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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Review: Ultimate High

 Arley Lewis recommended Ultimate High as the opposite of incompetence literature. It's an account of Goran Kropp's  trip to climb Everest, cycling from his home in Stockholm to Kathmandu with all the equipment he needed for the climb, summiting Everest (after 3 attempts) in 1995 during the same year where multiple mountaineering expeditions led by famous climbers had massive deaths as recounted by Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. I had read Into Thin Air before, and it mentioned Goran Kropp in passing but since Kropp didn't play a role in the tragedy on the mountain he had barely any mention.

Kropp accounts his biography, his climbing experience, and the tragedy of losing friends to the sport/hobby. He mentions meeting his girlfriend Renata Chlumska, but describes her as a model. Only mentioning (as an aside) at the end of the book that she turned out to be pretty tough, climbing Everest without Oxygen in 1999! (In the book, all she does is sit around at base camp wringing her hands over the dangers her boyfriend is experiencing)

It's quite clear the Kropp isn't a cyclist. The devotes maybe 20 pages of the book to the cycling adventures, doesn't mention any scenery, and mostly complains about hostile natives in the lands he rides through. A  lot of it, of course, is that compared to Anne Mustoe, he's a guy, so he was always going to get more hostile reactions. Once we get to the mountain we get detailed accounts of what he did, and boy, the kind of physical travails he has to overcome makes you wonder how anyone takes up the sport.

The book is compelling reading --- once it arrived in the mail I read it in 3 hours the same night. It's not incompetence literature (though once I was done with the book, I looked him up on Wikipedia and discovered he died mountaineering in 2002). The end of the book describes a proposed expedition where he would learn to sail (!!), sail to Antarctica and then traverse the continent on skis. That sounded pretty insane, but from his Wikipedia bio it's quite clear he never got around to it.

I enjoyed the book. It's worth reading, keeping me up late at night to finish it. Recommended.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review: What We Owe The Future

 When I first heard about What We Owe The Future, I thought that longtermism would be easy to explain and the book wouldn't have much to offer. I was wrong. One of the earliest parts of the book talks about how unlikely our current present with by discussing the contingency of slavery abolition. It turns out that it was an unlikely sequence of events that created the abolition movement, and unlike the right-wing conservative view, the elimination of slavery was a true act of altruism, not driven by economics whatsoever:

at the time of abolition slavery was enormously profitable for the British. In the years leading up to abolition, British colonies produced more sugar than the rest of the world combined, and Britain consumed the most sugar of any country.85 When slavery was abolished, the shelf price of sugar increased by about 50 percent, costing the British public £21 million over seven years—about 5 percent of British expenditure at the time.86 Indeed, the slave trade was booming rather than declining: even though Britain had abolished its slave trade in 1807, more Africans were taken in the transatlantic slave trade between 1821 and 1830 than in any other decade except the 1780s.87 The British government paid off British slave owners in order to pass the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which gradually freed the enslaved across most of the British Empire.88 This cost the British government £20 million, amounting to 40 percent of the Treasury’s annual expenditure at the time.89 To finance the payments, the British government took out a £15 million loan, which was not fully paid back until 2015. The economic interpretation of abolition also struggles to explain the activist approach that Britain took to the slave trade after 1807...from 1807 to 1867, enforcing abolition cost Britain almost 2 percent of its annual national income, several times what Britain spends today on foreign aid; political scientists Robert Pape and Chaim Kaufman described this campaign as “the most expensive international moral effort in modern history.”91 If the economic interpretation were correct, such activity would have been unnecessary because the slave trade would have been on its way out anyway... “antislavery organizing was odd rather than inevitable, a peculiar institution rather than the inevitable outcome of moral and cultural progress.… In key respects the British antislavery movement was a historical accident, a contingent event that just as easily might never have occurred.”...If the United States had instead remained part of the British Empire, Britain might have been more reluctant to jeopardise its uneasy relationship with the United States by taking a divisive action like abolishing the slave trade.124 The plantation lobby would also have been bigger in a still-united empire. Finally, Brown notes that abolitionists in France struggled because they lacked the opportunities and status of those in England. Because abolitionist thought grew in France around the same time as the French and Haitian revolutions, abolitionist thought, Brown argues, became linked with violence and strife.123(kindle loc. 1088-1208)

To me, that understanding of the history behind the anti-slavery movement  by itself justified reading the book. The book is overall very optimistic --- it views the future of humanity as being very bright, and that nearly everything you can do to ensure that humanity survives and has a benevolent future is justified.

