Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2020-09-21: Review: Unconquerable Sun

Review: Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott

Series Sun Chronicles #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright 2020
ISBN 1-250-19725-2
Format Kindle
Pages 526

Sun is the daughter and heir of the mercurial Queen-Marshal Eirene, ruler of the Republic of Chaonia. Chaonia, thanks to Eirene and her ancestors, has carved out a fiercely independent position between the Yele League and the Phene Empire. Sun's father, Prince João, is one of Eirene's three consorts, all chosen for political alliances to shore up that fragile position. João is Gatoi, a civilization of feared fighters and supposed barbarians from outside Chaonia who normally ally with the Phene, which complicates Sun's position as heir. Sun attempts to compensate for that by winning battles for the Republic, following in the martial footsteps of her mother.

The publisher's summary of this book is not great (I'm a huge fan of Princess Leia, but that is... not the analogy that comes to mind), so let me try to help. This is gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space. However, it is gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space with her Companions, which means the DNA of this novel is half space opera and half heist story (without, to be clear, an actual heist, although there are some heist-like maneuvers). It's also worth mentioning that Sun, like Alexander, is not heterosexual.

The other critical thing to know before reading, mostly because it will get you through the rather painful start, is that the most interesting viewpoint character in this book is not Sun, the Alexander analogue. It's Persephone, who isn't introduced until chapter seven.

Significant disclaimer up front: I got a reasonably typical US grade school history of Alexander the Great, which means I was taught that he succeeded his father, conquered a whole swath of the middle of the Eurasian land mass at a very young age, and then died and left his empire to his four generals who promptly divided it into four uninteresting empires that no one's ever heard of, and that's why Rome is more important than Greece. (I put in that last bit to troll one specific person.)

I am therefore not the person to judge the parallels between this story and known history, or to notice any damage done to Greek pride, or to pick up on elements that might cause someone with a better grasp of that history to break out in hives. I did enough research to know that one scene in this book is lifted directly out of Alexander's life, but I'm not sure how closely the other parallels track. Yele is probably southern Greece and Phene is probably Persia, but I'm not certain even of that, and some of the details don't line up. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that Elliott has probably mangled history sufficiently to make it clear that this isn't intended to be a retelling, but if the historical parallels are likely to bother you, you may want to do more research before reading.

What I can say is that the space opera setup, while a bit stock, has all the necessary elements to make me happy. Unconquerable Sun is firmly in the "lost Earth" tradition: The Argosy fleet fled the now-mythical Celestial Empire and founded a new starfaring civilization without any contact with their original home. Eventually, they invented (or discovered; the characters don't know) the beacons, which allow for instantaneous travel between specific systems without the long (but still faster-than-light) journeys of the knnu drive. More recently, the beacon network has partly collapsed, cutting off the characters' known world from the civilization that was responsible for the beacons and guarded their secrets. It's a fun space opera history with lots of lost knowledge to reference and possibly discover, and with plot-enabling military choke points at the surviving beacons that link multiple worlds.

This is all background to the story, which is the ongoing war between Chaonia and the Phene Empire mixed with cutthroat political maneuvering between the great houses of the Chaonian Republic. This is where the heist aspects come in. Each house sends one representative to join the household of the Queen-Marshal and (more to the point for this story) another to join her heir. Sun has encouraged the individual and divergent talents of her Companions and their cee-cees (an unfortunate term that I suspect is short for Companion's Companion) and forged them into a good working team. A team that's about to be disrupted by the maneuverings of a rival house and the introduction of a new team member whom no one wants.

A problem with writing tactical geniuses is that they often aren't good viewpoint characters. Sun's tight third-person chapters, which is a little less than half the book, advance the plot and provide analysis of the interpersonal dynamics of the characters, but aren't the strength of the story. That lies with the interwoven first-person sections that follow Persephone, an altogether more interesting character.

Persephone is the scion of the house that is Sun's chief rival, but she has no interest in being part of that house or its maneuverings. When the story opens, she's a cadet in a military academy for recruits from the commoners, having run away from home, hidden her identity, and won a position through the open entrance exams. She of course doesn't stay there; her past catches up with her and she gets assigned to Sun, to a great deal of mutual suspicion. She also is assigned an impeccably dressed and stunningly beautiful cee-cee, Tiana, who has her own secrets and who was my favorite character in the book.

Somewhat unusually for the space opera tradition, this is a book that knows that common people exist and have interesting lives. It's primarily focused on the ruling houses, but that focus is not exclusive and the rulers do not have a monopoly on competence. Elliott also avoids narrowing the political field too far; the Gatoi are separate from the three rival powers, and there are other groups with traditions older than the Chaonian Republic and their own agendas. Sun and her Companions are following a couple of political threads, but there is clearly more going on in this world than that single plot.

This is exactly the kind of story I think of when I think space opera. It's not doing anything that original or groundbreaking, and it's not going to make any of my lists of great literature, but it's a fun romp with satisfyingly layered bits of lore, a large-scale setting with lots of plot potential, and (once we get through the confusing and somewhat tedious process of introducing rather too many characters in short succession) some great interpersonal dynamics. It's the kind of book in which the characters are in the middle of decisive military action in an interstellar war and are also near-teenagers competing for ratings in an ad hoc reality TV show, primarily as an excuse to create tactical distractions for Sun's latest scheme. The writing is okay but not great, and the first few chapters have some serious infodumping problems, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book and will pre-order the sequel.

One Amazon review complained that Unconquerable Sun is not a space opera like Hyperion or Use of Weapons. That is entirely true, but if that's your standard for space opera, the world may be a disappointing place. This is a solid entry in a subgenre I love, with some great characters, sarcasm, competence porn, plenty of pages to keep turning, a few twists, and the promise of more to come. Recommended.

Followed by the not-yet-published Furious Heaven.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-09-20: Review: Lower Ed

Review: Lower Ed, by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Publisher The New Press
Copyright 2017
Printing 2018
ISBN 1-62097-472-X
Format Kindle
Pages 217

Lower Ed (subtitled The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy) is the first book by sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom. (I previously reviewed her second book, the excellent essay collection Thick.) It is a deep look at the sociology of for-profit higher education in the United States based on interviews with students and executives, analysis of Wall Street filings, tests of the admissions process, and her own personal experiences working for two of the schools. One of the questions that McMillan Cottom tries to answer is why students choose to enroll in these institutions, particularly the newer type of institution funded by federal student loans and notorious for being more expensive and less valuable than non-profit colleges and universities.

I was hesitant to read this book because I find for-profit schools depressing. I grew up with the ubiquitous commercials, watched the backlash develop, and have a strongly negative impression of the industry, partly influenced by having worked in traditional non-profit higher education for two decades. The prevailing opinion in my social group is that they're a con job. I was half-expecting a reinforcement of that opinion by example, and I don't like reading infuriating stories about people being defrauded.

I need not have worried. This is not that sort of book (nor, in retrospect, do I think McMillan Cottom would approach a topic from that angle). Sociology is broader than reporting. Lower Ed positions for-profit colleges within a larger social structure of education, credentialing, and changes in workplace expectations; takes a deep look at why they are attractive to their students; and humanizes and complicates the motives and incentives of everyone involved, including administrators and employees of for-profit colleges as well as the students. McMillan Cottom does of course talk about the profit motive and the deceptions surrounding that, but the context is less that of fraud that people are unable to see through and more a balancing of the drawbacks of a set of poor choices embedded in institutional failures.

