Thursday, June 14, 2018

June's Book: The Dictator's Handbook

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith
Politics (2012 - 124 pp.)

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith set out their theory of leadership in The Dictator's Handbook that, like many mixed qualitative/quantitative political science theories, is applicable across democracies, autocracies, municipalities, corporations and other organizations. It is that there are small coalitions and large coalitions in charge, that the leader has to please his or her coalition in order to stay in charge, and that the more people in the coalition, the more spread-out the benefits from the leader are. Populations are thus divided into interchangeables, influentials and essentials (the coalition). Essentials are rewarded first, then influential, then interchangeables.

This is best illustrated using examples:

Andy Autocrat leads a resource-rich, but education-poor, postcolonial dictatorship. Andy requires only the support of 20 top military officials, and 3 key foreign investors (including governments), to stay in power. However, Andy's country has 23 million taxpayers. Andy can then raise taxes, pay off the military leaders and foreign investors, pay what little Andy must to quell any rebellion, and then keep the rest.

Dale Democrat has been elected to the highest office of a small but wealthy democratic nation. Dale requires at least 51% of the vote in at least 51% of the electoral districts in order to be re-elected; a little over 25%. In Dale's country of 5 million registered voters, that equals 1.25 million votes. Dale needs to appease these voters, who can easily switch sides, by enacting good public policies. "Keep[ing] the rest", and Andy Autocrat can, would be frowned upon decisively.

The Dictator's Handbook is thus simultaneously a cynical explanation of every leader's objective - to stay in power - but also a tribute to democracy. By appealing to leaders' selfish instincts, we need to make that selfishness work for us, so they argue - and in democratic states, that means

Most of the rest of the book consists of applications of these concepts. Topics from foreign aid (in which it is easier to buy off dictators), to corporate governance (in which the authors advocate for greater coordination among minor shareholders), to many others all siphon through the small coalitions and large coalitions that make up the groups leaders need to please. Whereas autocrats desire many interchangeables (people eligible to become coalition members) but few essentials, democrats typically end up with large groups of both.

Tip for anyone reading this book: have an encyclopedia or similar source, even just Wikipedia, nearby either during or after reading The Dictator's Handbook. The source material is so broad there's no realistic way any reader, myself included, knows the details of all the settings and characters Bueno de Mesquita and Smith introduce. I tip my hat to them for braving such eclectic source material, although this also gives rise to the book's greatest flaw: there is no way any two professors, even combined, can be experts on so many subjects. Therefore, it is inevitable that some of their overviews will be eclipsed by the more comprehensive work of specialists in those fields. (Especially the WWI and WWII discussions, but those are topics for another day.)

Ease of Reading: 3
Educational Content: 8

Monday, May 14, 2018

RateYourMusic vs. Goodreads: A Comparative Analysis

One of my favourite social media sites is RateYourMusic. I've rated over 2,300 albums, and over 300 movies (2,323 albums and 310 movies as of May 14, 2018). A significant portion of the album ratings date back to my nearly lifelong love of all things metal, but my collection is eclectic.

On August 27, 2013, I created a Goodreads account. Then I did nothing with it. This morning, I received notifications asking me to sign up for the 2015, 2016 and 2017 reading challenges. (I assume I lost them.) Naturally, I addressed the 4-month old notification to sign up for the 2018 reading challenge, listing 20 books. (More than Book a Month, but not quite Book a Week.) I then attempted to do a rating blitz, essentially a huge number of ratings all in one go in order to establish that yes, I have read a lot of books.

One of the benefits of RateYourMusic is exactly what it says on the tin: rating music. Community aside, what you're there to do is enter numerical ratings into a gigantic database that covers, hypothetically, all recorded sound. Realistically, the community focuses on classic rock, hip hop, indie rock and metal. Many popular albums have thousands of ratings, all of which aggregate into an overall rating. That overall rating isn't always accurate, but usually, it gives you an idea of how critically acclaimed an album is.

Recorded sound is so recent, though, and popular music that we think of as popular is even more recent. My grandfather (1918-2011) owned 78s. The album as we know it is a creature of the '60s and beyond.

Books go back a long way.

