Monday, November 17, 2014

I hate this terrible #@$!ing book

So, ladies and gentlemen, I have a daughter who is in kindergarten. And on Mondays, she gets to go to the school library and pick out a book.

These past few weeks, my patience has been sorely tried, for she wants princess books. All princesses, all the time. I'm not ashamed to say that I am fucking sick and tired of princesses, and I just might have said something to the effect of “princesses are terrible” in my daughter's hearing.

I don't actually mean it, and I try to draw contrasts between princesses that have redeeming features – Wonder Woman is a princess and no one cares because she's a superhero. Merida is a princess who hates being a princess because it places unrealistic expectations on her and keeps her away from doing the things she loves. Twilight Sparkle may be a princess, but she's much more interested in helping people and her friends than the perks of princessdom.

But I haven't drawn a hard line. Last week, Daina brought home a book of Disney Princesses, including Princessified Merida, and the puppies that they found or were given by their wonderful princes.

This was not the best choice for anyone involved.

Clearly, I have a rebel on my hands.

But this isn't about my daughter – and do be aware that I will be reading this book to her, because she picked it out herself. But I might have to add in some commentary, because the book she brought home this week is a terrible fucking book.

What's gotten me so worked up, you ask? Well, let's us take a look. The book in question is Princess Penelope's Parrot, by Helen Lester and illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Here, go take a look, but I cannot in good conscience recommend that you actually buy this book – because the author should feel terrible about themselves.

There's the germ of a good idea, here. The Princess in question is a terrible spoiled brat. She gets a parrot for her birthday, saying things like “MINE! MINE! MINE!” and “GIMME GIMME GIMME!” She doesn't say please or thank you, and treats her parrot terribly, so the parrot remains silent, until a prince comes along to visit. At which time, of course, the parrot repeats all the terrible things she's said, and the prince leaves because he doesn't want to be around a terrible person. The parrot escapes too, and the prince and the parrot live happily ever after.

That's a good, solid story, and I wouldn't have any problem with that.

Too bad there's a big load of terrible to go with it.

Let's take a look at our spoiled brat princess, Penelope. She is drawn and portrayed as young, maybe five or six years old. The book talks about her putting on her frilliest dress and cleaning up her room, leaving out only the most expensive toys. Why, you might ask?

Because she's a marriage-crazed gold-digger who's heard the prince is rich, and wants to marry him so she can be lazy and watch television all day.


The narrative here is literally that she wants to use her feminine wiles to get herself a wealthy man so she can exploit him. If you don't think that's a problem, well, I invite you to go check out some Men's Rights Activist websites and come back, tell me if that's not a damaging myth. (No, really, go ahead. I'll wait. Are you back? Here, have a picture of a corgi to help lower your blood pressure.)

Corgis are panaceas.

So, we'll let our story continue. Note that among the abusive threats being repeated by the parrot is a “ball and chain.”

He runs away, prince and parrot live happily ever after.

And what does our princess learn from all this?


...when I read this book to my daughter, I am skipping this page. It's the last page of the book. It's the moral of the story, which is apparently “Gold-diggers gonna gold-dig, what ya gonna do?”

Yeah... I need to teach my daughter to be more discerning with her princesses.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What the World Needs Now, Is Guns. Moar Guns.

So, the Second Amendment establishes a right to bear arms, individual and inviolable. It's a sacred text, and we must always and forever stand against the evil gun grabbers.

But there is a major problem in society - the number of homes that own guns are dropping. Guns are expensive, and the erosion of the middle class is serving to take the fundamental right of persons to be secure in their property because they own firearms. After all, the Founding Fathers meant for us all to be armed to resist a tyrannical government, and who suffers the most at the hands of a tyrant?

That's right, the poor.

Therefore, I submit that it is our moral duty to provide weapons to those unfortunates who are without the means to purchase their own. The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and the problem that the poorest and most crime-ridden areas have is not enough good guys with guns. The good guys outnumber the bad guys, after all - we just need to be certain to match the good guys with the guns they need.

We can divert a portion of the Homeland Security budget to help, because giving people guns will make everything safer and more secure. We can offer a gun safety course, and eligible individuals will receive their weapon upon completion of the course. (Not passing, of course - that would be an unconstitutional infringement.)

Because the weapons are useless without ammunition, some sort of monthly ammunition stipend would be a part of the deal.

And, as the final step to insure liberty, we would target the people most likely to need and not have a weapon - poor, urban minorities. We would be certain to have outreach programs specifically for those underserved groups.

Remember, resisting tyranny is the goal, so modern sporting rifles would clearly be the best weapon for this program.

