Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Review: The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology, ed. by Gordon Van Gelder

Some of the finest short stories of the past sixty years in any genre are collected in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology, edited by The Magazine of Fantasy &Science Fiction editor Gordon Van Gelder.

I haven't gone back to check the overlap with previous F&SF collections, but many of the stories have been new to me. One item of particular interest to me was the inclusion of several short stories from the last ten years that hold up very well against their older bookmates. It seems short sci-fi and fantasy is still alive and well, indeed.

The one downside to this book? I felt like a bit of a doofus when I read Peter S. Beagle's award-winning short story "Two Hearts" just two days after sharing the same dealer room for three days at the ConFusion convention. A reviewer who is less of a doofus would've read the table of contents, instead of being happy to just peruse these gems in the order they appear. Then I might've been able to say something relevant when I met him like, "Hey, I just read that 'Two Hearts' story and really enjoyed it," instead of just, "Nice to meet you." I suppose we should just be glad that my doofus-ness has limits and I didn't make a remark about owning a beagle.

But that's the way it is on the ol' Patio Boat, gentle reader. You're stuck with a reviewer who's a moderate doofus. But who's the bigger doofus? The doofus reviewer, or the doofus blog reader who's reading the reviews of a doofus?

Summary: This doofus says this is one of the best short-story collections he's read in quite some time.

Reviewing Bonus: For reviews of some of the stories herein, you can check out the short story reviews that I'm posting occasionally over on Dwarf Planet Press's blogsite.

Tachyon Publications: The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology, ed. by Gordon Van Gelder

Where and How Acquired: Science Fiction Book Club.

Book Review: Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines by Robert Lesser

Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines by Robert Lesser is a fun read or browse for anybody with an interest in classic covert art, or anybody who just likes cool paintings. It's a slightly oversized (9x12) coffee table book that's not all that long (~180 pages), but is filled with lots of cool images of classic pulp magazine paintings, including a couple-dozen full-page plates of the original paintings. It's also filled with interesting bits of history from the pulp magazine rack.

Summary: If you're strolling through a bookstore and see one among the discount books, give it a browse. You might find yourself putting it on the sales counter with whatever it was you came in for.

Amazon: Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines

Where and How Acquired: I picked it up at off a pile of Christmas discount gift books at Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago because I'm interested in cover art, it was only $9.98, and it had ... yeah, you guessed it, an eye-catching cover.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Facebook version of my continued rant about the Menifee USD pulling dictionaries out of classrooms

As Arsen put it in one Facebook comment about my ranting, "Hell hath no fury like a reference publisher scorned!"

I'm pretty sure the several posts I put up on this in Facebook generated more comments than anything else I've posted in ages. I'll leave the others' comments there, but here, gentle reader, is the fruit of my scorned fury:

5:35 pm Tuesday -- I've seen "Idiocracy", but I thought it was a documentary. I'd look it up in the dictionary, but somebody might be offended.

6:29 pm Tuesday -- This is why I don't write much satire any more. It used to be that when I made up stuff this dumb, it wasn't true!

8:00 pm Tuesday -- I'm reminded of "A Christmas Story" when Ralphie blames his knowledge of all the bad words he heard from his father on his friend "Schwartz". In the modern version, I suppose he'd say he came across them while perusing the dictionary.

8:06 pm Tuesday -- I have no idea why I just put quotemarks around Schwartz's name. I would look up the usage rules in my copy of Strunk & White, but I just threw that out because it contained the word "gratuitous," which sounded like it might be kinda dirty.

7:58 pm Tuesday (re: my misspelling of Menifee as Menifree) -- Yeah, "Menifee". I would haved checked the spelling ... if I'd had a freaking dictionary.

8:08 pm Tuesday -- You're wondering what happened to the big Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary I keep at my desk? I chucked it because it contained the place name "Sodom."

Better safe than sorry. I can now go about my business, pure and ignorant.

10:50 am today -- You can have my dictionary when you can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

10:55 am today -- I'm mostly done ranting about the Menifee school district. However, I did want to note that Monique pointed out that the "offensive" dictionaries they pulled were the edition published in 1994, which means that they've been corrupting little children in that community for more than a decade.

Forrest Gump was right: "Stupid is as stupid does."

This Week's AFC Championship MC-D Colts/Beagle Haiku.


Colts to the Super
Bowl, but Katie the Beagle
To the supper bowl!

--Mary Campbell-Droze

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Dumbing of America continues apace

I Twittered about it, I linked to it on Facebook, and now I think I shall inflict this upon you in a Mr. Crankypants blog post, gentle reader. Here's the headline and a couple of paragraphs from the Southwest Riverside News Network:

Menifee USD pulls dictionaries due to explicit word.

School officials in the Menifee Union School District pulled all copies of the book from its fourth and fifth grade classrooms last week.

A parent complaint that a dictionary in her son’s classroom at Oak Meadows Elementary contained the term and definition for “oral sex” prompted school officials in the Menifee Union School District to pull all copies of the book from its fourth and fifth grade classrooms last week.

Copies of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (published in 1994), were taken from a recommended reading list and put into use in district classrooms a few years ago to accommodate higher level readers, said Betti Cadmus, spokeswoman for the district.

Oh, sure, I could spend the rest of this post ranting about ridiculous levels of prurience. Or I could rant about the bizarre insistence that our society seems to have in exposing children to vast oceans of violence while insisting that the slightest hint of sexuality will corrupt them forever. I could discuss the salacious seas of sexuality that flood our media, even our purported children's programming, and examine whether therein lies a much greater threat to our nation's collective innocence.