If the rest of the book was of this nature I think I would have no hesitation endorsing the thoughts behind the book. However, pretty soon after this discussion the book veers into ultra-right-wing libertarian thinking. For instance, the author asserts that it's a moral duty to have more children, despite the increased carbon emissions that having a child in a developed country generates. The theory is that one more somewhat happy person makes the world better off, even if it causes the immiseration of the rest of the world by creating carbon emissions (which the author happily admits will affect climate for hundreds of thousands of years). He delves into population ethics, and somehow comes to the conclusion that a world with say, 10,000 very happy people (call these the Koch brothers and the Elon Musks) and 10 billion somewhat unhappy people, is a better world than a world with 1 billion happy people, just because there are more people who would rather have been born than not to have lived. In other words, the philosophy behind the author's population ethics completely justifies slavery and the highly inequitable world we live in. To me, that's crazy talk!

There's a lot of concern about long term economic stagnation. Once again, the idea here is that the way out of that is to keep increasing the number of people in the world, since more minds being available to solve problems will create more innovative solutions. This approach completely ignores the fact that it doesn't matter how many minds are born --- if your societal approach eliminates the possibility of good education and the possibility of contributing to solutions rather than creating problems, then the increased population probably is more likely to cause the ultimate extinction of humanity than to contribute to the long term survival of civilization. The author even admits that pre-industrial hunter gatherer societies actually were better nourished and had more free time than agriculturists, and perhaps even lead more fulfilling lives than the average citizen of more modern societies working 40-80 hour weeks and having zero paid vacations.

Thankfully, I don't think I have to spend a lot of time debunking the effective altruism movement. Folks like Sam Bankman Fried have pretty much exposed that movement as full of people using questionable approaches in order to justify unethical behavior. This book veers into that and even though it's been published less than a year ago, has already shown that it doesn't age well.

Nevertheless, you should always read books that you disagree with just in case you're wrong. In this case, the book itself is well written and a good way for you to test yourself against its moral conclusions. Even if you disagree, it'll give you lots to think about.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review: Politics is for Power

 Politics is for Power is an indictment of something I've been guilty of: treating politics the way sports fans treat sports, reading about it, sharing articles on social media, but not actually doing very much. It makes for a very uncomfortable read, but as the title of the book says, if you actually want to achieve political power you actually have to get off your ass and out of the house and do something:

The petitions with large numbers of signatures were primarily addressing legitimate policy concerns, but minor ones. Petition-gathering organizations such as MoveOn see the same phenomenon. Saving dolphins generates enthusiasm among petition signers. So does demanding funding for PBS and NPR. Aid to the poor? Not so much. Schaffner and I looked closer at the White House data. We obtained the zip code of every petition signer, which we linked to the income level of their neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, people in wealthy neighborhoods were more likely to sign online petitions than those in poor ones. More surprising is that those in wealthier neighborhoods were especially likely to sign petitions if the petition was about issues that were frivolous and narrow. Academics refer to this behavior as postmaterialist. For citizens whose material needs—food, shelter, health—are met, politics can be focused on frivolous and nonmaterial issues. Politics can be more of a game. (kindle loc 1016)

 When people quit Facebook, nobody likely calls them up or sends an email to convey concern or disappointment that they are no longer offering their political hot takes. The relationships are not serious enough that anyone would care to make such a call. That no one is relying on you is a great sign that the activity you are doing is a shallow hobby. (kindle loc 1711)