So, Granting the Underclass their Needed Sporting rifles (GUNS) is clearly the best possible public policy.

[*Note that the above is completely sarcastic and is totally without merit and I am completely opposed to such a program*]

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Shutdown thoughts

So, for a little perspective, I went to Yellowstone for the first time in my life, a week before the shutdown. It was amazing and everyone should go.

But here's the thing: If the shutdown had been timed differently, and had prevented me from going, I would have been okay with that. Because, yes, the park belongs to the people of the United States. But the park has rules, and those rules are for the protection of the park. I couldn't use my own money to throw coins at the thermal features, because that's destructive and not considerate of the other three hundred million people who own the park. I couldn't feed the bears, or shoot the bears.

Taking care of the national parks is a huge undertaking. There's conservation and cleanup and making sure people follow the rules. There are rangers who can teach you more. A whole range of people who have been sent home without pay. The only people left are the people to close the gates, because people have an impact on the parks that has to be constantly managed, and all those people are at home watching Maury Povich.

And the kicker is that, the people closing the gates, the ones being painted as the jackbooted thugs of a horrible dictator? AREN'T GETTING PAID. They're doing it because it's their job, and they hope they'll get backpay.

Now, consider how hard it would be for your family to miss a couple paychecks and not know when they're coming. And then think about having to go into work anyway, and then being painted as some kind of commie traitor for it.

TL;DR: You shut it down, it goes away. Even if you don't want it to.

And, yeah, the National Mall was closed off in '95, too.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


The time has come for me to dust off my poor, neglected blog. We'll see about getting some updates rolling.

One of my projects was inspired by my wife. She is working on setting up her list for “101 in 1001” - a challenge to herself to try to do 101 things within 1001 days. One of her brilliant ideas – so brilliant that I stole it for myself – is that she posted a challenge on social media for her friends to each suggest one book, that she would then read. It is a horizons-broadening challenge.

I took it up for myself, and gave myself an additional challenge – of the 18 books that I got on my list, that I would write a book report for each. This is the first in that series.

Our first contender is The Mirage, by Matt Ruff.

The set-up for the book is alternate history – What if the Middle East were a global superpower, and on November 9, 2001, a group of Christian terrorists from the Evangelical Republic of Texas hijacked airliners and crashed them into the Twin Towers in Baghdad, the world's financial and cultural center?

Sadly, as interesting as the concept sounds, the book fails in execution. It is as though the author threw out the one-sentence or one-paragraph description and was met with a “Well, that's clever.” And so, the book stands there, practically waving its arms and screaming at the top of its lungs, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK HOW CLEVER I AM!”

 No, you're really not.

The problem that our author faces is his choice of genre. There are pretty much three reasons you'd want to read an alternate history novel – the worldbuilding, the allegory, or the whiz-bang action. Sadly, The Mirage fails on each count.

One of the book's framing devices is the user-edited Wikipedia analogue, the Library of Alexandria. These bits are clumsy exposition that don't read like Wikipedia articles, but do expose the ugly truth that really allowed me to make sense of the book. The author only has a Wikipedia-level understanding of what he is writing about. While that might work for some, it made the book quite glaringly under-cooked for me. (this is no substitute for actual research)

Now, I don't claim to be an expert in the Middle East or in Islam, but I do know a few things about Christianity, about the United States, about history in general, and about government and governance. Enough that I found myself shaking my head at times.

To begin: While the United Arab States, consisting of 13 nations – some of whom do not consider themselves to be Arab – has become a global superpower at the turn of the 20th century, the United States finds itself the Christian States of America, and shares the North American continent with the Evangelical Republic of Texas, the Gilead Pentecostal Heartland (a reference to a much better novel), the Kingdoms of Louisiana and Missouri, and other states. Now, most alternate history novels propose one point of divergence – and this one tries to do the same, with the UAS becoming a superpower on the basis of resistance to Ottoman resurgence and oil power – this novel would have to diverge prior to 1803 and the Louisana Purchase. In any event, we have an America chopped into little religious states, just like the Middle East!

Except that's not an accurate reflection of the Middle East. But we'll skip that digression.

The UAS wins WWII, creates Israel in Germany, and has a 'Cold Crusade' with the Russian Orthodox Union, and apparently, maybe, gets into a bit of a tangle in Afghanistan in the 1980's, though you wouldn't know it from the book. As near as can be told, the UAS has no military history between WWII and the Global War on Terror., with one small exception. Meanwhile, the Christian States of America manage to have a Vietnam War analogue (on the Great Plains, while trying to do a war of conquest rather than intervening in someone else's war, and getting bogged down because bad writer) and a Gulf (Coast) War, wherein the UAS does a Desert Storm and wins a victory in a matter of days.

