Thursday, July 28, 2016

Battle For the North: The Tay and Forth Bridges and the 19th Century Railway Wars, by Charles McKean

So as I've already said numerous times on this site and will probably say again, I'm a little bit obsessed with trains. The result is that I ultimate spend an inordinate amount of time reading books about trains and then blogging about them here. Anyway, this week I'm looking at another railroad history book, in this case Battle For the North, which specifically talks about the railroad rivalry between the Caledonian and North British Railways in Scotland in the mid to late nineteenth century. At the center of this narrative, however, is the Tay Bridge Disaster, which McKean focuses a lot of his resources upon. In a way, it feels almost like two books that have been welded together rather than one.

For those of you that aren't familiar with the history, the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 was a horrible accident where the bridge across the Tay Estuary in Scotland collapsed on a windy December night while a train was crossing it. Somewhere around seventy people died as the train plunged into the icy water below and it became sensational news at the time, seen as Victorian engineering being brought down for its hubris. There has been significant debate afterwards, of course, as to what exactly caused the bridge to collapse. The engineer who designed the bridge, Thomas Bouch, was condemned by a minority report from the Board of Trade Inquiry, which became the popular explanation. In this book, McKean seeks to explain why the bridge collapsed and rehabilitate Bouch.

The biggest problem I had with this book was that McKean tries to place the Tay Bridge's construction, collapse, demolition, and reconstruction, into the larger context of the fierce competition between the Caledonian and North British Railways, who sought to become the railway operating in Scotland. Although the competition between the lines explains why the North British decided to bridge not only the Tay but eventually also the Forth Estuaries, no small feats in and of themselves, I feel like the Tay narrative is almost a story apart from the competitive story between the North British and the Caledonian. I respect and appreciate McKean's efforts to place the entire story into context, but the preceding and following chapters feel somewhat unconnected.

The Tay Bridge gets the most focus in the book, with chapters on its construction, its fall, the inquiry into its collapse, and the eventual reconstruction. McKean's main effort, as I said, is to rehabilitate Bouch who has been castigated for the bridge collapse and provide alternate explanations for the disaster. McKean does bring up a good point that if the bridge design and construction had been completely inadequate, why did only the thirteen High Girders, the central part of the bridge, collapse when the rest of the bridge remained intact through the gale? If Bouch's design had been entirely inadequate for wind resistance, or the materials used inferior, shouldn't the entire bridge have collapsed? These are excellent points, but McKean fails to provide a satisfactory explanation for the facts. It cannot be refuted that the materials utilized for the bridge were inferior, with numerous severe problems recorded at the foundry where the cast iron parts were produced, which reflects badly on Bouch as he at least failed to place competent administrators in charge of the foundry work. Inadequate and improper maintenance was perhaps partially to blame, but that's more the fault of the North British administration who oversaw the maintenance of the bridge. But what caused the collapse?

McKean advances the theory, which Bouch himself supported, that the second class passenger carriage of the train jumped the track and with the guard van jumped the track and slammed into the girders, causing the structure to topple over. McKean argues that one of the high girder piers, which had actually collapsed in a storm during construction and had been re-erected, had been fatally weakened and warped, allowing the second class carriage to jump the track in the first place. Although this is possible, the evidence that McKean is able to marshal for this hypothesis is circumstantial at best, perhaps most critically pieces of wood with tell-tale grooves left by the wheels of the passenger carriage which are reported by eyewitnesses, but were burned as fuel within hours of being recovered from the ocean leaving no solid evidence. As I'm not an engineer I'm not really able to provide my own hypothesis. I have a vague idea that maybe the High Girders, which had their girder truss on top of the bridge rather than below to provide more clearance for ships, were too top heavy, but I have no evidence or skill to prove this beyond a vague supposition. Ultimately because the evidence was recovered hastily with a view towards reopening the shipping channel rather than forensic investigation, the answer will probably remain unknown.

By contrast, the construction of the Forth Bridge, a massive truss and cantilever edifice which still stands to this day, receives only one chapter. It certainly seemed to be plagued by less problems than the original Tay Bridge construction and as it has withstood the elements for over a century there has been no scandal of its collapse. The book ends with a strange chapter on races between London and Aberdeen taken between the Caledonian and North British Railways, but it's an event that occurred over a few summer months and ended just as abruptly. McKean condemns the competition as ultimately wasteful because it resulted in little more than a tie.