Perhaps I could segue into a diatribe about the utter failure of abstinence-only sex education programs -- I use the phrase "sex education" loosely here, since as near as I can tell those programs are designed to inculcate"sex ignorance" -- in preventing pregnancy, preventing the transmission of STDs, or in encouraging any actual abstinence. That might perhaps indicate the effect, or lack thereof, that removing dictionaries with the objectionable phrase may have on the behavior of these children in the future.

Heck, I could just rant about the fact that shortly before these current fourth- and fifth-graders were born every newspaper in America seemed to carry the phrase "oral sex" on its front page. But I like to think we shan't go through that sort of thing again.

However, I won't rant about any of those things, gentle reader. Instead, I shall simply point out that the editor who wrote the headline for that story in the Southwest Riverside News Network used the word "word" to describe a two-word phrase.

Alas, that there are no longer any dictionaries in Menifee, so that we could see whether his usage of the word "word" was correct.

Monday, January 25, 2010

As We Fend Off Winter Together

January snow
Outside, while inside I pet
The beagle's warm ears.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Live Blogging from ConFusion 2010

In honor of Arsen's participation on the "Trends in Supernatural Romance" panel, I present the world's first romantic zombie haiku:

Zombie Love




Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Very Special MC-D Colts / Beagle PLAYOFF Haiku

"Oop! Gaah! YIKES! omigawd. Huh? Erg! Yes-s-s! YAY!!"

A beagle's calm is
Truly enviable in
The Colts post-season.

--Mary Campbell-Droze

The Patio Boat Blog Lurches Forward into 2008

I just tweeted my first beagle haiku on Twitter. At 140 characters, I doubt we'll see any beagle sonnets or beagle sestinas through that channel.

However, in the interests of building an audience on that new outlet, today's beagle haiku will be a Twitter exclusive! And since it relates Katie the Beagle's shocking reaction to Cady the Terrible's departure, it's must-read haiku!

If you want to read it, you'll have to go sign up for Twitter and follow me. I did it yesterday and it really is simple enough. My alias there is -- unsurprisingly enough -- Patioboater. You needn't follow anybody else, my devoted blog followers. I haven't followed it all for long enough myself to have any recommendations for who else you can follow, though I have already gained a new appreciation for the sheer 140-or-fewer-characters comedic stylings of Cincinnati Bengals WR Chad "OchoCinqo" Johnson:

OGOchoCinco CP3,DWADE,KOBE,LEBRON,DWIGHTHOWARD vs any combo of NFL players I guarantee we win-you can change the starting 5 of NBA players-we still win.

Frankly, I can't compete with that sort of comedy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

One Mystery Solved

At last we solved the mystery of the canine agoraphobe. It turns out that Cady the Terrible's sudden fear of the outdoors stemmed from the incredibly faint sound of gunfire from a shooting range several miles away from our house. The reason this hasn't ever been an issue in her previous stays and the reason she was only occasionally terrified of the outdoors during this stay is that the sound is so incredibly faint that it can only be heard at all when the leaves are down, and a North wind gently wafts the gentle BANG BANG BANG through bare branches across a quiet, frozen lake.

As for why this incredibly faint sound terrifies Cady the Formerly Terrible Now Just Cowardly, your guess is as good as mine. And this still doesn't explain her stone-cold dread of The Horror That Is The Washing Machine. But, hey, the last time we ruined her she needed to get an ACL replaced, so dropping a few neurotic complexes on her is only a mild ruination by comparison.

On the bright side, my Mom and Dick finally returned from their cruise and picked up their ruined dog. Soon Cady will be back in the safety of Glens Falls, where the firing ranges are well out of floppy-earshot, the washing machine is properly banished to the far off washroom, and the snacks and treats flow like milk and honey.

My final thought on The Mystery of the Canine Agoraphobe?

"We would have gotten away with it, too, it it wasn't for you meddling kids!"

Could It Be That I'm a Reviewer?

A slightly new writing endeavour has taken root in 2010. At Arsen's urging I decided to put together a list of the books that I'm reading in 2010 in the left column of the blog. On my own initiative, I reckoned I'd toss in a quick review or two as I go along. A list is nice, but a review gives it a bit of context.

Well, after reading a few of my book reviews, the perceptive folks at Dwarf Planet Press asked if I could provide them with a few fiction reviews, too. I'm keeping the book reviews here, but I'll also post an occasional review of short, speculative fiction over on Dwarf Planet from time to time. I'll try to keep them short, and in general I'll try to mix between classic stories that may be a bit off the beaten track, and current stories that have just been written.

Ideally, I'll be able to steer folks to some good reads that they might have otherwise missed. Or warn them if I come across something dreadful. We shall see.

Here's the first: "All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Two-Book Review: Little Girl Lost (2004) and Songs of Innocence, (2007) by Richard Aleas

Little Girl Lost (2004) and its sequel, Songs of Innocence, (2007) by Richard Aleas are simply two of the best noir crime books that I've read in years. The books follow detective John Blake as he descends into New York's strip clubs and massage parlors. In each he's trying to solve the murder of a woman that he loved. The books are gritty, grimy, and ultimately moving because Aleas is able to make us care about these characters who are caught in hard and worsening circumstances.