One of my metrics for a good non-fiction book is whether it introduces me to a new idea that changes how I analyze the world. Lower Ed does that twice.

The first idea is the view of higher education through the lens of risk shifting. It used to be common for employers to hire people without prior job-specific training and do the training in-house, possibly through an apprenticeship structure. More notably, once one was employed by a particular company, the company routinely arranged or provided ongoing training. This went hand-in-hand with a workplace culture of long tenure, internal promotion, attempts to avoid layoffs, and some degree of mutual loyalty. Companies expected to invest significantly in an employee over their career and thus also had an incentive to retain that employee rather than train someone for a competitor.

However, from a purely financial perspective, this is a risk and an inefficiency, similar to the risk of carrying a large inventory of parts and components. Companies have responded to investor-driven focus on profits and efficiency by reducing overhead and shifting risk. This leads to the lean supply chain, where no one pays for parts to sit around in warehouses and companies aren't caught with large stockpiles of now-useless components, but which is more sensitive to any disruption (such as from a global pandemic). And, for employment, it leads to a desire to hire pre-trained workers, retain only enough workers to do the current amount of work, and replace them with new workers who already have appropriate training rather than retrain them.

The effect of the corporate decision to only hire pre-trained employees is to shift the risk and expense of training from the company to the prospective employee. The individual has to seek out training at their own expense in the hope (not guarantee) that at the conclusion of that training they will get or retain a job. People therefore turn to higher education to both provide that training and to help them decide what type of training will eventually be valuable. This has a long history with certain professional fields (doctors and lawyers, for example), but the requirements for completing training in those fields are relatively clear (a professional license to practice) and the compensation reflects the risk. What's new is the shift of training risk to the individual in more mundane jobs, without any corresponding increase in compensation.

This, McMillan Cottom explains, is the background for the growth in demand for higher education in general and the the type of education offered by for-profit colleges in particular. Workers who in previous eras would be trained by their employers are now responsible for their own training. That training is no longer judged by the standards of a specific workplace, but is instead evaluated by a hiring process that expects constant job-shifting. This leads to increased demand by both workers and employers for credentials: some simple-to-check certificate of completion of training that says that this person has the skills to immediately start doing some job. It also leads to a demand for more flexible class hours, since the student is now often someone older with a job and a family to balance. Their ongoing training used to be considered a cost of business and happen during their work hours; now it is something they have to fit around the contours of their life because their employer has shifted that risk to them.

The risk-shifting frame makes sense of the "investment" language so common in for-profit education. In this job economy, education as investment is not a weird metaphor for the classic benefits of a liberal arts education: broadened perspective, deeper grounding in philosophy and ethics, or heightened aesthetic appreciation. It's an investment in the literal financial sense; it is money that you spend now in order to get a financial benefit (a job) in the future. People have to invest in their own training because employers are no longer doing so, but still require the outcome of that investment. And, worse, it's primarily a station-keeping investment. Rather than an optional expenditure that could reap greater benefits later, it's a mandatory expenditure to prevent, at best, stagnation in a job paying poverty wages, and at worst the disaster of unemployment.

This explains renewed demand for higher education, but why for-profit colleges? We know they cost more and have a worse reputation (and therefore their credentials have less value) than traditional non-profit colleges. Flexible hours and class scheduling explains some of this but not all of it. That leads to the second perspective-shifting idea I got from Lower Ed: for-profit colleges are very good at what they focus time and resources on, and they focus on enrolling students.

It is hard to enroll in a university! More precisely, enrolling in a university requires bureaucracy navigation skills, and those skills are class-coded. The people who need them the most are the least likely to have them.

Universities do not reach out to you, nor do they guide you through the process. You have to go to them and discover how to apply, something that is often made harder by the confusing state of many university web sites. The language and process is opaque unless other people in your family have experience with universities and can explain it. There might be someone you can reach on the phone to ask questions, but they're highly unlikely to proactively guide you through the remaining steps. It's your responsibility to understand deadlines, timing, and sequence of operations, and if you miss any of the steps (due to, for example, the overscheduled life of someone in need of better education for better job prospects), the penalty in time and sometimes money can be substantial. And admission is just the start; navigating financial aid, which most students will need, is an order of magnitude more daunting. Community colleges are somewhat easier (and certainly cheaper) than universities, but still have similar obstacles (and often even worse web sites).

It's easy for people like me, who have long professional expertise with bureaucracies, family experience with higher education, and a support network of people to nag me about deadlines, to underestimate this. But the application experience at a for-profit college is entirely different in ways far more profound than I had realized. McMillan Cottom documents this in detail from her own experience working for two different for-profit colleges and from an experiment where she indicated interest in multiple for-profit colleges and then stopped responding before signing admission paperwork. A for-profit college is fully invested in helping a student both apply and get financial aid, devotes someone to helping them through that process, does not expect them to understand how to navigate bureaucracies or decipher forms on their own, does not punish unexpected delays or missed appointments, and goes to considerable lengths to try to keep anyone from falling out of the process before they are enrolled. They do not expect their students to already have the skills that one learns from working in white-collar jobs or from being surrounded by people who do. They provide the kind of support that an educational institution should provide to people who, by definition, don't understand something and need to learn.

Reading about this was infuriating. Obviously, this effort to help people enroll is largely for predatory reasons. For-profit schools make their money off federal loans and they don't get that money unless they can get someone to enroll and fill out financial paperwork (and to some extent keep them enrolled), so admissions is their cash cow and they act accordingly. But that's not why I found it infuriating; that's just predictable capitalism. What I think is inexcusable is that nothing they do is that difficult. We could being doing the same thing for prospective community college students but have made the societal choice not to. We believe that education is valuable, we constantly advocate that people get more job training and higher education, and yet we demand prospective students navigate an unnecessarily baroque and confusing application process with very little help, and then stereotype and blame them for failing to do so.

This admission support is not a question of resources. For-profit colleges are funded almost entirely by federally-guaranteed student loans. We are paying them to help people apply. It is, in McMillan Cottom's term, a negative social insurance program. Rather than buffering people against the negative effects of risk-shifting of employers by helping them into the least-expensive and most-effective training programs (non-profit community colleges and universities), we are spending tax dollars to enrich the shareholders of for-profit colleges while underfunding the alternatives. We are choosing to create a gap that routes government support to the institution that provides worse training at higher cost but is very good at helping people apply. It's as if the unemployment system required one to use payday lenders to get one's unemployment check.

There is more in this book I want to talk about, but this review is already long enough. Suffice it to say that McMillan Cottom's analysis does not stop with market forces and the admission process, and the parts of her analysis that touch on my own personal experience as someone with a somewhat unusual college path ring very true. Speaking as a former community college student, the discussion of class credit transfer policies and the way that institutional prestige gatekeeping and the desire to push back against low-quality instruction becomes a trap that keeps students in the for-profit system deserves another review this length. So do the implications of risk-shifting and credentialism on the morality of "cheating" on schoolwork.

As one would expect from the author of the essay "Thick" about bringing context to sociology, Lower Ed is personal and grounded. McMillan Cottom doesn't shy away from including her own experiences and being explicit about her sources and research. This is backed up by one of the best methodological notes sections I've seen in a book. One of the things I love about McMillan Cottom's writing is that it's solidly academic, not in the sense of being opaque or full of jargon (the text can be a bit dense, but I rarely found it hard to follow), but in the sense of being clear about the sources of knowledge and her methods of extrapolation and analysis. She brings her receipts in a refreshingly concrete way.

