“The Genius Plague” by David Walton – math, cryptography, and thrilling adventures

One of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction is what I call “disaster” sci-fi (tell me if there’s a better name, please!), and I include things like cli-fi (climate based science fiction) and plagues of the future. Greg Bear is one who has written a lot in this area, and most of Michael Crichton’s novels fell into this general category as well. It tends to be a mashup of real science, math, and wild extrapolations. It’s a kind of offshoot of hard sci-fi that combines thrillers with science fiction.

David Walton, with The Genius Plague, has rocketed onto my radar as a truly gifted writer in this sub-genre. Look, if you’re one to avoid SPOILERS, as I am, don’t read on from here AND DON’T READ THE BLURB ON THE BOOK and go read it ASAP. Read on if you want a fuller picture or to talk about the book with me–please do!

I’m a sucker for mushrooms. No, I don’t like to eat them, but yes, they are fascinating. Diverse, hugely innovative, ancient, and creepy. They beg for science fiction novelists to write about them, and they’ve been successful in those novels I’ve read about them–The Girl With all the Gifts, for example: yes please! Walton starts off with a bang- a mycologist (scientist who studies mushrooms) in the Amazon gets ambushed for no apparent reason along with a woman. They’re both infected with a fungal lung thing and she dies but he survives–just changed. As his brother, who goes to work for the NSA, starts to crack some codes (with Walton mixing a small amount of math and cryptography in just for fun), the menace of this fungal plague grows exponentially.

There are many moving parts in this book: whether it’s Neil’s employment at the NSA and the linguistics, cryptography, and mathematics thrown together for that, or Paul’s interaction with the mushrooms, or international politics, it all moves swiftly. Sometimes, it moves a bit too quickly, and a bit of hand-waving is involved, particularly in the move from beginnings of infection to a seeming world threat. But generally, Walton balances the pace with characterization and fascinating set pieces. Though I wasn’t terribly surprised by any of the twists and turns, I loved the ride so much I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I found this book un-put-down-able, as one of the blurbs on the front cover also called it. I basically opened it yesterday and only stopped while caring for my kids. It was an absolute blast of a novel, and one that had a satisfying conclusion.

Another reason I loved this book is that the characters are fully formed and have unique feels to them. Also (and this is a big spoiler for some character development towards the VERY end, so don’t read it if you don’t want it spoiled), I liked that Neil and Shaunessy didn’t end up together and decided to be friends-ish. It was a kind of affirmation of male-female friendship that I truly appreciated. Well done, Walton! [/end big spoilers]

The Genius Plague has earned a place on my personal top 100 sci-fi novels list. It does have a few flaws, but those are overshadowed by a truly great novel that kept me turning the pages compulsively all day. Go read it!

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Rutherford B. Hayes #19

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Rutherford B. Hayes, the Nineteenth  President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President by Ari Hoogenboom.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President

Rutherford B. Hayes is one of those Presidents who has disappeared from history. I remember never hearing or learning anything about the man throughout my history classes (hopefully none of my history teachers/professors read this in sorrow–I may have just forgotten, to be fair!). When I got to this biography, I knew only a little more about him, mostly through reading a few works about Reconstruction and the other biographies of Presidents. Hoogenboom’s goal in this work is clearly to show that Hayes ought to be more remembered, both due to his influence on the office of the President and his work throughout his life.

Hayes was raised by his mother, Siphia Birchard–his father died 11 weeks before he was born. The family was closely knit and his mother never pushed him too hard in any one direction. He eventually ended up at Harvard Law School. During his young adult life, his thought and stance on slavery continued to develop, eventually moving towards a decidedly anti-slavery stance. He became an anti-slavery lawyer and defended fugitive slaves with his law practice. He became involved in politics as he became city solicitor–not his first  choice, but a well-paying one for the time. When the Civil War began, he initially stayed out of the fray, eventually entering the war as an officer.

Hayes distinguished himself repeatedly in military service, getting wounded 5 times throughout the War. He commanded several victorious battles and found himself somewhat a genius for war and also discovered he enjoyed what he saw as the thrill of combat. Unlike other letters from combatants I have read, Hayes’s letters as Hoogenboom cites them contain an almost light air–as though the battles were all in good fun, even as he describes people dying and the wounds he received. It’s clear that he had the constitution for battle. Ulysses S. Grant recognized Hayes’s prowess and lauded it.