Things that are lacking, history-wise – no Iran-Contra. No Iran-Iraq War. No oil crisis. No hostage crisis. No Blackwater in the UAS invasion of America. The worldbuilding here is just a thinly-veiled pastiche of what the author sees in 'us and them,' flipped around.

If you're not going to go in an original direction with your alternate history, you should at least be relatively comprehensive about the history you are dealing with.

The history we are dealing with, of course, completely ignores what Britain and France had rolling in the Middle East. I suppose that these empires went the way of the Louisiana Purchase.

After all, it's not like Winston Churchill shaped the modern world by switching the Royal Navy to oil over coal or anything.

But, I suppose, we have to let it all pass. After all, we're explicitly told within the first quarter of the book that this world is a mirage, and that our world is the real world. And, yes, it's freaking magic, so it does not have to make total sense.

Okay, so, we're not really doing alternate history. So, let's hold up a mirror to ourselves, right? It's an allegory about the War on Terror, right?


While we have an unnamed Governor of Persia as a thinly-veiled Arnold, complete with appearance in True Lies, that's about the limit of the author's creativity. Osama Bin Laden is a senator running a secretive commando group for fighting Christian terrorists called Al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein is a criminal mastermind associated with the Baath Labor Union. We have David Koresh and Timothy McVeigh working – together! - for the Texas CIA under the direction of Dick Cheney.

You'll note that I have yet to address our protagonists. They're rather lifeless – federal agents working for the UAS government. One lost his wife in the 11/9 attacks. One's a female officer who, of course, must be motivated to save her son. And one's closeted in a world with no gay rights movement. None has much of a life to them, and they are really just devices to move the exploration of the half-built world. But they are investigating the titular mirage that covers the world, and artifacts that have come from our real world. They go from Baghdad to the Green Zone in Washington D.C. To uncover the conspiracy! The conspiracy that manages to combine magic and 9/11 trutherism.

“Ah, but surely the author is really writing about government or religion?”

No. Just... no.

One of the Library of Alexandria bits has the UAS Supreme Court deciding the Miranda case and requiring Miranda warnings to arrested suspects. The court does so, citing the Quran as legal basis. And the warning begins with “By the grace of God, the All-Merciful and Compassionate, you have the right to remain silent...”

This is not a secular government. This is a religious government, using religion as the basis for its laws. This is not compatible with democracy, and not compatible with a modern, secular society. But what the author is showing us is the Middle East as a secular, democratic, highly advanced society, right down to references to lolgoat pictures on the internet.

Here's the thing – when you have the government interpreting scripture, that means that the government is favoring and privileging one interpretation over others. That does not do well for people who follow other interpretations – Sunni vs. Shia, or Baptist vs. Catholic. That would also be a great theme in a novel – but it does not even occur to the author, here.

Instead, we get a little zing about pre-millenial dispensationalists, which indicates that the author heard about that, but doesn't seem to understand why that's important. Protip: post-millenial dispensationalists are the ones more likely to try to actively shape the world to fit their beliefs.

The point of pre-millenial dispensationalism is that it is passive-aggressive, and requires so little of the user. “Yeah, well, just you wait! I'm gonna get raptured away to play X-Box with Jesus while the Antichrist totally gets wiped out by the armies of Heaven, and you're gonna get yours, you filthy heathen!' This is not terribly compatible with terrorism, unless the author had them terrorizing the Dome of the Rock and Palestine to create a biblical Israel with a rebuilt Temple of Solomon. This is not the case.

I also was not impressed with it as a cops and robbers/spy fiction standpoint, but I have to admit bias against the book. And this is a simple, factual, technical detail, relatively early on.

A gangster sees an Al Qaeda commando, and raises his Orthodox-made AK-47, with paired banana-clips duct-taped together. He doesn't get a shot off, because the duct tape jams the weapon.

Here, look at this idiot.

Yes, you can do that. The idea is you eject, flip, and reinsert the clip. Note that the duct tape is nowhere near the firing mechanism.

You still don't want to do that, and you can still jam your weapon doing that. Because the top of the second clip tends to get banged up and bent when you're ducking and dodging around. So, you eject, flip, reinsert, and jam. That's where the problem is. Yes, the weapon jams... on the second clip. Not before you get a shot off.