I do have a few caveats. First, I had trouble following a structure and line of reasoning through the whole book. Each individual point is meticulously argued and supported, but they are not always organized into a clear progression or framework. That made Lower Ed feel at times like a collection of high-quality but somewhat unrelated observations about credentials, higher education, for-profit colleges, their student populations, their business models, and their relationships with non-profit schools.

Second, there are some related topics that McMillan Cottom touches on but doesn't expand sufficiently for me to be certain I understood them. One of the big ones is credentialism. This is apparently a hot topic in sociology and is obviously important to this book, but it's referenced somewhat glancingly and was not satisfyingly defined (at least for me). There are a few similar places where I almost but didn't quite follow a line of reasoning because the book structure didn't lay enough foundation.

Caveats aside, though, this was meaty, thought-provoking, and eye-opening, and I'm very glad that I read it. This is a topic that I care more about than most people, but if you have watched for-profit colleges with distaste but without deep understanding, I highly recommend Lower Ed.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-09-13: Review: Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

Review: Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?, by Maya Schenwar, et al. (ed.)

Editor Maya Schenwar
Editor Joe Macaré
Editor Alana Yu-lan Price
Publisher Haymarket Books
Copyright June 2016
ISBN 1-60846-684-1
Format Kindle
Pages 250

Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? is an anthology of essays about policing in the United States. It's divided into two sections: one that enumerates ways that police are failing to serve or protect communities, and one that describes how communities are building resistance and alternatives. Haymarket Books (a progressive press in Chicago) has made it available for free in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and resulting protests in the United States.

I'm going to be a bit unfair to this book, so let me start by admitting that the mismatch between it and the book I was looking for is not entirely its fault.

My primary goal was to orient myself in the discussion on the left about alternatives to policing. I also wanted to sample something from Haymarket Books; a free book was a good way to do that. I was hoping for a collection of short introductions to current lines of thinking that I could selectively follow in longer writing, and an essay collection seemed ideal for that.

What I had not realized (which was my fault for not doing simple research) is that this is a compilation of articles previously published by Truthout, a non-profit progressive journalism site, in 2014 and 2015. The essays are a mix of reporting and opinion but lean towards reporting. The earliest pieces in this book date from shortly after the police killing of Michael Brown, when racist police violence was (again) reaching national white attention.

The first half of the book is therefore devoted to providing evidence of police abuse and violence. This is important to do, but it's sadly no longer as revelatory in 2020, when most of us have seen similar things on video, as it was to white America in 2014. If you live in the United States today, while you may not be aware of the specific events described here, you're unlikely to be surprised that Detroit police paid off jailhouse informants to provide false testimony ("Ring of Snitches" by Aaron Miguel Cantú), or that Chicago police routinely use excessive deadly force with no consequences ("Amid Shootings, Chicago Police Department Upholds Culture of Impunity" by Sarah Macaraeg and Alison Flowers), or that there is a long history of police abuse and degradation of pregnant women ("Your Pregnancy May Subject You to Even More Law Enforcement Violence" by Victoria Law). There are about eight essays along those lines.

Unfortunately, the people who excuse or disbelieve these stories are rarely willing to seek out new evidence, let alone read a book like this. That raises the question of intended audience for the catalog of horrors part of this book. The answer to that question may also be the publication date; in 2014, the base of evidence and example for discussion had not been fully constructed. This sort of reporting is also obviously relevant in the original publication context of web-based journalism, where people may encounter these accounts individually through social media or other news coverage. In 2020, they offer reinforcement and rhetorical evidence, but I'm dubious that the people who would benefit from this knowledge will ever see it in this form. Those of us who will are already sickened, angry, and depressed.

My primary interest was therefore in the second half of the book: the section on how communities are building resistance and alternatives. This is where I'm going to be somewhat unfair because the state of that conversation may have been different in 2015 than it is now in 2020. But these essays were lacking the depth of analysis that I was looking for.

There is a human tendency, when one becomes aware of an obvious wrong, to simply publicize the horrible thing that is happening and expect someone to do something about it. It's obviously and egregiously wrong, so if more people knew about it, certainly it would be stopped! That has happened repeatedly with racial violence in the United States. It's also part of the common (and school-taught) understanding of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s: activists succeeded in getting the violence on the cover of newspapers and on television, people were shocked and appalled, and the backlash against the violence created political change.

Putting aside the fact that this is too simplistic of a picture of the Civil Rights era, it's abundantly clear at this point in 2020 that publicizing racist and violent policing isn't going to stop it. We're going to have to do something more than draw attention to the problem. Deciding what to do requires political and social analysis, not just of the better world that we want to see but of how our current world can become that world.

There is very little in that direction in this book. Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? does not answer the question of its title beyond "not us" and "white supremacy." While those answers are not exactly wrong, they're also not pushing the analysis in the direction that I wanted to read.

For example (and this is a long-standing pet peeve of mine in US political writing), it would be hard to tell from most of the essays in this book that any country besides the United States exists. One essay ("Killing Africa" by William C. Anderson) talks about colonialism and draws comparisons between police violence in the United States and international treatment of African and other majority-Black countries. One essay talks about US military behavior oversees ("Beyond Homan Square" by Adam Hudson). That's about it for international perspective. Notably, there is no analysis here of what other countries might be doing better.

Police violence against out-groups is not unique to the United States. No one has entirely solved this problem, but versions of this problem have been handled with far more success than here. The US has a comparatively appalling record; many countries in the world, particularly among comparable liberal democracies in Europe, are doing far better on metrics of racial oppression by agents of the government and of law enforcement violence. And yet it's common to approach these problems as if we have to develop a solution de novo, rather than ask what other countries are doing differently and if we could do some of those things.

The US has some unique challenges, both historical and with the nature of endemic violence in the country, so perhaps such an analysis would turn up too many US-specific factors to copy other people's solutions. But we need to do the analysis, not give up before we start. Novel solutions can lead to novel new problems; other countries have tested, working improvements that could provide a starting framework and some map of potential pitfalls.

More fundamentally, only the last two essays of this book propose solutions more complex than "stop." The authors are very clear about what the police are doing, seem less interested in why, and are nearly silent on how to change it. I suspect I am largely in political agreement with most of the authors, but obviously a substantial portion of the country (let alone its power structures) is not, and therefore nothing is changing. Part of the project of ending police violence is understanding why the violence exists, picking apart the motives and potential fracture lines in the political forces supporting the status quo, and building a strategy to change the politics. That isn't even attempted here.

For example, the "who do you serve?" question of the book's title is more interesting than the essays give it credit. Police are not a monolith. Why do Black people become police officers? What are their experiences? Are there police forces in the United States that are doing better than others? What makes them different? Why do police act with violence in the moment? What set of cultural expectations, training experiences, anxieties, and fears lead to that outcome? How do we change those factors?

Or, to take another tack, why are police not held accountable even when there is substantial public outrage? What political coalition supports that immunity from consequences, what are its fault lines and internal frictions, and what portions of that coalition could be broken off, pealed away, or removed from power? To whom, institutionally, are police forces accountable? What public offices can aspiring candidates run for that would give them oversight capability? This varies wildly throughout the United States; political approaches that work in large cities may not work in small towns, or with county sheriffs, or with the FBI, or with prison guards.

