Book review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it does take PhDs in math and physics to explain where babies come from.

In 1952 Elma York and her husband are on a weekend retreat when a meteorite wipes out the east coast of the USA. Elma flies them to safety only to realise that this strike was an extinction-level event. The fledgeling space program is thrown into overdrive, with Elma and her husband deeply involved. But in the race to colonize space, a few people are being overlooked for humanity’s future, and Elma wants to see women go into space too.

Quite simply, I loved this book.

There were so many moments where you feel the frustrations, joys, and unfairness of the 1950s. This is a very human tale mixed with the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the early space program – reimagined, of course. And while this comes across as hard sci-fi, it doesn’t make the plot nor pacing drag.

Normally I’m not a fan of the alternate history tales. Often they feel gratuitous and unnecessary, like dragging in various famous historical figures for cameos – hey look, Mark Twain is on the Enterprise!! But here the alternate history felt like it served the plot and themes well, and not just some stoned writer saying, hey, what if…

Well worth reading.

View all my reviews

Book review: Woken Furies by Richard K Morgan

Woken Furies (Takeshi Kovacs, #3)Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those feels when you have to take time off from murdering religious zealots to overthrow the establishment.

Kovacs is a one-man army stalking a series of religious zealots on his home planet of Harlan’s World. In the aftermath of one assassination, he runs afoul of the Yakuza and befriends a mercenary. The merc, Sylvie, invites him to join her team decommissioning sentient military hardware in the un-settlement zone. During this operation, Sylvie collapses and appears to take on a new personality, the long-dead revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer. Together they are being hunted by the ruling elite, a revived younger Kovacs, and the Yakuza. Their only hope is to restart the Quellist rebellion.

I’ve read all three Takeshi Kovacs novels over the last two months and have enjoyed them all. There is the entertaining surface level to the stories: a hard-boiled noir detective story, military adventure, and in this instalment a more standard thriller. Then underneath that, there is an interesting socio-political discussion that has culminated in the plot of this final novel in the series. In some respects, Woken Furies is the most in-depth look at the socio-political world Morgan has created, as well as having the most social criticism. For some, this could be a bit offputting, but I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of the series.

The only problem I had with Woken Furies was that it felt as though it was padded out a bit too much. It is significantly longer than the previous novels (probably 40% longer at a guess) and I’d have preferred it at roughly the same length as those other two. It’s a little churlish to complain about a book you’re enjoying giving you hours more entertainment, but in many ways, I’m a petty man.

A good conclusion to an enjoyable series.

View all my reviews

Killer Car Fallacy

If you read the news daily you may have noticed that humans really like hurting each other. While this popular pastime is generally on the decline, it is still at concerning levels. Whether it be the latest school shooting in the only country that happens in, or the suppression of the people by regimes in all countries, violence happens. And violence is big business.

Many people would obviously like to reduce the amount of violence occurring on our planet. They will often point out the war profiteers, the gun manufacturers, and the lack of regulation on the sale of weapons to oppressors. And without fail, there will be someone who will bravely stand up and defend these practices that facilitate (and perpetuate*) violence. These brave defenders will always use the individualist argument that places the onus on the user and not the tool. One common example used is “Do you blame the driver or the car?”

On the surface, this seems like a sound argument. A bad worker blames their tools, and all that. You see, it isn’t a killer car, it is a drunk driver or a driver who is trying to kill someone.

Of course, this is a false equivalence, a fallacy, a load of nonsense. It’s The Killer Car Fallacy.

Below is a common example of this fallacy in action during an exchange I had on Twitter. The original point being discussed was about US companies being complicit in the suppression of the democracy protests in Hong Kong via their manufacturing of the weapons of suppression. You may remember the USA from their tireless promotion of democracy in the Middle East, Vietnam, and South America.

ECuTKLBW4AE5IIU
Source.
killer cars
Source.

As you can see in my last tweet**, the comparison people try to make between a car and a weapon are nonsense.

A car is designed to transport people and their stuff in comfort, style, and with as much complaining about other drivers as possible. If a drunk driver kills someone with their car, they have misused their car and are at fault. The car can and does kill people, but that is not exactly the advertised selling point. I’m currently unaware of any car manufacturer advertising a toddler per kilometre death rate as a feature.

Compare that to a gun***, which was designed for violence. It is never being misused if it kills someone. Even if the gun was designed for hunting or target shooting, using it to hunt a human or use a human as a target isn’t a misuse in any equivalent way to the car. Unless driver training involves trying to aim the car at pedestrians since I sat my driver’s test.

target-human_silhouette
Target Shooting…

This is without getting into the larger discussion about how cars require licensing, insurance, and safety assessments. Drivers have to prove they are passingly competent – when paying attention during a test, the rest of the time, let’s just hope for the best – and be licensed. There are rules about car operation. One of the rules is about not being too drunk to safely operate the car because we recognise that’s probably not a good idea.

