Many people, including myself, automatically think of "the client is always right" when talking capitalism, but that's not correct. In fact, capitalism is defined as "an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state"; profit is the only goal or driver of the system, even for different systems, which might be controlled by the state, for example. Every social or legislative characteristic of a particular political system is just a patch that tries to fix from outside what is obviously a ridiculously simplistic concept.

  Even so, we still cling to the idea that we are "served" by companies, like we are some sort of aristocrats being catered for by legions of servants. There is a logic to that, as when a company stops catering to their clientele, they are supposed to lose it. But that's just an illusion. In fact, this only happens if some very specific conditions are met:

  1. the client is aware of the bad service, meaning:
    • they know what they're supposed to get
    • they know what they are getting
  2. there is an alternative to the service, meaning:
    • there is at least another company able to meet the requirements
    • the company is accessible to the client
      • the cost of access is reasonable
      • the client is allowed to access the competitor
    • the client knows the competitor exists
  3. the client wants to get better service, meaning:
    • there isn't too small of a difference between various services (subjective perception that all companies are the same)
    • the effort of changing the service is not too large (subjective perception of effort)
    • the emotions of the client do not bind them to the company (subjective perception of the company)

  Now, all of the points above require not only effort, but persistent effort. One needs to get the necessary knowledge and then keeping up to date, avoiding misdirection and obfuscation, then make decisions and then take action. But even so...

  A company is usually a client of other companies. In my job I am usually hired by companies who do management of people for other companies that need software, with any number of intermediaries and internal chains of command inside each. One might think that because the end client is paying for the entire chain, we should all care about what they want. But we do not! And here are a few of the reasons:

  1. the client does NOT know what they want, therefore they will never be aware of what they're supposed to get
  2. the client has spent considerable effort in creating a relationship between them and the company that provides them with the software, therefore the effort of changing to another provider is quite forbidding
  3. the client has spent considerable effort in creating a relationship with just one company, because they don't want to handle ANY of the responsibilities that company is supposed to handle, therefore they are not in contact with competitors
  4. the chain of command inside the client is made up of people who have personal connections with the company in question, so changing to another provider would be in their detriment, therefore the client is not allowed to change to another provider
  5. the company itself is not providing a better service because it doesn't have to, for the same profit; their competitors think alike, so there is absolutely no reason to change
  6. there is an intermediary system to measure productivity: instead of getting paid for value, the company gets paid for hours worked, for example
  7. a smaller nimbler company might rise to provide the same service for less money or a better service for the same amount, but there is point 4. as well as the perception that smaller companies are riskier
  8. a company might want to change, but be unable to because it depends on other companies or it lacks the necessary competency
  9. one might be competent inside of a company, but if the company is big enough, they get promoted to other posts until they reach a position were they are not competent enough to be promoted
  10. clients themselves prefer to cut costs than get better service

  This happens at every level from the top - where you feel you might be, to the bottom - where you actually are. And guess what? When you realize the same effort and care that you expect from others should be coming from you, you quickly find reasons not to provide any of them:

  1. my job is boring, why should I do better?
  2. my boss is an ass, why should I do better?
  3. my clients are idiots, why should I do better?
  4. I never meet my clients, that someone else's job, why should I do better?
  5. whenever I tried to change something, someone shut me down because they are better positioned than me, why should I do better?
  6. I am getting paid by the hour, so working faster means less money, why should I do better?
  7. most of the money from the client remains with the entire chain of people over me and I get the scraps, why should I do better?
  8. my job is not important for me, it's just a means to support my actual life, why should I do better?

  This may appear as a pyramid of interests where you are just a cog in the machine or whatever, but it is not, it's a full circle. You get what you give. The client and the company and the least competent employee is always you. There are no other species of creatures that fill any of these positions. Your boss is human, your employee is human, your client is human. In Romania there is the saying that you're stealing your own hat.

  But it's OK. You can't do any better, so why should you do better? You are only human, so why be more human? You are a tiny cog in the machine so why grow larger? Do whatever you want, I don't care.

  Shorefall continues the story of Foundryside, but the careful plans of the characters are completely upended by the arrival of a terrible villain. And when I say upended, I mean almost nothing except the characters in the first book in the Founders trilogy remains relevant and by the end, which I don't want to spoil, even less is left. This is a cataclysmic book in regards to the story and therefore it feels like a rollercoaster ride. I just couldn't put the book down. It's fun and terrifying, it's smart and compelling.