Overall this book is...okay at best. It's an interesting look into railway practices in the nineteenth century and I rather enjoyed the revelation that British railways weren't necessarily run any better than their American counterparts. However in trying to talk about railroad competition and the Tay Bridge, it feels like McKean pushed two potentially separate books together into one. Finally I find McKean's efforts to excuse Bouch of any and all wrongdoing is protesting a little too much and I think we may never know for certain why exactly the bridge collapsed.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, by Lisa Randall

This week I'm talking about a book which I originally heard about on NPR and managed to find as an audiobook at my library. Unfortunately, and I really hate to say it, I don't think I fully understand this book. From what I was able to muddle through Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is, ostensibly, about a hypothesis which Randall admits needs significantly more testing and research and could very likely be ruled out in the future. What we do know is that about 66 million years ago a large object, either an asteroid or a comet, hit the earth in what is now the Yucatan peninsula and directly caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, the fifth mass extinction found in the fossil record and the one which killed off the dinosaurs.

Why this object hit Earth at this particular time remains largely a mystery and so far our best working theory is just random chance. Comets and asteroids pass by Earth all the time and thousands of small meteoroids fall into the atmosphere in the course of a year, creating shooting stars. Simple laws of averages means given sufficient time, a comet or asteroid of a size big enough to cause the KPG extinction (Cretaceous-Paleogene, the C is already used for Cambrian) is bound to happen eventually. However, the fact that this appears to not be the first such event has made scientists curious as to whether or not there is some sort of underlying pattern to these impacts. Randall and one of her colleagues has submitted the hypothesis that perhaps a mass of dark matter is responsible for sending objects from the Oort Cloud on the edges of our solar system.

This is where it gets really confusing because dark matter is kind of hard to understand and I found myself really confused during a lot of this. Although I also didn't feel too bad because Randall states dark matter is in and of itself somewhat hard to understand. Basically dark matter, as scientists understand it, makes up about 85% of the mass in the universe. The name comes from the fact dark matter doesn't interact with light at all, making it invisible to us. In fact, it doesn't seem to interact with matter on most levels which makes it frustratingly difficult to study. So how do we know that it exists at all? Well much like how you can't see the wind, you can detect its presence by measuring its effects and dark matter does exert gravitational pull. Astronomers first hypothesized dark matter existed because they realized our galaxy, and presumably other galaxies in general, simply didn't have enough mass to make everything work properly. So they suggested there was another form of matter we simply weren't aware of that was providing the additional gravitational pull. Astronomers have since discovered light from distant stars being bent in various ways, as if by a large mass, which may suggest the evidence of dark matter. Although it's still very difficult to understand and physicists are still making numerous attempts to better understand and hopefully find dark matter.

So, that's pretty much all I understood about dark matter from the book, and even then I'm not entirely sure I got that right. Obviously it's best if you look at the book yourself for a more complete explanation. Which is what gives me great pause in talking about this book. But on the other hand there's a lot of issues from an organization standpoint in this book as well.

The feeling I got with this book was ''shotgun''. Randall makes a lot of points and they seem scattered all over the place with no specific theme or connection. At least until the very end but it feels tenuous at best. Randall covers subjects such as dark matter, the Big Bang, the development and composition of the solar system, the evolution of life on earth, mass extinction events, and the study of craters. It feels very eclectic and while it's all eventually tied to the hypothesis of dark matter influencing the orbit of a comet which hit earth and caused the KPG extinction, it becomes very easy to loose the thread while you're reading, or in my case listening, to the book.

And honestly, other than the dark matter bits which I cannot emphasize enough I do not fully understand, a lot of it felt like review to me. It was kind of cool to learn that our understandings of the KPG extinction were in fact fairly recent, as well as our increasing understanding of the solar system, but having been exposed to quite a lot of science in school myself quite a lot of it felt rather familiar to me. Plus it dealt with ordinary things made of matter which I can more easily relate to. So the book went between the extremes of mostly review and being well out of my depth for me. I'm not sure what the experience would be like for other readers because I feel it may depend on your scientific literacy.

I guess I understand the why, because it ensures Randall's readers fully understand all the concepts before she puts forth her hypothesis. But I feel like it could have benefitted from some better organization to make it more cohesive.

