Tag Archive: Politics

The Book Stack #9

jumbled books

Forbidden Thoughts, editor Jason Rennie (2017).

This book got a lot of play in the last year or so as “Milo” rose to (in)fame with his various political antics. And antics they are, watching him speak or reading his rants, it’s pretty clear that regardless of whether he believes what says or not, he’s not actually interested in anything but self aggrandizement. Mostly his positions are pretty poorly formed and rely on the misdirection of using non-PC language and/or personal attacks, taking everyone’s attention off of the lack of substance to anything he’s saying. Yet somehow, the editor and publisher of this collection of short stories, decided that his name on the cover would be an attraction. It worked. But then, for those seeking to read more of his work, the disappointment of finding that all he did was write a foreword note at the beginning of the book that has little if anything to do with the content. He asserts that there’s never been a collection of such revolutionary non-PC science fiction in all of history. Obviously he’s clueless to the Libertarian origins of much of modern Sci-Fi, or even the genre as a whole. But let’s set all that aside and get on to the meat of the book itself.

There are some great stories in here that save the book from being worthy of nothing more than the scrap heap. The problem is, there are also a bunch, probably more than half, of the stories, that do little more than attempt to incense the reader by being as non-PC as they possibly can, throwing in words and thoughts and actions that are guaranteed to horrify anyone with leanings to the left. But they go way too far, and I don’t mean that because I’m incensed by them, but because they’re little more than the same as I accuse Milo of above. They’re distractions, they’re glaring baubles, designed to do nothing more than distract the reader from the fact that the stories have no substance. They’re just ranting and exaggeration designed for effect and show the authors’ complete lack of story telling ability.

In the end, there’s just not enough to recommend the book. There’s far better, shall we say, non-leftist, non-PC science fiction out there than anything in this book. ☆☆

Infomocracy by Malka Older (2016).

It’s an interesting read, relatively fast paced, and I enjoyed it. On the other hand, it was a little like going to an all you can eat buffet, where you take some of everything, get back to your table, and it’s both too much food to eat, and not all of it quite goes together on the same plate.

Taking the level of suspension of disbelief into the political and information realm, it requires that you believe that countries that currently exist still kinda sorta do, but not exactly, and are instead now connected not by cultural or racial heritage, but by a mosaic of political viewpoints, scattered across the globe. Often they’re completely disparate to their neighbors, and even within individual countries, broken up into a mess of political parties, some run by corporations, some by de facto governments, some by grassroots organizations.

And somehow, within all of this, we’re expected to buy into that all of these same factionalized and fractionalized groups of people and political organizations have agreed to have everything coordinated by one single entity that provides them with filtered information so they can make a decision where they want to live and work at any given moment. Throw in a gratuitous romance with two high powered individuals, who somehow decide, in the midst of all this Information overload, to not bother to check each other out but just go on gut feeling, and then proceed to violate the principles of their careers just because each other was good in bed.

It doesn’t make it a less fun read, but it does make it a little hard to swallow. ☆☆☆☆

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2014).

This one was a slow slog to get started on, and several times during probably the first half of it I was tempted to just give up and set it aside. Much of that, I think, is that it felt like a slightly stilted translation – as if the translator was searching for a way to express concepts that he didn’t quite know how to put into English fluidly. I’m glad I stuck through it, as in the end, I liked the way it developed and will probably go on to read the rest of the trilogy. I wasn’t wowed, but I was intrigued.

It’s interesting, given the political climate in which we’re living these days, in various parts of the world, how the premise of first contact is handled. The idea that humans basically divide into two camps (three in the book, but still more or less fall into two ideals) – those who see contact as a threat (in this case an explicit one) and do all in their power to resist, and those who see it as an inevitability with which they collaborate. Kind of reminds me of the current sci-fi television show Colony.

I also liked the undercurrent of the conflict between science and religion, though I think it’s perhaps drawn as too starkly a black and white issue, one or the other. That probably fits more the Chinese cultural model of what science and religion are all about (though I’m no expert on Chinese culture), at least from what I’ve gleaned over the years. ☆☆☆

The Gourmet Detective mystery series (8 volumes), by Peter King (1996-2003).

Okay, hmm… I’ve read the whole series now. I’m not going to do individual book reviews, some of them are better than others, but they’re all enjoyable, quick reads. Then again, throw gourmet food and wine into anything and I’m likely to add some points to it in my mind. Bizarrely, though, given that I gave all the books three stars, I don’t know that I recommend them. Had they been written fifty years ago, I’d give them some more slack, but here are my issues with, well, all of them:

The gourmet detective himself, our protagonist, is an unlikable twit. He’s a middle aged, pretentious white man, with delusions of self importance. He fancies himself a ladies man and, of course, manages to get one or another into bed (trailed off, never portrayed, just make sure we know it happened, wink, wink) in all or almost all the books. He’s misogynistic, racist, and classist. He fancies himself a connoisseur of all things food and wine, and throws about names and terms, most of which the average reader will not have heard of, and will probably just move past without much thought. The problem is, he’s pretty much clueless and the mistakes in his descriptions of various ingredients, dishes, and bottles of fermented grape juice are legion.

In short, and yes, I realize I’m generalizing and could be accused of bias myself, he’s the sort of detective that a 70+ year old retired upper middle class British metallurgical engineer (who apparently at some point went to the Cordon Bleu cooking school to be trained as a chef, though my bet is he just took a few cooking classes for home cooks, then again, who knows, but it seems he did it after retiring at some point in his 70s) would reimagine himself to be if he were to become a food detective. In short, a sort of Walter Mitty alter ego. ☆☆☆

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016).