Richard Aleas is the pen name of Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai, who has proven to be as sharp a writer as he is an editor. These aren't English tea-cozy mysteries. They're about hard men and hard women in a hard world. But if you like noir crime and you haven't read these two books, they should absolutely be at the top of your to-read list. And even if you don't like noir crime, the covers look great.

Summary: The hard-boiled detective enters the 21st century.

Amazon: Little Girl Lost.
Amazon: Songs of Innocence.

P.S. As an added bonus, Songs of Innocence features one of the greatest cover blurbs of all time:

Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.

Where and How Acquired:, where I was spending the $25 holiday gift certificate I got from my company, and where I benefited further from free shipping and a "buy three, get one free" sale.

Book Review: The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie (1928)

After the strange mediocrity of The Big Four, I was glad to see Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot back in form with The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928). This one's a good read filled with luxury train travel, mysterious rubies, heiresses, millionaires, and a long interlude in the French Riviera.

Poirot himself doesn't arrive until page 62, by which time Christie has set the scene with her usual expert touch. The mystery itself is clever, the red herrings fly fast and furious, and the plot kept me guessing along all the way to the end.

It's a good one.

Summary: Take a ride on "The Millionaire's Train." You'll have a good time.

Amazon: The Mystery of the Blue Train.
Wikipedia: The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Where and How Acquired: Used, from John K. King Books.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Yup, We Ruined My Mom's Dog

Why Cady Won't Go into the Bathroom To Eat Her Dinner

What is so scary
That Cady's afraid to eat?
The washing machine.

The Naughtful Naughties: Gerrymandering and an Electoral Results Database Plea

No data-based post today. Instead I'm going to have a long generic discussion of the theoretical gerrymandering, followed by a plea asking whether anybody can steer me to a good database or set of online tables of electoral results, especially for US House elections and/or state legislatures.

Why am I asking for such a thing you ask? So far we've looked at a few sets of economic data. But at some point this year I'd like to take a look at another phenomenon whose effect I think worsened during the Naughts: gerrymandering.

As databases and data analysis has grown more sophisticated over the years, it has become easier for redistricting committees to design districts that tilt towards one party or another. In cases when a single party controls the redistricting party, this allows incumbents to draw districts that maximize the number of representatives that there party will have.

The way this is done is to design as many "reasonably safe" districts for the incumbent party, and to crowd as many voters from the other party into a very few "overwhelmingly safe" districts. "Reasonably safe" districts tend to have something like a 55%-45% to 60%-40% advantage for the incumbent party, while "overwhelmingly safe" districts can have an advantage for the out party of anywhere from 75%-25% to 90%-10%.

Let me give you an example. Let's say we have a state with ten million voters and 100 state house seats. For sake of our example, we'll split our voters into five million voters that favor Party A and five million voters that favor Party B.

In an absolutely even mathematical construct, we would have 100 districts, each of which has 50,000 voters from Party A and 50,000 representatives from Party B. In a completely neutral election these districts would split randomly, 50 for Party A and 50 for Party B.

Geography and demography is not a random mathematical construct of course. Because different areas favor different parties, what we might reasonably expect would be a bell-shaped curve in which we have something like five "overwhelmingly safe" seats for each party, ten or fifteen "reasonably safe" seats for each party, and perhaps as many as 50 or 60 seats that could potentially be up for grabs in each election, depending on which way the political winds are blowing.

However, a clever gerrymander will shift the apportionment. Let's say that Party A is in power. They can then draw up districts that look something like this:

Reasonably Safe for Party A - 83 seats
55,000 from Party A
45,000 from Party B

Overwhelmingly Safe for Party B - 17 seats
25,000 from Party A
75,000 from Party B

(One of those "overwhelmingly safe" seats for Party B needs to be a 35,000-65,000 split to make the math work perfectly, but that's still an overwhelmingly safe margin.)

What effect does that sort of districting have on our 100-seat legislative body?

The most obvious, of course, is that the body will vote overwhelmingly for the positions of Party A on each and every issue. And because their advantage is so large, they will have no incentive in considering or including even part of the platform of Party B as they craft legislation.

But what about cases in which redistricting is shared between the parties? Even in these cases the redistricting is being drawn by incumbents. So it shouldn't surprise anybody if the redistricting tends to favor creating safe districts for incumbents. We may end up with a legislature that is split 50 seats to 50 seats; however, what we are likely to have in district makeup is something like this:

Safe for Party A - 50 Seats
60,000 Party A
40,000 Party B

Safe for Party B - 50 Seats
40,000 Party A
60,000 Party B

The popular description of this phenomenon goes something like this:

Instead of a system in which the electorate chooses their representatives, we have a system in which the representatives choose their electorate.

Whether there is a single-party or shared gerrymander, there is very little chance that we will see seats change parties during the decade that follows the redistricting. This means that the real election to choose the person who holds that seat is the party primary, in which that parties nominee for the general election is selected. Independent voters either shun party primaries or are shut out of them altogether, depending on that state's rules. Primaries also see low voter turnout and tend to be dominated by the most active segments of each party's electorate, the "wings" of their party. In the case of Democrats and Republicans, these tend to be the liberal and conservative bases.

This means that in our gerrymandered legislatures, if you want to represent a district, you should have policies that favor the wings of the party for whom that district is safe. In our single-party gerrymander this means that not only do we have a legislature with representatives who favor Party A, we have a legislature that overwhelmingly favors the most extreme factions of Party A with a noisy minority from Party B. In our two-party gerrymander we have a legislature with 50 representives from the wing of Party A and 50 representatives from the wing of Party B. In either case there's no electoral incentive for the representatives to govern from the center of the poltical spectrum.