After the War, Hayes again moved into politics, first as a congressman, then as Governor of Ohio. In Ohio, he helped ensure ratification of the 15th Amendment and worked for black voting rights. His various successes in politics lead to a nomination for President in 1876–a Presidential campaign that would be extremely contentious. There were multiple electors sent from several states and this led to disptue over 20 different electors and which were the valid ones to vote for President. Hayes needed all 20 disputed electors, and after much dispute, Hayes managed to gain them all. His election would be called a massive compromise by many Southern Democrats, but what Hoogenboom points out is that Hayes’s views on the issues that he allegedly “compromised” on were already in place before the election.

These “compromised” positions included Hayes’s belief that he ought to withdraw federal troops from Southern states. This was a hotly contested issue due to the implications for Reconstruction. Radical Republicans wished to keep them in place both to support fair elections and to enforce more strident, punitive measures against Southern states. Hayes continually believed–even before and possibly during the Civil War–that the United States had to be truly united. The way he felt that would best be accomplished was through self-rule by the South, rather than continuing to use federal troops. Part of this may have been pragmatic, as well, as Southern Democrats were pushing to defund military expenditures, leading to many federal troops working without pay for some time. This situation certainly favored some way to attempt to preserve Reconstruction while also moving control to the South. Hayes’s solution may be looked back on as somewhat naive–he believed that if he pulled out federal troops from the South and secured promises from Southern elite leaders, they would honor their word and protect black rights, including voting rights, in their states. This manifestly did not happen, but Hayes did not “compromise” here–instead, he attempted to implement an ultimately unsuccessful policy, trusting white elites to keep their word rather than betraying his trust. This situation would continue to worsen during his presidency as black voting rights began to be suppressed in earnest.

Hayes also faced major economic crises, including a battle over how to get the country out of a depression alongside major labor strikes, particularly related to the railroads. Hayes favored a more conservative gold standard for the dollar, moving it back to something that would be more trusted worldwide to support its value. This strategy ultimately succeeded, leading to the dollar’s value to increase relative to the world once again and help lead the United States out of a depression. The labor strikes were largely centered around railroads, as owners attempted to salvage their stock dividends by cutting the wages of their workers and forcing them to work longer and worse hours. When railroad executives appealed to Hayes, he responded by sending in troops, but only to defend public property. He took a moderate approach, not allowing the government to become a kind of strike-breaker for the railroads. This strategy paid off in the long run, as the railroads eventually raised wages back to more acceptable levels, though only after breaking the strikes with no small amount of violence.

Anti-Chinese sentiment increased across the United States, and particularly in California, during this time. People argued Chinese laborers were stealing American jobs with low-wage work (this ought to sound somewhat familiar to the modern ear), leading to the attempt to pass laws banning all Chinese from immigrating to the United States. Hayes wielded his power to veto here, and instead went directly to the Chinese government to make a treaty that would be amenable to both governments. Though this included a ban and restrictions on Chinese immigration, it is clear that Hayes saw in this anti-Chinese sentiment even worse repercussions for white supremacy. Hoogenboom notes that Hayes spoke at length about white oppression of others and against racism, despite his ultimate concession through treaty with the Chinese to some of this white supremacist thought.

Hayes also saw this thread of “bullying” by whites in the interactions with Native Americans. Specifically, the Nex Perce War, which was started by numerous white settlers invading land that did not belong to them and attempting to rid it even of those Native Americans who wished to live alongside them peacefully. Hayes worked to try to secure the land for the Native Americans, but ultimately caved to some white interests. He did work to suppress railroads and other disruptions of Native land, but had to fight against no small amount of heavy-handed tactics by others as well as the force of military action that had already begun without his authorization. The remoteness of these conflicts made it especially difficult for Hayes to handle, and he attempted to curtail white encroachment in Native lands by ordering them to be expelled, even prosecuting at least one major intruder in Native lands. However, the damage was already done, and less than a decade after Hayes’s presidency, Congress would forcibly and unilaterally allow further invasion of Native lands.