You know the running joke where people start comparing how hard they had it growing up… it starts with something like “we had to walk 5 miles to school every day…” and ends up with things like “uphill both ways” “cardboard boxes for shoes”, etc., etc.? This book is that done in long form. It’s an ostensible memoir from someone who grew up in a disadvantaged, poor community (except he really didn’t, he grew up skirting around it, because he actually spent most of his childhood living with or near relatives or step-relatives who were fairly well off and encouraged him to stay away from that community) who spends nearly 300 pages trying to convince us that his particular disadvantaged, poor community has it worse than any other one. And he also ricochets between being pretentious about his own life and condescending about his roots and the people who still live there, and trying to hold them up as somehow better by virtue of being in worse straits than how he imagines (with no evidence that he has any experience of) other disadvantaged, poor communities to be. Basically it’s a barely veiled tome touting “Hillbilly (i.e., poor white) Lives Matter More” and as such is just as egregious as much of the BLM movement comes across at times. ☆☆

Daimyo by S. Lee Lyndon (2014-2015).

Really enjoyed this entire trilogy. It was an interesting glimpse into a culture and period that I’m not overly familiar with, other than just peripherally from being into the martial arts world. It would be a complete spoiler to tell you what the overall arc of the story is, so let’s just say it covers the adventures of a young Japanese fisherman as he matures in life. In the end, while a totally logical step by step, the overall arc of the three books is a bit far-fetched, but fun to follow along. It’s a sort of novel form of the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics, or adaptation, sometimes called Lamarckism, i.e., that somehow or other non-biological accomplishments and internalized histories can be passed down genetically to the next generations (pretty much a dismissed idea in the genetic world). Still, a very enjoyable read. ☆☆☆☆

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016).

This one was as difficult to read as it probably was to write. An outsider attempts as close as possible, an insider view of a particular culture, in this case, far right wing, for the most part fundamentalist Christian, Tea Party voters, from an industrial area in Louisiana. She ingratiates herself into their world and admirably does her best to tell their stories, particularly what has led to their political alignment and voting (what’s often talked about in left wing media as “why do these people vote against their best interests?”). She succeeds in making it interesting, and even in giving a decent view into the logic and thought that these folk use. At the same time, if it was at any point her intention to make them look actually logical or sensible, she fails, because bluntly, they come across looking more moronic than the so-called “liberal media” has ever portrayed them. Maybe that was her real, behind the scenes intention from the start. ☆☆☆

Sixteen books seems enough to give you some reading material for now…. Enjoy!

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The Book Stack #6

jumbled books
Continuing with some more fantasy, and a bit of other….

My Tender Matador / Tengo Miedo Torero, Pedro Lemebel, September 2002, Translator: Katherine Silver

Let’s start outside the realm of fantasy. I actually don’t remember how this one came to my attention – it’s the story, basically, of the end of the days of Augustin Pinochet’s rule over Chile, focused on the events leading up to an attempted assassination. The book goes back and forth between Pinochet’s viewpoint, and that of an aging drag queen, the latter of whom has befriended a young, handsome man who turns out to be involved in the assassination attempt. It’s extremely well written, and the characters are well defined. It was a little slow reading for me as I initially started reading this in the original Spanish version, but the constant use of colloquial terms and street slang made it near impossible, and what I ended up doing was reading the two versions more or less side by side (learned a lot of Chilean street slang!). ☆☆☆

Code of Conduct, Brad Thor, July 2015

Over time I’ve read through the entire previous series (15 previous books) of the “Scot Horvath” novels. These are sort of Jack Bauer/24 on steroids if you can imagine that. They’re thrillers. They’re fast paced, they require some level of suspension of disbelief – they’re not totally out of left field, they’re basically, “what if?” scenarios that any of us could imagine given the state of the world right now, even if highly unlikely. And Thor makes them completely believable as potential scenarios. For me, given that I like thrillers of this sort, they’re entertaining as well as thought provoking. Fast reads. And, this one fits right in with all of that. There’s now a 17th novel out, Foreign Agent, and it’s on my reading stack! ☆☆☆☆

The Ronin Trilogy, Travis Heermann

Another trilogy, this one consisting of Heart of the Ronin (2010), Sword of the Ronin (2013), Spirit of the Ronin (2015). I stumbled across this one when I was looking for some martial arts books for study, and it looked interesting. Since the first volume was available for free on my Kindle Unlimited account, I gave it a spin, and rapidly went on to the sequels. Although set in feudal Japan, and following the story of a ronin, a masterless samurai, the writing style is very “western” in its approach, which gave them an interesting flavor – sort of like watching a completely foreign culture and concept develop from an outside observer’s eye. The author has a nice little quip on his site, “Writing fiction set in a far different time and place is challenging. The key is cram as much background information into your brain, let it percolate for a while, and see what bubbles out.”. And, no question, that’s what he’s done – creating a real image of a very different world than I’m familiar with, and at the same time, letting it develop in a way that I could actually visualize it, without feeling lost. I loved it. ☆☆☆☆

The Inheritance Trilogy, N.K. Jemisin

And, yet another trilogy! The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), The Broken Kingdoms (2010), The Kingdom of Gods (2011). This one took me a little bit to get into. I can’t even tell you exactly what it was about it – it’s certainly well written, and an interesting concept. I think that it was that the protagonist in the first volume just didn’t resonate with me, and I initially found her viewpoint to be sort of a bore, or maybe it was just that the development of the story started out too slowly for me. But, the book picked up, and I ended up enjoying it enough to go on to the other two volumes, which take place from the viewpoints of other characters, and I liked both of those volumes much more. I mean, what’s not to like about a world where humans, gods, godlings, and demons, all live together and interact on a daily basis? In the end, highly recommendable. And, a nice perk that you can buy the entire trilogy in one volume. ☆☆☆☆

The Price of Retribution, Christopher Cartwright, March 2015

For such a small book (okay, 370 pages), it’s a pretty sweeping epic story, that starts with a jewel heist in long ago London and then jumps across the oceans to Australia, and back again. Another sort of “gentleman thief” – I guess those sort just attract me – it’s a great story, with romance, revenge, and a bit of rampaging. I found the writing to be quite good – at times it wandered a little, and I felt like for a moment that I, or the author, was losing the plot, but then it came back on track. The characters are interesting, though I felt that while the central ones are really well developed, that those who were not directly a part of the main storyline were a little greyed out by comparison, as if they didn’t really matter that much. ☆☆☆