Thus, does gerrymandering push centrists out of power altogether.

In our theoretical gerrymandered legislature we would expect to see extreme partisan rancor, very few representatives crossing party lines for votes, legislation that favors the most extreme positions of the controlling party, and a growing sense of disenfranchisement among centrists. The more sophisticated the gerrymandering, the more likely we are to see those behaviors.

Does this sound like a legislature near you? You may have gerrymandered districts.

Was gerrymandering any worse during the Naughts than in previous years? That's why I'd like the data in a nice, convenient bundle. So we can see whether reality matched my nice theoretical construct above.

If gerrymandering is afoot, I would expect to see a pattern in which the average margin of victory is greatest in the year following a redistricting (2002, for this decade) and slowly decreases as voters shift and move. And if it's worse in this decade than previous decade, I would expect to see a pattern in which the average margin of victory for US House and state house elections is larger in this decade than in previous decades.

The data's out there, and looking up individual elections is easy enough. But if somebody's already compiled it all in a single place, I'd just as soon not replicate the effort, and would appreciate you steering me in that direction. Muchas gracias!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review: And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer

And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer is the incredibly unnecessary sixth book in the late Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, and the first one not written by Adams himself.


I don't know why -- given the decline of the last couple Hitchhiker's books written by Adams himself -- but I had kind of high hopes for this book. The basis for my optimism was the thought that the right writer might be able to bring back the light touch of the early entries in the series. And Colfer tries. Man, does he try. I mean, he really, really tries.


I also figured that at worst I'd spend a few pleasant hours with some familiar friends. Instead, it was too often more like a few really dull hours with guests who had overstayed their welcome, run out of discussion topics, and just started repeating the same stories. There are some good bits in here, and the book improves a bit towards the end when Colfer finally gets the plot moving towards its conclusion. But it suffers a couple of real problems:

Character Claustrophobia -- Colfer recycles our usual main characters (Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Trillian); adds in Arthur and Trillians's annoying daughter Random from the last couple of Adams books; and promotes a few obscure minor characters (Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, Thor) to supporting status. But none of the main characters seem to have anything new to do, nor do they show any growth, just a prolonged stagnation. Worse yet is the lack of new, compelling characters. One of the things that made Adams's original series great was the feeling that just around the page you would meet yet another new and infinitely weird character. This read's more like Sartre's No Exit.

Weak Prose and Storytelling -- The other sense of stagnation comes in some of Colfer's prose. He often has a nice feel for the Guide entries with a slightly officious diction, but that same voice sometimes carries over into the narrative segments and drags them down. He also seems to lack Adams's brisk narrative storytelling gift. One upside to reading this is that I gained a new appreciation for how Adams must have really internalized those years of writing and editing scripts for BBC radio and TV. There was an urgency in his stories that's lacking here.

Having said all that, I don't know that I can or should advise you to not read this book. It was occasionally nice to have the band back together. And there were some good bits in there. Nothing side-splittingly funny, perhaps, but it was entertaining enough in places

And perhaps that's the real problem. By the end of his fifth Hitchhiker's book, Douglas Adams had already run out of steam and wasn't living up to the brilliance of the first few books. There's no shame for Eoin Colfer in also not being up to Douglas Adams at his absolute peak. But that doesn't mean that there's any particularly good reason for you to read this thing, either.

Summary: Oh, who's kidding who. If you read the other Hitchhiker's books, you know you're going to read it eventually. All I'm saying is this. Go get it at the library. At least that way you won't be out twenty bucks, and you won't be encouraging them to write another one that you'll also feel compelled to try.

Amazon: And Another Thing...

Where and How Acquired: Science Fiction Book Club.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Naughtful Naughties: State Tax Revenues

Just quickly passing along another chart today, this one courtesy of the The Business Insider's Chart of the Day (click on the chart to pop up a full-size version):

What I find especially noteworthy in this chart is the extent to which the two recessions of the Naughts led to far greater decreases in state revenue that we saw in any of the recessions of the previous forty years. We might have expected the biggest drop in state revenue to come from the Great Recession at the end of the decade, but what happened in the recession that started the decade? Why was it so much worse for state governments than previous recessions?

I suspect the answer lies in some combination of changes in the source of tax revenues and an unwillingness to raise taxes at the state level to make up for revenue shortfalls. But I don't know. It certainly seems an interesting area for further research.

Opinions differ on tax rates (to put it mildly!) and a lot of folks see less tax money going to state government as an inherently good thing. One thing we can all agree on is that decreased revenues lead directly to state cutting services (education, infrastructure, policing, etc.) for the citizens of that state, pushing the burden of providing those services down on local municipalities that are dealing with their own revenue shortfalls, or engaging in accounting chicanery to balance the books for that year. In Michigan -- where we never really got that mid-decade bump upwards in revenues -- we've seen all three.

What worries me about the increasing volatility of state revenues shown in that chart above is that it leads state governments to seek short-term solutions that have bad long-term results. A few years ago in Michigan we sold off the long-term revenue stream from our tobacco settlement to use the money to plug immediate budget holes. Now we have the same structural budget holes, with even less revenue than ever to weather the current crisis.