Car manufacturers also have some rules they have to follow. They can’t just sell a car to people without a license. They have to provide certain features to improve safety for drivers (e.g. seatbelts) and non-drivers (e.g. lead-free fuel****). These are all acknowledgements by the car manufacturers, governments, and society at large that there is a larger moral responsibility in the making and selling of cars. It’s pretty clear that there is no equivalence here.

But the Killer Car Fallacy persists. Because apparently selling weapons designed to harm people has no moral responsibilities attached.

The logical fallacy of false equivalency. (self.GunsAreCool)
by GabourKilled by a gun nut

Why am I here? You are a person who used an NRA talking point in the form of a false equivalency.

So? What is a false equivalency? It is a logical fallacy.

You are a libtard/pinko/homo, why should I listen to you? Logic rules remain the same wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Even after showing gun owners the Wikipedia entry, they will continue to use it immediately afterwards and cling to it desperately. That is why this was created.

What is the definition of false equivalency? “False equivalence is a logical fallacy which describes a situation where there is a logical and apparent equivalence, but when in fact there is none.” Wikipedia

I still don’t believe you. What is the structure of the argument? If A is the set of c and d, and B is the set of d and e, then since they both contain d, A and B are equal. Id.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Why does my argument look nonsensical to people who aren’t supporters of my position? I will put it in terms that would offend a gun owner so that you have a better understanding of why you look bad. Nuclear weapons explode (c) but are still just tools (d). Guns are merely tools (d) that shoot people (e). Since they are both tools they are both equivalent. Because they are merely tools, nuclear weapons should be treated the same as guns under the Second Amendment, and citizens should be allowed to conceal carry them into schools, courthouses, or government buildings.

Well that’s a stupid argument, what are other kinds of false equivalencies that gun owners use?
The variations are endless, but here are some common ones:
-Guns and alcohol are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and cars are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and knives are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and bleach are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and fists are equivalent, because they both ______
-Gun and stamp collecting are equivalent, because they are both _____
-Guns and _______ are equivalent, because they both _____

And those are all false equivalencies? Yes.
Are you sure? Yes.
Really? Because I would really like that to be not true. Everyone in /r/guns uses them constantly, and they get tons and tons of upvotes for it! Doesn’t that mean they are even a little right? No. Justin Bieber is pretty popular within his bubble, doesn’t mean it makes sense to people viewing it from the outside.

Can you do it for me? Imagine cars are just as legal as they are now, resulting in 33,000 traffic fatalities each year. Now, imagine guns are completely banned and there are zero deaths from their use each year. No government body would pass a law that instantly implemented the current United States gun proliferation laws while simultaneously handing out 270,000,000 guns to the civilian population. Especially considering the fact that 30,000 people would then be killed each year and 100,000 wounded. And they would certainly not do so under the pretense that guns and cars should be treated equivalently. This example applies to each of the false equivalencies given above.

Why has this been downvoted a million times? Because there are few good arguments for guns in our society so taking away a popular one, however incorrect it may be, further weakens the talking points. We also only send pro-gun types here to view this and they are not particularly happy to learn that their father was wrong when they taught them this false equivalency or that they have been using a really stupid argument around their loved ones unchecked for most of their lives.

What do you think about gun control? The ability to use logic and to correctly reason should be a basic skill for everyone, but is essential for those who carry lethal weapons. Gun owners should have to complete the following sentence before purchasing a gun to show that they can perform basic reasoning: Comparing guns to ________ is a false equivalence because __________.

* Because what industry making weapons of violence wants to see the amount of violence decline?

** This conversation did continue, but I bowed out after they tried to use my own arguments as though it applied to their points.

*** I’m using guns here despite the original example being the use of non-lethal devices like teargas. Direct deaths from a tool are easier to show the fallacy than the use of non-lethal force to suppress others. But it is still the same bad thinking. Some will try to use knives as an example because it is a greyer tool. Knives can be used to kill and are often designed to do so. But for knives, the context of their use switches from tool to weapon based on use and still fits this paradigm, albeit in a more complicated way.

**** Regulations they fought long and hard against despite the harm they knew it was doing.

Scamming writers

scam-artist-_kar_-_fotolia

Welcome to the internet. Sucker.

Scams are nothing new and at this stage neither is the internet. Whether it be someone offering to enlarge your penis – in the porn sense, the dating sense, the dysfunction sense, or the extra inch sense – or someone encouraging you to hate an out-group, the internet appears to be filled with scammers.

It was only this morning I received a very convincing looking invoice for a large order of books from a publisher I have been known to buy books from. Fortunately, I know some people in high places, like my friend the Nigerian prince, and they were able to warn me that I hadn’t actually ordered any books this week and should probably not click on the link to pay for them. Targeting readers and writers with scams are where I have to draw the metaphorical line in the metaphorical sand.

