Thursday, February 28, 2008

The bastard son of Sarah Connor and Jack Bauer

Title: Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)
Author: Philip K. Dick
Bookmark: someone else's gas receipt, which I accidentally picked up during my last 2,000 mile drive

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter. His job is to find androids who have escaped to earth posing as humans, and "retire" them with, as the parlance goes, "extreme prejudice."
"He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand
uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into
greater entropic ruin."
J.R. Isidore is a "special." The radioactive dust that fell from the sky, bringing an end to World War Terminus and initiating a panicked emigration of humanity to colony worlds, has had a detrimental effect on him and his genes. He is not allowed to emigrate or breed, as he might contaminate the remaining clean human gene pool, and his reduced intelligence earns him the title "chickenhead," which is rather shameful, but still better than "anthead."

We get to see this world through the eyes of both men, allowing us to figure out an awful lot that neither of them know, until the final chapters when they actually meet for the first time for the briefest of exchanges.

Deckard is on the trail of eight escaped androids who made it back from Mars, where they are issued to emigrants as fieldhands and houseworkers. Two had been retired by the senior bounty hunter in the district before the third got him with a laser. He spends the entire book in a hosptial bed, and we never actually see him. Deckard's boss is pushing him to wipe out the other six in 24 hours, to keep them from getting time to escape or form a new plan. The entire book spans a little more than 24 hours, with no food or sleep for Deckard, and five separate attempts on his life (there was a sixth, but it was too half-hearted to really count)

There's also an extensive subplot revolving around the widespread religion(?) of Mercerism, which promotes empathy and concern for the well-being of all living things (are androids alive? they have blood and cells, but it's all driven by circuitry. Deckard ponders this throughout the book), mainly because there are so very few of them left. When the dust fell, it killed all the owls and toads, and wiped out most of the other animals as well. Nobody seems to know what the dust is or where it came from, but owning an animal is a huge responsibility and a huge honor. Such a big deal, in fact, that there's a wide market in false animals, just to keep up appearances. Isidore works for an animal hospital that only services the fakes. Deckard owns an electric sheep. His real sheep died after getting tetanus from the wire on a bale of hay.

Before reading this book (I've never seen the movie, though I've been meaning to see/read the story for ages), I had always assumed the subtitle was a joke based on the idea of counting sheep to go to sleep. We count real sheep, androids must count electric sheep. Makes sense. After finding out about the big deal of owning an animal and caring about other living things and androids' incapacity for empathy (it's part of the test Deckard uses to determine whether an android's an android), I realized that it was more than that: People in that world dream of owning an animal, any animal. Isidore is thrilled to find a spider in the hallway. Deckard spends the entire book whipping out his Sidney's Catalog to check the prices on the real version of any animal he sees. Androids know they can't experience empathy, even going so far as trying to discredit Mercerism to prove that it doesn't exist (this is a very weird scene, because as two andys are yammering on about how it's all a fraud, two more are torturing Isidore's spider, and by extension, Isidore). Would owning an electric sheep and caring for it as a human would a real sheep prove their empathic ability and make them human?

Only two things bother me. First, we never find out why Deckard has to go out and kill the androids (except, maybe, their casual disregard for life). It might be connected to World War Terminus, but we never find out anything about that, either, despite the undeniable formative effect it had on the culture and environment (all the men wear lead codpieces to protect their genetic materials). I want to think it does, if only because every other sci-fi story involving such a large force of mechanical "life" ultimately results in an uprising by the droid army (see: The Phantom Menace; I, Robot; Terminator trilogy and series; Battlestar Galactica), but if that's the case, why do all the colonists still have them?

Second: a really big discontinuity. He determines early on that a human employee of a large corporation is actually an android (gynoid, if you want to be technical), but she's not on his list, and she doesn't know that she's artificial. Much later, she talks about interactions with other bounty hunters as though she's always known she's an android. A small flaw, but it bugged me.

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posted by reyn at 10:52 AM


Title: The Random Walk Guide to Investing
Author: Burton G. Malkiel
Bookmark: Scrap paper on which to jot down useful info from the book.

I am on a huge personal finance kick these days. I finally have a decent amount of extra income left over after bills and such, so I decided I need to do something with it. This book was highly recommended by a number of blogs I read, so I thought I'd give it a try. Boy, was it worth it!

Malkiel is a Professor of Economics at Princeton, so I suspect he really knows his stuff. Luckily, this book is written for the beginner, and is dumbed down enough that I can understand it.

He starts off with an explanation of different investment options - cash, stocks, bonds, and real estate. Then he enumerates his 10 rules:

1. Start saving now, not later. This one is by far the most important. Compound interest favors the young. Some of the blogs I've read have crunched the numbers and the difference between saving now and saving later is alarming. Here's a good and realistic example.

2. Save regularly. Keep on a consistent savings path. Even if you can only put away a little a month, do it EVERY month. One of the best ways to do this is to pay yourself first. Have a certain percentage of your paycheck automatically put into some sort of savings - retirement, investing, whatever. Put it away before you can get your paws on it.

3. Have an emergency fund and insurance. Create an fund for the emergencies that will inevitably arise. It needs to be some place where you can access it quickly - money-market mutual fund, CD, internet bank (like ING direct, which I am using), etc.

4. Find tax-advantaged options. Traditional IRAs allow you to deposit money pre-tax and pay tax in retirement when you withdraw. Take advantage of your employers pension plans (401k, 403b, etc)

5. Allocate your assets according to: time before you will withdraw (the shorter the time, the less you should have in stocks and the more in cash or other), your financial circumstances (how much you have leftover after meeting your standard of living), and your temperament (don't create a risky portfolio if you aren't a risk-taker).