In any event, we somehow have a global superpower ruled by interpretations of a 1500 year old book somehow creating a modern, secular society. We have a defunct other superpower, the Russian Orthodox Union, that leaves no evidence of its passing. (Even a conservative legislator talking about a long-dead boogieman would have scored a significant number of points with me.) The book fails on the level of political fiction, on religious fiction, as an action/procedural novel, as a character study. The prose is decent enough, but nothing spectacular.

So, yes. I read the book, I made my report. I wasn't impressed, but that's okay. I would have probably never read it otherwise. And I've read much, much worse in the past couple months.

Two stars, don't recommend, won't reread.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gender Policing

Among the websites I visit and use regularly is a fitness website. I originally posted this post there, in response to a thread bemoaning the demise of the "manly man" who fixed cars and was muscular and hairy, and cried about the "pussification" of America with men who style their hair and shave their chests.

And all kinds of people chimed in about how terrible that was, and how John Wayne would be circling in his grave.

I was angered at the contents of that thread; if you have a soul and any ounce of caring for other people, you should be too.

First off: I am not telling anyone who they are allowed to be attracted to. If you prefer big, burly, manly men, that is perfectly within your rights. If you prefer men that you might describe as pretty rather than handsome, that is also your right. No one has the right to tell you who you are allowed to find attractive.

That was certainly not the content of the thread and the replies supporting it, though. Many of the posters in that thread declared that feminists were feminizing men, that all men should go back to being ultra-masculine.

Someone on my wife's profile there made a comment about how awesome the thread was. I called him out on it, because the thread was absolutely not funny. It's not funny because it has a real-life impact on real people.

That's what we call gender policing - making sure that everyone fits into specially designed societal roles, whether they like it or not. It is a very, very short step from saying "All men should be masculine" to "We should socially punish men who do not fit the masculine mold."

To hell with that attitude, I say.

Every person should be allowed to express themselves in the way that makes them most comfortable. If a guy wants to paint his fingernails and wear eyeliner, that's his business. If he wants to have a hairy chest and a full, thick beard, also his business. If you don't like it, you don't have to go out with him. Simple, right?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. There are people who want to impose their value systems and control the lives of the people around them, and will harass and bully others as a punishment for non-conformity.

Story time: Back when I was teaching, I had a very bright girl in my class. She could have had a bright future ahead of her, college, a successful career. When I talked to her one day after class, she told me what her future held - she was going to leave home the day after high-school graduation, take a rapid course in court reporting, and hopefully live on her own.

She was forced by her parents to wear boys clothing and present herself as male; despite doing this against her wishes, she was subject to verbal abuse by others.

Why? Because she had the misfortune to be born with the wrong plumbing, and others around her just couldn't handle it, because she would not conform to their ideas about what her gender role should be.

One student taunted her in class - I will admit that I got angry, and kicked him out of the classroom, telling him to meet me after class. I sat him down, and asked him how he would feel if he was forced to dress as a girl. To put himself in the first student's shoes.

A few days later, I saw him and his two compatriots actually sitting and talking to the first student, asking her about herself and what it was like. There was no further taunting from that quarter.

The next time you feel the urge to gender police - to take a truck away from your daughter and give her a doll, to take a doll away from your son and make him play with a truck, to feminize a man with harsh words for not conforming to your gender expectations, or to call a woman a "bitch" because she has strong opinions and a forceful personality, ask yourself - How would I like it if I were in their shoes?

How would you like it if you were bullied and harassed to conform to a gender expectation that you didn't want?

Remember - it's okay to say "I prefer masculine men." It's not okay to say "those evil feminists have turned all the men into pansies." Because you wouldn't like it if it was happening to you. It's not your job to tell someone how to express themselves, and you should think twice before doing it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Where do I stand? With OWS.

To the NYPD - if the things you are doing are lawful and honorable, consistent with your duties as police officers, you have nothing to fear from sunlight and cameras.

Clearing out an encampment under cover of darkness and trying to muzzle the media indicates that you know what you are doing is not lawful and honorable - that you are trying to hide your shame under a cover of darkness and secrecy.

There are times and reasons when secrecy on the part of government officials and police officers are required - I wouldn't dream of saying that undercover officers should be outed, for instance. But when you are wearing the uniform and the badge, that is a symbol of who you are, and the role you have taken in the operation of society. If you are loathe to show your face in the performance of your duties, then you are DOING THEM WRONG. Your job is to serve and protect the people of the City of New York. That is an honorable profession, and one you should be willing to do proudly.

Take pride in what you do. If an encampment must be moved, you should do so in broad daylight. Show your faces, and do what you believe is right, and do it the right way.

If you are doing the right thing, you have nothing to fear from unarmed, peaceful protesters.

Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant - Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis