Book Review – The Laundry Files

The Laundry Files series

by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives (2004)
The Jennifer Morgue (2006)
The Fuller Memorandum (2010)
The Apocalypse Codex (2012)
The Rhesus Chart (2014)
The Annihilation Score (2015)
The Nightmare Stacks (2016)
The Delirium Brief (2017)
The Labyrinth Index (to be published 2018)

It’s a mixed blessing for a fan of an author when that author has a really good series of stories that happens to be rather open-ended. There’s always the chance for another entry in the series, but you feel compelled to read them all. And there’s the problem that the stories might have a specific order in which they should be read. Miss one, and you lose a lot of background information in the next. Or the author has to keep adding annoying infodumps to fill the reader in.

With his “Laundry Files” stories (the above-mentioned novels, plus a handful of shorter works), Stross has managed to avoid those problems for the most part. While the order given is both the order of publication and the order in which the stories take place, they can be read and enjoyed separately. A couple of the later entries (Score, Stacks, Index) even center on side characters.

Speaking of which, the main character is Bob Howard, an office flunky in Britain’s secret government agency that deals with the “occult”. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time (though to Bob, it’s the wrong place and wrong time), he rises quickly through the ranks to become the de facto head of the agency.

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Never Forget

It seems that every day, there’s another stupidity, outrage, or stupid outrage coming out of the Trump Administration.

Corruption in the Cabinet, bribery (anyone else notice that just a few days before Trump started making nice to China’s ZTE telecom firm, Chinese banks gave huge loans to a development project in Indonesia that just happened to include some Trump properties?), jingoistic displays, the headspinning lies coming from his various flacks and mouthpieces, the on again, off again of the Korea “meet and greet”, his tyrannical pronouncements that strongly imply that he really believes he is above the law, the utter inhumanity of his immigration policies….

It’s impossible to keep up. Each new one pushes the last one to the back.

So let’s take a step back, and look back on the most important one. Not only is it the formal cause of all the others, they all pale in comparison to it.

In 2016, Russia, our most important geopolitical rival, conducted a sophisticated campaign of information warfare on the US. This is a fact.

Their intent was to influence the presidential campaign in favor of Donald Trump. This is also unquestioned.

During the campaign, and also during the transition period, a number of key members of the Trump campaign and his staff had many suspicious contacts with known Russian agents. This is also demonstrably true.

After the inauguration, when the Russian interference was made known, the Trump administration refused to impose penalties on Russia. And they have also refused to take steps that could prevent it from happening again.

The Trump White House has also worked constantly to undermine and discredit the investigation into the connections between his campaign team and Russia.

And the Republicans in control of Congress are so scared of their constituents not re-electing them that they refuse to do anything about it.

If we were in a shooting war, they’d all be arrested for treason.

Starbucks

It’s been all over the news (at least the news I’ve been reading) this week how Starbucks closed everywhere for “anti-bias training”. This was prompted by an incident where two guests at a Philadelphia Starbucks were arrested for, apparently, loitering. It happened that those two gentlemen were African-American, so it quickly became yet another instance of being arrested simply for the color of one’s skin.

There’s been much commentary about how these sorts of training things are really ineffective. True, perhaps, but you have to give Starbucks credit for at least making the effort without prompting – unlike some other businesses one could mention.

And really, it wasn’t the corporation’s fault. *One* barista called the police. Starbucks could have just told them that their services were no longer needed, and they should seek employment elsewhere. And what about the two police officers? It should have been obvious that there was no reason to arrest anyone. Is the Philadelphia PD going to have more mandatory training on “How to Handle Situations Where an Arrest Is Not Clearly Warranted”?

Personally, I suspect some of people’s griping about Starbucks is residual – and irrational – hatred of the corporation itself. Starbucks was the first real coffee shop chain to go national (as far as I can recall), and all the hipsters and coffee snobs from the Pacific Northwest were jealous. They griped about how Starbucks was selling overpriced coffee and driving local coffee shops out of business. Funny how there didn’t seem to be any coffee shops of the Starbucks variety in the first place. Sure, you had luncheonettes and Dunkin Donuts. But they weren’t places where you could nurse a latte for an hour while working on your latest novel. And now, there actually are more independent coffee shops around.