The Book of Strange New things, Michel Faber, June 2015

The writing itself was fine, the author is excellent at drawing out characterization and visuals that many would find difficult to imagine. And the overall arc of the story is interesting and was enough to keep me going through to the end. However, the protagonist, and his wife, who we basically don’t meet other than briefly at the beginning and then through a series of letters, are some of the most unpleasant, unsympathetic “good guys” that one could care to encounter. Misogynistic, racist, religiously intolerant, judgmental, and constantly spouting stereotypes about everyone and everything around them – it was just plain unpleasant to read. (Honestly, given the time period I was reading this in, it was like trying to listen to Donald Trump talk about anyone who isn’t American, White, Male, and Christian.) And it was made worse because it was cloaked in a sort of pious righteousness. ☆☆

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The Book Stack #4

jumbled books
The brunt of my reading over the last many weeks since my last post (and it actually started before that last post) was binge reading through Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (April 1, 2000 – May 27, 2014) novels.
dresden files
It’s going to seem short shrift to place them all into one small review, but I’m not going to go through and review each individual one of the fifteen. I found them to be fun, irreverent, easy reads, the basic premise, the exploits of an openly proclaimed wizard in Chicago, as he fights demons, ghouls, and more, alongside the local police department’s division for handling stuff that no one can explain, no one wants to handle, and no one wants to talk about. Harry Dresden is a wisecracking magically endowed private investigator who loves nothing more than bringing in cult movie and television references, more or less just to see if anyone around him is paying attention. I found the series to get a bit off the rails in books 13 and 14, where it seemed like Butcher was taking it in a totally new direction, and the writing seemed a bit lost, but it all came back on track in the current last novel. Overall, a great series to get started on if you like the world of magic, the paranormal, crime, and punishment! The series was turned into a not short-lived enough, and truly, appallingly, bad television show that shouldn’t have lasted through the first season that it did. ☆☆☆☆

Several years ago someone recommended Robert Harris’ historical novel Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (September 19, 2006) to me. Given my love of things Italian, history, and fiction, it was a match made in heaven. It’s basically a fictional account of the life of Marcus Cicero, the famed orator of the Roman senate, as he first came to power. The book is written as an eyewitness account from his personal slave and secretary, Tiro. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and this was completely engaging, and more or less a “couldn’t put it down” kind of read. My recollection is I read through it in a matter of a couple of days. And, obviously, I loved it. As to why I didn’t jump right into the next book in the series, I truly can’t tell you. But, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t, and I rectified that with a plunge into Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome (March 30, 2010) right after finishing the Dresden Files. Equally as good, the story continues with Cicero’s political career as he encounters some of the best known figures of that time, including Julius Caesar. Political machinations are the core of the second novel, and it’s surprising in many ways how little the world of political intrigue has changed in the millenia since (then again, the novels are written by someone living in today’s world, so it may be that Harris simply borrows from that which is familiar to a modern audience). In the world of “court politics” or “palace intrigue” this easily rivals the intricacy of well known pop culture references like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Scandal. Looking forward to the next novel! ☆☆☆☆

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves, (May 19, 2015)

One of the things that’s count-on-able with Stephenson’s longer novels is that they follow a predictable pattern. If you assume roughly 900 pages or thereabouts for most of them, there will be an initiating event, something that starts the entire story in motion, something to grab your attention, and it will take up the first 150-200 pages. Then there will be roughly 400-500 pages of character development, lots of explication, lots of looking at how motivations develop, lots of “here, let me explain why the story, when we get to it, is going to go the way it goes”. And then it’s finished off with what amounts to the “real” novel, about 250-300 pages where all the action that was set in motion, and influenced by all the motivations developed during the entire middle section, happens. I hear time and again how people launched into one of his books with fascination at the premise, and then gave up 100 or so pages further on when it just got too tedious to continue. And they miss out on all the good part when the story takes off again.

This book is no different. I read through section 1 in under two hours, a complete page turner. Then it took me a month to get through to “section 3” (pages 567-861), because I found I couldn’t read more than a few pages of section 2 (pages 227-567) at a time without drifting off. And then I read through section 3 without pausing in roughly two hours.

Loved sections one and three. I appreciate the info in section two, but my god there’s got to be a way to do that midsection of all of his books in half or fewer of the pages. ☆☆☆☆

Lucy Burdette, Killer Takeout, (April 5, 2016)

Last year I whizzed my way through the six novels of the “Key West Food Critic Mysteries”. Basically, I’d refer you to that review, particularly the last couple of paragraphs where I summed up the series. Much the same holds true for this seventh novel, a fun read, but showing a decided lack of knowledge in the food world.

Although I’ve liked this series a fair amount, something about this latest volume just felt a little thrown together, as if it wasn’t thought through as well as the others, and that’s saying something given my thoughts about the series. I still enjoyed it, just not as much as the rest.

I hadn’t done any research into the author, and “Lucy Burdette” turns out to be a pen-name for Roberta Isleib, a clinical psychologist, also known for writing a series of golf-mystery novels, and who writes an advice column under the title “Ask Dr. Aster”. A psychologist with three different identities… just something to muse upon.

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The Book Stack #3

jumbled books

A selection of what I’ve been reading (minus, in general, food and cooking related books, which I tend to review separately, and over on my SaltShaker blog).

Bacigalupi, Paolo (May 26, 2015) The Water Knife

This book was recommended on io9’s list of the 2015’s best new sci-fi, and so the whole list went into my reading pile along with all the other various lists I’m working through.

This is a gritty, bloody novel set in a dystopian future North America where basically, our water is all disappearing, or at least from the area that is covered in the story, mostly the classic American “West”. The characters are well drawn, the book is well written and fast paced. At times, despite that I enjoyed the story completely, it feels a little like an advertisement for the book Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, a more journalistic look at the problem of disappearing water in that part of the country. The book is mentioned multiple times, and held up as a beacon of “this is where we’re headed” (post-fact, since this is set in the future), and in the end, serves as a key to the climactic scene in The Water Knife. ☆☆☆☆

Corey, James S.A. (June 15, 2011) Leviathan Wakes

I got curious about this book, as it’s a) the basis for the SyFy channel series The Expanse, and b) the author doesn’t actually exist. Well, it’s a pen name for two collaborating writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the former of which wrote a book series that I very much enjoyed called The Long Price Quartet, and he has also been a co-writer with George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame.

