The Miracle of Minneapolis – The Atlantic

I found The Miracle of Minneapolis at The Atlantic fascinating, and not just because I am fond of the Twin Cities after coming of age there. I’m far from an expert on urban planning but I’m interested in the problems associated with cities, including the social, economic, educational, and quality of life issues. The Twin Cities do suffer from the climate, but truthfully you adapt and the cold weather just isn’t that much of a burden for most folks. I had never heard of the story about the destruction and rebuilding of the St. Anthony Falls and was unaware of the redistributive tax policies that have succeeded in being the tide that raises all boats. It’s a nice example of how to transcend partisan theoretical arguments in order to accomplish something.

What grabbed me most, though, was the blurb at the end about Seoul’s importation of some of these tax policies. When I was doing visas, I saw several applicants employed by the state or city who were applying for professional visas to study and learn about urban planning in the U.S. I enjoy visa work in part because I know what an impact it can have on people lives, and I confess it was thrilling to see the effects of our nation’s visa policies working this way too.

The Great Tax Wars

I just finished “The Great Tax Wars” by Steven R. Weisman, a book that was given to me by a friend several years ago. I met this friend during the Foreign Service selection process and he mentioned how much he enjoyed reading tax history. I accepted his offer to send me a copy and have read it off and on over the last 4 years. Although it took me a long time to finish, that’s an indictment of my lifestyle rather than the book itself. It would get packed up in a move and end up deprioritized when unpacked. It’s an interesting read though and recommended for those interested in U.S. political history as much as tax junkies.

I enjoyed this book on several levels. The obvious history of U.S. federal taxation legislation is in and of itself interesting to me. The author succeeds at personalizing these “tax wars” through the politicians fighting them and setting a rich stage incorporating world events and social trends of each era. Conflict and war are at the root of tax policy and he demonstrates the effect warfare has on national finances, then the lesson legislators attempt to learn from each incident. It’s a fun ride through familiar history (Civil War, the Industrial Age, WWI, the depression) with so many familiar names (Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, William Jennings Bryan) but the tax war focus reveals another facet of these events, tied together over time, that results in a particularly interesting and readable coherency.

I’ve collected another shelf of financial histories that I’ve resisted reading until I finish The Great Tax Wars. It isn’t hard to read, I just kept forgetting to pick it up. I’m excited to move on to some of these others now.

I am Alive – Movie Review

Just finished watching “I am alive“, a most excellent documentary on the survivors of the plane crash in the Andes in the early 1970s. It’s most famous because of the anthropophagy of the survivors. 16 of the 45 passengers and crew survived 72 days at altitude before 2 of them hiked out under incredible circumstances.

I’m a sucker for these stories, with Shackleton’s Endurance and Steven Callahan’s Adrift being among my all-time favorite stories. Indeed, even this blog’s namesake qualifies as a close kin to these feats of survival. This documentary is recommended for its use of survivor narrative and high-quality reenactment in a style very similar to “Touching the Void“, another bold classic of the genre.

I get emotionally overwhelmed when I read or watch these stories of normal people pushed beyond civilized limits simply by the refusal to die. Time and again we see the theme of their performance motivated not by an innate sense of heroism but by the simple calculation that the only other option was to quit and die. This indomitability of spirit fascinates me.

Highly Recommended

Falling Free & The Martian: Book Reviews

I just finished up the second of two fabulous of sci-fi books, Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold and The Martian by Andy Weir. Falling Free was a gift from a Sekrit Santa last year that I finally got around to reading. I happened to read a little bit about The Martian in this interview with the author and the exuberance for the book motivated me to splurge and read it immediately. I inhaled it and rank it up there with Wool.

Falling Free won a Nebula in 1988 or ’89 and was Hugo nominated, all for good reason. It takes place in a relatively small world, a mining platform in deep space, and only has a handful of main characters. But the character development and use of the limited environment (there’s a little bit of action on the surface of a nearby planet) combine for an immersive read. It’s a story about  exploitation and innocence that never even risks falling into preachy territory. A galaxy-renowned engineer is hired on to teach space-welding and fabrication to a new construction team. When he arrives on site, he learns that the “team” is 1000 kids genetically modified to live in zero-G atmospheres, including genetic mods that eliminated their legs but grew an extra set of arms from their pelvis. He soon learns that part of the reason the station is in deep in space is to avoid laws against such manipulations. He then discovers that the kids aren’t even considered human; they are corporate property, technically classified as post-embryonic tissue cultures. This is the stage for the ethical and moral arc that carry the story.