As soon as I started rating books, I realized:

  • How do I compare fiction with non-fiction? When do I say that a science fiction novel is better than a book about science? How can I ever know that? Rating fiction versus non-fiction is the equivalent of rating albums versus university lectures.
  • How do I compare different eras? Which Shakespeare plays are, or are not, better than last week's New York Times #1 Bestseller?
  • How do I rate books I read as a child, teenager or young adult? Are my memories of, say, hating The Indian in the Cupboard back in 1994 even relevant to how I might view it now? (No, I will not be reading that book for this blog.)
  • So many books have such high ratings on Goodreads. I presume this is because anyone willing to invest the hours and hours necessary to finish a book will probably like it, whereas spending 45 minutes listening to an album while cleaning the kitchen isn't much of a sacrifice. When seemingly every fantasy novel has a 4+ rating, and the only negative ratings are on books people had to read for grade-school novel studies... what's the point?
I'd be curious about the idea of porting my music rating ideas to my favourite medium for years. Now I know.

Books just can't be rated like that.

Thankfully, my "Ease of Reading/Educational Content" system on here avoids having to figure out books' merits. Instead, it seeks to answer the age-old question: is the author doing what he or she intended to do? I'm also willing to bend the definitions of "ease" and "education", but only sometimes.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

May's Book: Seventh Son

Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card
Fantasy (1987 - 272 pp.)

This is my second Orson Scott Card review on this blog. The first was Ender's Shadow, all the way back in June 2012. This is the first book for the Alvin Maker series I've reviewed, in large part because it's the first one in the series and the first one I've read.*

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Seventh Son takes place in an alternate history of the United States of America in the 1700s-1800s in which the US had only started, and in which the folk magic of the time is all real. "Heartfire" is the idea of there being fire in our hearts/souls, taken literally, allowing Peggy to track people using an early modern heat sensor. Out-of-ordinary, or out-of-body, events are debated: are they from the devil, or simply inaccurately reported? England has a Lord Protector (9), suggesting that perhaps the Restoration under Charles II never occurred, although there are Crown Colonies as well. The map at the start of the book shows just how different the US could have been.

Throughout Seventh Son, characters search for meaning. Among Card's wittier moments - and there are many of them - is when Taleswapper explains his journal entries to Alvin Miller Junior, the series's protagonist, and one of them is from Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's greatest achievement, in this world, is the creation of the word "American". (154-155) The idea that a word can unify people is one of Taleswapper's most powerful observations.

Much of that meaning comes through conflict between the drolly named preacher Philadelphia Thrower, of Anglo-Scottish origin, and the Millers. This symbolizes a conflict between paganism and Christianity generally, at least in Seventh Son's versions. "Paganism" generally, the agglomeration of beliefs and superstitions various characters hold, is placed in stark contrast to Christianity... until suddenly it isn't. Alvin Junior has an experience like breaking the ridgebeam: is this the work of the devil, or a simple coincidence? If a preacher like Thrower says it is the former, he vindicates the "pagans'" beliefs. If it is the latter, how did it happen? The sparkled snakelike beast that visits Thrower as "the Visitor" later in the book complicates matters further. Most mainstream Christian faiths would assume Thrower had been sleep-deprived when he saw the beast, yet another character, named Armor of God(!!!), sees the beast as well. Throughout Seventh Son, the combination of frontier, faith and fantasy constantly bends reality.

Fear of the unknown expands into the constant worry that "Reds" (meaning to be an intentionally archaic term for Native Americans,** although I had initially thought they were communists) would scalp anyone who ventured into the woods at night. Those scalps would then be traded to the French for metal. Why the French would place monetary value on scalps is something no character is able to explain - which immediately calls into question whether it's even happening. Indeed, not a single "Red" or Franco-American is ever seen in the entire book. Tales like these force the reader into the unknown-ness of the American frontier, where every tale can be believed or disbelieved. By the end of the book, Alvin Junior possessing magical power becomes more realistic than the French holding ill intentions toward Anglo-American or Swedish-American settlers.

Yesterday, when I was walking by High Park, I saw a sign that appears to immortalize the book's iconic opening scene: the Millers' horse-drawn carriage nearly sinking in the river. Alvin Miller is a seventh son, and his wife Faith is pregnant with what could be the Millers' seventh son. That makes Alvin Junior a seventh son of a seventh son: the powers this confers upon him are vast. Alvin Senior's eldest son, Vigor, aids greatly in helping the carriage out of the river. During my walk in High Park yesterday, I came across this sign:


Had the person who wrote "VIGOR" on the sign read Seventh Son? I certainly hope so.

Seventh Son is a page-turner, yet like while I read Card's classic Ender's Game so many years ago, I never stopped thinking.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 4


*The edition I own, found here, also includes the 1988 sequel Red Prophet. I have not yet read Red Prophet due to the Book One Effect.