6. Diversify your portfolio: More diversification = less risk. When one stock plummets, you still have others doing just fine. Also diversify by investing over time. This helps you avoid putting a ton of money into the market right before stocks plummet (like I did in May of 2000. Well, it wasn't a ton of money, but it was still money!).

7. Pay yourself, not others: Pay off your high interest debt, find mutual funds with low expense ratios, etc.

8. Recognize that no one can predict the stock market. You are far far better off finding a low expense mutual fund than trying to follow some "expert" who picks the "top stocks." Previous performance is not a predictor of future performance.

9. Invest in index funds. They are simple, cost-efficient, predictable, and don't generate a lot of taxable gains. Find a Total Stock Market fund - one that "buys and holds virtually all the stocks in the market" (p. 139).

10. Avoid: Being overconfident about your investing skills, jumping on "hot tips", feeling like you have control over your investing and can predict the market, and more.

All in all, an absolutely fantastic intro to investing. Everything is explained clearly, it's short and a quick read (only about 180 pages), and I now have a much better sense of what I should be working towards.

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posted by Kate at 8:58 AM


Monday, February 11, 2008

I have a kid?

Title: Keeper and Kid
Author: Edward Hardy
Bookmark: Receipt from the purchase of a different book at a local Half Price Bookstore.

I must confess, I love stories about the trials and tribulations of unsuspecting males who suddenly find themselves with a young kid to raise/take care of/amuse/babysit/etc. I loved Kolya and About a Boy, so I thought, why not read a book about this situation?

Keeper and Kid tells the story of James (Jimmy) Keeper, a guy who has been married once, divorced, and is not interested in being married again. He and his girlfriend, Leah, are also not interested in children.

Then, while Leah is away on a business trip, Jimmy's ex-mother-in-law calls to tell him that his ex-wife, Cynthia, is in the hospital. It's serious. Jimmy visits. Cynthia expects to recover, but asks him to take the dog they shared during their marriage. Jimmy agrees.

Two weeks later, Jimmy calls to check on the whole collect the dog thing only to find out that Cynthia has died. Then when he goes to pick up the dog, he finds out the dog has run away. However, he won't be going home empty-handed. He will be taking Leo, the three year old son he didn't know he had.

Chaos ensues.

Three year olds are apparently a lot of work. Especially ones with mothers who recently have died. Leo has a penchant for hiding things, an imaginary friend, and a lot of stuff (toys, furniture, clothes) for which Jimmy has little room. He was potty-trained, he never sleeps through the night, and he wakes up extraordinarily early.

Then Leah returns from her business trip to discover a child living in the house she and Jimmy recently bought. She leaves Jimmy. Jimmy is crushed.

More chaos ensues.

All in all, it's a good book. I was hoping for more of the hilarious "kids say the darndest things", kids do the funniest things, etc, that normally arise in these situations (well, the movie versions anyway) but that didn't really happen until towards the end of the book.


posted by Kate at 3:10 PM


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Have a Zombie, Jolly Christmas

Title: The Stupidest Angel
Author: Christopher Moore
Bookmark: a two-year old thank-you card advising that I sleep with chicken guts under my pillow

If you're buying this book as a gift for your grandma or a kid, you should be aware that it contains cusswords as well as tasteful depictions of cannibalism and people in their forties having sex. Don't blame me. I told you.

Like that? It's not even really a part of the book. That's the "Author's Warning." The real story starts on the next page:

Christmas crept into Pine Cove like a creeping Christmas thing: dragging garland, ribbon, and sleigh bells, oozing eggnog, reeking of pine, and threatening festive doom like a cold sore under the mistletoe.

...and it just keeps getting better from there. I first learned of the book at a library-related comic strip, spent several minutes at the library looking at Moore's other titles, and finally settled back on this one because it was the smallest, and I didn't have much free time in the following weeks. Now, dammit all, I have to go back and read the rest.

It's hysterically funny, both in one-liners and broader humor-of-the-situation jokes. There's so much going on I had a lot of trouble deciding what to write about here.

I could mention the spectrum of characters, which include 1) the town constable and dope fiend Theophilus Crowe, 2) his wife, off her meds and having trouble deciding whether she is Molly Michon or Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outlands (as it turns out, both are handy to have around), 3) a biologist who, distraught over his recent dumping by an unattainable and highly fashionable psychiatrist, glues electrodes to his scrotum, 4) Raziel, an angel who is deemed by various townspeople at various points in the book to be a pedophile, retarded, and/or a Terminator, and 5) Tucker Case, a helicopter pilot working with the DEA who blackmails our pot-growing lawman and responds to the discovery that a local beauty has accidentally killed her ex with a shovel by falling immediately in love, burying the guy, and diving directly into her pants.

There's the Gift of the Magi subplot, which taken with the rest of the book, creates a story that would make O. Henry, Dave Barry, and George Romero proud. There's an angel so stupid that he showed up over thirty years late to the first Christmas, and delivers the message of the coming of babe to the (adult) savior himself. Embarassing to say the least, but this year his job is the Christmas miracle, to be distilled from a child's wish. Unfortunately, the kid he picks is the one who just saw that pretty lady kill her ex-husband, who was still dressed as Santa for a holiday party. Raziel, misunderstanding the kid, and without a clear idea of where the Pseudo-St. Nick is buried, raises the entire graveyard to new-found zombie life. They are as intelligent as they ever were, though in gravely (ha!) decayed states, and they've been listening to the secrets of the living ("Gabe Fenton watches squirrel porn!" "Ignacio Nunez voted for Carter!").

I laughed through the entire book, determined to read any other Moore books I could find. The only disappointment was the last chapter, which wrapped things up a little too tidily and seems to imply a sudden 300 point jump in Raziel's IQ. Still highly recommended. Oh, and did I mention the swordfight between the warrior babe and the angel?

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posted by reyn at 12:23 PM