Bujold’s limited dialogue is very natural and engaging and she captures personality well. Falling Free is a quick read but I hate to label it an airplane book since that seems like damning with faint praise. It’s a quality story with enough sci-fi in it to keep it fresh but the moral and ethical dimensions of the tale ensure that it will stick in memory as a great book.

The Martian is like Wool in more ways than one. It takes place in a recognizable world, is full of tension and excitement and humor and mystery, and was self-published by an unknown author before going on to widespread popularity. It is yet another excellent example of how communication technology contributes to a world very different from the one I grew up in. The title refers to an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars after a catastrophic incident with his research team. He has to figure a way to survive 4 more years until the next scheduled research team lands on the planet. The book is written in 1st person, his logbook, a device that eliminates the sure knowledge that he survives the ordeal. He has plenty of obstacles to survival and while he’s a pretty sharp astronaut, he isn’t perfect. The combination of the harsh environment, limited capacity to forge survival, and a few bits of luck both good and bad make this an engrossing, exciting tale. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and read it every second I had outside of work and sleep.

Both of these books are highly recommended, but if you were to pick just one for now, go with The Martian.

Phones in Korea

The transition to Korea went fairly easy but getting my iPhone hooked up was far more difficult than I was anticipating. I was foresighted enough to pay for unlocked iPhones last year when we moved to the U.S. and I’d hoped that it would be as easy as walking into a shop and signing up. I should have known that there would be more to it when I learned that it is more or less impossible to buy a SIM in Japan to put in your own phone. Thankfully it wasn’t that bad here but it took a few weeks to find the time to get everything worked out.

We had to first register our handsets physically with the networks in Korea. I can’t say I entirely understand what that means even though I was successful in getting a pre-paid card installed in mine before my family arrived. Of course, there are only certain shops that are capable of handling unlocking and registration and it just wasn’t easy to get there during working hours. My frustrations mounted when my first month of pre-paid expired and I went to the local phone shop to switch over to a monthly data plan. Apparently the network I was initially registered with was incompatible with the monthly data plan I intended to register for, so of course I had to get it reregistered. At this point, my wife had moved here and thankfully she was able to take care of getting our phones set up and ready.

I guess this is a pretty anti-climatic story but the long story short is that it IS possible to get a U.S. unlocked iPhone set up here, it just takes some time during normal business hours. Truth be told, if I wasn’t working, I’d have been able to get it straightened out a lot faster.

Status Quo October 4

Not a while lot going on, just same old, same old. Have moved out of training and am actually doing work in the new position which is a welcome change. Have been busy with some overtime the past couple weekends. We’ve got our first guests due to arrive in about 10 days so we’re rushing to get the final bits and pieces of the house put together. Have been riding my bike a bit more. Weather is cooling off and is fantastic biking weather, we’ll see how long it lasts until I’m whining about the tears caused by the brittle winter winds.

This post brought to you by a desire to avoid going long stretches without any activity. Salut!

Chuseok Ends

I’ve enjoyed the extra long Korean Thanksgiving holiday. Reduced our “stuff” in serious ways, both via a huge pile of trash and about 20 boxes of stuff (LOTS of books) for the garage sale coming up in a couple weeks. Took a couple bike rides and am ready for my first bike commute tomorrow. It’s getting cooler so we’ll see how well my natural insulation holds up. I’m very happy to be incorporating a 25 minute bike ride twice a day but I will miss the morning chats on the shuttle bus and the opportunity to catch up on some news podcasts. The sacrifices one must make.

The house is mostly unpacked and organized, I’d say it now looks more like a messy house than an un-unpacked one. Well there is the large exception of “my” room where I’ve got the computers and instruments. I promised to go through it during the holiday but somehow didn’t get to it. Maybe I can get it done by Saturday, otherwise it might not get done in time for the garage sale. It’s hard for me to give stuff up but I’m facing up to the reality that many of the projects I had planned just aren’t going to happen, especially in this lifestyle. And we have too much stuff to drag it all over the world every couple years. So I’m culling old computers and my academic library. There still are many activities that I’m struggling to let go of but it’s foolish, really, to keep clinging to the idea that I’ll devote the time to learning enough electronics to be able to tinker with stuff. It’s time to focus on the few things that I’m most interested in and let the rest go to someone who actually could make use of it.

