's throne, then that of an adopted son, and finally in her own right (but never officially). Their tone regarding the woman was, to say the least, disapproving, though they _did_ seem to like the Summer Palace she had built/restored after the British burned the Old Summer Palace.

This book tells that story, but with a completely different interpretation. Cixi, in Ms Chang's book, is a flawed but ultimately positive influence on the history of China, a modernizer and Westernizer whose reforms enabled the Chinese Republic but were forgotten by them and by the People's Republic.

Cixi, the daughter of a minor official, was chosen as one of a number of concubines for Emperor Xianfeng. When he died, her infant son was his only male heir, and the chosen heir to the throne. (The Chinese throne did not pass by primogeniture but by the will of the late Emperor, who had to write it in red ink and other formalities.) Zhen, the Empress Dowager, became the boy's legal mother, but through a series of quiet manipulations, Cixi also took up this title, giving the boy two mothers.

A council of grandees had been chosen as the joint regent. Cixi and Zhen managed to get them disqualified and took up de facto rulership -- meaning that _Cixi_ was calling the shots, Zhen being a more passive woman. Cixi began a program of opening trade, and especially of importing technology, from the West, which met with a great deal of resistance from conservative (indeed, reactionary) nobles.

Her rule and reforms were complicated by a series of invasions from Japan and Western countries, the Boxer rebellion (which she at first encouraged and tried to co-opt), and betrayals and assassination attempts by trusted (and less trusted) sources. When the time came for her to die, she saw no heir she could trust to carry on her reforms - so she set out upon the greatest of all her reforms, and initiated an electoral process in China. She died before this could be fully instantiated, but it led ultimately to the Chinese Republic.

Chang's main point can be summed up thus: Before Cixi, China was still essentially medieval; by the time of her death, it was a twentieth-century (or at least late-nineteenth-century) nation with railroads, telephones, automobiles, and electricity - in some parts of the country, at least. In Chang's view, Cixi is an admirable - though deeply flawed - individual who struggled against great odds to do well by her country.

Chang's prose is taut and readable, and notes in the text are kept to a minimum, supplemented by an appendix of notes of the sort that references back to the page number. Her use of primary sources, many of them previously unavailable, fleshes out the story and gives it credibility. If there is a flaw, it is political: Chang has a (justifiable) ax to grind with the People's Republic, and it comes out at times in unexpected and sometimes unnecessary ways.

13th November 2015

5:47am: 75 years ago today...
...Walt Disney unleashed FANTASIA on a rather blase public. It took years to be recognized for the masterpiece it truly is.

Birthdays? We got them too.

1850 - Robert Louis Stevenson (165)
1955 - Whoopi Goldberg (60)
1957 - Stephen Baxter (58)

12th November 2015

6:40am: And more birthdays.
Today is the centennial of Roland Barthes.
Michael Ende, creator of The Neverending Story, was born on this day in 1929.

And a very happy 70th birthday to Michael Bishop!

11th November 2015

6:40am: Burfdaze
1821: Fyodor Dostoievski
1922: Kurt Vonnegut
1925: Jonathan Winters

and one hundred years ago today, William "Golden Fleece" Proxmire was born.

7th November 2015

9:01am: Birthdays
101 years old today: the still underappreciated Raphael Aloysius Lafferty.

61 years old today: Guy Gavriel Kay.

5th November 2015

7:51am: Remember, remember...
Guy Fawkes Babies:

Eugene V. Debs, 1855
Will Durant, 1885
Roy Rogers, 1911
Jim Steranko, 1938
Art Garfunkel, 1941
Tilda Swinton, 1960

3rd November 2015

3:48pm: Read: Wizardry and Wild Romance, by Michael Moorcock (2015-65)
Moorcock is well-read, intelligent, and opinionated, and all three show clearly in this book. One more curmudgeonly than I might say that his primary motive for writing was _ressentiment_ that J.R.R. Tolkien gets all (or anyway, most of) the attention he believes due to Mervyn Peake; but he has a great deal more to say than that, and much of it is very good.

His first three chapters, which are by turns the Origins, Landscapes, and Characters of epic fantasy, are excellent, as is his last chapter, a brief survey of some of the better fantasy work current as of the time of writing. (This third edition was completed in 2003 and published by Monkeybrain Books in 2004.) The two chapters in between, one on wit and humor and one on "Epic Pooh," are ... less good. They come down to Moorcock's blindness to the qualities of some strains of modern fantasy, from which blindness he infers that those qualities simply do not exist. Tolkien humorless? Well, yes, mostly; but then humor is not really appropriate to the high seriousness of his work, any more than it would be to Mallory.