  I was complaining in my review of Foundryside that the story and characters have turned formulaic and that the information given to the reader was too revealing. I guess in Shorefall these concerns are no longer relevant, since the characters have been already defined and knowledge is no longer imparted to the reader except when it is about to be used. Which is worse! Time and again the story seems to judder and change direction because of something a character suddenly remembers or reveals or gets a glimpse of in a vision related to some magical scriving. Scrivings don't work like that, they are code, they are careful imprintings of arguments designed to do a very very specific thing. There is no reason for them to contain personal memories. This is the equivalent of hacker films where the protagonist is using a graphical interface to break into a computer system and then gets a self playing video from the administrator on the screen.

  Bottom line: I liked the book, it entertained me tremendously and I will no doubt read the third book in the trilogy, probably due in 2022 if the same rate of writing is applied. However there is a vagueness in the scriving of the book that makes it vulnerable to argumentation. The next trilogy (one can only hope it would be a stand alone book) from Robert Jackson Bennett will probably prove what direction he is willing to take in his writing.

  I don't remember where I got the idea of reading Prosper's Demon, but I am glad I did! Having listened to it on my headphones I got to that part where they list other works by the same author and so I've learned that K. J. Parker is a nom de plume for Tom Holt. I hadn't heard of him until then, but the list of works went on and on and on. Probably I will have to read some other books from him now, but which one should I start with?

  Prosper's Demon is a novella about an exorcist that wanders the land in order to excise demons from living people, often leaving those people hurt, dead or insane. You get little glimpses of what this means as the story progresses, making it more and more clear that you have to be a certain kind of person to do a job like this. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I have to say that the writing was so good that I really wouldn't have cared much how the story ended. I had fun just seeing this anti hero's character unfold in front of me. The world building was also exquisite, considering the short length of the work.

  Bottom line: really good fun, mixing together logic, science, art and philosophy with pure unapologetic mischief and good writing.

  I wish I would have read Women when I was a teenager. I would have learned then that there is no shame in being a man and wanting women and not caring about their neuroses. They might complain about it, but that's their point of view. And in a way, that's the only good thing this book has to teach: how to live unapologetically, accepting who you are. Other than that, the main character, an alter ego of Charles Bukowski, is an old writer who drinks all day, fucks whatever he finds and gambles at the horse race track. By his own admission he only writes so he can do these three things.

  The prose is almost without introspection, just what people did and what they said, but when the character delves into analysing the situations, there are some brilliant passages, some hilariously funny. Imagine someone going through life like in a third person game. They see themselves do things, things that they just feels like doing, and feel little to no shame or responsibility. The entire book is dedicated to the women in his life which are, although very different from one another, easy, sexual, desperate and sometimes downright crazy. He never judges them, except for their sexual technique or pussy size and shape, but he never gets stuck with any of them, even the ones he is in love with.

  What I liked about the character is that he is never violent. Like a Big Lebowski kind of guy, he sails through life like a goose in water; nothing sticks. He loves and leaves, he cares but up to a point, he tries to be good to the people around him, but only after he takes care of his own needs. I had a friend like that once. He was caring and amazingly charismatic, but never right or reliable. Another similar character was Hank Moody, from Californication, which I really loved in the first two seasons.

  Did I love the book? I can't say that I did, but I did like it a lot. It was different from other things I've read and what I feel is probably gratefulness for having such a raw depiction of everything the character/the writer lived and felt. So many books are trying too hard to be smart and fail to pass that first bar of characters laid bare so the reader can fully understand them. There is absolutely no story in this other than the life of Henry Chinaski.

  Something else that I have to say is that the book is something that should be read in this period. It goes back to the basic essence of man and woman, without caring one iota about politics or correctness or trying to absolve the main character in any way. Just like the guy lives in the book, the writing is take it or leave it.

  I wanted to read something by Larry Niven, so I've decided to go with The Mote in God's Eye, written in collaboration with Jerry Pournelle. I may have read it a long time ago, decades past, because I remembered one particular line from it, but just that. And it is a wonderful book. I guess I appreciate it now more than I would have ever appreciated it in my childhood because now I know what kind of crap can be sold as science fiction and also how ridiculous most science predictions from 1975 turned out to be.

  This book stands the test of time and the test of writing and the test for science fiction. The first one, for me, it's the more extraordinary, but it is helped a lot by the second. It takes a certain amount of maturity to decide to write something respectful to the reader and only include the minimal technical and scientific descriptions required to fully describe the situation. As for the third, I think the genre is defined by asking "What if?" and taking it to a plausible technological extreme. And this book does it brilliantly.