Arizona plans to sell off and re-lease their state government buildings to plug the cash-flow hole in this year's budget. Is this a good long-term deal for the citizens of the state? No. But given the sort of precipitous decline in state revenues shown above, I can see how it might be an appealing quick fix to a state government. The same goes for privatizing lotteries, selling off park land, and a host of other options that all of you have probably heard floated from your own state governments.

As you can see from the chart above, fiscal crisis management is the order of the day for our state governments. But it isn't necessarily leading to better government.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Naughtful Naughts: Unemployment

Just collecting up a bit more data on the Naughtful Naughts. I think we can all agree about one thing that went wrong in the Naughts was the collapse in the job market after mid-2007. Let's take a look at a couple of graphs:

Here's the annual unemployment rate from 1950 through 2009:

Ups and downs aplenty in there. A few items in that graph struck me:
  • Annual unemployment peaked in 1982 at 9.7 percent.
  • The lowest annual unemployment rate: 2.9% in 1953. That was 66 years ago.
  • Three long periods of declining unemployment rates: 1961-1969 (6.7% to 3.5%), 1982-1989 (9.7% to 5.3%), 1992 to 2000 (7.5% to 4.0%.)
  • None of the steep climbs over the last sixty years look as steep or as large as what we saw in the last few years of the decade. The annual rate for 2009 was 9.3 percent -- rapidly approaching the all-time high for the last sixty years.

So let's take a look at what happened the last ten years or so. Here's the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the months January 1999 to December 2009:

A few items of note:
  • The low point came in April 2000 at 3.7%.
  • The unemployment rate was 4.0% or below from September 1999 to January 2001.
  • We had a moderate increase from then until June 2003, 4.1% to a high of 6.4 percent.
  • That increase was followed by a long, steady decrease from July 2003 until May 2007 when it bottomed out at 4.3 percent.
  • The number of full-time workers in the United States peaked in July 2007 at 147,315,000.
  • Unemployment climbed slowly from then until June 2008 when it hit 5.5 percent.
  • After that, the job losses accelerated, hitting a peak of 11.1 percent in October 2009.
  • The rate dropped one-tenth of a percent in November 2009 (11.0%) and December 2009 (10.9%).
Did we hit a peak in October 2009, or just a bump in continued job loss? Time will tell.

All statistics courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We've ruined another dog

I don't know why people keep leaving their dogs with us. We keep ruining them.

This time the ruined dog is the one-time Cady the Terrible. Now she's more like Cady the Afraid-of-the-Outdoors, or perhaps Fraidy the Terrible. Her case of acute canine agoraphobia began during an evening walk on New Year's Eve when somebody launched a wee firework about a mile away:


Well, it was a mile or so away, so it was more like:


Be that as it may, Cady has apparently never been the bravest about loud noises, and so she turned tail mid-walk and demanded to go home. Fair enough. That probably would have been a limited-time issue if it hadn't been for the fact that the next day during a walk somebody once again lit off a firework on the far side of the lake:


That was pretty much the end of all interest in going outdoors for the rest of her stay in Michigan. If you put her on the leash and drag her along far enough, she'll eventually do her business. I suppose the below-freezing temperatures haven't helped, but as far as Cady the Canine Agoraphobe is concerned, she'll be spending the rest of her time with us indoors, thank you, and away from the terrifying, terrifying outdoors.

Um, sorry Mom. We didn't mean to wreck your dog.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book Review: Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett (1990)

I don't think I've commented about it on the blog before, but one of my other reading projects for the last couple of years has been to work my way through Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, in more or less chronological order. I'm extremely pleased that I decided to do this, and as I've worked through them I've become convinced that Pratchett will be remembered as one of the truly great humor writers. I suspect the Discworld series is likely to endure and rise in reputation for years to come.

In Moving Pictures (1990) Pratchett takes on the world of early Hollywood. This is a good, breezy read with likeable characters and a touch of menace lurking in the background. Although it doesn't reach the comedic or philosophical heights of the best books in the series, it's always interesting fun, and contains some very nice commentary on our own culture of celebrity. If you've never read a Discworld novel, this is as good a place to jump in as any.

Summary: A good read for all.
Amazon: Moving Pictures.

Where and How Acquired: Commerce Township Community Library.

The 2010 Book List; Review of The Big Four by Agatha Christie (1927)

You may or may not have noticed that a new wee box has shown up at the bottom of the left-hand column of the blog, the "2010 Book Reading List." This was something that Arsen suggested, in part because he's trying to figure out what readers read. I thought it was a pretty good idea, and might be fun though I fear it will just let the cat out of the bag that my general reading list lacks literary heft and is instead mostly a bunch of old mysteries and sci-fi novels.

I'll also try to throw a quick review for the books as I finish them, and in that spirit, here's my review of...

The Big Four by Agatha Christie (1927)

One of my current reading projects is to read the Hercule Poiroit mysteries by Agatha Christie in more-or-less the order in which they were released. It's been a lot of fun because -- not surprisingly -- some of these books are really great mysteries since the Poirot mysteries include titles such as Murder on the Links, The Death of Roger Ackroyd, and Murder on the Orient Express.

The Big Four has something in common with those mystery greats. It also contains a protagonist named Hercule Poirot. It's one of the earlier books, and is kind of a weird read. It's as if Agatha Christie read a Doc Savage novel and decided that Hercule Poirot should also travel internationally taking on a vast shadowy syndicate of evil led by criminal masterminds. Not surprisingly, it reads kind of like a Doc Savage novel, if Doc Savage were a short old Belgian dude with a big moustache.