Roughly a chapter into the book it was clear that overall, the book and the show were diverging rapidly. In general, the theme remains similar, with some events lining up, but others not, and it quickly seems that the very premise of the book was dropped as, probably, a bit too icky for a television audience, so they looked elsewhere for motivations. The book itself is pretty graphic and I like that it doesn’t portray space, space travel, etc., in the sort of antiseptic conditions that so many sci-fi books seem to take as a given, that for some reason, if we live in space or on other planets, we’ll take better care of those locations than we do of earth. It’s well written and fast paced – despite being nearly 600 pages, I finished it off with casual reading over the course of just a couple of days. At the same time, while I enjoyed it, I didn’t find myself jumping to move on to the next book in the series. ☆☆☆☆

Abercrombie, Joe (2008) Before They Are Hanged

In my last round-up of books I’d started in on The First Law trilogy, and enjoyed the opening volume enough to continue on with the series, and not just because I’ve made a commitment to myself to work my way through the reading list referenced there. Not surprisingly, this book picks up pretty much where the first book left off – maybe a few months later, and continues the various story lines, and at the same time introduces new ones. There does seem to be a bit more of an interweaving of the stories starting to happen, which is what I’d mentioned that some reviewers had said, so I’m glad to see that, and I enjoyed this one even a bit more than the first. On to the third! ☆☆☆☆

Abercrombie, Joe (2008) The Last Argument of Kings

Which, what the heck, let’s just go straight to, even though it wasn’t the next thing up on my in my reading – in fact it got interrupted by reading through a bunch of travel guides for Mexico City and Guadalajara, where I was getting ready to head, and then did, in early March, and which I’m not going to bother to review. Back to this book, and a really great wind-up to the story. Indeed, as foretold by some, the varied and sundry threads all come together. It’s not pretty, it’s not a well woven tapestry of a story at this point. It’s more of an explosive, violent, mashup as the characters from each storyline come running hell-bent for the finish line and all kind of collide there, jostling and stumbling about to get their last moment in the series. What I think I liked most about it, and the series overall, is that it wasn’t predictable, and where things end is not at all where I’d have guessed had you asked me earlier on in the reading. ☆☆☆☆

Lovejoy, Ben (January 27, 2015) 11/9

Described as an un-put-down-able techno-thriller, and obviously with a non-veiled reference to 9/11 thrown in there (though an unrelated story), I was psyched for something gripping and engaging, and, well, techie. It is, no question, a quite good read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I’m also interested in science and engineering and similar topics, and there’s a lot of time in the book spent delving into those arenas where the pace of the book lags. It wasn’t surprising to find out that the author is a technical writer by trade, as the book careens between white knuckled flipping of pages while the characters are engaged in a life and death moment, and then almost like breaking the infamous theater fourth wall, a different character would be doing something that felt like wading through a technical manual to explicate what was going on in the previous, or an upcoming, scene. Great story and indeed gripping and engaging, but by turns, quite put-down-able, at what more or less are, for a techno-thriller, the commercial breaks. ☆☆☆☆

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The Book Stack #2

jumbled books
What have we this time around?

You look at the title, Bread Wine Chocolate, and you’re already engaged. I mean, what’s not to like? Clearly three items selected from the book to grab our attention, since in reality, the book is, in order, Wine Chocolate Coffee Beer Bread Octopus. The book came highly anticipated, with suggestions being bandied about that this would be the next big, amazing food book. I clicked a link, put in my Kindle cue to be purchased when it was released, and more or less forgot about it until it showed up one day. I might have left my cursor hovering over the button rather than clicking, had I taken a moment to check out the author, Simran Sethi, a former MTV producer turned news anchor for, oh, MTV, who has gone on to continue work in the media world for various… how can I put this politely… touchie feelie outlets like Mother Earth News and TreeHugger. I’m not, at all, against the environment, sustainability, or anything else of the sort, don’t get me wrong, but it might have had me wondering about her bias in advance, rather than after the fact.

Though in truth, it’s not her bias that ruins this book for me. It’s her writing. I really wanted to like the book. There’s some great, well researched information in it. The problem is, it’s presented in a manner that ping-pongs back and forth between journalistic factual reporting and breathless golly gee whiz wow teen girl gossip style at a pace that would make the cut editors of Reality Bites envious. She also comes across as really, really, self absorbed, self indulgent, and self anything else you might care to insert, as she wings her way across the world with hand-grinder for coffee beans in one hand and an Aeropress brewer in the other, ruing that she isn’t back home with her Keurig machine (oh yeah, all those K-cups are just great for the environment) and her $13 designer chocolate bars. She spends the first couple of chapters of the book outlining what she’s going to cover and why she’s the one to do so, and how much we’re going to appreciate her having done so. Yes, yes, she got down and dirty with the folk who produce these various products, and sampled and tasted and learned to appreciate things at their source. And then promptly trundled back to her hotel to soak in the tub and anxiously write her next words on the balcony at sunset and then jet off to another exotic locale. If you like to hug trees, you’ll probably like this book.

I mentioned in the last book round-up that I had started working my way through a proposed list of the 51 Best Fantasy series. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, that if they’re rated from best, #1, to least best, #51, that progressively, I might like these series less, and less. I’m not sure that will hold true completely – after all, as I mentioned then as well, the Discworld canon wouldn’t even make it onto my list of good, let alone 7th Best. But there does seem to be a slight decline each round. I’ve started in on Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, beginning with The Blade Itself. It’s a relatively easy read.