In the meantime, I need sleep.

Sometimes, the b’ar eats you

Oh look at that, another post by me lamenting my abject failure to maintain any posting regularity and recommitting myself to posting more.

A few days after my last post here, the Eminent Spouse and Child arrived with the Eminent Feline. We had a whirlwind weekend of introductions and then they jetted back to Japan for the rest of the summer. I had high ambitions for the 10 weeks or so it was going to just be me and the pets. I was distracted with family, then with getting myself situated both in the house and at work and lost my focus on blogging here.

I was able to get off the base and into the city the first weekend to get my phone set up (we’ll return to this debacle later on) and took some pictures as part of the 100 Strangers project. I discovered 100 Strangers via my friend Tom Brouns, who incidentally has a phenomenal series of posts in his “found film” series about old film he bought that turned out to have been shot in South Korea soon after the war ended. I’ll put up these pictures as I can too.

But after that weekend, I took delivery of my stuff sent out of Nigeria and Japan, so spent a couple weekends unpacking and organizing that. Was nice to get my chair back! Then I was off to Japan after our National Day Celebration (I dressed up as Uncle Sam) for the weekend. I got back, got sick with an nasty office bug, and before I knew it, the family was returning and I’d barely explored the city. I did get out a couple times with friends for meals and whatnot but realized that you really can’t accomplish much during the week, so it’s essential to be effective and efficient on weekends.

A week before the girls were scheduled to arrive I was able to volunteer for a TDY assignment to the Solomon Islands, which was a terrific trip, both professionally as well as personally. It sucked that I missed their homecoming but as it turned out they got hit by typhoon and ended up delaying their their flight back by a couple days anyway. Right after they got back the rest of our stuff arrived from the US so we’ve been busting ass to get it all put away. The one possible complaint I could make about our house is that we don’t have much extra space, so we’re are aggressively reducing. It’s painful for me to admit defeat and get rid of many of the books I’ve long intended on reading, but its way past time to acknowledge the fact and stop dragging this stuff around.

So there’s lots to catch up on!

The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield | Al Jazeera America

The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield | Al Jazeera America.

THIS is what scares me most. Our national intelligence collection strategies in the current climate of fear of terrorism is a powder keg.

2013 Books read list

Sheesh, I’m way behind on this. Here’s a list of the books I read last year.