To treat these organizations as a monolith and their motives as uniform is bad political tactics. It gives up points of leverage.

I thought the best essays of this collection were the last two. "Community Groups Work to Provide Emergency Medical Alternatives, Separate from Police," by Candice Bernd, is a profile of several local emergency response systems that divert emergency calls from the police to paramedics, mental health experts, or social workers. This is an idea that's now relatively mainstream, and it seems to be finding modest success where it has been tried. It's more of a harm mitigation strategy than an attempt to deal with the root problem, but we're going to need both.

The last essay, "Building Community Safety" by Ejeris Dixon, is the only essay in this book that is pushing in the direction that I was hoping to read. Dixon describes building an alternative system that can intervene in violent situations without using the police. This is fascinating and I'm glad that I read it.

It's also frustrating in context because Dixon's essay should be part of a discussion. Dixon describes spending years learning de-escalation techniques, doing hard work of community discussion and collective decision-making, and making deep investment in the skills required to handle violence without calling in a dangerous outside force. I greatly admire this approach (also common in parts of the anarchist community) and the people who are willing to commit to it. But it's an immense amount of work, and as Dixon points out, that work often falls on the people who are least able to afford it. Marginalized communities, for whom the police are often dangerous, are also likely to lack both time and energy to invest in this type of skill training. And many people simply will not do this work even if they do have the resources to do it.

More fundamentally, this approach conflicts somewhat with division of labor. De-escalation and social work are both professional skills that require significant time and practice to hone, and as much as I too would love to live in a world where everyone knows how to do some amount of this work, I find it hard to imagine scaling this approach without trained professionals. The point of paying someone to do this work as their job is that the money frees up their time to focus on learning those skills at a level that is difficult to do in one's free time. But once you have an organized group of professionals who do this work, you have to find a way to keep them from falling prey to the problems that plague the police, which requires understanding the origins of those problems. And that's putting aside the question of how large the residual of dangerous crime that cannot be addressed through any form of de-escalation might be, and what organization we should use to address it.

Dixon's essay is great; I wouldn't change anything about it. But I wanted to see the next essay engaging with Dixon's perspective and looking for weaknesses and scaling concerns, and then the next essay that attempts to shore up those weaknesses, and yet another essay that grapples with the challenging philosophical question of a government monopoly on force and how that can and should come into play in violent crime. And then essays on grass-roots organizing in the context of police reform or abolition, and on restorative justice, and on the experience of attempting police reform from the inside, and on how to support public defenders, and on the merits and weaknesses of focusing on electing reform-minded district attorneys. Unfortunately, none of those are here.

Overall, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? was a disappointment. It was free, so I suppose I got what I paid for, and I may have had a different reaction if I read it in 2015. But if you're looking for a deep discussion on the trade-offs and challenges of stopping police violence in 2020, I don't think this is the place to start.

Rating: 3 out of 10

2020-09-12: PGP::Sign 1.03

Part of the continuing saga to clean up CPAN testing failures with this module. Test reports uncovered a tighter version dependency for the flags I was using for GnuPG v2 (2.1.23) and a version dependency for GnuPG v1 (1.4.20). As with the previous release, I'm now skipping tests if the version is too old, since this makes the CPAN test results more useful to me.

I also took advantage of this release to push the Debian packaging to Salsa (and the upstream branch as well since it's easier) and update the package metadata, as well as add an upstream metadata file since interest in that in Debian appears to have picked up again.

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the PGP::Sign distribution page.

2020-09-05: September haul

So many good books, so little reading time.

Jairus Banaji — A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism (nonfiction)
Steven Brust — The Baron of Magister Valley (sff)
Micaiah Johnson — The Space Between Worlds (sff)
Ian McDonald — Luna: New Moon (sff)
Elizabeth Moon — Trading in Danger (sff)
Tamsyn Muir — Harrow the Ninth (sff)
Suzanne Palmer — Finder (sff)
Kit Rocha — Beyond Shame (sff)
Kit Rocha — Beyond Control (sff)
Kit Rocha — Beyond Pain (sff)
Arundhati Roy — Azadi (nonfiction)
Jeff VanderMeer — Authority (sff)
Jeff VanderMeer — Acceptance (sff)
K.B. Wagers — Behind the Throne (sff)
Jarrett Walker — Human Transit (nonfiction)

I took advantage of a few sales to get books I know I'm going to want to read eventually for a buck or two.

2020-08-31: Review: Riot Baby

Review: Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi

Publisher Tor.com
Copyright January 2020
ISBN 1-250-21476-9
Format Kindle
Pages 176

From Ella's childhood, she sees visions of the future. They come at first with nose bleeds and other physical symptoms, but their worst aspect is that they're sad and dark. Ella is black, as are those around her, and their futures are full of shootings and gangs, death and trouble. As she grows older, she develops her Thing: powers that let her bend, move, and destroy things with her mind, and later to become invisible, teleport, and reshape the world. Ella has superpowers.

Ella is not the viewpoint character of most of Riot Baby, however. That is Kev, her younger brother, the riot baby of the title, born in South Central on the day of the Rodney King riots. Kev grows up in Harlem where they move after the destruction from the riots: keeping Ella's secret, making friends, navigating gang politics, watching people be harassed by the cops. Growing up black in the United States. Then Ella sees something awful in the future and disappears, and some time afterwards Kev ends up in Rikers Island.

One of the problems with writing reviews of every book I read is that sometimes I read books that I am utterly unqualified to review. This is one of those books. This novella is about black exhaustion and rage, about the experience of oppression, about how it feels to be inside the prison system. It's also a story in dialogue with an argument that isn't mine, between the patience and suffering of endurance and not making things worse versus the rage of using all the power that one has to force a change. Some parts of it sat uncomfortably and the ending didn't work for me on the first reading, but it's not possible for me to separate my reactions to the novella from being a white man and having a far different experience of the world.

I'm writing a review anyway because that's what I do when I read books, but even more than normal, take this as my personal reaction expressed in my quiet corner of the Internet. I'm not the person whose opinion of this story should matter.

In many versions of this novella, Ella would be the main character, since she's the one with superpowers. She does get some viewpoint scenes, but most of the focus is on Kev even when the narrative is following Ella. Kev trying to navigate the world, trying to survive prison, seeing his friends murdered by the police, and living as the target of oppression that Ella can escape. This was an excellent choice. Ella wouldn't have been as interesting of a character if the story were more focused on her developing powers instead of on the problems that she cannot solve.

The writing is visceral, immediate, and very evocative. Onyebuchi builds the narrative with a series of short and vividly-described moments showing the narrowing of Kev's life and Ella's exploration of her growing anger and search for a way to support and protect him.

This is not a story about nonviolent resistance or about the arc of the universe bending towards justice. Ella confronts this directly in a memorable scene in a church towards the end of the novella that for me was the emotional heart of the story. The previous generations, starting with Kev and Ella's mother, preach the gospel of endurance and survival and looking on the good side. The prison system eventually provides Kev a path to quiet and a form of peace. Riot Baby is a story about rejecting that approach to the continuing cycle of violence. Ella is fed up, tired, angry, and increasingly unconvinced that waiting for change is working.