There are things about it I really like – it’s written in a light-hearted tone, with a bit of humor. The series is often compared to Song of Fire and Ice, the Game of Thrones inspiring stack of books, and in some ways, I can see that – the action sequences, the bloody, grisly, details. But in other ways, not so much – the political manipulations and intrigue are there, but more or less ho-hum, there doesn’t seem to be any big, sweeping vista – within the first few chapters it’s obvious that all the lead characters’ lives are going to quite quickly intersect, in a pretty predictable way. Some reviewers have said that that gets turned on its head as the trilogy progresses, and by the end of the third book, nothing will be as anticipated. I can only hope so. It’s interesting enough to continue forward.

One of the finest books from one of the early crafters of modern science fiction, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a long time favorite that I hadn’t read in quite some time. Another list of “bests”, this time from io9, The Essential Cyberpunk Reading List starts off with this one.

Filled with Evil Corporations, interplanetary intrigue, bio-engineering, power, greed, revenge, and the obligatory Sub-Culture, this has all the elements that make for a great cyberpunk read. Given when this was written, in the early 1950s, it’s a brilliant precursor to that movement at a time when “cyber” didn’t yet mean anything and “punk” meant something completely different. Gripping story, fast paced action, and even it’s own “street” language that fits the genre perfectly. It’s a relatively short book (or at least in comparison to some of those I’ve been reading recently), and with its pace, it’s the sort you can sit down and read through on a rainy afternoon.

A couple of years ago I read the book Of Dice and Men, a look back at the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, and, those of us nerds who played it. I was an avid player of the game back in the mid to late 70s, and have continued a fascination with the world(s) created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the original duo behind the game. I’ve gone on to play computer based games, both early ones that were limited to being installed on your computer and played by one or a couple of people, and on, to MMORPGs, the massive universes created online like Everquest and Worlds of Warcraft.

The earlier book I mentioned was mostly focused on the game itself, and the gamers who took it and ran with it. There was plenty of biographical information about the creators, but you couldn’t call it biography. Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination takes another run at it. As he says in the introduction, he couldn’t believe when he started researching the book that no one had ever written a biography of Gary Gygax, who, while not a household name except to those of us in the gaming world, created something that went on to be the foundation for things we take for granted in modern day life, everything from the use of computers for games, to the advent of social media. As he also points out, it’s telling, that in an episode of the pop-culture show Futurama, Gygax’s character is paired up with Lieutenant Uhura, Al Gore, and Steven Hawking – taking on the universe. The book is well written, completely engaging, and for anyone with an interest in the topic, a must read.

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The Book Stack #1

jumbled books
A selection out of what I’ve been reading recently. They don’t really need an introduction.

I like Charles Pierce’s writing, and he often hits the nail on the head. This book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, is no exception. For the most part, he just lays it out there and shows just how idiotic many things in our country have become. Do I always agree with him? No. But it’s always thought provoking. Does he always make his case? No. He does against the “easy” targets, where he can just point out flaws that probably any thinking person would immediately see. But when it comes to making fun of, which is really what the book is, targets where there are philosophical, moral, ethical, even intellectual debate (particularly with arenas that broach into the world of religious faith), he points, but doesn’t provide the backup evidence, making the assumption that anyone reading his book is of like mind with him, and will simply agree that whatever he’s pointed to is worthy of mockery. For those of us who struggle at times with reconciling science, logic, and faith into a composite whole, those chapters come across a bit smarmy. Still, a recommended read, just to get the mental cogs turning.

Secretly, I grew up kind of wanting to be Alexander Mundy. He was the cat burglar turned spy-thief for the Secret Intelligence Agency of the US government in the late 60s television series It Takes a Thief. The show was inspired by the Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief (1955) starring Cary Grant, and on the flipside, while not acknowledged, is probably in the background of things like the late 2000s show White Collar, and certainly has some influences from the life of Frank Abagnale, whose life then went on to inspire the Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. All that aside, I had visions of being a cat burglar, when I wasn’t entertaining visions of being a forest ranger or FBI agent. How things change as we grow up. I’ve always maintained a fascination with the news of jewel and art thieves, and while now there’s simply no likelihood of taking either up as a profession, I enjoy reading about the heists. Still one of, if not the largest, diamond theft in history, the story in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History is a reasonably in-depth analysis of the most likely scenario for how the theft went down. Some of it is clearly speculative, especially attributions of motivations and thought processes lent to the main actor, Leonardo Notarbartolo (after whom I’ve named a Pandaren rogue in World of Warcraft, for those into that sort of thing). And some of it is pieced together from what evidence and testimony was available to the authors, Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell. It’s clearly well researched and very well written. If I have any quibble with the book is that the ending is an awfully quick wrap-up – akin to the sort of thing one sees at the end of a competition show, where the eliminated contestant’s picture is shown for a moment along with a caption of “John Smith is happy back with his family and thinking about what to do next.” One wants to know, “Where are they now? What are they up to?” Well worth a read.

A few months back, Buzzfeed published a list of what they considered the 51 Best Fantasy Series ever written. Now, there’s nothing that says that anyone at Buzzfeed is an expert on the topic, nor that the choice of 51 (why 51?) series was a good one, but I was casting about for somethings interesting to read and thought I’d start in on the list. I quickly read through the first couple of series, I’m not going to go back and review them now as my memory is already getting hazy on them, but I highly recommend all of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, and Brent Weeks’ The Lightbringer series, particularly the first, which was one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, though the next two series are almost as good. All captured my attention and engaged me, and I was glad to have discovered them via the list. I skipped over A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (the books behind Game of Thrones) and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, simply because I’ve read them in the past. And I’m going to skip the 41 novels of the Discworld saga from Pratchett, because I’ve given them a try, and after 1½ of them, read a year or two ago, I just gave up on them as simply not my cup of weak tea.