**In Canada, where I live, we would say "First Nations".

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Book One Effect

This is the first in a series of musings I'll be making over the next month or so on reading, writing, and the cozy little place I've carved out for myself in the literary world. It's fitting that the first post of this month is The Book One Effect.

What is it?

I am statistically extremely likely to read a disproportionately high number of Book Ones of any given series.*

How does it happen?

My unofficial but very firmly held requirement for this blog is that I don't review multiple books by the same author in the same calendar year. The reasoning behind this is simple and elegant: there have been thousands of great authors in English-language** history, and they all deserve a turn. It's all so grade school-ish. This rule is usually beneficial, although it's currently having the annoying side effect of making me delay any review of Neil Gaiman's American Gods until 2019 at the earliest, as I reviewed Coraline back in January.

Is it a good thing?

Overall, I think The Book One Effect is something to celebrate. It makes me intimately involved with various iconic characters' origin stories. It also forces me to consider parts of series as standalone novels. Asking "could this part of the franchise pull its own weight?", outside of simply being an X-Brand book, is a good start for a lot of pop cultural literary analysis.

Notable examples include:
  • The Douglas Adams books (I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 2012, but didn't read Book Two until March of this year)
  • The Terry Goodkind books (I read Wizard's First Rule in 2012, and still haven't read Book Two)
I don't have a notable counter-example. Maybe this is a sign that in a post-Archie McNally, post-Harry Potter, de facto post-A Song of Ice and Fire world, I'm not meant to read series. I kind of like that. It forces me to see something different in everything I read.

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*This may be the most adverbs per line of any sentence I've ever written.

**For whatever reason, I've never thought to read a book in French for this blog. I may dabble in some Polish at some point, though.

Monday, April 30, 2018

April's Book: The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
Alternate History (2002 - 763 pp.)*

The Years of Rice and Salt is a highly ambitious alternate history. In 763 pages (approximately 240,000 words), Kim Stanley Robinson recreates the last 700 years of world history as if the Black Death had wiped out 99% of Europe's population. In Robinson's vision of an effectively Europe-less world, various Islamic civilizations and China assume dominant roles, including those of discovering the Americas. Later, Indian and Japanese confederacies vie for power, as well as the North America-based Hodenosaunee League. Robinson's characters are reincarnated through the ages, their names conveniently always starting with the same letter: B and K for the deuteragonists, and then a third main character I. Any K is strident and strong-willed, whereas any B is a voice of stability and restraint; I is a supporting figure that lends a thoughtful helping hand.

Such an undertaking, naturally, is split into ten sub-books ("books"). At the end of many of them, the characters reconvene in the bardo, although as time wears on, the real world and the bardo merge. Robinson uses numerous calendars, but most notably, any given year can have 621 added to it (to coincide with Mohammed's revelations in 622) in order to figure out when the events happened in the Western calendar.

1400s-1500s

The ten books fly around the globe but always go forward in time. In Awake to Emptiness, Bold is a scout in Tamerlane's army who discovers a depopulated Hungarian village shortly after the Black Death. This opening scene is stark, gritty, and the most exciting part of the whole book. Bold later meets Kyu, a slave boy in Somalia, where they travel medieval Asia on one of Zheng He's ships. Bold and Kyu's trip to the bardo at the end of the book is a shocking, fun way to transition toward the rest of The Years of Rice and Salt. The next book, The Haj in the Heart, starts with K's continually thwarted attempts to overthrow the local order, including as a tigress, before the philosopher Bistami travels from India to Mecca to what would have been Bordeaux. This is the only book in which a major character is a non-human, and the only one in which the hierarchy of reincarnation makes the reader seriously wonder whether the characters will end up in Hell. These are my two favourite books, largely due to how action-packed they are. As much as they sold me on The Years of Rice and Salt, I felt sad at the end that I had experienced the best parts 188 pages into a 763-page book.

1600s

Ocean Continents and Warp and Weft can be considered together. Each is a "first contact" story outlining what Chinese and Japanese colonial encounters with indigenous North and South Americans could have been like. I would have loved to have seen these each be twice as long, possibly as the expense of the two longest books (see lengths below). The "first contact" story in a Europe-less world is fascinating considering how much of our globalization narrative is shaped by European explorers' and settlers' journals. A Chinese or Japanese journal would have been a gem. The Alchemist takes place in contemporary Samarkand, and although its philosophizing occasionally gets in the way of the action, the main character Khalid's rush toward scientific discovery after losing his hand for a fraud conviction makes the reader feel like time really is moving forward. "The Alchemist" also centers importance on Central Asia, which will become a battleground as time wears on...