I wasn't that positive on this story when I finished it, but it's stuck with me since I read it and my appreciation for it has grown while writing this review. It uses the power fantasy both to make a hard point about the problems power cannot solve and to recast the argument about pacifism and nonviolence in a challenging way. I'm still not certain what I think of it, but I'm still thinking about it, which says a lot. It deserves the positive attention that it's gotten.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-08-30: Review: Men at Arms

Review: Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #15
Publisher Harper
Copyright 1993
Printing November 2013
ISBN 0-06-223740-3
Format Mass market
Pages 420

Men at Arms is the fifteenth Discworld novel and a direct plot sequel to Guards! Guards!. You could start here without missing too much, but starting with Guards! Guards! would make more sense. And of course there are cameos (and one major appearance) by other characters who are established in previous books.

Carrot, the adopted dwarf who joined the watch in Guards! Guards!, has been promoted to corporal. He is now in charge of training new recruits, a role that is more important because of the Night Watch's new Patrician-ordered diversity initiative. The Watch must reflect the ethnic makeup of the city. That means admitting a troll, a dwarf... and a woman?

Trolls and dwarfs hate each other because dwarfs mine precious things out of rock and trolls are composed of precious things embedded in rocks, so relations between the new recruits are tense. Captain Vimes is leaving the Watch, and no one is sure who would or could replace him. (The reason for this is a minor spoiler for Guards! Guards!) A magical weapon is stolen from the Assassin's Guild. And a string of murders begins, murders that Vimes is forbidden by Lord Vetinari from investigating and therefore clearly is going to investigate.

This is an odd moment at which to read this book.

The Night Watch are not precisely a police force, although they are moving in that direction. Their role in Ankh-Morpork is made much stranger by the guild system, in which the Thieves' Guild is responsible for theft and for dealing with people who steal outside of the quota of the guild. But Men at Arms is in part a story about ethics, about what it means to be a police officer, and about what it looks like when someone is very good at that job.

Since I live in the United States, that makes it hard to avoid reading Men at Arms in the context of the current upheavals about police racism, use of force, and lack of accountability. Men at Arms can indeed be read that way; community relations, diversity in the police force, the merits of making two groups who hate each other work together, and the allure of violence are all themes Pratchett is working with in this novel. But they're from the perspective of a UK author writing in 1993 about a tiny city guard without any of the machinery of modern police, so I kept seeing a point of clear similarity and then being slightly wrong-footed by the details. It also felt odd to read a book where the cops are the heroes, much in the style of a detective show. This is in no way a problem with the book, and in a way it was helpful perspective, but it was a strange reading experience.

Cuddy had only been a guard for a few days but already he had absorbed one important and basic fact: it is almost impossible for anyone to be in a street without breaking the law.

Vimes and Carrot are both excellent police officers, but in entirely different ways. Vimes treats being a cop as a working-class job and is inclined towards glumness and depression, but is doggedly persistent and unable to leave a problem alone. His ethics are covered by a thick layer of world-weary cynicism. Carrot is his polar opposite in personality: bright, endlessly cheerful, effortlessly charismatic, and determined to get along with everyone. On first appearance, this contrast makes Vimes seem wise and Carrot seem a bit dim. That is exactly what Pratchett is playing with and undermining in Men at Arms.

Beneath Vimes's cynicism, he's nearly as idealistic as Carrot, even though he arrives at his ideals through grim contrariness. Carrot, meanwhile, is nowhere near as dim as he appears to be. He's certain about how he wants to interact with others and is willing to stick with that approach no matter how bad of an idea it may appear to be, but he's more self-aware than he appears. He and Vimes are identical in the strength of their internal self-definition. Vimes shows it through the persistent, grumpy stubbornness of a man devoted to doing an often-unpleasant job, whereas Carrot verbally steamrolls people by refusing to believe they won't do the right thing.

Colon thought Carrot was simple. Carrot often struck people as simple. And he was. Where people went wrong was thinking that simple meant the same thing as stupid.

There's a lot going on in this book apart from the profiles of two very different models of cop. Alongside the mystery (which doubles as pointed commentary on the corrupting influence of violence and personal weaponry), there's a lot about dwarf/troll relations, a deeper look at the Ankh-Morpork guilds (including a horribly creepy clown guild), another look at how good Lord Vetinari is at running the city by anticipating how other people will react, a sarcastic dog named Gaspode (originally seen in Moving Pictures), and Pratchett's usual collection of memorable lines. It is also the origin of the now-rightfully-famous Vimes boots theory:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

Men at Arms regularly makes lists of the best Discworld novels, and I can see why. At this point in the series, Pratchett has hit his stride. The plots have gotten deeper and more complex without losing the funny moments, movie and book references, and glorious turns of phrase. There is also a lot of life philosophy and deep characterization when one pays close attention to the characters.

He was one of those people who would recoil from an assault on strength, but attack weakness without mercy.

My one complaint is that I found it a bit overstuffed with both characters and subplots, and as a result had a hard time following the details of the plot. I found myself wanting a timeline of the murders or a better recap from one of the characters. As always with Pratchett, the digressions are wonderful, but they do occasionally come at the cost of plot clarity.

I'm not sure I recommend the present moment in the United States as the best time to read this book, although perhaps there is no better time for Carrot and Vimes to remind us what good cops look like. But regardless of when one reads it, it's an excellent book, one of the best in the Discworld series to this point.

Followed, in publication order, by Soul Music. The next Watch book is Feet of Clay.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-08-29: PGP::Sign 1.02

This is another test-only release of my module for manipulating PGP signatures in Perl. I'm trying to get the CPAN testing failures down to a dull roar. This iteration fixes some testing issues with systems that have only GnuPG v1 and tries to handle systems whose gpg is GnuPG v2 but is older than 2.1.12 and therefore doesn't have the --pinentry-mode flag that GnuPG uses to suppress password prompting.

I handled the latter by skipping the tests if the gpg on the user's PATH was too old. I'm not certain this is the best approach, although it makes the CPAN automated testing more useful for me, since the module will not work without special configuration on those systems. On the other hand, if someone is installing it to point to some other GnuPG binary on the system at runtime, failing the installation because their system gpg is too old seems wrong, and the test failure doesn't indicate a bug in the module.

Essentially, I'm missing richer test metadata in the Perl ecosystem. I want to be able to declare a dependency on a non-Perl system binary, but of course Perl has no mechanism to do that.

I thought about trying to deal with the Windows failures due to missing IPC::Run features (redirecting high-numbered file descriptors) on the Windows platform in a similar way, but decided in that case I do want the tests to fail because PGP::Sign will never work on that platform regardless of the runtime configuration. Here too I spent some time searching for some way to indicate with Module::Build that the module doesn't work on Windows, and came up empty. This seems to be a gap in Perl's module distribution ecosystem.

In any case, hopefully this release will clean up the remaining test failures on Linux and BSD systems, and I can move on to work on the Big Eight signing key, which was the motivating application for these releases.

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the PGP::Sign distribution page.

2020-08-09: rra-c-util 8.3

In this release of my utility library for my other packages, I finally decided to drop support for platforms without a working snprintf.

This dates back to the early 2000s and a very early iteration of this package. At the time, there were still some older versions of UNIX without snprintf at all. More commonly, it was buggy. The most common problem was that it would return -1 if the buffer wasn't large enough rather than returning the necessary size of the buffer. Or, in some cases, it wouldn't support a buffer size of 0 and a NULL buffer to get the necessary size.