  Imagine, if you will, what would happen when the Empire of Man will meet a race of aliens that are stuck in their solar system, but other than that older, smarter, faster and more advanced than we are. The slight anachronism of the book allows for people to discuss what should be done before anything is decided, that both military, political and civilian agencies get to have a say. To get the scientists be actual caring people who argue their cause and viewpoint, the soldiers actual caring people who think about what their best choice should be in concordance with their beliefs, thoughts as well as their orders and to have nobles that care about their empire and their people and listen before they decide. Imagine that in a recent fiction book.

  I don't want to spoil it. The species of the "moties" is defined and explored very well, as are the humans and their society. It was interesting to me that the less plausible things were not technological, but biological and medical. We've come a long way since fifty years ago in that area and I am glad to see it. The ending of the book had a much slower pace than the rest. I felt like it was going to end, but it just kept going. It is important to reach the end, but that's just about the only problem I have with the book: the pacing problems at the end.

  Bottom line: I forced myself to start reading another book because I wanted to immediately read the entire series, which contains an immediate sequel, a prequel and a 2010 sequel written by Jennifer R. Pournelle, the original author's daughter. I highly recommend it. 

  I found out Neil Gaiman when I read American Gods, which I enjoyed much more than the TV series based on it. Also a book about a parallel magical world that most people are not aware of, it was still something I felt was very American, very Western, even if it was telling the stories of a multitude of gods from all over.

  Neverwhere feels more like Spirited Away than a Western story, though. And it is funny, because the mythology used as its base is British and everything happens in a parallel underground London. The lead character is an anonymous successful dolt working in the financial system who is suddenly thrust into this magical world by a simple act of kindness.

  The book is rather short and the story, while extremely enjoyable and very well written, is not that important. I mean, it's a classic hero journey (I am a sucker for those) but the beauty is in the characters and the details. I still would have wanted the main character to do something about Anastaesia and the reasons why Door was alive, then people trying to kill her, then back again are quite dodgy when you think about it. Also, the Warrior? Seriously?

  Bottom line: if you feel like immersing yourself into a magical world that feels close and real, but also incredible and impossible, then that's the book for you.

  Finna is a novella of only 144 pages, of course the beginning of a series, one that I have absolutely no intention to read. To be blunt, the only reason why I didn't rate this booklet the lowest is that Nino Cipri is actually queer/trans/nonbinary and so I can't complain about the characters being that way with absolutely no relevance to the story. I probably fell (again) for one of those agenda driven fake reviews that recommended it.

  Speaking of the story, it's a rather refreshing concept but that can be explored in a single page. It's a variation on the "doors to other universes" trope. However, most of the short span of the book doesn't focus on the idea or on what happens or even on character development. Instead, it goes on and on about how offensive it is for people to not use the correct pronouns, how tough it is to be queer or mentally afflicted, which is the all the depth the two main characters ever reach. The writing style is telegraphic, almost report like, lacking anything to make me feel anything (good).

  It is a really annoying book because the leads are totally unlikeable. They work at an Ikea clone for minimum wage, they complain all the time, they couldn't care less about people around them except for the awkward romantic relationship they have and even then not much, they go through parallel universes without paying attention, they act and emote without considering the consequences of their actions then blame it on how their brain is wired and so on. It's a story seen through the eyes of teens who would rather spend time with their phone than wonder about the world. I wouldn't be surprised to hear this was one of those books written in tweets or whatever. Still better than 50 Shades of Grey, but that's not saying much.

  And yes, I sound like a grumpy old man because this is what this book makes me feel like: totally disconnected from the entire generation of the characters in the story. They don't even sound like real people to me. It's a story about exploring strange new worlds which pauses every time something could be interesting to focus on how the characters felt in the world they left behind and how their relationship should have, could have, will have...

  Bottom line: Minimum effort and maximum annoyance.

  I have heard about Kurt Vonnegut a few times, like someone I just had to read. So I started with Slaughterhouse Five, first published in 1969 and widely acclaimed as his best work. I guess for 1969 it was great. It is subtle, it is poignant, it is ingenious, it is satirical, it is anti-war. It is not entertaining, though. It's just really sad and bleak.

  Imagine if Forrest Gump would not have been a kind country boy with a slightly slow mind, but a guy heavily affected by PTSD after witnessing the horrific firebombing of Dresden, with illusions of alien abduction. Dresden was bombed in WWII into oblivion by British forces, some say as retaliation for the German rocket bombings of London, even if it was mostly a civilian city filled with refugees.