Another conflict in Hayes’s presidency centered around the patronage system for government positions. Hayes ultimately won this battle, facing down numerous senators who attempted to preserve their power to make their favored people occupy key government posts. Essentially, Hayes paved the way for more government posts to be directly controlled by the President and for the senators to issue recommendations rather than simply giving the posts to relatives or patrons without any oversight. Yet another major exercise of Presidential power by Hayes centered around the Enforcement Acts and voting rights for new black voters. Time and again the Senate attempted to pass laws that would effectively gut the 15th Amendment. These included many attempts to set up riders on bills that Hayes may otherwise have favored. Hayes publicly carried out this battle, using the veto over and over and elucidating to the public his reasons for doing so centered around the 15th Amendment. It was a battle he won handily, forcing Congress to back down after multiple defeats. Unfortunately for our country’s history, many states would violate these laws without consequences anyway, usually with the backing or at least intentional ignoring of all three branches of the government.

Hayes favored universal education as well as prison reform, seeing imprisonment as punishment but also the chance to bring reform to someone’s life. He became especially active in these areas after his presidency, leading to at least some minor reforms in that area.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President is a great biography, though certainly biased towards its subject. Hoogenboom makes no effort to hide that, though. And it seems to be the case that Hayes’ legacy is one that deserves a closer look, even if many of his attempts at wider reform would give in to the grind of elitist, racist rule in the years and decades following his leadership.

Rutherford B. Hayes’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President – Original Ranking #5)- Rutherford B. Hayes was a reform-minded President in an era that needed it. He actively worked to thwart racism against Chinese, Native Americans, and African Americans, but in the long-term, his efforts failed. He naively believed that the Southern elites would hold true to their promises to defend black voters, while also taking the pragmatic path in withdrawing federal oversight from the governance of southern states. Despite these failures, Hayes also had much success. He did manage to thwart some of the rising racist sentiment, going directly to the Chinese government to negotiate a mutually agreeable treaty regarding immigration (despite this being guided by racial bias, Hayes managed to secure a lesser of two evils). He wielded his power to veto with authority to smack down southern congresspeople who tried to gut the 15th Amendment. He worked for prison and education reform and succeeded in bringing at least some of the change he saw as necessary. His administration stopped the depression by backing the dollar while also backing a moderate policy about labor that ultimately secured some small modicum of rights for the laborers. Hayes has undeservedly been forgotten in most surveys of United States history, but his impact is bigger than may be thought. His active work to curtail many of the evils of our country, though not saving it, did manage to salvage it from some of the worst possible turns. Thrust into an unenviable time, he succeeded in at least finding some of the light in the darkness, and doing so in a commendable way.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“Amazing Tales” – Review of a pencil & paper RPG for kids

I don’t really make it a secret: I’m a huge nerd. So is my wife. So when we found out we were having a child some years ago, one of the things that came to mind was how to pass on my love of tabletop RPGs to my kids. I even did some research early on. More recently, with my child growing older and another on the way, I got more serious about the search. Time and again, the book “Amazing Tales” was what was recommended to me. This past Easter, I finally got the book for my eldest and started to play it right away.

The game is a smash hit in our house, to say the least. My kid talks about it constantly and we have a ton of fun together. I’d like to offer my own little review here, so that others who may be interested can enjoy it as much as we are!

One of the best parts about Martin Lloyd’s system is that he basically has the different aspects that make games like Dungeons & Dragons great in this game, while making them much simpler- simple enough for a four year old to grasp it. There’s character creation–you pick a “class” that relates to the type of adventures you’re doing, with several suggestions in each world (eg. Robot for the sci-fi setting or a knight in a fantasy setting). Then, you pick 4 things that the character is good at. Some ideas are provided (eg. “being strong” or “making things”), but Lloyd encourages letting your kids run with it. For example, he writes about a game with one of his kids where the Pirate he made has a pet octopus and has a kind of “handle animal” as a skill that let him, in the adventure, use the octopus to do things for him. The character creation part lets your kids run wild, but Lloyd also offers suggestions to help make characters as broadly effective as they need to be. With 4 skills, you then ask the kids to pick which they’re best at, next best at, and so on. Then, these skills are assigned a D12 (best), D10 (next best), D8, and D6. Success for using the skill is 3 or higher, so the game is heavily weighted on letting kids run with their imagination while you guide the story along.