At the time I added this support for INN and some other packages, Solaris had several of these issues. But C99 standardized the correct snprintf behavior, and slowly every maintained operating system was fixed. (I forget whether it was fixed in Solaris 8 or Solaris 9, but regardless, Solaris has had a working snprintf for many years.) Meanwhile, the replacement function (Patrick Powell's version, also used by mutt and other packages) was a huge wad of code and a corresponding test suite. Over time, I've increased the aggressiveness of linters to try to catch more dangerous C pitfalls, and that's required carrying more and more small modifications plus a preamble to disable various warnings that I didn't want to try to fix.

The straw that broke the camel's back was Clang's new case fallthrough warning. Clang stopped supporting the traditional /* fallthrough */ comment. It now prefers [[clang:fallthrough]] syntax, but of course older compilers choke on that. It does support the GCC __attribute__((__fallthrough__)) syntax, but older compilers don't like that construction because they think it's an empty statement. It was a mess, and I decided the time had come to drop this support effort.

At this point, if you're still running an operating system without C99 snprintf, I think it's essentially a retrocomputing or at least extremely stable legacy production situation, and you're unlikely to want the latest and greatest releases of new software. Hopefully that assumption is correct, or at least correct enough.

(I realize the right solution to this problem is probably for me to use Gnulib for portability. But converting to it is a whole other project with a lot of other implications and machinery, and I'm not sure that's what I want to spend time on.)

Also in this release is a fix for network tests on hosts with no IPv4 addresses (more on this when I release the next version of remctl), fixes for style issues found by Perl::Critic::Freenode, and some other test suite improvements.

You can get the latest version from the rra-c-util distribution page.

2020-08-09: DocKnot 3.05

I keep telling myself that the next release of DocKnot will be the one where I convert everything to YAML and then feel confident about uploading it to Debian, and then I keep finding one more thing to fix to release another package I'm working on.

Anyway, this is the package I use to generate software documentation and, in the long run, will subsume my static web site generator and software release workflow. This release tweaks a heuristic for wrapping paragraphs in text documents, fixes the status badge for software with Debian packages to do what I had intended, and updates dependencies based on the advice of Perl::Critic::Freenode.

You can get the latest version from CPAN or from the DocKnot distribution page.

2020-07-27: Review: The City in the Middle of the Night

Review: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

Publisher Tor
Copyright February 2019
Printing February 2020
ISBN 1-4668-7113-X
Format Kindle
Pages 366

January is a tidally-locked planet divided between permanent night and permanent day, an unfortunate destination for a colony starship. Now, humans cling to a precarious existence along the terminator, huddling in two wildly different cities and a handful of smaller settlements, connected by a road through the treacherous cold.

The novel opens with Sophie, a shy university student from the dark side of the city of Xiosphant. She has an overwhelming crush on Bianca, her high-class, self-confident roommate and one of the few people in her life to have ever treated her with compassion and attention. That crush, and her almost non-existent self-esteem, lead her to take the blame for Bianca's petty theft, resulting in what should have been a death sentence. Sophie survives only because she makes first contact with a native intelligent species of January, one that the humans have been hunting for food and sport.

Sadly, I think this is enough Anders for me. I've now bounced off two of her novels, both for structural reasons that I think go deeper than execution and indicate a fundamental mismatch between what Anders wants to do as an author and what I'm looking for as a reader.

I'll talk more about what this book is doing in a moment, but I have to start with Bianca and Sophie. It's difficult for me to express how much I loathed this relationship and how little I wanted to read about it. It took me about five pages to peg Bianca as a malignant narcissist and Sophie's all-consuming crush as dangerous codependency. It took the entire book for Sophie to figure out how awful Bianca is to her, during which Bianca goes through the entire abusive partner playbook of gaslighting, trivializing, contingent affection, jealous rage, and controlling behavior. And meanwhile Sophie goes back to her again, and again, and again, and again. If I hadn't been reading this book on a Kindle, I think it would have physically hit a wall after their conversation in the junkyard.

This is truly a matter of personal taste and preference. This is not an unrealistic relationship; this dynamic happens in life all too often. I'm sure there is someone for whom reading about Sophie's spectacularly poor choices is affirming or cathartic. I've not personally experienced this sort of relationship, which doubtless matters.

But having empathy for someone who is making awful and self-destructive life decisions and trusting someone they should not be trusting and who is awful to them in every way is difficult work. Sophie is the victim of Bianca's abuse, but she does so many stupid and ill-conceived things in support of this twisted relationship that I found it very difficult to not get angry at her. Meanwhile, Anders writes Sophie as so clearly fragile and uncertain and devoid of a support network that getting angry at her is like kicking a puppy. The result for me was spending nearly an entire book in a deeply unpleasant state of emotional dissonance. I may be willing to go through that for a close friend, but in a work of fiction it's draining and awful and entirely not fun.

The other viewpoint character had the opposite problem for me. Mouth starts the book as a traveling smuggler, the sole survivor of a group of religious travelers called the Citizens. She's practical, tough, and guarded. Beneath that, I think the intent was to show her as struggling to come to terms with the loss of her family and faith community. Her first goal in the book is to recover a recording of Citizen sacred scripture to preserve it and to reconnect with her past.

This sounds interesting on the surface, but none of it gelled. Mouth never felt to me like someone from a faith community. She doesn't act on Citizen beliefs to any meaningful extent, she rarely talks about them, and when she does, her attitude is nostalgia without spirituality. When Mouth isn't pursuing goals that turn out to be meaningless, she aimlessly meanders through the story. Sophie at least has agency and makes some important and meaningful decisions. Mouth is just there, even when Anders does shattering things to her understanding of her past.

Between Sophie and Bianca putting my shoulders up around my ears within the first few pages of the first chapter and failing to muster any enthusiasm for Mouth, I said the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") about a hundred pages in and the book never recovered.

There are parts of the world-building I did enjoy. The alien species that Sophie bonds with is not stunningly original, but it's a good (and detailed) take on one of the alternate cognitive and social models that science fiction has dreamed up. I was comparing the strangeness and dislocation unfavorably to China Miéville's Embassytown while I was reading it, but in retrospect Anders's treatment is more decolonialized. Xiosphant's turn to Circadianism as their manifestation of order is a nicely understated touch, a believable political overreaction to the lack of a day/night cycle. That touch is significantly enhanced by Sophie's time working in a salon whose business model is to help Xiosphant residents temporarily forget about time. And what glimmers we got of politics on the colony ship and their echoing influence on social and political structures were intriguing.

Even with the world-building, though, I want the author to be interested in and willing to expand the same bits of world-building that I'm engaged with. Anders didn't seem to be. The reader gets two contrasting cities along a road, one authoritarian and one libertine, which makes concrete a metaphor for single-axis political classification. But then Anders does almost nothing with that setup; it's just the backdrop of petty warlord politics, and none of the political activism of Bianca's student group seems to have relevance or theoretical depth. It's a similar shallowness as the religion of Mouth's Citizens: We get a few fragments of culture and religion, but without narrative exploration and without engagement from any of the characters. The way the crew of the Mothership was assembled seems to have led to a factional and racial caste system based on city of origin and technical expertise, but I couldn't tell you more than that because few of the characters seem to care. And so on.

In short, the world-building that I wanted to add up to a coherent universe that was meaningful to the characters and to the plot seemed to be little more than window-dressing. Anders tosses in neat ideas, but they don't add up to anything. They're just background scenery for Bianca and Sophie's drama.