Overall I just don't think I can pass judgement on this book because I just don't understand a lot of the parts about dark matter. Maybe if I had been able to look at the included diagrams it may have helped my understanding, but so far I'm very much out of my depth of understanding.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Quest of Heroes, by Morgan Rice

Okay, so this week we're looking at another fantasy novel from those anthologies that I purchased so long ago on Amazon. A decision which I'm rapidly coming to regret if I'm completely honest. A Quest of Heroes is the first in somehow a mind-boggling seventeen books of a fantasy series, which I have been left with absolutely no desire to continue reading whatsoever. I've actually been left wondering how there are seventeen books in this series which is a little curious but I suppose that's neither here nor there.

I want to start off by saying that I tried to give this book a fair shake, I really did. I had concerns in the beginning, but I wanted to give it a try and figured there was a chance it would turn out okay. Unfortunately the last chapter left me rolling my eyes with frustration and I kept putting my kindle down. There isn't anything particularly offensive or wrong about this book, it's just not terribly well written and...I really don't have a better word to describe it than dumb.

The book starts out okay as a pretty standard fantasy story. We meet Thor, a shepherd boy who's finally turned fourteen and is old enough to join the Legion, a unit of the king's army that's basically the only path of social advancement in the kingdom. Thor dreams of joining the Legion and eventually the Silver, the elite corps of knights, along with all the honor, titles, and lands that comes with it. Selection day approaches and a group of the Silver visits Thor's village to choose boys to become recruits for the Legion. Thor's three older brothers, and his father's favorites, are selected, but Thor is left behind. Despondent, Thor goes into the forest where he meets a druid, is told he has to find his destiny, unlocks a mysterious magical power that lets him kill a monster, and he runs away to join the Legion despite not having an invitation.

It's pretty standard fantasy fare. Thor's the Chosen One. No, seriously, Rice uses the actual words Chosen One. I wasn't entirely sure if it was meant to be satirical, but I'm pretty sure it was being played completely straight in the book. And honestly? I'm not as bothered by what happens afterwards in the book. Now, in this book they don't explicitly state that Thor's the Chosen One but, come on. He's a simple shepherd boy that everyone thinks looks like a noble and has mysterious magical powers. Do you seriously think he isn't the Chosen One? I kind of wonder why Rice didn't have at least a confirmation that Thor's the Chosen One in the first book. That's kind of a thing that you do to set up the rest of the series, but maybe because the series is just so long they decided to keep it for later. Anyway, kingdom, prophecy, magic sword, chosen one, all the rest, you know the drill by now so that's enough about that.

If the book had just been a standard fantasy quest, in the vein of Lord of the Rings or Belgariad, it would have been okay. I probably wouldn't have cared for it much because I'm honestly kind of burned out on those sorts of books, but it would have been okay. The problem is so much of the writing is inconsistent or the other things Rice decides to throw in are just...dumb and the last chapter takes it to new heights of ridiculousness. A good example is things start appearing in the narrative that weren't there before. At the end of one chapter Thor goes off to meet someone in a courtyard and in the next chapter he's looking for a door with a red handle. I went back and double-checked because I thought I could have missed it but no, there was no door with a red handle mentioned in the previous chapter. I'm aware that's kind of nit-picky of me, but it's a little confusing when things show up in the narrative that weren't there before. Or Rice forgot things they already put in the book, such as Thor getting drunk. There's a scene in an alehouse where Thor admits that he's only had a few sips of ale before, except at a wedding in an earlier chapter Thor drinks so much ale he ends up having a hangover the next morning. So, he's already been drunk. We as the readers have seen it and I didn't get the impression Thor was trying to lie because Rice acted like it was the first time he had alcohol again. It just feels like they weren't paying attention to what they had and hadn't already put into the book.

Another thing that bothered me was some of the comments made about Thor, specifically the fact other characters joke that he hasn't bedded a woman yet. Might I remind you, Thor has just turned fourteen and probably isn't old enough to shave, much less have a tumble in the hay. If he was eighteen it'd be slightly more believable for him to be drinking and wenching and so on, but fourteen seems a little to young for that. It just felt weird to me. A further part that doesn't make sense is the scene where the king has to choose a successor from among his children, in accordance with the traditions of the kingdom. His first son isn't eligible to inherit because he's illegitimate, his second son is shifty and evil so he's out, and his third son is a drunkard so he's not a good choice either. That leaves his daughter and his son, both of whom are fine candidates, although his last son is about two years younger than his daughter. The weird thing is he decides that his daughter should inherit because she's slightly older, despite there not being a tradition of female inheritance. Honestly this doesn't make sense to me because it's not like he has to abdicate right away or anything. The king's planning to remain on the throne for a number of years before his heir will have to take over. So his youngest son being only fourteen isn't really an impediment. Actually it may be a benefit because that means you'll have the longest time to groom him and prepare him for the responsibility of leadership. It's just the most backwards way of designating a leader that it doesn't make sense.