Lloyd has 4 settings, effectively following Fairies/talking animals, knights/magic, pirates, and sci-fi tropes. I have started a homebrew setting for my kid’s knights/magic kingdom. Lloyd provides tons of ideas for expanding the setting, integrating sounds/etc. into it, and the like. Then,  you just run with it. It’s a lot like the “Yes, and” type of improv comedy people do. Your child may say something that seems impossible, but instead of shooting it down, let their imagination guide you! In the sci-fi setting played, my child played an inventor who was good at building things, and when confronted by an asteroid threat to the planet, the solution was offered to build a dungeon for it to get stuck in. We did it, but then got stuck later in the same dungeon and had to escape! These kind of wrinkles allow a more complex and rewarding play experience.

The book itself is richly illustrated and full of ideas. It’s not going to tell you everything about how to run a game, but Lloyd gives many seeds for stories (and I love the “twists” he throws into them, letting you make an even deeper story for your kids). The ways to deal with repeated failures (eg. rolling 1-2 over and over) are interesting and helpful, and the book really gives a quick baseline for you to run with as a parent. Experienced role playing gamers will easily be able to pick it up and play, while newer gamers may need to teach themselves a little bit more. Overall, the ease of the system is a huge selling point. I read the book and within a few minutes was playing the game with my child, who adores it.

Amazing Tales is a really excellent resource as an introduction to role-playing games. It does it in a way that lays foundations for a long, illustrious, book-collecting, dice-rolling career as a gamer. I very highly recommend it.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Policy and Public Health: How several policies are negatively impacting the nation’s health

The way that we vote and the policies our leaders put in place can have significant ramifications for public health, as well as for our own health. Jonathan M. Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness shows how specific policies have negatively impacted public health (and other measurable outcomes). I was fascinated by this read, and wanted to discuss some of the data and subjects Metzl covers here.

Gun Rights and Public Health in Missouri

Missouri was once one of the most restrictive states in the union when it comes to gun laws. Then, after the turn of the century in the early 2000s into today, major support for repealing these gun control laws was stirred up. Now, Missouri boasts some of the greatest “gun rights” in the country, including the “guns everywhere bill” which removed “requirements for training, education, background checks, and permits needed to carry concealed weapons…” and also “annulled most city and regional gun restrictions” while expanding the “Castle Doctrine” against perceived dangers (24). Thus, Missouri can truly act as a kind of measuring stick for whether more guns yields less crime and, for Metzl’s focus, better public health.

Statistics show that since the 2007 repeal of the permit-to-purchase handgun law in the state, there has been a 25% increase in firearm homicide rates. Additionally, “Rates of gun death by suicide, partner violence, and accidental shooting soared as well” to the point that in 2014, for the first time in the state, gun deaths topped motor vehicle accidents for cause of death in the state (25). A common refrain, of course, is that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” What such a slogan ignores is that guns make people much more effective at killing people, often including themselves. The statistics and supporting studies suggest that gun laws including things like a permit-to-purchase law, reduces deaths, especially those by suicide.

The Affordable Care Act and Public Health in Tennessee 

Tennessee’s politicians and popular voters went against funding the Affordable Care Act after it was passed, and this has had significant outcomes in terms of public health. Because Medicaid wasn’t expanded as it could have been, this meant that between 1,863-4,599 black lives could have been saved but weren’t, and between 6,365 and 12,013 white lives might have been saved as well. I’m not an expert in how they get these numbers, but Metzl draws out both the method and the implications (174-175). Effectively, because people in the state of Tennessee gave into fears about “socialism” as well as racially charged rhetoric of “welfare queens,” they voted themselves into death, sometimes literally dying instead of getting the benefits that may have saved them if they had simply funded the ACA. One telling interview Metzl conducted includes a man who is likely dying from hepatitis C who says that he’d “rather die” than have “my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens” (3). Metzl concludes from this and many other conversations that “Trevor voiced a literal willingness to die for his place in this hierarchy [of racially charged superiority], rather than participate in a system that might put him on the same plane as immigrants or racial minorities” (4).