The one thing that The City in the Middle of the Night does well is Sophie's nervous but excited embrace of the unknown. It was delightful to see the places where a typical protagonist would have to overcome a horror reaction or talk themselves through tradeoffs and where Sophie's reaction was instead "yes, of course, let's try." It provided an emotional strength to an extended first-contact exploration scene that made it liberating and heart-warming without losing the alienness. During that part of the book (in which, not coincidentally, Bianca does not appear), I was able to let my guard down and like Sophie for the first time, and I suspect that was intentional on Anders's part.

But, overall, I think the conflict between Anders's story-telling approach and my preferences as a reader are mostly irreconcilable. She likes to write about people who make bad decisions and compound their own problems. In one of the chapters of her non-fiction book about writing that's being serialized on Tor.com she says "when we watch someone do something unforgivable, we're primed to root for them as they search desperately for an impossible forgiveness." This is absolutely not true for me; when I watch a character do something unforgivable, I want to see repudiation from the protagonists and ideally some clear consequences. When that doesn't happen, I want to stop reading about them and find something more enjoyable to do with my time. I certainly don't want to watch a viewpoint character insist that the person who is doing unforgivable things is the center of her life.

If your preferences on character and story arc are closer to Anders's than mine, you may like this book. Certainly lots of people did; it was nominated for multiple awards and won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. But despite the things it did well, I had a truly miserable time reading it and am not anxious to repeat the experience.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2020-07-26: Summer haul

I'm buying rather too many books at the moment and not reading enough of them (in part because I got back into Minecraft and in part because I got a bit stuck on a few difficult books). I think I've managed to get myself unstuck again, though, and have started catching up on reviews.

2020. It's kind of a lot. And I'm not even that heavily affected.

Katherine Addison — The Angel of the Crows (sff)
Marie Brennan — A Natural History of Dragons (sff)
Kacen Callender — Queen of the Conquered (sff)
Jo Clayton — Diadem from the Stars (sff)
Jo Clayton — Lamarchos (sff)
Jo Clayton — Irsud (sff)
Clifford D. Conner — The Tragedy of American Science (nonfiction)
Kate Elliott — Unconquerable Sun (sff)
Rory Fanning & Craig Hodges — Long Shot (nonfiction)
Michael Harrington — Socialism: Past & Future (nonfiction)
Nalo Hopkinson — Brown Girl in the Ring (sff)
Kameron Hurley — The Stars Are Legion (sff)
N.K. Jemisin — Emergency Skin (sff)
T. Kingfisher — A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking (sff)
T. Kingfisher — Nine Goblins (sff)
Michael Lewis — The Fifth Risk (nonfiction)
Paul McAuley — War of the Maps (sff)
Gretchen McCulloch — Because Internet (nonfiction)
Hayao Miyazaki — Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (graphic novel)
Annalee Newitz — The Future of Another Timeline (sff)
Nick Pettigrew — Anti-Social (nonfiction)
Rivers Solomon, et al. — The Deep (sff)
Jo Walton — Or What You Will (sff)
Erik Olin Wright — Stardust to Stardust (nonfiction)

Of these, I've already read and reviewed The Fifth Risk (an excellent book).

2020-07-26: Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop

Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko

Publisher PublicAffairs
Copyright 2013
ISBN 1-61039-212-4
Format Kindle
Pages 336

As the United States tries, in fits and starts, to have a meaningful discussion about long-standing police racism, brutality, overreach, corruption, and murder, I've realized that my theoretical understanding of the history of and alternative frameworks for law enforcement is woefully lacking. Starting with a book by a conservative white guy is not the most ideal of approaches, but it's what I already had on hand, and it won't be the last book I read and review on this topic. (Most of my research so far has been in podcast form. I don't review those here, but I can recommend Ezra Klein's interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paul Butler, and, most strongly, sujatha baliga.)

Rise of the Warrior Cop is from 2013 and has had several moments of fame, no doubt helped by Balko's connections to the conservative and libertarian right. One of the frustrating facts of US politics is that critiques of the justice system from the right (and from white men) get more media attention than critiques from the left. That said, it's a generally well-respected book on the factual history of the topic, and police brutality and civil rights are among the points on which I have stopped-clock agreements with US libertarians.

This book is very, very libertarian.

In my callow youth, I was an ardent libertarian, so I've read a lot of US libertarian literature. It's a genre with its own conventions that become obvious when you read enough of it, and Rise of the Warrior Cop goes through them like a checklist. Use the Roman Republic (never the Roman Empire) as the starting point for any political discussion, check. Analyze the topic in the context of pre-revolutionary America, check. Spend considerable effort on discerning the opinions of the US founders on the topic since their opinions are always relevant to the modern world, check. Locate some point in the past (preferably before 1960) where the political issue was as good as it has ever been, check. Frame all changes since then as an erosion of rights through government overreach, check. Present your solution as a return to a previous era of respect for civil rights, check. Once you start recognizing the genre conventions, their prevalence in libertarian writing is almost comical.

The framing chapters therefore leave a bit to be desired, but the meat of the book is a useful resource. Starting with the 1970s and its use as a campaigning tool by Nixon, Balko traces a useful history of the war on drugs. And starting with the 1980s, the number of cites to primary sources and the evidence of Balko's own research increases considerably. If you want to know how US police turned into military cosplayers with body armor, heavy weapons, and armored vehicles, this book provides a lot of context and history.

One of the reasons why I view libertarians as allies of convenience on this specific issue is that drug legalization and disgust with the war on drugs have been libertarian issues for decades. Ideologically honest libertarians (and Balko appears to be one) are inherently skeptical of the police, so when the police overreach in an area of libertarian interest, they notice. Balko makes a solid argument, backed up with statistics, specific programs, legislation, and court cases, that the drug war and its accompanying lies about heavily-armed drug dealers and their supposed threat to police officers was the fuel for the growth of SWAT teams, no-knock search warrants, erosion of legal protections for criminal defendants, and de facto license for the police to ignore the scope and sometimes even the existence of warrants.

This book is useful support for the argument that fears for the safety of officers underlying the militarization of police forces are imaginary. One telling point that Balko makes repeatedly and backs with statistical and anecdotal evidence is that the police generally do not use raid tactics on dangerous criminals. On the contrary, aggressive raids are more likely to be used on the least dangerous criminals because they're faster, they're fun for the police (they provide an adrenaline high and let them play with toys), and they're essentially risk-free. If the police believe someone is truly dangerous, they're more likely to use careful surveillance and to conduct a quiet arrest at an unexpected moment. The middle-of-the-night armed break-ins with battering rams, tear gas, and flash-bangs are, tellingly, used against the less dangerous suspects.

This is part of Balko's overall argument that police equipment and tactics have become untethered from any realistic threat and have become cultural. He traces an acceleration of that trend to 9/11 and the resulting obsession with terrorism, which further opened the spigot of military hardware and "special forces" training. This became a point of competition between police departments, with small town forces that had never seen a terrorist and had almost no chance of a terrorist incident demanding their own armored vehicles. I've encountered this bizarre terrorism justification personally; one of the reasons my local police department gave in a public hearing for not having a policy against shooting at moving vehicles was "but what if terrorism?" I don't believe there has ever been a local terrorist attack.

SWAT in such places didn't involve the special training or dedicated personnel of large city forces; instead, it was a part-time duty for normal police officers, and frequently they were encouraged to practice SWAT tactics by using them at random for some otherwise normal arrest or search. Balko argues that those raids were more exciting than normal police work, leading to a flood of volunteers for that duty and a tendency to use them as much as possible. That in turn normalizes disconnecting police tactics from the underlying crime or situational risk.