 Eitan Hersh's thesis is as follows: most people really don't care about politics --- all you have to listen to any interview with a typical voter to discover how incredibly uninformed they are, and how much the nuance or detail of public policy matters to them. Historically, political parties have gotten the loyalty of the electorate by doing things that matter to them --- getting them jobs, solving day to day problems in the community, and doing things like getting them healthcare. If you ever wonder why people in the middle east, for instance, support the terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslin Brotherhood, it's because their local organizations provide services:

Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood, all of which provide health and education services in addition to a political agenda. To ordinary people who don’t care much about politics, these groups say, “We care about you. We support you. When the time comes for a vote or a protest, be there for us.” In the story from Egypt and the Arab Spring, the leaderless resistance groups stood no chance in an election against the Muslim Brotherhood, which built a brand not just based on an ideology but on a commitment to community service. White nationalists are figuring this out, too. As I mentioned in the book’s introduction, the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina was out in 2018 offering assistance to opioid addicts.19 When your ideology is as noxious as the KKK’s, you won’t win many supporters on your policy views alone. But you may win supporters if you show people you care about them. And if you show voters empathy and take care of people and the mainstream parties aren’t doing the same, maybe you’ll get some converts to your cause. (kindle loc 3161)

The author covers the history of the decline of such machine politics in the USA, where the parties got hollowed out as the electorate got wealthier and needed less help, and the top level political leaders decided that the local chapters can embarrass them by holding beliefs that contradict the national platform:

Top-down leadership retains control so that no local can go rogue and embarrass the national organization. Top-down unions, according to labor scholar and activist Jane McAlevey, recruit leaders based on “likability and charisma … [the] ability to speak with the media and chair meetings,” characteristics that aren’t particularly meaningful to trust-building with workers. McAlevey argues that unions have collapsed in part because they’ve lost sight of local workers’ potential for grassroots leadership. (kindle loc 2908)

 If you've ever volunteered for a phone bank, you'll know that the experience is shallow and doesn't feel right --- you're given a script and a bunch of phone calls to make and after you're done you're given some more. You feel like a telemarketer after all is said and done and there's no linkage to your political goals. Hersh says this is by design. The donation-oriented approach encourages this, but doesn't retain an on-the-ground organization to carry you through unexciting elections. The way around this is to provide services or to do deep canvassing, which makes less dedicated people uncomfortable, since you have to actually listen to people:

The idea of approaching a citizen who is not knowledgeable or interested in politics and focusing on listening rather than talking, or focusing on serving the material needs of the voter, feels dirty, in part, because any side can do it. We saw that in the previous chapter: the most pernicious political organizations offer services in exchange for political support. It feels dirty because politics, to hobbyists, is about ideas more than it is about power. Even if hobbyists think their side has the best ideas and ought to be in power, the thought of approaching people who don’t know anything about politics and saying, “Vote for my party because we are going to take care of you in these concrete ways,” is exactly like the kind of dirty transactional politics that they want to avoid. To the retired social worker I failed to recruit, even offering voters an empathetic ear felt dirty and transactional. (kindle loc 3315)

 Hersh suggests that the antidote is to go out and organize your community and try to provide basic services. Even in rich wealthy communities:

Ture and Hamilton write, “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters has been that they are reluctant to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it.” Fast-forward fifty years from that book, when I sit and read through public comments arguing against low-income housing development in well-to-do communities, saying that new developments will “change the character of the town,” and when I see little or no organized effort in privileged white communities to support lower-income housing, I know what Ture and Hamilton were talking about. (kindle loc 3232)

 At the top level, that means the wealthy donors funding the parties have to be willing to give up control instead of pouring money into largely ineffective campaign ads to make themselves feel good. This will be a tough thing to do but given the asymmetry in politics between the two party if the Democratic party wishes to succeed it's the only way to go:

For a political party or wealthy political benefactor to do what I am suggesting—shifting resources to goods and services and hiring local organizers—requires them to empower local people, which means they will not maintain tight centralized control. This is sometimes hard for them to stomach. Empowering local organizers comes with risk. Leaders who hire local organizers need to know how to find good people, how to train them, how to empower and monitor them. If done well, this can be much more effective than any top-down approach, as I have suggested in the stories of organizers in this book. But do not confuse my endorsement with a claim that it is easy to pull off. If donors and parties want to do something more effective than silly campaigns ads, which have, at best, tiny effects on politics, they need to take some risks and do harder things. (kindle loc 3436)