The thing that really annoyed me was the very end of the book which I'd feel bad about spoiling except since this is the first of seventeen books I'm hardly talking about anything significant. Basically Thor has a vision that the king is going to be poisoned and he rushes back to prevent it from happening. Except he's told the king's away and won't be back until tonight for the feast. So, you know, pretty serious situation, right? King's in danger. Thor's the only one who can help, ticking clock and so on. And by this point in the book it's already been established that there are people who believe Thor and recognize he has magical powers. Heck, a whole stadium of people saw him use magic once and they had the first of many awards ceremonies for the things he's done. So there are people who if he told, ''Hey, the king's in danger.'' they'd believe him.

So what does he do? Does he go for help? Does he let his friend, the king's youngest son know? Does he raise the alarm? No. He goes for a joy ride all day with the knight he's squire for. (Again, another person he could have told about this.)

...seriously. The king is in danger. Time is of the essence. And the Chosen One goes on a joy ride for most of the day and then unnecessarily has to rush back to save the king in time. You didn't think that maybe being close by so you could warn the king in advance might have been important? Even for a fourteen year old this seems particularly dumb. Anyway, Thor manages to get back in time, nobody believes him, then he sees the poisoned cup and knocks it out of the king's hands. People are shocked but then a dog drinks the wine and dies so they realize it's poisoned and then they accuse him of being the poisoner because he knew which cup it was in. Which makes absolutely no sense because he's been personally rewarded by the king twice before already for acts of bravery. He's friends with two of the king's sons. An entire stadium of people witnessed him use magic and know he has special powers. Furthermore he rushed trying to warn the king that someone was going to try to poison him ahead of time. And yet everyone immediately assumes he's the poisoner and they throw him in prison? It just doesn't make sense. It's like the author had to create a conflict for the next book to resolve really quickly and so they threw something together and it feels incredibly haphazard.

This book starts out okay but starts going downhill and by the end it's just an absolute mess. In the last chapter it feels like everyone's forgotten everything Thor did over the past two weeks or so and he's suddenly got no friends at court and nobody trusts him. The story is inconsistent and it feels like Rice wasn't keeping track of what they had and hadn't already put into the book which is a serious issue from a continuity standpoint if nothing else. I wouldn't recommend reading this book and I'm certainly not going to expend the time and effort to read the other sixteen.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, by Matt Taibbi

This week I'm looking at something that's a little outside my usual bailiwick but is definitely in my recent vein of fairly recent (or in this case contemporary) events which often have to do with the world of high finance. The Divide is an expose by Matt Taibbi which shines a light on the increasing disparity between the treatment of the rich and (mostly) white versus the poor and (mostly) black, Latino, or other minorities. I will admit that there are some problems with Taibbi's book, such as a reliance on anecdotal evidence and a descent into polemics. However, Taibbi does claim and at least provide some supportive evidence of a larger, structural problems plaguing the American justice system and a worrying trend that we are moving towards greater inequality. Of course, Taibbi's dire predictions conclude we're moving towards a Soviet-style inequality and repression of basic freedoms, but it's enough to merit taking a very serious look at.

Taibbi divides his story into two parts, focusing on the extreme ends of life in America. On the one end, at the highest echelons, we have the investment bankers, lawyers, and hedge fund managers. Almost entirely white, and male, exclusively upper class and educated at the very best universities, these individuals enjoy almost unprecedented levels of wealth routinely measured in the billions. And, as Taibbi states, they routinely are involved in massive frauds, deceptions, and out and out robberies which led to the economic crisis of 2008. The exact damage done by the economic meltdown is hard to measure and it was truly global in impact, but it's measured on a magnitude of trillions of dollars. The most the government has done, however, is to levy massive fines for behaviors ranging from fraud to insider trading to money laundering for drug cartels and has followed with absolutely no criminal prosecutions of corporations or individuals. To be fair, even Taibbi admits that many of these crimes are difficult to understand, much less track and then prosecute, but the consequences for committing them are effectively non-existent.