This is not a good thing.

The plot itself is more a series of small mysteries than a single complex mystery. In fact, it reads a bit as if Christie took some Poirot short stories, slapped a supercriminal syndicate led by "The Big Four" on it, and called it a novel. It really doesn't hang together as a coherent plot. But some of those smaller mysteries make for pretty good set-piece mysteries.

It's far from a great Poirot novel. But there are some pretty good bits with Hastings, and some of the smaller mysteries are good if you ignore the vast flaws in the overall logic of the plot. So, if you've read a lot of the Poirot novels and are looking for some Poirot short stories that you haven't come across, you might give this one a try.

Summary: Strictly for Poirot compleatists.

Amazon: The Big Four

Where and How Acquired: Used, from John K. King Books.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Naughtful Naughties: The Money Supply

As seen in the comments on my previous post, my brother Mike has some pretty strong opinions about the ol' Federal Reserve System and the money supply. So, I reckoned I'd gather up a bit of historical macroeconomic data to see what I could find. That took a wee bit of time, so I'm not going to format and explain my source data in detail today, but I did want to pass along a couple of graphs that I put together.

I assembled a goodly batch of data from the past 50+ years. It was a worthwhile exercise, since one of the things I'd like to do in this Naughtful Naughties series is to put what happened over the last ten years into some historical perspective.

For today, I've chosen to look at five specific measures of change:

The Prime Rate -- The rate at which banks lend to favored customers. This is tied closely to the federal funds rate established by the Federal Reserve. (In retrospect, I probably should've gone directly to the federal funds rate.)

The Change in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Deflator -- This is a measure of inflation that is broader than the consumer Price Index because in addition to consumer products and services, it also includes government services and investment goods.

The Change in the Real GDP per capita -- The Real GDP measures the the total national output of goods and services in constant dollars. When divided by the total population it makes for a handy measure of our change in national wealth per person.

Federal Deficit as a Percentage of GDP -- Another possible source of change in the money supply. Is the federal government spending more than it takes in? (It usually is!) If so, it'll need to issue treasury bonds to make up the difference.

Change in M2 per capita -- M2 is the money supply measured in terms of currency, traveler's checks, demand deposits, other checkable deposits, retail money market mutual funds, savings, and small time deposits. It's a pretty good measure of the dollars that are available for use. I divided it by the total population to see how much faster the money supply grew than might be expected if it just kept pace with our population.

What did I come up with? Here's what it looks like (You can click on the image to see the full-size graph):

If the zigs and zags of that graph hurt your eyes, I also "smoothed" the data by taking some five-year averages. (So, the 1975 point has the average percentages for 1971-1975.) I often find that a useful way to see broader trends:

For today, I'm not drawing any conclusions. But I do think it's interesting to look at some of the relationships that seem to emerge among these sorts of measures that step back from the daily ebbs and flows of the financial news and look at the year-to-year changes, especially when you keep in mind what was happening in the economy during the various periods covered here.

Here are the sources for the data I compiled today:

Prime Rate (The US Federal Reserve)

Money Supply (M1 & M2 , M3 )(The US Federal Reserve)

Consumers Price Index (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Gross Domestic Product (, which had a more convenient format than the federal tables I found.)

US Federal Deficit as a Percent of GDP (

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Naughtful Naughties

Since year-end statistics about a variety of things will be coming out soon, I thought I'd put up a quick post to let you all know that I'm kicking off a new feature for this year, occasional posts that will review statistics from the last decade. I expect to concentrate on financial and economic issues, but I'm sure I'll touch on some social, political, and other issues as I go along.

Like a lot of folks, it feels to me that the U.S. went pretty far off the tracks over the last ten years. Some of those trends were new, but a lot of them have been building for some time. What I hope to accomplish is better understand where we've been lately, and where we're going. And by posting some facts and my thoughts about them here, perhaps some of you can also add to our understanding.

Look for three categories of posts:

  • The Naughtful Naughties: What Went Wrong
  • The Naughtful Naughties: What Went Right
  • The Naughtful Naughties: What I Flat-Out Don't Understand

I don't have a big pile of data for today's post, but I do have a homework assignment for all of you. It's the little bit of web surfing that started me down this path.

I was thinking about the stagnation of income over the past decade, and feeling pretty fortunate that I made a better salary now than I did ten years ago. Then I went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Inflation Calculator. It uses the Consumer Price Index to calculate what a current dollar would have been worth in past years. Not surprisingly, I found that the vast majority of my income increase over the last ten years had been eaten up by inflation. I'd always been aware of that at some level, but it was a bit of a kick in the pants to see it in black and white.

So that's your homework assignment, if you care to take it. Go to the Inflation Calculator, enter your 2000 income, and see what it would have been in 2009. Or try the reverse, enter your 2009 income and see what it would have been in 2000. How do you feel about it?

I feel stagnant. And I don't feel good about it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

This Week's MC-D Colts/Beagle Haiku, plus bonus lyrics from a sprited song of denial!

No doubt about it, our intrepid Colts/Beagle correspondent is having a hard time dealing with the fact that the Colts are demonstrably worse than the Buffalo Bills, as seen in the deep denial that permeates the song lyrics that follow this week's haiku:

Milestones Buried Under Bills Blizzard

Manning, Wayne, and Clark
Can't yellow Buffalo's snow
Like Katie Beagle!