If Moorcock takes his iconoclasm too seriously (he also takes a rather large and clumsy mallet to C.S. Lewis, James Branch Cabell, and several others), his praise of writers like Leiber and Wolfe is pointed and spot-on. The worst that can be said for the worst parts of this book is that they are quite readable.
1:20pm: Read: Good to Great, by Jim Collins (2015-64)
What makes a business great? That is, how does a business _become_ great and _stay_ great?

These are the questions Jim Collins and his team set out to answer in this study. They began by identifying criteria for a "great" company (one that consistently and significantly outperforms the market - by a rather arbitrary factor of 3 or more - for fifteen years or longer). Then they identified three groups of companies:

1) Companies that had made the transition successfully.
2) Similar companies (similar industry & starting point) that had _failed_ to make the transition.
3) Companies that had made the transition but fallen back in less than fifteen years.

Then, they identified characteristics of the first group lacking in the second and, usually, third groups, doing their best to be guided by the data rather than what they expected to find. The results are interesting.

I won't list all seven here, but will name the three that seem most key:

"Level 5 Leadership" is a specific form of leadership which is both confident and humble. They have the will to create greatness, but humility that directs that desire for greatness outside themselves and to the organization. This is in direct contrast to the Celebrity CEOs popular with Wall Street (and which were a common factor in the comparison companies); the latter can build something but it will be totally centered around them, and the organization collapses when they move on. (The classic example is Lee Iacocca, who built something pretty impressive with Chrysler, then lost interest as he pursued his own activities, and the company slunk back to slow failure.)

"The Hedgehog Concept" is the all-consuming concept at the intersection of three "circles": what you're passionate about; what you can be the best at; and what can drive your financial engine. The Level 5 leader and his well-selected team drive the organization single-mindedly in the direction of this concept, regardless of what outsiders say or think. (Classic example: Kimberly-Clark decided to become the top company in the consumer paper goods market, and sold off their paper mills because they were not relevant to that concept. With the resources that freed up, K-C did in fact become the top company in their chosen market.)

"The Flywheel" is the engine that keeps the organization successful. Typically, it takes several years to bring the organization to the transition point to greatness - this time is spent in small pushes on the flywheel, getting it moving. Once it is moving at a certain speed, you have to work hard to stop it. This is contrasted to the "doom loop" that failed companies tend to follow, where failure leads to the expectation of failure, which leads to failure.

The book is written well enough for a business book, not exactly thrilling but keeps the interest throughout. The lessons are well backed up with examples, and appendices lay out the data clearly.

2nd November 2015

8:37am: Birthdays of the Living and the Dead
Today is the 200th natal anniversary of George Boole, who created the modern algebra of logic.

The 150th birthday of rather mediocre US President Warren G. Harding.

The 88th birthday of Spider-Man co-creator (as well as many other cool characters) Steve Ditko, who is still with us.

As is Lois McMaster Bujold, winner of more SF awards than you can shake a reasonably sized stick at, and who is 66 today.

30th October 2015

6:27am: The return of the birthday bus
280 years ago, John Adams, second President of the United States (and many other good-to-great things) was born.

150 years later, so was poet, critic and Politically Incorrect Person Ezra Pound.

29th October 2015

7:53am: Knock
Today is the 109th birthday of Fredric Brown, past master of the short-short story.

Also the 67th of Frans de Waal, primatologist and philosopher.

26th October 2015

12:38pm: Read: A Borrowed Man, by Gene Wolfe (2015-63)
The arrival of a new Gene Wolfe book chez moi is always cause for some celebration, and this is no exception. Wolfe, for the two or three of you who don't know, is one of the few SFF writers who manage to be entertaining, puzzling, and literarily non-embarrassing all at the same time. He's just really, really _good_.

_A Borrowed Man_ is the story of mystery writer E.A. Smithe, or rather of his "reclone," living on a shelf in the Spice Grove Public Library. In this particular future - it appears to be the late 22nd century - most of humanity's problems have been solved: the population is down to about a billion, there is no war, etc.

There are cracks in this utopian facade, though. One is the existence of carefully-hidden poverty; another is the institutionalization of people who are "defective."