  1. Columbine:  Excellent look at the student attacks on the Columbine  High School. Non-prejudicial writing examines the perpetrators and discusses the aftermath with the benefit of time and distance. Includes discussion of the investigation into the attack as well as some of the hyperbole, myth, and misinformation about what happened on that day and why. Highly Recommended
  2. No Easy Day: The insider account of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.  Great writing about the assault itself but the first half of the book covers the authors’ life as a SEAL and isn’t nearly as well written.  See Lone Survivor for a much better discussion of the entrance process and life as a SEAL narrative.  Recommended for the account of the raid on OBL.
  3. The Unthinkable: Well written look at the human response to disasters and emergencies. Thought provoking in a reflective way and likely to inspire readers to consider their own response to such situations.  Interesting in both its look at human nature as well as the impact it has on one’s own  emergency preparedness.
  4. Second & Third Shift (Wool Prequel): Books two and three of the Wool prequel trilogy.  Fun stuff.  If you haven’t read Wool, do so! Then read these.
  5. The Godfather: A classic that I’d always wanted to read and finally picked it off the shelf.  Good story. One of the last physical books I’ve read.
  6. War -Sebastian Junger: Junger’s account of life in a remote FOB in Afghanistan. Powerfully written, an excellent account of what its like to live, fight, and die in these places.  See also Tim Hetherington’s photo book “Infidel” and the documentary “Restrepo”. These three media accounts cover the same topic at the same time and pack a powerful punch. All are highly recommended.  Note: Hetherington was killed while covering the war in Libya in 2011.
  7. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet: Interesting look at the physical structure of the internet. The author travels the world to physically visit the data exchanges, witness the landing of undersea fiber optic cables, and explore the literal tubes under the streets that carry the data we’ve all come to depend on.  Interesting in a geeky way and recommended.
  8. The Greatest Game Every Played: One of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s a true golf story of an old U.S. Open match and the local amateur who competed against the titans of the golf world but even non-golfers would find it an amazing and enjoyable story. I’m not afraid to reveal that it brought tears to my eyes. Highly recommended.
  9. Pirate Cinema: Cory Doctorow’s fiction tale examining the impact of restrictive corporate copyright control on the media (music and movies, primarily) of our social lives. It’s a pretty obvious diatribe against current political trends towards increasing copyright controls but its fairly readable and enjoyable.
  10. Bloodbrothers: An early Richard Price novel but no less awesome for it.  A story about young men coming of age. It isn’t the content of Price’s novels that are so compelling, it’s the quality with which he ushers us into the world of the characters. He’s easily the best writer I know of.
  11. A Canticle for Leibowitz: A Sci-fi Classic that I’ve been intending to read for year. Finally got around to it. Worth it for that old-school, fear-of-nuclear-annhilation feel that it has.
  12. Old Man’s War: Future Earth gives you the option to join the military at the end of your life. Nothing is known what happens after you join except that you never come back to earth and no one ever hears from you again. Well written, fun story. Recommended.
  13. America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy: Decent book looking at the work of the Foreign Service. Especially recommended for family members and friends who may be interested in what kind of work Foreign Service Officers and Specialists do.
  14. Good Intentions – Elliott Kay:  I guess this genre is called “urban fantasy”. Rather readable story about an every day guy who gets mixed up with some demons and angels. Decent story but mostly reads like a geek fantasy: nice but under appreciated guy ends up with multiple beautiful girlfriends who love having mind-blowing sex (and don’t mind that he has multiple girlfriends), friends who fight for him, and he ends up saving the world.
  15. The Ghost Brigades (Old Man’s War #2): More from the Old Man’s War series, looking at the special forces. Good stuff
  16. SuperFreakonomics:  More good stuff from the Freakonomics guys. If you like Freakonomics, be sure to check out their podcast.
  17. The Mike Murphy Files (and other Stories): I got this as part of a StoryBundle. Gritty noir-style writing. Fun.
  18. The Walk up Nameless Ridge (short story): Good short story by Hugh Howey, author of Wool.
  19. Spin – Robert Charles Wilson: I think I got this via StoryBundle as well.  Reminded me a bit of Oryx & Crake. Enjoyable.
  20. I, Zombie – Hugh Howey, short story: I like zombie stories but am not a rabid fan or anything. Would say that this is fantastic, written from the zombie viewpoint. It’s actually the view of the people who end up conscious and aware but utterly incapable of controlling the zombie body or communicating with the outside world. Horrifyingly awesome. As good as World War Z.
  21. The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How we Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves: I was disappointed in this.  Check out my review on GoodReads. Reading that review now, I didn’t realize how much I guess I hated this book.
  22. Wool Omnibus (re-read): I re-read Wool and the Prequel trilogy before diving into the final book.
  23. First-Third Shift (Wool Prequel: Re-read)
  24. Dust (Silo #3): The final chapters of the Silo saga. I know some where disappointed with this finale (“underwhelming” is a word I heard frequently) but I thought it was well executed. People complained about the finale of Breaking Bad too.
  25. The Remaining: Enjoyable series examining the collapse of society in a zombie breakout. Looking forward to Book 5 this year, which might be the last book planned.
  26. The Remaining: Aftermath
  27. The Remaining: Refugees
  28. The Remaining: Fractured
  29. One Second After: Fiction but based on official analysis of the aftermath of an atmospheric nuclear explosion that destroys the entire electrical system (electricity and all machines that use it in any fashion). Good read but a bit polemical and you can feel the author is trying to make the point that we need to ramp up our national posture to ensure that such events never happen. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t make efforts to protect from such calamities but it’s a bit Cassandra-ish.
  30. Indian Creek Chronicles – Pete Fromm: Great story recommended by dad about a guy’s winter spent in Montana protecting salmon eggs. He signed up for the job without any preparation or even awareness of what he was getting into.  A great coming of age tale with some pretty neat tales. Highly Recommended.
  31. The Last Colony (Old Man’s War #3): More of the Old Man’s War series. Perhaps not as good as the first two but still enjoyable. If you like the first ones, these are worth reading.
  32. Zoe’s Tale (Old Man’s War #4)
  33. The Human Division (Old Man’s War #5)