Now, to this series, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, including three novels, The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. It feels a bit more like a teen read than an adult fantasy read. Some of that is simply the characters, the primary ones being children in their early teens. But more of it is that it’s written in a borderline puerile style. I found that although I enjoyed them, I wasn’t particularly engaged by them. There’s a lot of railing against what is an awfully thinly veiled Catholic church, and of a government influenced by religious leaders, clearly the author isn’t a fan of either. There’s a lot of moralizing, but it’s very superficial. And in the end, the ostensible resolution is pretty insipid. The first volume has been turned into a movie of the same name, and albeit also pretty kid-oriented and “Hollywood”, is actually better than the book, a rarity in my experience. While not bad reads, there are certainly other books in the genre more worth putting your time into, as noted above.

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Tasseography

Originally I was thinking that this blog would just be an archive of previously published works of mine, from various fields, but I’ve decided that it’s also going to be a place for me to comment on my thoughts on things in the world of politics, religion, science, or whatever fields that don’t make sense for the content of my food, wine and travel blog, SaltShaker. Away we go, with a doozy to start off with.

Tasseography is fortune telling from the reading of tea leaves in cups. I was looking for some sort of cynical connection to the Stanley and Davis Cups from the sports world, some sort of metaphor, that connects to the current brouhahas over “double standards”, or not, in our political and legal system. But nothing occurred to me, so, on to the meat of the matter.

davisstanley

We’ve all read and been following the Kim Davis debacle, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because of her Christian religious beliefs. And now, we’re starting to hear about Charee Stanley, a Muslim woman who is (or was, at this point) a flight attendant who refuses to serve alcohol as part of her duties. The left is gleeful because it feeds into the predictable narrative of the slippery slope that the Kim Davis mess was going to lead to, no matter the claims from the right that “it would never happen”. And the right is up in arms because the left is gleeful, and because a Muslim woman is being treated different from a Christian woman, and therefore, “discrimination against Christians” and/or “Sharia Law is coming to America (because, Obama).”

But there are blatant differences between the two cases that make them stand apart. And there’s no “double standard” as many are quick to claim – at least not so far.

Kim Davis was an elected official, who swore an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Kentucky and the Constitution of the United States. She refused to do so, even when her direct superiors, not liberals by any stretch, ordered her to. Some are claiming that her duties changed, and therefore she hadn’t agreed to what she was being asked to do. There’s some edge of validity to that, but, the duties of her office were to issue marriage licenses, not to decide, based on her personal beliefs, the rightness of those marriages, and nothing actually changed in her duties – she wasn’t asked to sanction gay marriage any more than she was asked to sanction divorce, adultery, interracial couples, or interfaith couples (all things that violate her faith when it comes down to it), just to issue the licenses. She took the legal route, something that she was totally entitled to do, and exhausted it, right up to the U.S. Supreme Court, not a bastion of liberality these days. And she still refused to comply. She was arrested (not by some jackbooted federales, but by her employer, the State of Kentucky). Not for being Christian, not for being conservative, but quite simply, for violating her oath of office, the laws of her state, and the Constitution of the United States. In our country, she has every right to be a bigot, which let’s face it, she is, albeit cloaked in religious rhetoric, but that comes with consequences. I might be more sympathetic if she used the same standards to apply to other situations that equally, or more so, violate her faith – such as had she refused to issue marriage licenses to divorced people, or if she hadn’t herself committed adultery, and been divorced and remarried three times. Actions speak louder than words.

Charee Stanley is an employee of a private corporation. She’s a relatively recent convert to Islam. Yes, part of the duties of being a flight attendant are to serve alcohol to customers – though that’s not a right guaranteed by either law or the Constitution. And, she made arrangements when she converted to Islam (after having already been an employee for a couple of years) to be exempt from doing so – her employer, ExpressJet, agreed to have other employees handle alcohol service so that she wouldn’t have to. Whether that was a legally binding agreement remains to be seen… in court. There’s also no bigotry against those who drink alcohol in her case – she wasn’t attempting to have alcohol service terminated on flights, simply to not have to handle alcohol herself. However, after nearly a year of that arrangement, a fellow employee complained about the situation and her employers decided it put them in an untenable position, because the logistics, given that they’re a small company, didn’t always work out. They approached her about having to serve alcohol, she again declined, citing both her religious beliefs and that she had an agreement with them exempting her from violating those beliefs. They placed her on suspension. She’s suing for lost wages based on them rescinding an agreement that she feels was legally binding. And, just as I support Kim Davis’ right to have made use of the legal system in her fight, Charee Stanley has the same right. She gets to go through the legal process – and we’ll see where it ends up. She’s not getting special treatment because no one wants to offend Muslims, and she doesn’t lose her right to avail herself of the legal system just because she’s not Christian, she’s going through the same process (albeit in local civil court) that Davis did. She’s not asking for a Sharia court. She may prevail, she may not, either way, she’s no longer in her employment position. Just like Davis, though by a different method, she was removed from it. There are simply no facts on which to call “foul” on some sort of treatment double standard.

It’s also worth noting that, given that the cases are proceeding in different states, they are subject to differently written “religious freedom” laws. Kentucky courts and Michigan courts, as ought to be championed by those who feel that the federal government has overreached and that states’ rights should be in play here, may come to different decisions. And that, too, is part of our legal system.

Now, as to the “but Kim Davis was arrested and nothing happened to Charee Stanley” claims of double standards. It’s disingenuous. Let’s look at both. Why was Kim Davis arrested rather than just suspended or fired? Because she’s an elected public official – she can’t be suspended or fired. The choices are two – call for a special election or impeachment. The former is a useless gesture – in the county in which she works, the likelihood is she’d just get re-elected and nothing would be accomplished. Just because the people in her county support her doesn’t mean she gets to violate a Supreme Court ruling – it simply doesn’t work that way. So impeachment. In order to impeach her, they, her employers, the state of Kentucky, have to show criminal dereliction of her duties, or at least some other felony. In order to do that, she had to be arrested and prosecuted, and, no doubt, she’ll be convicted by a judge, because no county or state judge is going to want to go up against the Supreme Court [edit: actually, I think her case is going to be heard in a US District court, which is federal, so virtually assured that she’ll be found guilty]. Then, bet your last dollar, impeachment proceedings will start within 24 hours. Smart lawyers for the State.