Mad Colts Love Song

The franchise is taking some heat
For letting our great team get beat,
But despite all the "coulda"s and "shoulda"s
It just doesn't suck to be us.

As for pursuit of perfection,
This season's a pretty damned good'un!
So Caldwell's won't be like Shula's?
It still doesn't suck to be us.

The media's Armchair sh#t flies,
But Indy's got eyes on the prize:
XLIV's within reach; why the fuss---
How can it suck to be us?

So all naysayers who boo
Can go stuff it up their wazoo!
Whatever the possible codas,
It really don't suck to be us!

--Mary Campbell-Droze

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Naughts Are Over and Done

Lately there seems to have been a bit of an outbreak of the assertion that the last decade did not end on December 31, 2009, and that it will still be with us for another year. I posted a reply on the topic on a post on Arsen Darnay's LaMarotte blog (Getting the Calendar Right) and thought I'd share it here:

A year left to still accomplish goals for this decade? Too late. There may still be a case to be made on the century score, but the Naughtful Naughts -- that kidney stone of a decade* -- are done. We identify decades by the decennial number, thus the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, etc. You won't hear much argument that 1980 was part of The Seventies, even if Disco was still running strong.

Fortunately, there's a simple solution for those who feel themselves bound by two-hundred consecutive ten-counts. The first decade had just nine years, years 1 AD through 9 AD. Heresy? Hardly, in a calendar system that throws in an extra day once every four years, an occaisonal leap-second, and that once even lopped seventeen days out of the calendar altogether.

*They were painful, and we're glad they've passed.

The Detroit Lions 2009 season as viewed by my Facebook statuses.

For those who just couldn't get enough of the 2009 Detroit Lions, here's a season recap, courtesy of my Facebook statuses. It's just as well that I wasn't on Facebook last year when they went 0-16. I'm pretty sure that many of the words I used to describe them in 2008 are prohibited on Facebook.

2009 Detroit Lions Preseason

Preseason Week 1 Sat, Aug 15 vs Atlanta (P) W 27 - 26

Preseason Week 2 Sat, Aug 22 @ Cleveland (P) L 10 - 27
John Magee Down 20-0 after one quarter? Multiple turnovers? Dumb penalties? Getting their asses kicked on the offensive *and*defensive lines? Giving up kick returns for touchdowns? The Lions don't need preseason. I say they're already in mid-season form! August 22, 2009 at 9:27pm

Preseason Week 3 Sat, Aug 29 vs Indianapolis (P) W 18 - 17

Preseason Week 4 Thu, Sep 3 @ Buffalo (P) W 17 - 6
Stacey Tucker-Blosch Some Lion humor from the Onion...
NFL Players Mentor Troubled Detroit Lions
September 8, 2009 at 12:51pm
John Magee I know this is fake because it implies that professional football players could be found at a Detroit Lions practice. September 8, 2009 at 6:16 pm

2009 Detroit Lions Regular Season

John Magee is callin' it a day at work and off to buy some chicken wings for grilling in celebration of tonight's kickoff of the NFL season. September 10, 2009 at 6:36pm
Phil Gaven Must be nice to watch on a night when you know the Lions can't lose. September 10, 2009 at 8:03pm
John Magee Don't be so overconfident, Phil. September 10, 2009 at 8:44pm
Week 1 Sun, Sep 13 @ New Orleans (0-0) L 27 - 45

John Magee and Monique are off to watch the Lions game. Will this be the week that finally brings a Win? Alas, since Mike Bell ran for 140 yards against us last week, I fully expect to see Adrian Peterson set the NFL single-game rushing record today. September 20, 2009 at 11:25am
Week 2 Sun, Sep 20 vs Minnesota (1-0) L 13 - 27
John Magee Game Report: The Lions were ahead after the first half and kept Adrian Peterson to less than 100 yards rushing. In Lions terms this is the equivalent of a three-game win streak! September 20, 2009 at 5:35pm

Week 3 Sun, Sep 27 vs Washington (1-1) W 19 - 14

(The first Lion victory since 2007!)
John Magee Go hard, win the game. / With honor you will keep your fame. / Down the field and gain, / A Lion victory! / GO LIONS! September 27, 2009 at 5:18pm
John Magee Congratulations, Lions! September 27, 2009 at 5:19pm
Susan Magee Riordan Shea's enjoying school AND your Lions won a game? Duck and cover, people, duck and cover. September 27, 2009 at 5:25pm
Robert Forster Yay Lions! Do it again! Do it again! We like it! We like it! September 27, 2009 at 5:46pm
Lori Pasto Holy Crap! The Lions won!! Congrats! September 27, 2009 at 6:35pm
Eric Blosch There's always next week! September 27, 2009 at 10:25pm
(The Redskins would bounce back from this disgrace finish the season at a lofty 4-12. Well, 4-12 is lofty to Lion fans, anyway.)

Week 4 Sun, Oct 4 @ Chicago (2-1) L 24 - 48

Week 5 Sun, Oct 11 vs Pittsburgh (2-2) L 20 - 28

Week 6 Sun, Oct 18 @ Green Bay (2-2) L 0 - 26

Week 7 Bye

(Thank goodness!)

Week 8 Sun, Nov 1 vs St. Louis (0-7) L 10 - 17

(This was the Ram's only victory of the season. The only reason St. Louis didn't tie the Lions' all-time NFL 0-16 record of last season was that they were able to beat ... THE LIONS! Aaarggh!)