 Unlike Democratic donors, Republican donors typically support politicians whose policy priorities align with a wealthy person’s financial interests. The donors can view donations as an investment. When Schaffner and I asked max-out donors why they made their contribution, many more Republicans than Democrats said that a very or extremely important reason for their gift was that the politician could affect the donor’s own industry (37 percent of Republicans versus 22 percent of Democrats). This asymmetry puts Democrats at a disadvantage. Not motivated by their own bottom line, Democratic donors instead have to be motivated by ideology, issues, or even by the entertainment value that a donation provides. For entertainment value, state legislative races and other low-level offices don’t offer donors much. Maybe this is a reason that over the last decade, Republicans more than Democrats have invested in the offices that, however small and unexciting, are the key to congressional redistricting and consequential state policies. (kindle loc 1312)

This is by far the most important and uncomfortable book I've read this year about politics. If you're a typical college educated reader who cares about politics, the book will make you squirm in many places as you realize how much of your time was misspent when you could actually be doing something else more effective. It doesn't mince words and is brutally honest about what it would take to gain political power. If you really want your side to win, the amount of hard work required is daunting. But I agree with Hersh that it is the only way to gain enduring political power. The alternative is shallow movements that fail or create political vacuums that will invite the folks who're willing to do the hard work to win:

Consider the Arab Spring.8 The Arab Spring is the name of a series of revolutionary movements that started as antigovernment protests in 2010. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia and spread through Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, and to a lesser extent in other countries. By all accounts, social media played an important role in coordinating the protests, telling activists where and when to gather, transmitting information about where and when to send medical supplies and food. The Arab Spring failed nearly everywhere. The aftermath has been called the Arab Winter, a wake of death, destruction, and capsized rickety boats that carried now-drowned refugee children. The Arab Spring was a tragedy...In Egypt, for instance, protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square spurred elections, which was a major victory—after a mere eighteen days of protest, the country’s leader of almost thirty years stepped down. But the secular movement in Tahrir Square had no leaders, no ability to organize, and no capacity to mobilize voters. The liberal energy that spurred change lost the elections to an organized party, the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood, which was eventually forced out of power by a military coup. Activists with an Internet connection could crumble a government but could not build one in its place.9 To do that, you need a hierarchy of leaders from low-level people willing to knock on thirty-five doors to middle-level organizers to higher-level leaders with a plan. In short, you need an organization. In Egypt, the protesters never had that. (kindle loc 2509-2516)

This book is a call to action and an indictment of most of us in the (upper) middle class. I highly recommend it.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Review: Lovers Quarrel

 Lovers Quarrel is an Astro City story arc focused on Quarrel and Crackerjack. Earlier volumes have established Crackerjack as a blowhard, but Quarrel was in the honor guard, the equivalent of the Justice League. The overall story asks a question few comic books ever ask, with their unaging characters --- what do aging non-superpowered heroes do when they get old? We get Quarrel's origin story, along with the answer to that question.

I thought the story was good, but not as chock full of originality as I've come to expect from Astro City. That's because whenever the spotlight focuses on the super-powered characters, the series reads much more like a conventional comic book super hero story rather than the slice-of-life-in-an-alternate-world that it otherwise portrays. Nevertheless, with Astro City, the story never stays on a single character long enough to get sick of it, which means I'll keep reading future volumes.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Review: The Language of Power

 The Language of Power is the most recent novel in Rosemary Kirstein's series about a medieval society set in a science fiction world. If there's anything I can complain about the story it's that Kirstein seems to be parceling out her reveals in tiny steps. This part of the series starts unraveling the mysteries of who the wizards are, and what they represent --- we see references to a separation between the common people and the "krue" (an obvious language transition of "crew"). We see the existence of a technological society where the technologically enabled use the technology to hold positions of power in society.