On the other extreme you have the mostly non-white poor, recipients of welfare and increasingly treated like a criminal class in the United States. Taibbi provides examples of the African-American community in New York City, who are routinely charged with minor violations such as causing a public disturbance, a violation so broad it can include charges such as blocking pedestrian traffic, blocking vehicular traffic, and making an obscene gesture. Almost anyone can be charged with this offense, but the majority are poor and minorities who are thrown into the soul-crushing bureaucracy of the American justice system. Or there are the illegal immigrants, the majority of whom are simply trying to make a life in a better place but are unable to obtain licenses and in some cases end up being deported for being caught driving without a license. Or the thousands of cases of people on various forms of welfare whose basic protections against improper search and seizure are overturned for the ''public interest'' and in some cases are prosecuted for fraud for sums of barely over $400 and sometimes for mistakes made by the state rather than the individual. If there are no consequences for gross impropriety at the top of the scale, there are draconian consequences for doing practically nothing at the other end.

Taibbi exposes a very deep and very disturbing problem which strikes at the cherished principle of equality before the law in the United States. Certainly there hasn't been true equality before the law, that's almost certainly been a myth since the country was founded. But there was at least the strength of the myth and examples, even fairly recent ones, of corporate executives going to real, actual, factual prison for wrongdoing. However Taibbi argues that as the wealth gap has increased, the disparity between justice for rich and poor has become greater and is headed towards a dangerous pattern of corruption and repression.

Taibbi's evidence is largely anecdotal and for two reasons. One, it is far easier to inflame indignation at the injustice of systems by providing examples of people committing billion dollar frauds and getting off scot-free as well as state officials going through people's underwear drawers to see if they really deserve to be on welfare. Two, to provide an exhaustive list of the numerous examples of injustice, which definitely seem to be happening on an institutional scale, would take a lifetime of work and would probably be too late when it was completed. Yes, Taibbi's work is incomplete, but it certainly raises important questions and should prompt further research into the field.

Taibbi also takes both Clinton and Obama to task for executive policy decisions made under their administrations. Taibbi places the decisions to deregulate Wall Street and the campaign of ''welfare reform'' which stripped basic civil liberties away from people who are on welfare squarely at the feet of Clinton in an attempt to curry favor with fiscal conservatives. Taibbi also doesn't spare Obama for the extremely tepid response from the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission in the wake of the 2008 crises. It certainly doesn't pull any punches and no one can blame him for being soft on Democratic leaders. But at the same time his vitriol spills over into the most silly of things, such as making fun of the name of the CEO of Lehman Brothers before its collapse, Dick Fuld. There are certainly plenty of things bad about Dick Fuld, but do we really need to make fun of his name?

Overall, I'm of mixed opinion on this book. On the one hand, it exposes both the corrupt excesses of Wall Street and its associates, with their massive frauds that carry absolutely no penalty. Even if they're caught. On the other, it exposes the soul-crushing reality of being poor in America and the treatment as if you're a member of a criminal class that needs to be kept in line. Something that I, as a member of upper-middle class, petite bourgeoisie America have no experience with at all. On the other hand, the book is highly polemical and shrilly warns that we're in danger of reaching Soviet Union levels of inequality in the near future. I hesitate to say that isn't possible because it almost certainly is, but I feel he may be exaggerating a tad for rhetorical effect. And while it highlights the problem there doesn't seem to be terribly many solutions. There's a lot of room for more research and definitely a lot of work to do.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Sorcery Code, by Dima Zales

This week I'm going back into the anthologies of fantasy that I purchased so long ago and reading the next one in the list. I've also come to the conclusion that all of these books are the first in their series which were offered in an extremely cheap bundle to induce readers to then go after about a dozen different fantasy series. However, as I've got plenty of other books to keep me occupied, I'm content to just check out the first books and see if they're any good. Unfortunately so far they've been okay at best.

The Sorcery Code and its series are set in the world of Koldun, which is ruled over by powerful sorcerers who supplanted the nobility as the ruling class about two hundred years ago. Magic requires extremely complex coding and mathematical skills, vaguely similar to computer coding. People with aptitude are trained by the Sorcerers' Council and become part of the ruling elite, while the majority of the population lives in poverty. Further complicating matters is a drought that's been going on for numerous years, further affecting the lower classes. The Sorcerers are rightly afraid that the peasants may rise up in rebellion.