1700s-1800s

In Widow Kang, Robinson moves back to China, where Kang Tongbi and her second husband Ibrahim attempt to reconcile Buddhism with Islam. There is more philosophizing, but Robinson also focuses on the harrowing journey Kang and Ibrahim take away from the heart of Chinese civilization, into the dusty plateaus where they will have to discover themselves. Robinson made "Awake to Emptiness" come alive in part by using a Journey to the West-style storytelling style. It is surprising that he did not try to make "Widow Kang" match Dream of the Red Chamber. The Age of Great Progress opens with the storming of Travancori (Indian) ships at Constantinople, showing the growing ascendancy of the Indian Subcontinent and the rivalry it builds with Dar al-Islam in advance of the great war that is to come. The rest of the book focuses on the Industrial Revolution within Travancore, which has the irony that one of the United Kingdom's most notable colonies in real life should industrialize the soonest in the alternate world. The English are even mentioned, albeit in the form of the Sultan of Constantinople having a breeding program to maintain the recessive pale skin, red hair and blue eyes of the specimens.

1900s

The War of the Asuras is Robinson's crack at the World Wars, in one 67-year go, as "the Long War", primarily between China and Dar al-Islam. Travancore, Japan and the Hodenosaunee League are kingmakers in this global conflict that cannot truly produce a victor but that, like the real World Wars, leads to a mountain of casualties. It is the shortest book in The Years of Rice and Salt, which is a shame because the subject matter is fascinating. If there is anything I dislike about it, it is that the global warring all occurs in one long war, meaning there is no time for an interwar book. The interwar period was so fascinating in real life, a reader can only imagine what Robinson could have done with it. Its particular blend of the bardo and the living world is my favourite as well, when characters start questioning whether they are alive, Waking Life-style.

2000s

Nsara is set in Firanja (Europe) after the Long War, in what would have been the present day (2002, as that is when The Years of Rice and Salt was released). It follows Budur, a young woman from Turi (in real-world Tyrol) who settles in Nsara (in real-world coastal France), where Kirana becomes her professor and lover. The depopulation of men due to the Long War has resulted in an upswing of feminist thought, including regarding the causes of the Long War. There is also a conference in Isfahan, Iran to stop atomic bomb research, which causes a renumbering of the calendar to start at the date of the conference. The First Years moves back to China, this time in the new calendar, which sees K once again seek to overthrow the government, and B become a wise teacher... how much has changed in 600+ years?

If all of this gets confusing, here's a timeline, including which of the characters and settings are modelled on those from real life.

The books are, in order:
  1. Awake to Emptiness (88 pages)
  2. The Haj in the Heart (100 pages)
  3. Ocean Continents (48 pages)
  4. The Alchemist (120 pages)
  5. Warp and Weft (38 pages)
  6. Widow Kang (82 pages)
  7. The Age of Great Progress (72 pages)
  8. The War of the Asuras (34 pages)
  9. Nsara (124 pages)
  10. The First Years (56 pages)
The Years of Rice and Salt is very much an intellectual history, contrary to critics' assertions that it is a social history. Robinson is very little concerned with the development or experience of architecture, poetry, food, music, municipal planning, visual art, or any of the assorted little joys that make worlds real. That is no knock against the book, as it does not need any of those to function. What it does have, that most social histories do not, is a beautiful map at the start of each book. These are very helpful, and are constant reference points.

The world is such a vast place, and history is so long, that if anything, Robinson could have included more civilizations. Most strikingly, Robinson's prognostication that a general European plague would have all but annihilated Christianity ignores those notable Christian civilizations that weathered the Black Death in our timeline. Within Europe, Eastern Germany and Central Poland went virtually untouched by the Black Death. Robinson neither mentions Germany or Poland at any point nor explains why his version of the Black Death would not only be greater in potency, but also expand farther geographically. Outside of Europe, Ethiopia had been one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa for centuries by the time Bold and Kyu arrive near there, yet it is never mentioned. Similarly, Armenians are mentioned as ethnic minorities in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere, yet their Christianity is never mentioned. Christian remnants would have made for fascinating characters - could B and K have been, at some point, incarnated as Bolesław and Konrad, or as Beata and Katrina?