Another common gripe (since that first one isn’t very relevant anymore) is that Starbucks over-roasts (i.e. “burns”) its coffee. I have two things to note about this. First, take a look at Starbucks’ menu. It’s all “lattes” and “cappuccinos” and “Americanos”. A latte is espresso and milk. An Americano is espresso and hot water. The vast majority of their menu is espresso-based drinks. And guess what? Espresso is the darkest, most roasted of coffee forms. It’s naturally going to taste “over-roasted”. Secondly, how many people order a “plain coffee” at Starbucks? They’ll always add in milk (of one sort or another) and flavorings. You need a strong, dark roast to cut through all that and give you some sense of coffee flavor.

Me? Yes, I’m a Starbucks regular. There’s one a half mile away from where I live. Across the street from that Starbucks there’s an independent coffee shop. There’s another one around the corner from that Starbucks. But they are both closed by 6 pm. The Starbucks is open to 9 pm. If I want an after dinner “dessert” coffee on a weekend, where else am I going to go?

Movie Review: The Paradise Makers (2017)

The Enterprise is at an unspecified starbase for a little R&R, and to pick up a few new crewmembers. The character development and backstory comes to a halt when new orders come in. The USS Bowfin, a scout ship, was sent off to do an anthropological survey, and they are well past their reporting deadline. Kirk and crew are dispatched to find out what happened.

The briefing en route fills in the details of the Bowfin’s mission. The planet they went to was pretty much uninhabited, except for a large tropical archipelago. Rather uninteresting, except for some oddities that warranted a closer look.

Looks like it’s pretty much a case of Mutiny on the Bowfin. But if that’s all there is, we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we.

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Overrated – Underrated 3: Simpsons Guest Star

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock somewhere, you probably have heard that The Simpsons recently became the longest running prime-time scripted TV series, beating out Gunsmoke for that honor.

Of course, real TV fans know that the honor simply refers to the number of episodes. Gunsmoke was a full hour show while The Simpsons is only half an hour. So it will be a good long time before the latter can produce the total amount of airtime that the previous has to its credit.

Over its many years since it began as a simple cartoon on The Tracy Ullman Show, a heck of a lot of celebrities have appeared on The Simpsons. Some provided the voices for characters (Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob is one of the recurring appearances), others played themselves. With so many guest appearances, there have got to be some who are Overrated and others who are Underrated….

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BOOK REVIEW: The Taking of K-129

The Taking of K-129
Josh Dean
Dutton Books
Copyright 2017 by the author

Those of you old enough to have lived through Ancient History may recall hearing stuff in the early 1970s about mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. One of Howard Hughes’ companies contracted the building of a huge ship, the Glomar Explorer, to see if these nodules could actually be scooped up in any way that could possibly be practical and profitable.

Years later, it came to light that the mining operation was actually the cover story for collecting something even more valuable and outrageous: a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine.

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Baseball’s Other Issue

There’s been a lot of talk over the past few off-seasons about “pace of play” issues. Dawdling during the game has caused the average game time to grow by an excruciating five minutes or so over the past couple of years!

In an effort to speed things up, rules have been introduced that turn the Intentional Walk into a simple “go ahead and take your base”, compel batters to stay in the batter’s box during an at-bat, and limit the number of “meetings on the mound” a team can have.

This is all well and good, but there’s something else that needs attention. As the number of strikeouts continues to rise, it’s not just the pace of play, but the lack of play that’s affecting the game.

Percentage of Plate Appearances Ending Without a Ball In Play:
(strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and intentional walks)

2013 – 29.2%
2014 – 29.4%
2015 – 29.4%
2016 – 30.7%
2017 – 31.7%

2018 (as of the start of play on April 30) – 33.3%

One in three plate appearances ends with nothing happening in the field! The fielders could take naps out there, and very few people would notice. Much of it is due to the significant rise in strikeouts, which is the downside of increased use of bullpens and more “swinging for the seats”. It affects the pace of play too; a study from a few years ago found that it takes 4.5 pitches on average to strike out a player, compared to an average of 3 when the out is recorded on a ball in play.