As to Charee Stanley, her employer also did exactly what works best within the legal system. There were no grounds for arresting her – she didn’t violate a law, all she did was refuse to do something her employer demanded of her. Thousands of employees across the country do that on a monthly basis. The choices were basically three – let it go and let her continue to not serve alcohol, or fire, or suspend her. Obviously they didn’t want to go with the first or this never would have reached this point. If they’d have fired her, she would have sued for wrongful termination based on religion – and likely, she’d have won, because the burden of proof would mostly land on her employers, and it would have been heard in a federal rather than state court. So they suspended her, depriving her of the option of suing for wrongful termination on religious grounds, which is protected by federal law. Instead, all she can do is sue for lost wages in state court, claiming that she had a verbal contract which honored her religious beliefs. But she’s going to have to prove that. Smart lawyers for ExpressJet.

The glee from the left is ridiculous – mostly because it’s unproductive, it actually does betray an anti-Christian prejudice (at least towards the more fundamentalist Christians), and does nothing other than rile people up – but mostly because the situation is simply different. And it’s unresolved in our legal system, and it will be interesting to see what ruling the Michigan courts, generally fairly conservative, make.

The hue and cry from the right is just political rhetoric from, mostly, hate-spewing, generally racist folk who’ve become convinced that our country is on some sort of downward spiral (caused by the black muslim fake american in the white house… yada yada) rather than simply being at one point in the pendulum of political thought that has swung back and forth throughout our history.

At this point we’ll have to wait and see what sort of court ruling Stanley’s (and down the road, probably Davis’) case engenders, at which point, who knows? There may be something to squawk about then, from one or the other or both sides of the political spectrum.

[Update, November 10, 2015 – Interestingly, and I suppose not surprisingly, Charee Stanley has completely disappeared from the news, I can’t find an online mention of her since mid-September, while Kim Davis, though a bit more background, continues to show up in news stories. A short-lived kerfuffle.]

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Politics – same pitch, different day

Joffe, Josef (2013-11-04). The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies

Quite possibly the best debunking of the misuse of statistics and political rhetoric I’ve ever read. For anyone who laments the loss of bipartisan cooperation in America, and the rise of shrill extremism, this is a must read. I’m just going to include a little excerpt from the book here rather than carry on with my own opinion:

Actually, “the sky is falling” should not be a very lucrative pitch. Such alarms stoke fear and panic; why invest in the future if the clock is running down? But the message has worked wonders since time immemorial because doom, in biblical as well as political prophecy, always comes with a shiny flip side, which is redemption. Darkness is the prelude to dawn. The gloomy forecast reviles past and present in order to promise the brightest of futures. Start with fire and brimstone, then jump to grace and deliverance in the here and now. Listen to Jeremiah as he thunders, “Turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; then you will live in the [promised] land.” Jeremiah may have been the father of modern campaign politics.

Preachers and politicos take naturally to this one-two punch because ruin followed by renewal is the oldest narrative in the mental data bank of mankind. The device is even older than the verdict of doom— the Mene, Tekel on the palace wall— revealed by Daniel. Start with the Flood, a universal theme played out over four chapters in Genesis, but found much earlier in Sumerian and Babylonian myth, as related in the Gilgamesh Epic dated 2700 BCE. Genesis, written in the fifth or sixth century BCE, expands and embellishes the original. It relates how “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” So He decides to “blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, for I am grieved that I have made them.” The end is nigh, but don’t despair. Mankind will be spared after all, because the Lord selects Noah, who has “found favor in His eyes,” and commands him to build an ark that will save mankind.

So after death by Deluge, it will be rebirth for the righteous led by an ordinary mortal who knows the future, and how to act on it. This story never ends. The Children of Israel were punished for the Golden Calf, the idol that embodied a wicked past, with forty years in the wilderness. Yet if true to the Law and to God’s messenger Moses, they will be rewarded with the Promised Land. As the Resurrection follows the Crucifixion, so misery will segue into salvation, but there has to be a leader, spiritual or political, to show the way: Moses or Jesus, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Barack (“ Yes, we can”) Obama. The pairing of doom and deliverance defines the eternal archetype.

In all these narratives, ruin is the means, and rescue the end. Terror is the teaching device that will change the course of history. For all his tirades, every Jeremiah actually wants to be disproved by making his errant flock atone and amend. “Declinism is a theory that has to be believed to be invalidated,” explains Samuel Huntington. It is the opposite of the familiar “self-fulfilling prophecy,” a term coined by the sociologist Robert Merton. The alarm starts out with a “false definition of the situation” and then triggers “new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true.’ ” To predict a bank failure is to unleash a run that will actually cause the collapse.

Declinism markets a “self-defeating prophecy.” Since these predictions deal with humans, and not planets or protozoans, they are designed to trigger reactions that lift the curse. Merton puts it thus: Evil does not come true “precisely because the prediction has become a new element” that changes the “initial course of developments.” So to foretell is to forestall— that is the very purpose of Declinism. Take the “impending exhaustion of natural resources” from Malthus to the Club of Rome, which foresaw the end of global growth some forty years ago, especially because of dwindling oil reserves. Myriad changes in behavior— from conservation to exploration— followed, causing oil gluts on the market in the 1980s and a gas glut in the 2010s. The world economy grew twentyfold in this period (nominally). Would that all catastrophes had such a short shelf life!

None of America’s Declinists over the past half century, as presented in the preceding chapter, actually wanted the country to suffer its foreordained fate. The prophecy is designed to be self-defeating, and the structure of augury is always the same: This will happen unless . . . Holding up another nation as a model is to correct one’s own, not to condemn it— from the Sputnik Shock of the 1950s to Obama’s “Sputnik moment” in the 2010s. To praise others is to prod America. Russia, Europe, Japan, et al. will overtake us, unless we labor hard to change our self-inflicted destiny. The basic diagnosis remains constant; only the prescription will vary according to the ideological preferences of the seer.