So far, so good. But despite the information I was able to extract from it, I have mixed feelings about Rise of the Warrior Cop as a whole. At the least, it has substantial limitations.

First, I don't trust the historical survey of policing in this book. Libertarian writing makes for bad history. The constraints of the genre require overusing only a few points of reference, treating every opinion of the US founders as holy writ, and tying forward progress to a return to a previous era, all of which interfere with good analysis. Balko also didn't do the research for the historical survey, as is clear from the footnotes. The citations are all to other people's histories, not to primary sources. He's summarizing other people's histories, and you'll almost certainly get better history by finding well-respected historians who cover the same ground. (That said, if you're not familiar with Peel's policing principles, this is a good introduction.)

Second, and this too is unfortunately predictable in a libertarian treatment, race rarely appears in this book. If Balko published the same book today, I'm sure he would say more about race, but even in 2013 its absence is strange. I was struck while reading by how many examples of excessive police force were raids on west coast pot farms; yes, I'm sure that was traumatic, but it's not the demographic I would name as the most vulnerable to or affected by police brutality. West coast pot growers are, however, mostly white.

I have no idea why Balko made that choice. Perhaps he thought his target audience would be more persuaded by his argument if he focused on white victims. Perhaps he thought it was an easier and less complicated story to tell. Perhaps, like a lot of libertarians, he doesn't believe racism has a significant impact on society because it would be a market failure. Perhaps those were the people who more readily came to mind. But to talk about police militarization, denial of civil rights, and police brutality in the United States without putting race at the center of both the history and the societal effects leaves a gaping hole in the analysis.

Given that lack of engagement, I also am dubious of Balko's policy prescriptions. His reform suggestions aren't unreasonable, but they stay firmly in the centrist and incrementalist camp and would benefit white people more than black people. Transparency, accountability, and cultural changes are all fine and good, but the cultural change Balko is focused on is less aggressive arrest tactics, more use of mediation, and better physical fitness. I would not object to those things (well, maybe the last, which seemed odd), but we need to have a discussion about police white supremacist organizations, the prevalence of spousal abuse, and the police tendency to see themselves not as public servants but as embattled warriors who are misunderstood by the naive sheep they are defending.

And, of course, you won't find in Rise of the Warrior Cop any thoughtful wrestling with whether there are alternative approaches to community safety, whether punitive rather than restorative justice is effective, or whether crime is a symptom of deeper societal problems we could address but refuse to. The most radical suggestion Balko has is to legalize drugs, which is both the predictable libertarian position and, as we have seen from recent events in the United States, far from the only problem of overcriminalization.

I understand why this book is so frequently mentioned on-line, and its author's political views may make it more palatable to some people than a more race-centered or radical perspective. But I don't think this is the best or most useful book on police violence that one could read today. I hope to find a better one in upcoming reviews.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2020-07-25: Review: Paladin's Grace

Review: Paladin's Grace, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher Red Wombat Studio
Copyright 2020
ASIN B0848Q8JVW
Format Kindle
Pages 399

Stephen was a paladin. Then his god died.

He was a berserker, an unstoppable warrior in the service of his god. Now, well, he's still a berserker, but going berserk when you don't have a god to control the results is not a good idea. He and his brothers were taken in by the Temple of the Rat, where they serve as guards, watch out for each other, and try to get through each day with an emptiness in their souls where a god should be.

Stephen had just finished escorting a healer through some of the poorer parts of town when a woman runs up to him and asks him to hide her. Their awkward simulated tryst is sufficient to fool the two Motherhood priests who were after her for picking flowers from the graveyard. Stephen then walks her home and that would have been the end of it, except that neither could get the other out of their mind.

Despite first appearances, and despite being set in the same world and sharing a supporting character, this is not the promised sequel to Swordheart (which is apparently still coming). It's an entirely different paladin story. T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon's nom de plume when writing for adults) has a lot of things to say about paladins! And, apparently, paladin-involved romances.

On the romance front, Kingfisher clearly has a type. The general shape of the story will be familiar from Swordheart and The Wonder Engine: An independent and occasionally self-confident woman with various quirks, a hunky paladin who is often maddeningly dense, and a lot of worrying on both sides about whether the other person is truly interested in them and if their personal liabilities make a relationship a horrible idea. This is not my preferred romance formula (it provokes the occasional muttered "for the love of god just talk to each other"), but I liked this iteration of it better than the previous two, mostly because of Grace.

Grace is a perfumer, a trade she went into by being picked out of a lineup of orphans by a master perfumer for her sense of smell. One of Kingfisher's strengths as a writer is in letting her characters get lost in their routine day-to-day competence. When mixed with an inherently fascinating profession, this creates a great reading experience. Grace is also an abuse survivor, which made the communication difficulties with Stephen more interesting and subtle. Grace has created space and a life for herself, and her unwillingness to take risks on changes is a deep part of her sense of self and personal safety. As her past is slowly revealed, Kingfisher puts the reader in a position to share Stephen's anger and protectiveness, but then consistently puts Grace's own choices, coping mechanisms, and irritated refusal to be protected back into the center of the story. She has to accept some help as she gets entangled in the investigation of a highly political staged assassination attempt, but both that help and the relationship come on her own terms. It's very well-done.

The plot was enjoyable enough, although it involved a bit too much of constantly rising stakes and turns for the worst for my taste, and the ending had a touch of deus ex machina. Like Kingfisher's other books, though, the delight is in the unexpected details. Stephen knitting socks. Grace's frustrated obsession with why he smells like gingerbread. The beautifully practical and respectful relationship between the Temple of the Rat and Stephen's band of former paladins. (After only two books in which they play a major role, the Temple of the Rat is already one of my favorite fantasy religions.) Everything about Bishop Beartongue. Grace's friend Marguerite. And a truly satisfying ending.

The best part of this book, though, is the way Grace is shown as a complete character in a way that even most books with well-rounded characterization don't manage. Some things she does make the reader's heart ache because of the hints they provide about her past, but they're also wise and effective safety mechanisms for her. Kingfisher gives her space to be competent and prickly and absent-minded. She has a complete life: friends, work, goals, habits, and little rituals. Grace meets someone and falls in love, but one can readily imagine her not falling in love and going on with her life and that result wouldn't be tragic. In short, she feels like a grown adult who has made her own peace with where she came from and what she is doing. The book provides her an opportunity for more happiness and more closure without undermining her independence. I rarely see this in a novel, and even more rarely done this well.

If you haven't read any of Kingfisher's books and are in the mood for faux-medieval city romance involving a perfumer and a bit of political skulduggery, this is a great place to start. If you liked Swordheart, you'll probably like Paladin's Grace; like me, you may even like it a bit more. Recommended, particularly if you want something light and heart-warming.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-07-18: PGP::Sign 1.01

This is mostly a test-suite fix for my Perl module to automate creation and verification of detached signatures.

The 1.00 release of PGP::Sign added support for GnuPG v2 and changed the default to assume that gpg is GnuPG v2, but this isn't the case on some older operating systems (particularly non-Linux ones). That in turn caused chaos for automated testing.

This release fixes the test suite to detect when gpg is GnuPG v1 and run the test suite accordingly, trying to exercise as much of the module as possible in that case. It also fixes a few issues found by Perl::Critic::Freenode.

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the PGP::Sign distribution page.

Last spun 2020-09-23 from thread modified 2008-08-13