Blaise is not like most of the Council and actually cares about the plight of the common people He has worked on a number of projects which would make magic more accessible to the people and has recently embarked on a project to create an intelligent object that would enable practically anyone to utilize magic like a sorcerer. What Blaise did not expect was the object to take the form of a beautiful woman, whom he quickly names Gala. It seems Blaise managed to pull an actual consciousness from the Spell Realm to the Material Realm and give it...for lack of a better Gala's existence challenges everything previously known about magic and further threatens to topple the decrepit structure of the sorcerers' power.

I think the worst I can say about this book is that it's very generic. It utilizes several well-used plotlines and stays fairly true to form without adding a unique twist. There's the Pygmalion Plot which has been used from Pygmalion to Weird Science and beyond and this book offers very little variation. There's the Rebellion Against Authority in which a corrupt and unjust system must be rebelled against and replaced with something better, again practically ancient. And finally there's Gala's infatuation with everything, having literally been born yesterday, which is also very by the numbers. And that's really the book's greatest problem, it doesn't really stand out in any particular way.

Everything about the book feels fairly standard, off the shelf, mass produced stories. The paint job and maybe a few of the details are a little different, but otherwise it feels like it rolled off of an assembly line. I fully expect in a few weeks this book will totally lapse from my memory and if asked I'll be hardly able to say anything about it. If these plots interest you personally, much like my strange fascination with robots, then it may be up your alley, but for me it just felt terribly generic. Nothing particularly wrong with it, but nothing that makes it stand out either.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute, by Zac Bissonnette

This week I'm taking a look at something a little...unusual, although it's definitely tying in with my interest in economic bubbles and especially the disasters that occurred in the 1990's when America apparently lost its goddamn mind. And there is perhaps no better example of this than the Beanie Baby craze which emerged seemingly out of nowhere and then disappeared just as quickly. TY Inc. remains the largest producer of plush animals in the world, and owner Ty Warner has remained a billionaire. However, Ty is extremely reclusive and has not given an interview since 1996 and company provides even less information than, as the author points out at the beginning, basically saying, ''Hey, remember how Beanie Babies were a thing? We made those!'' So tracking down information on this subject, as well as the origins of the mania, can be rather difficult but Bissonnette manages to make at least some revelations into the darker sides behind the adorable stuffed animals that took America by storm.

At the center of the story is, of course, Ty Warner, but the image that emerges is of a deeply troubled man with numerous problems including an overinflated ego. (As people like to point out, there's a reason the company's logo is a heart with Ty's own name in it.) On the one hand, Ty Warner was a savvy salesman and an absolute perfectionist who agonized over every stuffed animal design to create the cutest and best quality animals for the lowest price. And the idea behind Beanie Babies was, initially, rather ingenious. Adorable bean bag animals purposely understuffed so kids could pose and play with their animals and small enough to slip into a backpack to bring to school to show all their friends. From a creative standpoint Warner's perfectionism was an absolute boon. However, perhaps largely of his childhood, Warner was also extremely emotionally manipulative, trying to gain power in every situation and beating the smaller retailers he exclusively sold Beanie Babies to in submission because of their dependence on a hot-selling item. His ego made him write everyone who ever helped him on his journey out of the story of his success. From his father to his girlfriends to a young girl who helped him design Spook the Ghost, Ty erased all of them from the narrative and made the success of Beanie Babies all his own.

The story of how Beanie Babies became a sensation is somewhat more complex. Part of it was just the nature of the animals themselves. Warner, never satisfied with his products, would update models to make them better. Quackers the Duck originally came without wings, for example, which was later rectified. Other animals, such as Humphrey the Camel, were difficult to produce and if they weren't terribly popular were discontinued. However, in a brilliant marketing twist, salespeople and later Ty began calling these discontinuations ''retirements'', which made the ending of a product more exciting for people. And as people began building collections of Beanie Babies there became a market for rare or hard to find Beanie Babies, especially earlier models of popular animals or retired animals. Originally a toy for kids, moms began building their collections and, through the power of eBay, prices for rare animals began climbing to ten or twenty dollars and eventually grew to hundreds or thousands of dollars.

As word of people actually making money off of buying and then reselling $5 stuffed animals, especially helped by the media and persistent hype, the whole thing became a speculative bubble. Because Warner distributed exclusively through smaller retailers and kept supply artificially low, demand remained incredibly high and people would pour thousands of dollars into purchasing Beanie Babies, hoping to get fat pay offs in the future. People actually touted Beanie Babies as investments as good as stocks or bonds and people, especially poorer people, poured money into accumulating hundreds or thousands of Beanie Babies assuming they'd secure the well-being of their children. Ironically the main purchasers of Beanie Babies ceased to be children and became exclusively the collectors, who immediately sealed the animals away in plastic bins to await their ''inevitable'' rise in value.