Most writers are hobbyists, writing because they love it. The handful that do get paid enough to be full-time writers are few and far between. So targeting writers with scams means that somewhere a monkey at a keyboard is not being fed today.

Let’s dissect a writing scam to see if we can spot the tricks used to part you from your potentially hard-earned money. This article was for a New, Amazing, Adjective, program that promises to give you the tools to write a 400-word article in 7 minutes. My comments are in blue.

Dear Fellow Article Writer

TA: This is a strong start. It creates kinship from a cold open. It wouldn’t read as well if they just called you a mark or sucker. Unless your name happens to be Mark. Or Sucker. But why would anyone call their child that? I mean, no offense to any Marks, but it’s a terrible name.

Did you watch the video above? It’s hard to believe so many people would send me such raving, unsolicited testimonials about my product, “How to Write an Article in 7 Minutes or Less“.

TA: I haven’t included the video but it is amazing how many unsolicited video testimonials appear to be shot with professional lighting and cameras.

If you did watch the video, you saw with your own eyes how I was able to take people who spent more than an hour writing an article down to as fast as 5 minutes per article!

TA: 5 minutes? I thought you said 7 minutes. Does this mean I get a 2 minute abs program as a bonus?

Would you like to experience the same results, without risking a penny? If so, then let me extend to you this unusual guarantee:

If you don’t cut your current article writing time down by at least 65% in less than a week after trying my methods, then not only will I refund every single cent of your purchase…

I’ll Give You DOUBLE Your Money Back!

TA: Cool, cool, cool, cool. But what if my average article writing time is 30 minutes and you only manage to bring it down by 65% to 10 minutes? Do I get 65% of my money back?

All you have to do is show me three articles you’ve written using my simple “7 minute formula” and tell me honestly that it didn’t at least increase your article writing speed by 65% while still maintaining the same quality and…

I will give you double your money back.

TA: This, folks, is called a caveat. 

Also, if for any reason at all you are unsatisfied, you can always ask me for a refund — no matter what — and I’ll promptly and quietly return every penny you paid in full.

TA: Is anyone else’s cynicsense tingling?

Either way you can’t lose.
How I Stumbled Upon the
Secret for Writing Articles Quickly!

Not too long ago I earned my keep ghostwriting for internet marketers.

If you read articles, forum posts or follow the “gurus” in anyway, chances are you’ve read something ghostwritten by me.

I have written thousands of articles for my clients, and along the way discovered a simple process for generating content quickly for almost any topic.

TA: Notice that this pitch pretty much precludes any allusions to quality writing.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Open my 3 special research sites. TA: Wikipedia? 
  2. Use my “skim and grab” research technique to find your
    3 main points (Takes about a minute).  TA: Yes, because reading comprehension is for suckers. 
  3. Outline each main point with two “sub points.” (another minute here). TA: What if there is only one point?
  4. Use the “opening paragraph” template to quickly create the first paragraph (About 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph, got it.
  5. Use the “main point” template to write paragraphs for each of your three main points. (2-4 minutes total time) TA: So, standard writing….
  6. Use the “conclusion paragraph” template to quickly create the conclusion. (another 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph at the end.
  7. Proof read your article, and then submit it to the appropriate directory. (1-2 minutes) TA: Click spellcheck and hope it doesn’t miss anything.

The cool thing about using these templates is you never have to pause to think…but… you also enough leeway so each article remains 100% unique, and of the highest quality.

TA: Yes, why would you want to actually put any thought into your writing. Highly overrated for quality content. This approach screams quality writing.

Don’t worry: My method has nothing to do with plagiarism!

TA: Of course not, copy and pasting clearly takes too long.

Anyway, you can learn all about my 7 minute article technique by reading my special report, “How to Write an Article In 7 Minutes”, and by watching the videos I made showing step by step how I do it.

But that’s not all… TA: Steak knives? Please be steak knives.

My first thought upon seeing the claim that you could learn to write an article in 7 minutes was that it was bullshit. The fact that people would find this plausible left me a little stunned, a little thirsty, and thinking about having a nap. Clearly, some people are going to be taken in by these kinds of scams. So I want to just illustrate my critical thinking process and how I avoided being scammed for $37 (I know, huge amounts of money).

Drawing from personal experience, I know that I’d spend more than 7 minutes just copying in the links to the research I’d be citing, let alone reading the 3 magic research sites. So the first check is to understand just how long certain tasks actually take you. This scam works on the idea that you don’t really measure the time it takes for common activities. You may know how long you spend on a full article or day’s writing, but not on the little parts, like one paragraph or one sentence. So when someone presents you with some figures, you are bound to think, “Well, I do spend a lot of time staring at the screen and checking my Twitter feed.” Suddenly you are partly receptive to the con.