Week 9 Sun, Nov 8 @ Seattle (2-5) L 20 - 32
John Magee The Lions are the stupidest team ever. They fell for the "no play" fake play on fourth down and jumped offsides. Even Pee-Wee teams don't fall for that. November 8, 2009 at 6:44pm

Week 10 Sun, Nov 15 @ Minnesota (7-1) L 10 - 27

John Magee, Monique, Michelle, and Stella are off to watch to Stupor Bowl today: the Hapless Browns (1-8) come to Detroit today to take on the Feeble Lions (1-8). (City names have been changed to protect innocent bystanders in those two cities.) On the bright side, this is a game that the Lions can win! Go, Lions!!! November 22, 2009 at 8:55am
Week 11 Sun, Nov 22 vs Cleveland (1-8) W 38 - 37
John Magee ... Down the field to gain / A Lions victory! / Gooooooo, Lions!!! November 22, 2009 at 5:35pm
John Magee I hope he eventually learns not to throw dumb interceptions because the Lions finally have a quarterback I can root for. This video of Stafford on Sunday is awesome! November 25, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Sound FX: Matthew Stafford mic'd up: Listen to Matthew Stafford lead the Lions to a win vs. Cleveland and play through injury.

Week 12 Thu, Nov 26 vs Green Bay (6-4) L 12 - 34

(The Annual Thanksgiving Day Stinker, a national tradition!)

John Magee is trying to summon the will to string up a few more Christmas lights, but has instead found the couch and the Sunday paper to be too strong so far. We can only hope that the Lions force me to turn off the TV in disgust and get on with my day before halftime. (To be honest, that's usually the Lions' top accomplishment on most Sundays.) December 6, 2009 at 12:50pm
Week 13 Sun, Dec 6 @ Cincinnati (8-3) L 13 - 23
John Magee Yes, indeed. The result of that Lions' game was entirely predictable. It forced me outside by early in the third quarter, and our Christmas lights are now set. December 6, 2009 at 5:47pm

Week 14 Sun, Dec 13 @ Baltimore (6-6) L 3 - 48
John Magee and Monique are puttering about the house and watching football. Yes, that means that the Lions game is over and we've moved on to other games. I can't really call what they did today during that 48-3 beatdown by the Ravens "football." December 13, 2009 at 5:10pm
Paul Chambers Didn't the Ravens spot them 3 points? December 13, 2009 at 8:33pm
Tom Mulhall OK, so it's bad enough your wife is married to you, but you make her watch the Lions? I can't decide which is worse! December 13, 2009 at 9:23pm
John Magee In her case, "watching" consisted of occasionally walking by and asking, "How bad is it now?"

I reckon she put at least as much effort into it as the Lions did. December 13, 2009 at 9:52pm

(And now, the national perspective from Dave McClure in California.)

David B Mcclure Thanks to the snow the 49er game was delayed so now I have to watch the Lions lose. December 20, 2009 at 1:48pm
David B Mcclure See foot ... aim ... FIRE! December 20, 2009 at 1:51pm
John Magee Those of us in Detroit have been spared the horror of the Lions game due to the blackout. I'm happy for you that we could share it with you. (Actually, it's been on the Sunday Ticket Red Zone quite a bit so far, due to all the Lion turnovers and Cardinal scores.) December 20, 2009 at 2:11pm
David B Mcclure Holy smoke! You're missing a good one! December 20, 2009 at 4:01pm
Week 15 Sun, Dec 20 vs Arizona (8-5) L 24 - 31
John Magee And yet the outcome was preordained. Lions lose. December 20, 2009 at 4:59pm

Week 16 Sun, Dec 27 @ San Francisco (6-8) L 6 - 20
John Magee found the perfect film clip to express how he feels about watching Lions games these days. December 28, 2009 at 1:32pm

Thank you sir may I have another?
Patrick Iaquinto I'm not sure why I watch. I'm expecting a competitive, entertaining game but it rarely happens. December 28, 2009 at 3:20pm
John Magee I expect to see a competitive, entertaining game on Sundays, too. That's why I have DirecTV Sunday Ticket. So that I can turn the channel to a competitive, entertaining game after the Lions get blown out.

Thank goodness they're going to be blacked out next Sunday. I'd feel compelled to watch, and I'm sure that nothing good could come of it. December 28, 2009 at 11:35pm

John Magee is so sad that the Lions aren't blacked out today. Now I'm going to have to watch them. It's horrible, but you can't avert your eyes -- kind of like a train wreck. A decade-long train wreck. January 3 at 12:07pm
Week 17 Sun, Jan 3 vs Chicago (6-9) L 23 - 37
John Magee Oh, Lions, why must you be so horrible? Why? Why? Why? January 3 at 4:04pm

Saturday, January 2, 2010

January Has Arrived on Wolverine Lake.

On New Year's Eve the temperature crept up to a balmy 35 degrees. Monique and I took advantage of the heat wave to have a flurry of outdoor fun in the ... well, not "fun in the sun." Make it, "in the dull grey of a Michigan winter day."

Monique and Anna from next door went out and made a snowman.

Meanwhile, John and Dean from across the street cleared the ice rink out front on the lake.

Today, the sun returned. But it forgot to bring any warmth with it. It's seven degrees Fahrenheit outside this afternoon.

Pretty, but cold!

Sure, it looks quiet out there in this still photo. But this quick video should give you a better idea of the activity level on the lake on a single-digit January day.