Thursday, April 19, 2012

The MagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Narnia, Hogwarts and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, mixed in uneven amounts. Doesn't rise to the level of any one of those books, but provides a little bit of commentary on each of them. The author is consciously drawing on the first two books, with subtle commentaries on the unreality of them, so I don't take points off for that. The protagonist is taken from a real world, put into a fantasy where everything is great, then dumped back out into the real world with fantastical powers, then goes back into a fantastical world with real consequences. In some sense it's pretty cool, but the hero is a little whiney, a little too imperfect. Sure, it's hard to live in a world where you can get by without doing much. There are tons of college graduates struggling with it right now. But in the end, you need to join the community and contribute. I can't really sympathize with someone who reacts by partying and losing his moral compass.

That sounds really negative. I did enjoy this book. It was fun to explore this new world. The characters are original, even in this consciously derivative world.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #1)Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In some ways, this book is deeper than a standard military fantasy book. It's politics resemble those of the historical hundred years' war, but in an alternate setting. For the most part though, it is what it probably aims to be, a dark, fun book with a sense of comraderie among likable villains. When I say villains, they really are villains, not rogues with a heart of gold. The book begins with a scene of looting, murder and rape(offscreen) in the aftermath of a battle against poorly armed farmers. You never quite root for them, except in the sense of turning their destruction on more worthy targets. In all, a book for those who enjoy this type of book, not for everyone.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

One Night

I've been watching a BBC program called "One Night". It's one of those shows that uses multiple viewpoints to slowly reveal and fully explore a single event in the format of Rashomon.

 It's a really well-made show, with quiet moments, action that could never be mistaken for glossy or glamorous, some beautiful shots, and interesting commentary on human behavior. It takes the little frictions we experience in our daily lives: a bad experience with customer service, the insecurity of throwing a party for someone you want to impress, the fallout of random acts of vandalism, the expectation of persecution among those living in dangerous places coupled with the sense of superiority of those living just outside them. All of these social rough spots are woven together into a beautiful and tragic story.

Its setting is somewhere between suburban and urban, and they use real UK accents and slang, so it can be a bit hard sometimes for the american ear. In particular, the second episode, it took me a long time to really sympathize with the boyfriend, instead of just thinking the girl was wasting her time. That may be by design, but it could also be that I couldn't parse the slang and find the flirtatious content. If you can be patient, the story is worth it. It's just 4 episodes, each an hour long, so it's less of an investment than most American TV. I give it 5 stars.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A modest proposal

I'm going to break format here for a second. I was listening to This American Life, and they were discussing money and politics. They were doing their best to follow the money and find where it comes from, who it goes to, what effect it has on elections and what effect it has once the election is done.

Off Topic: One of the most surprising things they found is that lobbyists don't hound politicians, politicians hound lobbyists(like a telemarketer hounds senior citizens).

For those with short attention spans: click here

I think that everyone has decided that there's too much money in politics. Even if you don't think it corrupts the process, you have to think, there must be some better use for this money. Imagine if all those millionaires and billionaires were to use that money to fund new businesses(job creators!), or even just donate it to their favorite charity. I'm not really going to argue this point here, but you can if you want to in the comments.

But assuming money is bad for politics, the real problem is, how do you divorce money and politics? Everyone knows it takes a lot of money to run for office. Many congresspeople spend at least some time every day(365 days a year) doing fund-raising. Every attempt at campaign finance reform has tried to control the source, or the expenditure of the money. What if instead, they just cut off money for campaigning for everyone? I mean, maybe in this day and age, with the magic of the internet, we don't need so much money for campaigning, right? I'm about to get radical, and probably infeasible.

What I'm thinking is this: For any given office(senator, representative, city council), there is one campaign. The campaign sets up events, debates, town hall meetings, televised or not[1], depending on the budget, and importance of the office. The campaign has a certain(preferably small) budget, provided by the state, local or federal government. All the candidates for that office are invited to all these events set up by the campaign[2]. The campaign provides equal time at events to each candidate(or equal space if it's a meet and greet), and an equal budget for signage/publicity materials[3].

Candidates are required to qualify by some method. It could be paying a fee(somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000), which they can raise however they wish or maybe by getting enough signatures on a petition[4].

Candidates can use twitter, facebook, or any other free service to get their message across. They can create a website on a space provided by the campaign. They cannot buy any advertising. Premium services can either provide free access to all candidates, or to none.

In short: I propose that no one contributes to political campaigns[5], and that for any one office, there is instead a single budget shared between multiple candidates, with the side effect of prohibiting political ads.

Does that sound crazy? Is there any way to get from here to there?

A few notes:
1. I'm guessing that there would be a lot less politics on the TV. In the age of the internet, maybe that's ok, since you can still get your message out to anyone who wants to hear it. But would this mean less political conversation in our society? or just less work for that guy who does voice overs for attack ads?
2. Who's going to work at the campaigns? What if they aren't impartial? Who do they report to? I'd like their philosophy to be: "My job is to make this the best race for treasurer there ever was. We'll have 10 people at our meet and greets instead of 5(including the candidates)."
3. What if you get 20 candidates who qualify? I guess that just means you split everything into smaller slices, but then how do voters tell that 15 of them are crazy? I guess you have to set the qualifying bar sufficiently high to avoid this, but you also want to set it low enough that grassroots efforts can reach it.
4. One danger of having all the parties in the same place for events: riots, or compromise. Currently, there's a subculture of heckling at political events, but maybe if there was more political mixing... Of course, we could just have separate but equal events...
5. The constitutional argument being that maybe money isn't speech after all, so no one should get to vote with their wallets.