Let’s have a look how long writing actually takes the average person. Being a science nerd, I like to have a few figures around on writing, reading, average number of Facebook posts per hour; you know, important stats. The average person has a typing speed of 60-100 words per minute, which gives you 400-700 words written in 7 minutes. The page claims a 400-word article with 5 minutes of actual writing time. So the claim is physically possible. Just. But that is typing speed, not writing speed. Typing is just mashing a bunch of keys in the correct order, writing requires a little more thought as to what those mashed keys actually communicate.

What about editing? Nothing is perfect on a first draft, nothing! So even if this is a 400-word article written in 5 minutes, you still need to edit. Reading speed is not the same as proofreading speed, with average speeds of 180-200 words per minute. That’s another 2-3 minutes.

Aaannnddd, we’re out of time. Sorry, folks.

Just the physical act of writing and reading your new article chews up the time allocation. Unless this program comes with a Deloren or Time Turner it is unlikely to have you churning out 8 articles an hour.

But what if the program can reduce my writing time by 65%, I hear a brave new bridge owner chewing on brain pills ask.

Well then, send me $40 and I’ll send you some templates that I guarantee will improve your writing by 69%, add inches to your IQ, and make Nigerian royalty give you money. Trust me, no-one lies on the internet.

Book review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That feeling when you call someone a young whippersnapper and realise it’s your reflection in the mirror.

Widower John Perry has reached his seventy-fifth birthday and enlisted. The Colonial Defense Force are waging war across the universe and need old feeble bodies to join their fighting forces. After some upgrades and basic training, Perry and his new comrades are sent off to meet strange new people and cultures and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as possible.

When I finished reading I knew exactly what I was going to say about Old Man’s War. My entire review could be summarised as: It was fine. Just fine.

I decided to read Old Man’s War after my mixed feelings from reading Redshirts. To assuage those mixed feelings, I picked up Scalzi’s highest-rated book. And in many respects, it delivered. The “fresh” take on classic sci-fi novels from the likes of Heinlein was entertaining. But unlike those classics, I found myself nitpicking at various ideas and premises rather than being filled with wonder.

One of the premises I found hard to swallow was that in the infinite reaches of space, habitable planets are hotly contested property. Sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around that one. Even Scalzi’s handwaving explanation in the book feels like someone fully cognizant of just how much hand flapping he’s doing.* Given that this is the central conceit for the novel, it felt like there either needed to be better groundwork or less attention drawn to how close that premise circles the plot hole.

In my review of Redshirts, I noted two things that apply to Old Man’s War as well. He said. He said. The first is that this novel is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. It’s only upon reflection that I realised that many of the scenes were meant to be funny. Not the ideal time to notice the jokes. The second was the dialogue tags that often felt redundant and only there to remind you that the dialogue that could have been said by anyone had been said by a specific anyone.

This was an okay novel. Old Man’s War was entertaining enough to read but after two novels I’m not sure Scalzi entertains me enough for a third.

* And related to that particular scene was a scene that justified war and implied diplomacy didn’t have a place in this world. I’m not sure if that scene was meant to be ridiculously heavy-handed or if it was meant to be funny. Bit of a fail whichever way it was meant to fall.

View all my reviews

Book vs Movie: The Iron Giant – What’s the Difference?

irongiant2

This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix is all about giant killer robots learning to love.

Twenty years on and who’d have thought that two of Vin Diesel’s most memorable and acclaimed roles would have been voicing laconic characters.

This was an interesting instalment of What’s the Difference as I wasn’t aware that The Iron Giant was based upon a book. Apparently, The Iron Man was a story Ted Hughes developed to help his children deal with the death of their mother, Sylvia Plath. And obviously, grieving kids back in the 60s needed to also deal with impending nuclear war. I wonder if there will be any people left to look back in wonder at our generation’s stories and themes?

Obviously, the movie is pretty flawless*. It oozes charm and classic animated movie appeal. The existential concept of you are who you choose to be is a fantastic narrative element. Or as the director, Brad Bird, put it in his pitch, “What if a gun had a soul, and didn’t want to be a gun?”

I think another part of the appeal of this film was that it only became successful after failing at the box office and being mismanaged in all of its marketing. There were no toy and fast-food tie-ins. No big ad campaigns. This is a movie that found success because it was a good movie. As such, it managed to retain its charm because it didn’t need to support a toy-line and limited edition drink containers at Burger-Donalds.

So when Warner Bros inevitably remakes The Iron Giant, I look forward to the mountains of crass action figures that will be available, with flashing lasers and launchable rockets.*

* He says having not watched it in the best part of two decades.

** All parts made of plastic and sold separately.