Nevertheless, the holes in the story start to come apart. An obviously technological society relies on precision manufacturing, refinement of ore, and clean rooms to make computer chips. Without scale, those technologies are prohibitively expensive and resource intensive and impossible to hide without massive amounts of automation, which is hard to hide in even a medieval society.

Nonetheless, the writing is good, and maybe Kirstein will produce in the final two volumes of the work and a compelling narrative that makes her world believable to a skeptical me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Rivendell Roadini 1000 mile review

 1000 miles should be enough to review a bicycle, even one as flexible and multi-use as the Rivendell Roadini. I started with it configured with 30mm tires, then decided I didn't like how tall they were and tried them with 25mm tires, and the bike rode great that way. I got fed up with the seatpost slipping and replaced the Kalloy with a Thomson Elite, which no longer slips, but had less of an offset. Then I put on Continental Terraspeed 40mm tires and treated it like a gravel bike, which is the mode it seems to be permanently settled on, so much so that I swapped out the PD-ES600 for the M520s since in gravel mode, I treat it pretty much like a 1990s mountain bike!

Here's the thing, with 700x38mm tires, I stop feeling like I need to drive to the trailhead, but then just ride the bike out my door to the trailhead. If there's 2000' of climbing, I ensure that I pump up the tire to about 44psi, and then when I get to the trailhead I get out my pressure gauge and let it down to about 28psi. If I'm not going that far, I pump it up to about 33psi and then ride it on and off road, taking the hit on the pavement and going slower than I would go with a modern mountain bike down gravel roads. The steel frame flexes like a leaf spring, and I'm no doubt voiding all the warranties associated with the bike, but I buy bicycles to ride them not to baby them.

In road mode, the bike rode as well as I expect a touring bike to ride --- it's a fun, fast, neutral ride. With the Terraspeed tires on it it's not nearly as fun --- you can definitely feel the knobs robbing 1-2mph of speed from you. On a descent, that's a good thing --- I doubt my collision with a deer would have had a good outcome if I'd been going 5mph faster. On a climb, 1-2mph from my already slow 6mph is 4mph. 30% of my speed is robbed from me by the tires, but it's still better than driving! On descents, I can't go as fast as on a bike with suspension forks on dirt, but the bike really behaves well --- far better than a mountain bike does --- there's a direct feedback and a feeling of grace you never get from a mountain bike which wants to just plow through all obstacles --- the Roadini expects and wants you to ride with finesse, picking good lines and going just a tad slower. I did mention that I collided with a deer on the Roadini and survived to ride home with no damage to the bike and only a sore lower leg for about 3 days --- the bike handles so well that while I was convinced I would crash I never did --- despite my vision bouncing up and down and sideways during the 1-2s the collision and immediate aftermath lasted.

Other cyclists who see me riding on a bike with downtube shifters and drop bars and sidepull caliper brakes always do a double-take when I'm off pavement. It's such an odd contraption that people assume (correctly) that I built the bike myself. On wet trails the tires sink in just a little bit before I get traction --- looking at the sidewalls it looks like the tires submerge to the point where the side knobs start to assist with the traction, so there's a little feeling of spinning the tires before everything digs in and you get traction. It's a slightly disconcerting feeling but you get used to it.

If I had to have only one bike to ride in my garage I'd pick the Roadini --- it's got the clearance to treat like a mountain bike, it handles fine with touring tires and light wheels, and short of doing expedition style touring there's nothing it can't do. The only change I'd make is to make the BB lower (maybe 80mm drop --- same as my Strong frame), and if I ever had another custom bike built that'll be exactly what I do. It gets rid of the toe clip overlap (which doesn't bother me but now that I know how to solve it without making a bike handle badly I think I like Grant Petersen's solution), and it doesn't have chainstays so long that i'll be difficult to pack the bike into a bike box when you need to fly with it to a touring destination. I think the Roadini is by far the most versatile bike in the Rivendell lineup (the A Home Hilsen has ultra-long chainstays and requires 135mm wheels --- which are stronger but would render the bike incompatible with my collection of 130mm axle wheels), and doesn't feel overbuilt for a lightweight 140 pound cyclist. Now that they're in stock, I can recommend them to anyone who can fit them.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Review: Astro City - Private Lives