However, like so many collectible booms of the late 20th century, the Beanie Babies proved to be an absolute bust. Coins, baseball cards, and comic books all went through speculative bubbles which ultimately crashed. In the case of baseball cards and comic books specifically, the early ones from the 1930's and 1940's were thrown away in large numbers which made copies that survived fairly rare. Because the supply was limited, the price could rise considerably to the point a pristine copy of Action Comics #1 is now worth millions of dollars. Collectibles produced in the 1980's and 1990's, however, were churned out by the thousands. Comic books, baseball cards, and even Beanie Babies were produced in such large quantities that the supply was basically unlimited. Furthermore, with everyone catching the collecting bug, they were all kept in pristine condition which means they're all worth...nothing.

Overall this book is really interesting and there is a certain amount of morbid fascination in people assuming $5 stuffed animals would be as wise an investment as blue chip stocks. (Although the burst of the dot com bubble also brought the wisdom of that investment choice into question.) There is also something heart-breaking about people assuming their collection of Beanie Babies would provide financial security for their son afflicted with cerebral palsy. And while Ty Warner has built an empire in plush animals, he remains an intensely lonely person. I think it's pretty interesting if downright tragic.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 7, 2016

So Not a Hero, by S.J. Delos

This week I'm reviewing another superhero book, in this case So Not a Hero, by S. J. Delos. Like the rest of superhero fiction that I read, this is a subversion or reinterpretation of classic superhero stories rather than a traditional story. As much as I've tried to get into mainstream superhero comics, every time I try I end up getting so confused and disoriented that I end up giving up trying to understand it whatsoever. Fortunately books are a medium I seem to understand and so books about superheroes are far more approachable to me than the more traditional comics.

The plot of So Not a Hero is a lot like Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, at least in its general outline. You have a supervillain who ends up switching sides and becoming a hero, which is met with some initial suspicion before they finally earn people's trust and confidence. It's a pretty simple redemption story but also a timeless enjoyable classic. In this case our main character is Karen Hashimoto who is super-strong and nearly impervious, although so dense she weighs about eight hundred pounds. Karen was previously the supervillain Crushette, right hand woman of the infamous Doctor Maniac, but after a two year stint in prison she was paroled and has spent the past six months trying to keep her nose clean and out of trouble. When Karen helps local superhero Mister Manpower, member of the team known as the Good Guys, round up a gang of supervillains and protects some bystanders in the process, Mister Manpower suggests she try out for an opening on the team. Karen is initially doubtful but accepts his offer and much to her surprise finds herself a member of the Good Guys and fighting crime.

The biggest problem I have with this book is that I feel it ends up trying to do too much and as a result doesn't give any one thing appropriate focus. Just talking about Karen's reformation which has already started before the book and her eventual acceptance by society as a hero would be enough to fill up one book without going into other subjects. Instead, Delos seems to have taken a soap opera's list of melodramatic plot lines and done his very best to try and shove every single one of them in. Unfortunate encounter with an ex? Check. Someone dying of cancer? Check. Hot steamy romance? Check. Strained relationship with a parent? Check. Someone having a baby? Check. Revenge? Check. If Delos had focused on one, or maybe two of these plotlines then I think it would have been more manageable and they'd been far more developed. Instead we have a ton of little plots, some of which are put off until the inevitable sequel, which left me feeling a little unsatisfied.

I could go to great lengths complaining about the Nice Guy TM character who whines about how nice girls never notice him and don't truly appreciate his feelings, and also the fact that Karen feels like she actually has to apologize to him for not recognizing his feelings. The fact that this plotline, like so many others in this book, receives so little attention that I feel like it's not even worth my going onto a full length rant about it. However, I will give you the short version: Listen up, ''Nice Guy''. You can't get mad at a girl for not recognizing your feelings if she doesn't know what your feelings are. She's not a mind-reader for crying out loud! You've got to communicate with people! Also, people don't owe you anything for you being nice to them, especially not a relationship and/or sex! And stop ruining fedoras! That's my hat, damnit!

