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.