 Private Lives returns to the formula that I love about Astro City --- instead of focusing on superheroes, the stories revolves around the side characters in their lives. The book opens with a delightful story about the executive assistant for Astro City's Dr. Strange analog, who juggles mundane tasks in between dealing with magical catastrophes. Another sequence of the book focuses its narrative on a victim of one of the super-villains in the world, and her super power turns out to be forgiveness. It's a stunning take on an all too frequent trope, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

You can't go wrong with any of the graphic novels in the Astro City line up, but I felt this was a particularly strong showing. Recommended.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Review: The Lost Steersman

 The Lost Steersman is the 3rd book in Rosemary Kirstein's fantasy series in a medieval world that's really a far future science fiction novel. This third book detours from the previous two in that it's not just an uncovering of the nature of the world the series is set in, but ventures into a first contact novel as well! The setup is well done, especially since it was set up in the first couple of books, and we get the interesting effect of what seems to be monsters (possibly controlled by the wizards in the world) turning out to  be an alien, sentient life form.

Once again, the protagonist seems too good to be true --- she's calm, curious, and able to think things true. But I'm quite forgiving of that --- in the old days of science fiction, the men in the novels were also too good to be true and I see nothing wrong with an author making a woman protagonist that way as well. I enjoyed this book and will be picking up the last novel in the series.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Review: Life is Strange - True Colors

 I kept intending to play Life is Strange: True Colors, but what tipped me over was seeing it at the library and checking it out. It took me 2 renewals to finish it, but it was a good story. Here's the thing about the Life is Strange series - it's not a video game so much as it is a short form TV show. Each episode is about 2 hours or so, and while you get a few choices here and there, the narrative is mostly linear --- you don't actually have any effect on major outcomes. The hallmarks of the series are the story, the characters, and the music.

What's exciting about this particular instantiation is that it features a female Asian protagonist. Even better, Alex Chen doesn't come from the depiction of the model minority background --- her family was broken up when she was young, and she's been through a series of orphanages and foster care with a history of fighting and anger. She starts the story having been through that phase of her life and arriving at the mountain town of Haven on invitation from her brother, whom she hasn't seen for years. The fresh start ends in tragedy and the story launches.

Unlike the original Life is Strange, True Colors eschews any real puzzles. Alex Chen does have a super power --- and I love it that her super power is empathy --- she can use it to understand how others are thinking and seeing the world, or relive moments trapped in objects. Each episode revolves around a single event, and as each episode proceeds she has chances to help other people or bypass them. It's not necessarily clear for each decision what the outcome will be, and in some ways I was surprised by the support or lack of support from various characters in the climax --- which is a good thing! The final episode was by far the weakest --- the ending is inevitable no matter what you choose, but that's to be expected.

Overall, the writing is good --- the characters ring true, and your choices are fun. It's not as good as the original Life is Strange game, but it's still worth your time.

Monday, May 08, 2023

Review: The Outskirter's Secret

 After reading The Steerswoman, I immediately bought The Outskirter's Secret to continue the story. The story proceeds slowly, with slow reveals necessitated by the pace of introducing the reader from the faux-medieval society of the first book to the second book's setting, which is the outskirts or the uncivilized parts of the world.

What I really appreciate is how logical the protagonist-scientist is, and how good she is at inferring theories from the provided facts. As a heroine, she's kinda improbable, since scholars were rarely master swordspersons, but the plot necessitated in one particular juncture that not only can she understand how somebody's swordfighting style was evolved, but to be able to also duplicate it to demonstrate and prove the theory to herself. I suspended my belief for that one and just accepted it.

When the final reveal happens I was just as surprised as if I'd never read the book before, even though I must have done so in the past. Nevertheless, it's a great reveal, and I was impressed by how everything came together --- the ecology, the clues, and the pace of the reveals. Needless to say, I'e bought the 3rd book in the series and will keep reading!