In politics, “the sky is falling” has yet another purpose. It is no accident that the figure of the prophet, in the legend or on the stump, stands at the center of the narrative. We have to believe in the messenger so that he can rise above us and guide us to a better tomorrow. Hence dramatization and exaggeration, fibbing or even outright falsehood, are part and parcel of the prophecy. To hype is to win. Never mind that the Missile Gap and the Window of Vulnerability were mere myths. Expediency beats veracity in campaigning and sermonizing. And so, hyperbole paves the road from the vale of tears— or to the White House. “Follow me, and ye shall be saved!” is the eternal message. Or in Kennedy’s words, borrowed from Churchill, “Come then— let us to the task, to the battle and the toil. . . .”

Prophet or politico, the strategy is to paint the nation in hellish colors and then to offer oneself as a guide to heaven. The country is on the skids, but tomorrow it will rise again— if only you, the people, will anoint me as your leader. It worked for both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who rode all the way to the White House on nonexisting Soviet missiles. Shakespeare wrote the original script. To “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” was Henry IV’s advice to his son and successor. The democratic equivalent is to scare up votes with foreign threats. After the election, dawn always follows doom— as when Kennedy called out, “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear that had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again, twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted, “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back” and again on top. Collapse was yesterday, today it is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why Declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration— and wilts quickly after victory.

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Cooking the Books #2

A round-up of some of my recent food reading.

Pollan, Michael (April 28, 2009) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Setting aside that in some ways this is another book with more of the same diet advice that’s been published in countless books, the most interesting part of this is that not only is it well written and engaging without being preachy, but I like that it really explores how statistics and media messages have been manipulated by corporations and government agencies with agendas that aren’t in our best interests. For those who are Michael Pollan fans, this is a must read.

*****

Davis, Michelle & Holloway, Matt (October 7, 2014) Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*ck

Yawn. Really, just yawn. Look, I don’t care about people using curse words, but these folks don’t even know how to use them. They’re trying for some weird version of “street cred” and they come across as completely inept at it. It’s as if they wrote the book in a final version with every i dotted and t crossed and all the grammar perfect, and then said, “hey, let’s do a global search and replace on some words like ‘things’ to change it to ‘shit’, and everywhere we use the word ‘delicious’ let’s add in the word ‘fucking’ in front of it”. It comes across as completely formulaic and forced (as it does on their website), and it’s no surprise that they were recently “outed” as a couple of whitebread yuppies just trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a shame, too, because they actually have some decent recipes on the site and in the book, but the quality of those, and the underlying message for healthy eating, just get lost in a big motherfucking pile of word shit. (See, annoying. It doesn’t work when I do it either.)

*****

Orkin, Ivan & Ying, Chris (October 29, 2013) Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint

Most people will probably head to this book for the recipes. After all, why not learn how to make ramen from a westerner who took the time and effort to learn everything he could about the subject and then interpret it and reinterpret it for western palates? And, the recipes sound great, are well written, albeit at times a bit complicated or at least time consuming. But, for me, it was the story of how Ivan Orkin dove into his life and developed his passion for ramen that made the book. Completely captivating.

*****

Sokolov, Raymond (February 11, 2014) Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food

Part of my introduction to the world of food came through the brilliantly researched and well written articles by Raymond Sokolov in my monthly subscription to Natural History magazine when I was growing up. Later, I would snag a friend’s daily Wall Street Journal after she finished with it, purely to read his restaurant reviews and food writing. His Saucier’s Apprentice and Cook’s Canon were long ago staples of my bookshelf. This book just continues the saga, with an autobiographical look back at how it all happened, along with an insightful look at where food trends are headed in today’s culinary world. For anyone interested in food history, this book is a must to pick up and enjoy.

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Is the TSA abusive? I’m not so sure.

TSA-logoI know this won’t be popular, but all this anti-TSA rhetoric is getting tiring. Yes, on occasion, an agent might do something outside of procedure, and a complaint should be made, they should be investigated and if necessary, disciplined or fired. But 14 million people fly through US airports weekly, and we hear about maybe 1 or 2 supposed abuses every week or so, mostly because they’re the exceptions. And then everyone starts blogging and posting about what happened with only the complaint of the passenger to go on, assuming that there’s no other viewpoint to the story.

Sometimes, with the random selection process for screening, that pointer happens to point to a 6 year old kid or an elderly person in a wheelchair, or, like the latest one everyone’s going on about, a pregnant first grade teacher – who maybe, just maybe, opted out of the electronic screening as many pregnant women do because of concerns about “radiation” (which are completely unfounded as well) and then didn’t want to get searched either (in fact, she admits in her now widely circulated letter that she tried to refuse a pat-down and kept demanding to be allowed to go to her flight without being searched, to which everyone is going “aww, let the lady go, she’s a pregnant schoolteacher” – like anyone in line or in the TSA would have known that – it’s “Monday morning quarterbacking” at its worst). Who knows? But taking her at her word without any other input is just dumb. Security experts the world over have noted the rise in the use of prosthetic pregnancy devices that make a woman appear to be pregnant but hide explosives in terrorist attacks.

I have yet to have a negative experience with an agent, nor see anyone harassing a passenger, nor even know anyone who has been harassed. The only incident I’ve witnessed was a woman who refused to remove her shoes, jacket, or any of her metal jewelry or watch because she didn’t trust that she’d get them back when they passed through the scanner, and then got abusive when a female officer offered to do a pat-down search, in private if she wished. Bluntly, I wouldn’t want her passed through.

Last week TSA agents found 18 concealed firearms, 5 cases of other prohibited items concealed in carryon baggage, and 9 people traveling on false identification papers – all in cases where the people tried to get around the automated scanning process and get on a plane without being searched. That says something to me about the worthwhile nature of the security process, particularly the concealed guns.

Perhaps it’s my having been present in NYC during the 9/11 attacks, dealing with losing friends and colleagues, and living with the aftermath, but for me, flying is a privilege, not a right, and personally I have no problem with extra security measures if it might just save my or someone else’s life.

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