I’m not sure what can be done about this; tinkering with the strike zone and pitcher’s mound are obvious places to look.

But something probably should be done. Speeding up play is nice – but there need to be actual plays first.

ADDENDUM (5/2/18)

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On the Matter of GQ and The Bible

So the editors over at GQ have started a bit of a kerfuffle by listing The Bible as one of the books you don’t have to read.

People who seem to have missed the point of their essay have leaped to the defense of that anthology (well, they’ve written counterpoints to it), which have gotten responses and comments from anti-theists1 who blame religion for everything that is evil in the world (including how their favorite sportsball team lost their last game).

Rather than a dismissal of The Bible as a boring piece of junk, the GQ essay actually is a version of an “Overrated-Underrated” essay. The writers list some 20 books that they feel aren’t really worthy of being included in the list of “Books You Must Read Or Else You Are Somehow Lacking As A Civilized Human Being” – but also books that they believe are more deserving of being read in their place.

They’re rather on target with their short assessment of The Bible. It’s really boring in spots, and is often confusing and even contradictory. You can live quite well without ever having read it. But one cannot deny its influence on philosophy, the arts, and society – so it most certainly deserves to be listed as one of the “Great Books”.

Having read seven of the books on their list, I do have some quibbles with their reasoning behind some selections. Others, I agree with wholeheartedly. Tolkein really does spend too much time in his Lord of the Rings trilogy worldbuilding instead of telling an exciting story. But heck, it’s their collective opinion. And instead of getting into arguments with anyone over just how racist The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is2, I’d rather be reading a good book.

One other point that they touch on quite briefly in passing is the whole absurdity of “checklists” of Stuff You Absolutely Must Do Before You Die. 100 Books, 1000 Movies, 200 Places – if you spend your time reading, watching, or traveling, you’d never get anything else done – even sleeping! I’m so far behind on the list that I figure I’m going to live forever!

There is actually only one of these “bucket lists” that I’ve come across that seems actually worthwhile. Instead of sitting alone reading books or watching movies, or traveling to a place just so you can say you’ve been there, it’s a list of things to DO.

40 Things Every Drunkard Should Do Before He Dies
By Frank Kelly Rich

I think it a sad sign of the times that, in this age of entrenched nannyism and political correctness, a person is more likely to be judged by what he refrained from doing than what he actually did. It’s no longer important that you climbed the mountain, but rather how many boulders you didn’t “accidentally” dislodge and let roll down on the less daring hunkered in the valley below.

Fortunately, imbibers have historically been immune to popular opinion, so hence this list. If you manage all forty3 before you take a barstool at St. Peter’s Pearly Gate Lounge, you may feel secure in the fact that you’ve lived a rich and full life, even if only the boys and girls down at happy hour think so. And when you do belly up to that big open bar in the sky and the bartender asks: “What sort of life did you lead?” you can look him right in the eye and say, “Pete, baby, I’m glad this is eternity, because I’ve got a helluva lot of stories to tell.”

Notes:

1. An “atheist” is someone who does not believe in the existence of a supreme deity. An “anti-theist” is someone who also doesn’t believe in the existence of a supreme deity, but also believes – often quite loudly – that anyone who does believe in one is an idiot.

2. This argument has been happening since the day the book was published. It’s only superficially racist. Read – and understand – the whole thing, and it’s actually against racism.

3. I’ve done six – so far. And I’m not going to tell you which ones….

Surfing the Blue Wave

With each passing day, more and more corruption in the Trump administration is revealed. And there are more and more examples of Trump’s unsuitability for office. Social movements from student demonstrations against gun violence to teachers’ strikes are all over the news. More and more members of the administration, and Republicans in Congress, are leaving. Those on the Left politically have to be happy about their prospects for the mid-terms.

But Election Day is six months away. That’s a long time. It can be too easy to lose momentum or become complacent, and if one hopes to at least check the worst excesses of the current administration, that could lead to disaster.

What’s a Democrat / Liberal / Leftist to do?

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