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Review: The Phantom Tollbooth

 I got bored with reading The Sword in the Stone to Boen, so midway through I checked out The Phantom Tollbooth from the library and started reading it to him instead. I probably never actually read it as a kid, as my memories of it was watching a video in school.

The book is silly fun, full of wordplay and non-sequiturs. The plot, the logic of it is like a dream --- all the scenes are connected by the flimsiest of excuses or narratives, and one just leads to another. The protagonist never actually makes decisions or does anything, events  just happen to him one at a time. Having said that, the language is great, and the wordplay is fun. Boen seemed to enjoy it, though I will admit he too fell asleep to this one more than once.

Hey, when you pick books to read to kids at night, one thing that the book has to be is not boring for the adult reading it to the kid. For me, that means it has to be something that I like a lot or something that I've never read before. This one's decent.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Review: Witch Hat Atelier 1-10

 I picked up Witch Hat Atelier while browsing the kindle unlimited store. As usual, only issue #1 is available, hoping to entice you to buy the remainder of the series. In this particular, it worked --- I liked the series sufficiently to check out the remainder of it from the library.

The first thing you notice is that the art for the series is gorgeous. As with most manga, it's almost entirely in black and white, with only the covers of the book colored in. But the line detail, the intricacies are breath-taking. The writer/artist clearly has the chops to draw. Most manga in Japan is serialized in weekly/monthly magazines, so not only is Shirahama good, he's also fast, able to churn out a chapter a week.

The plot revolves around witches, magic users in the world Coco lives in. At the start of the series the protagonist, Coco, is told that they are born with the power to manipulate magic. However, Coco was given a primer as a child, and one day circumstances cause her to get out the pen and ink and trace the primer she saw, which has dire consequences. It turns out that witchers aren't born with any extra-ordinary power, but indeed create magic by drawing seals, patterns that correspond to a programming language and are activated when the circle around the seal is completed. What witches do to cast spells is to pre-draw the seals, leaving a circle open, and then close the circle when they wish to activate. The conceit of the series is that only special ink can create magic, and witches conceal their drawings from the mundanes in order to maintain the illusion that magic is innate, not learned.

The primer Coco was given turned out to be a tome of forbidden magic, and in her tracing she causes a tragedy. The usual action in these circumstances is to wipe Coco's memory, but instead the witch on location feels sorry for Coco and adopts her into his atelier, or school of magic. Coco is thus inducted into the world of magic along with her new fellow students.

As the series proceeds, we get introduced to the society of witches, the tests they take to certify progression, the world of shops, supplies, and the magic police that keeps everyone honest, as well as the ethics of magic. The world building piece of the story is probably the weakest part --- it strains disbelief that such a large organization wouldn't leak a simple secret as a matter of course. The evil-doers that gave Coco the primer of forbidden magic are also slowly introduced to the reader, and various subplots surrounding each of Coco's fellow students (all of whom are women for some reason) are introduced and partially resolved.

I enjoyed reading each book, mostly because of the art, and will keep picking up new installments as they appear. It's inevitable that a series this pretty will be turned into an animated TV show or movie, though I suspect without the outstanding art that sets it apart it's unlikely that the weak world-building would make a deep impression on modern audiences. 

Monday, May 01, 2023

Review: The Sword in the Stone

 I thought I'd read The Sword in the Stone before as a kid, so when Boen wanted bed time reading I started reading it to him.  It turns out I must have read an abridged version, because the book was nothing like what I remembered. Yes, there were a lot of amusing anachronisms, and lots of places where Wart got turned into animals. But all of these were actually kinda boring. As bed time reading is concerned, boring is not bad --- the book literally put Boen to sleep multiple times!

But there's no sense of continuity (I'd forgotten that TH White put King Arthur together with Robin Hood and his merry men), and the finale is kinda anti-climatic. You never get the sense that after all of Merlyn's lessons, Wart had become ready to be King.

Some books are best not re-read as adults, I guess.