And a third is the reclone problem. Famous people - mostly authors and artists - from the relatively recent past have been scanned and force-cloned, and their clones have had their brains filled with the scans of their originals, with some small alterations - the most important of which is that they can create no new works.

Oh, and they're property, not legally human. E.A. Smithe resents this, but not as much as you'd think; probably because they've altered his scan to make it impossible for him to really rebel.

As the book begins, he's checked out of the library by Colette Coldbrook, who (she says) wants him to find the secret of a book. The book happens to be one of Smithe's own, _Murder On Mars_, which he barely recalls writing. It was (she tells him) the only thing in the safe of her late father, a very successful and rich man.

Colette's brother is also dead, she tells him, strangled to death in the entryway of the family mansion.

There seems to be nothing special about this book - though it appears to be the only surviving copy! - and would E.A. Smithe please help her figure out why it was in the safe?

Well, Smithe is only too pleased (or is conditioned to be pleased) to help a library patron, so he sets out to solve the problem. She fills him in on some details in a location where she hopes there are no bugs, then takes him back to her apartment - no hanky-panky, mind - where they are attacked, stripped, and tied to chairs by Persons Unknown, who tear the apartment apart looking for the book. Fortunately, Smithe has found a rather clever hiding place which they do not find.

Next they head for the family mansion and Smithe learns a few more things - most notably, that there are locked rooms that nobody in the family but Daddy could enter, and nobody has been able to figure out how to enter them. The reader will assume at this point that the book has something to do with those rooms, and the reader will be right.

Anyway, Colette disappears, Smithe checks himself back into the library (though not without incident) and he is soon checked out again by some police who work him over trying to learn Colette's whereabouts.

I think that's enough plot summary. As you can tell, it is - as usually for Wolfe - a tangled and recomplicated plot, and while everything I told you above is true, some of it is misleading because I don't want to give away the end of what is, in the end, primarily a mystery story.

I enjoyed it heartily and shall again.
6:10am: Yes, it's birthdays...
Pat Conroy, possibly my favorite living non-SFF writer: 70 years old today.

Jim Butcher, creator of the other wizard named Harry: 44 years old today.

24th October 2015

10:04am: Birthdays of the Living and the Dead
100 years ago today, Bob Kane, cocreator of the Batman, was born.

1934: John Cramer, physicist and author of TWISTOR.

1952: Jane Fancher, author and illustrator

Also 1952: David Weber, creator of Honor Harrington

23rd October 2015

7:26am: And a very happy 46th birthday
to fantasist Trudi Canavan.

22nd October 2015

8:41am: An extraordinary keyboard player
I'd like to call attention, for those who have not already heard of her, to young Rachel Flowers. Here is a video of her solo performance of Steve Reich's "Piano Phase" (written for two pianos). On a lighter note, her spontaneous variations on the "Star Spangled Banner."

21st October 2015

3:27pm: Read: The Boys In The Boat, by Daniel James Brown (2015-62)
In 1936, Berlin hosted the Olympic Games. They were a showcase for the Nazi regime's love for pomp and pageantry, and - the Nazi leadership hoped - a display of Aryan superiority. Just about everybody knows the Jesse Owens story, how an African-American took four gold medals and was generally the best athlete of the Games.

Less known today is a story that was huge at the time. Back then, rowing was a much bigger sport in the public eye than it is today. Millions (I do not believe this is an exaggeration) were tuned to their radios when the American crew solidly won the gold in the eight-oar (nine men, counting the coxswain), 2000 meter race.

This book is their story.

It is especially the story of Joe Rantz, who was in that boat but almost wasn't. It's a story of hard work, sacrifice, love, loss, and pain, ultimately rewarded.

It is also the story of Al Ulbrickson, their coach. The winning crew came from the University of Washington, beating America's other major rowing teams for the honor. Ulbrickson was a former UW rower who had been hired as coach and who vowed, first to beat the University of California, and then to bring Olympic gold home to Seattle, a city that was then barely on America's psychological map.

Cleanly and beautifully written, the story follows Rantz through his life, and Rantz and his teammates through their turbulent, wonderful years at UW. Ulbrickson and his championship crew are all dead now, but Brown managed extensive interviews with Rantz before he died, and had access to records, diaries, and other things not necessarily in the public domain, and wrote their story with love and honesty.
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