It is also unclear why, out of all wars Robinson's timeline could have re-enacted, the World Wars would figure so prominently. The farther after the alternate history starts, the less likely an event should be to resemble our timeline, yet 20th-century wars (right on down to trenches, poison gas and discussions involving an atomic bomb) are in The Years of Rice and Salt. Where is Robinson's Thirty Years' War or Seven Years' War? Why is there no Robinson version of Charles V or Louis XIV? Again, there are space constraints. The Years of Rice and Salt could have realistically been two books at its length.

Nonetheless, The Years of Rice and Salt is a fantastic read. Its first half kept me the most riveted, and Robinson is at his best when keeping a book under a hundred pages. I was sad to see the book end, though. I want to see Bold and Kyu reach nirvana!

Ease of Reading: 3
Educational Content: 4

*I usually use pinpoint page citations for books of this type. However, in the case of a book as intricate as The Years of Rice and Salt, I could cite nearly the whole thing for some proposition or another. The sub-book names, settings and character names change so often that each event's place in the book should be evident.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

I'm a Quora Top Writer for 2018!

On April 24, Quora staff informed me that I am now a Top Writer for 2018!

I have over 1,300 answers, in such varied topics as History, Literature, the NFL, the NBA, Zootopia, Law, and Industrial Relations.


Fittingly, this blog is featured on my profile, as well as my January 2018 Coraline review in one of my answers.

Matthew Gordon Books is just a part of my social media!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

March's Book: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
Science Fiction (1980 - 166 pp.)

This is my first time reviewing a Douglas Adams book since I reviewed the first in this series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in August 2012. At the rate I'm going, I'll finish the fifth and last book in 2036, just before I turn 50. Suffice to say my five-book set might last me a surprisingly long time.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is filled with laughs, much like all the other Douglas Adams work I know. Arthur Dent is well into his journey now, having heard Vogon poetry and having learned the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. It's rather difficult, though, for him to acquire tea. In the first few pages, Arthur encounters a machine that will tailor a drink to him, which first insists on making him an unidentifiable, horrible-tasting concoction and then saying "Share and Enjoy!" When Arthur requests tea, the machine wonders aloud why anyone would want to drink boiled leaves. When Arthur requests milk, the machine asks, "squirted from a cow?" (154-156)

Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is convinced he is the coolest person in the universe, naturally ends up being the one to be plunged into the Total Perspective Vortex. Anyone else exposed to this nefarious machine/well would be so devastated by the amount of perspective s/he would suddenly have that s/he would nearly perish. It's not so great to be able to see your surroundings - and yourself - in every light, after all. Not for Zaphod, though. His guide, Gargavarr, says, "And you saw the whole infinity of creation?" To which Zaphod replies: "Sure. Really neat place, you know that?" (199)

Much of the second half of the book takes place in the eponymous restaurant, Milliways. Adams includes a charming story on how the restaurant came to be (213), along with the scientific difficulty in ensuring that a restaurant can always be at the end of an ever-expanding universe. The solution helps the characters get there; Milliways must exist in both space and time, so people can make reservations for any past or future time.

This calls into question what the Universe really is. Thankfully, Adams provides an encyclopedia article. In 2018, it'd be a Wikipedia article, but back then it was... Grolier, perhaps? Some of favourites are some of the shortest and tersest.

AREA: Infinite.
IMPORTS: None.
EXPORTS: None. (243-244)

Finally, the book ends with Dent being asked to recommend a book. Which one, of course? "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," he said at last. (309) This mirrors Zaphod's comment at the end of the first book, when he says the characters are going to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. (143)

One of Adams's greatest pieces of wisdom is political, which almost feels out of place in the fantastical outer-space land/air/vacuum except that nothing would be out of place. So I leave you with this: "To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are also, ipso facto, least suited to do it." (278)*

Wikipedia has a better plot summary than I can provide here. These are admittedly scattered thoughts, but The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is really just a stream of hilarious highlights.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 2

*Adams also uses the word "palaver" on the same page. If I ever use it, I don't want to be told it's too obscure a word to appear in literature!

NOTE: In a bizarre similarity to another book I didn't see coming, but that may point to the popularity of Scrabble in the '80s, Dent makes the word EXQUISITE on a triple word score against Trillian, the other Earthling on the voyage. (186) This unlikely sequence of letters (there are only one X and one Q in 100 tiles) is reminiscent of the Scrabble scenes in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, released five years later.