What is even scarier about this is that proposed policies continue to pile on the negative public health outcomes. The number of uninsured Americans is projected to skyrocket back up if the ACA is repealed or replaced with a policy that fails to fund it adequately. Unfortunately, those most in need are the ones projected to suffer most. Learning about the real-world impact of sloganizing health care is something we all ought to do.

Education and Public Health in Kansas

The state of Kansas is a real world example of what happens when libertarian, anti-tax policies are incorporated at a state-level into the education system. When Kansas voted in significant Republican, libertarian-leaning leadership, Kansas became an example of what happens when policies of pro-corporate tax cuts and the notion of trickle-down economics is fully implemented. HB 2117, signed by governor Brownback, reduced taxes on top tax brackets by 25% (201). Along with these, the school finance bills that continued to pass defunded public school while simultaneously declaring that this lack of funds were “a win for Kansas students” (201, quoting Brownback).

What’s remarkable about this is that the public health impact on defunding schools can be measured. Additionally, Kansans of color are demonstrably more likely to be negatively impacted by the tax plans implemented by the government (212). As schools were defunded, graduation rates fell, as did commitment to higher education and post-graduate programs. Measurements that include “all-cause death rates” show a decline as Americans achieve higher education. Thus, a US adult without a high school diploma “can expect to die nine years sooner than college graduates” and the difference between someone with a college degree or a professional degree is five years of life expectancy. Additionally, adults without high school diplomas are more likely to have diabetes and other negative health outcomes (242). So, apart from all questions of whether cutting funding for schools somehow improves their outcomes–itself a highly questionable claim–the ties to public health alone show that Kansas effectively reduced its citizens life expectancy due to these funding cuts.

Conclusion

Quite seriously, the politics of resentment and dogma that has a knee jerk reaction to certain words means that we as a country are voting ourselves into poor health outcomes. Dying of Whiteness is a fantastic read that will challenge readers from all political perspectives to think about possible longer term impacts of the policies they support. I very highly recommend it to you, dear readers.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Reading the Horus Heresy, Book 3: “Galaxy in Flames” by Ben Counter

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally decided to start reading the “Horus Heresy,” a huge series of novels set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000 (though it is set much earlier than the year 40,000). I thought it would be awesome to blog the series as I go. With more than 50 novels and many, many short stories, there will be a lot of posts in this series (I doubt I’ll get to all the short stories). I’m reading the series in publication order unless otherwise noted. There will be SPOILERS from the books discussed as well as previous books in the series. Please DO NOT SPOIL later books in the series.

Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter

Ben Counter wrote some of my favorite WH40K fiction, and I know that some people who are really into the lore don’t like them, but that would be the Grey Knights series. Those books were some of the most metal science fiction I’ve ever read. Totally awesome. So I had high hopes for this book, and I was not disappointed.

Galaxy in Flames is surely a pivotal moment in the whole saga, as it shows that the heresy has now taken action. It is here that the traitor factions begin to attack and kill those loyal to the Emperor. Counter does a good job bringing characterization to many of the players, though at times it moves swiftly past these minor characters so the reader doesn’t get a good sense of some of them. However, the main players are of interest, and the action is spot-on as it has been in every Counter book I have read.

There was one scene in particular that I enjoyed, and that was the showdown in the Titan as different players joined either loyalist or traitor sides, then fought inside the titan. I have always enjoyed Warhammer fiction about Titans, and this brought some new dynamics I haven’t read before.

I think what has really made these books enjoyable, though, is the nods to my background knowledge of other lore and fiction I have read in the universe. Like the build up of the cult of the Emperor is fascinating, because it’s taken as such a given in the 40k part of the universe. I also think the questions about Chaos make it seem more dynamic than it is in 40K. That’s not to knock the 40K fiction I’ve read, which is mostly awesome–what I’m saying is that having characters struggle with what Chaos is and how it could be used or abused is a good way to bring interest to something that is mostly black and white in the farther future.

Galaxy in Flames is another fascinating entry in what is already turning out to be a great series. I look forward to diving into the next book in the massive series soon!

Links

Reading the Horus Heresy- This will be a link for the series of posts as I continue to write them.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.