There's also a part where people are discussing Karen's costume for superheroing (Can you make that a verb? I just did so let's assume yes.) that I feel ambivalent about. On the one hand, it kind of sort of satirizes female costumes in comic books and how they're little more than underwear in some cases. Karen points out how ridiculous this is and gives a firm no on her costume having anything remotely like a tit window a la Powergirl. On the other hand, Karen suffers clothing damage quite a few times during the course of the book, the rationale being that her impervious aura doesn't always include loose clothing around her body. So while her underwear might shrug off a plasma blast as easily as she does, her yoga pants won't. Karen actually gives up at one point and fights a villain in her underwear because she doesn't want to destroy the new dress she just bought. I'm not sure how I feel about it and while it could be satire, I'm not sure if it's quite clever enough. (Always a challenge with satire.)

Overall the book's okay. I didn't have anything that made me outright hate it or want to throw my kindle against the wall, but I feel like anything that So Not a Hero does, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain does slightly better. Confessions I feel has the benefit of a tighter focus on Mechani-CAL's redemption story, while So Not a Hero focuses less on Karen's redemption and more on throwing in soap opera style melodrama. If you like melodrama then this is definitely a book for you, and I don't think there was a point I wanted to stop reading it, but it definitely left me with some mixed feelings.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert

This week I'm taking a look at Children of Dune, the third in the Dune series and I think I can safely say that this is the book that's making me finally give up on the franchise. I swear, I can't count how many times I was about ready to fall asleep while listening to this book or was bored to tears. There are some exciting bits to this book when things actually happen and the universe is still deep and complex, but so much of the time is spent with people sitting around and talking. I just wanted to yell ''DO SOMETHING!!'' at the characters for well over ninety percent of the book that it's almost a surprise when they actually do. I've been warned by friends who have been down this path before that the books just get worse from here, so I think I've found my point to pull out.

Plot-wise Children of Dune actually has some great potential. Paul Muad'Dib Atreides at the end of the last book has disappeared into the desert, leaving his children Leto and Ghanima under the care of his sister Alia who is ruling as regent until Leto comes of age. And there are actually several main plots going on. First of all, the ecological transformation of Arrakis is proceeding at an accelerated pace to the point people can live without stillsuits and people actually drowned, a concept unheard of before. Normally this would be a good thing but apparently the great sand worms, the creatures that actually produce the melange spice necessary for all space travel and only found on Arrakis, are dying off because of the environmental changes. So, that's a pretty big deal, right?

Well on top of that you have corruption seeping through the empire as Alia becomes consumed with power and shows absolutely no signs of being willing to give up the regency and may be trying to supplant her nephew on the throne. And House Corrino, the former rulers of the empire, are involved in their own plot to assassinate Leto and Ghanima and take back command of the empire by force. There are a ton of things going on and yet all these potential plotlines are basically squandered in the book.

The reason for this is this book suffers so much from telling instead of showing it's not even funny. And this is a problem that Dune as a series has had. The first book it was kind of bad, but I felt like there were enough scenes that weren't people standing around talking or people having internal monologues that it managed to hold up pretty well. Especially with its rich backstory. Dune Messiah on the other hand, took a turn for far more introspection and navel-gazing which was frankly pretty darn annoying but I managed to soldier my way through it. With Children of Dune pretty much the entire plot is told to us rather than being shown. The characters spend large amounts of time talking about all the cool political machinations and ambitions going on, Alia's corruption, the changes to Arrakis, but we're never really shown them. Not to an extent I'd like, anyway. There are occasional scenes with action, but most of the time important things are discussed before and after they happen, but when they actually happen it's entirely off screen.

I can't say exactly how much of the book consists of people sitting in caves or other locations talking about things, including interminable statements on religion and politics, but it certainly feels like a good ninety percent of the book. A lot of the time it's two people, but sometimes to change it up it involves three people or just one person talking with themselves. Either way it's a bunch of people standing or sitting around and having conversations about far more interesting things going on. As I said earlier, it makes me want to shout ''DO SOMETHING!!'' and that's really not a good sign in a book.

And you know, I could almost forgive some of the craziness. Stuff like genetic memories, the weird anti-technology bent, and even Leto turning into a sand worm. (Yes. This is legitimate thing.) Like weird and crazy stuff I have seen and accepted before and I'm sure I will accept it again. But this book commits the greatest sin of all, being incredibly boring. With so many potential ideas it feels like a waste of time and effort and gives me no real reason to keep reading, or in this case listening to, the series at all. Honestly you're probably better off just reading the first book and keeping it at that.

- Kalpar