  But that part of the book, which is drawn from Vonnegut's own experience, even if it is the event that caused everything, is placed at the end of it. The rest of it is the story of the fictional main character who becomes (or believes he does) unstuck in time, which allows him to randomly travel back and forth into his life. He is also abducted by aliens who live in four dimensions, time being the fourth one, and to which time, cause, effect, action and consequences are nonsense. Every moment is unchangeable and set and they can just visit any of them. It is worth mentioning that one of the symptoms of PTSD is this very realistic recollection of past events. It also makes sense for a person afflicted by this to build a narrative in which everything that happens, no matter how atrocious, is not preventable. Anyway, this way of telling events adds an interesting way of understanding them, allows for comedy and satire, makes it all very personal, which is good, but that's about the only thing I liked about the book.

  Now, being studied in school, there are way too many commentaries and reviews trying to explain what the book was about and how brilliant it was. I can only say if I liked it or not. And the answer is that I understand why it is a highly regarded piece of literature, but I did not enjoy reading it. And not because it is terribly depressing, which it is, but because the main character is only interesting because he went through some horrific events, otherwise he is boring and worthless. This makes things even sadder, because this means a big part of the author felt that way about himself.

  Bottom line: It may be poignant, as the cover says, but it is not hilarious. Instead it is depressing and gets so more as one understands more of it. It is a personal expression of deep trauma, so if you enjoy that kind of thing, this is the book for you.

  When I was a high school kid it was fashionable among the street thugs of Bucharest to use the insult "slave". I don't believe this was related to the history of slavery of the gipsy people in Romania's past, which was the ancestry of many influential such thugs, as it was something borrowed from the Americans, where that issue is much more aggravating. If I am correct, then the very use of the term denotes the way Romanians relate to other people, especially those who they perceive superior. Of course, if I am wrong, then I am guilty of the same thing, so QED, I guess?

  After the Romanian Revolution against Communism (note the big R we use for that event, being the only real change we ever affected as a people) people from different countries came to assess the opportunities presented by a newly opened territory. One report that I saw with my own eyes was from a Jewish lawyer who said just that: Romania is filled with highly educated people who distrust their own government, laws and look poorly on local products and people. Instead, they revere national brands they never actually had any real recent contact with like the U.S. and West Germany, preferring ideas and things imported from there to things they could get or make locally. He concluded that it was a good place to invest in, since the quality of the local human resource was high and their expectations were low.

  The Revolution was in 1989, 32 years ago, but the mentality is still mostly there, as even the people who teach the children of today are still of the generation that lived through that era. It is funny to discuss education with a Romanian, they all complain about how bad it is related to how it was, because children aren't fed the same amount of unprocessed information that was the mainstay of the Communist education. They are rarely complaining about the lack of technological advancement in schools or of skills that are useful in real life or about how children are not taught how to be passionate and happy. Even so, they don't do anything at all to change anything. The only measure of control that parents have is to which school to pay people for their kids to get into and, more recently, to which expensive private school to send their kids in order to give them what they see as the proper education.

  The heroes of the Romanians are not the successful entrepreneurs. The media rarely mentions them and then it is mostly because they were paid for by those people. In case an average Romanian hears about a successful Romanian businessman, it is assumed they had connections with the people who ruled the country during the Communist era. Since they started with money and/or influence, their success is surely undeserved. Funny enough, people like doctors are not heroes either, because in Romania people usually have to bribe medical personnel to get any of the treatments that are theoretically free. Even when they go to private clinics the instinct is to pay extra to appease the doctors who, in their natural state, would try to kill them. This is, of course, caused by a systemic underfunding of medicine and by the endemic corruption which sees any funds misused or embezzled. Because of this, a medic who saves lives - even when they refuse to accept any extra money, is not a hero, but just incompetent or parasitic. Heroes are not the people who left the country to get abused as cheap labor abroad either. People who went to Spain to pick strawberries or to Greece to pick olives are just poor uneducated people who are clearly poor stock, perhaps even gipsy people. They deserve no respect. Same for prostitutes, who are universally despised as shaming the country and at the same time praised for being amongst the most beautiful of prostitutes.

  There was once a news report about people going to pick strawberries on TV and the mother of a girl going to Spain explained how she taught her daughter to conform to whatever they say there, to not antagonize the boss. Just work hard and make money and do whatever he says. This was her mother!

  Police people are not heroic, either. They don't protect the citizens, they enforce unreasonable rules. Politicians are not heroes, they are either the absolute evil or the person who is opposing the absolute evil, which makes them slightly less evil. The few situations where political fervor is so high that someone becomes close to being considered heroic, their efforts pale in comparison with the expectations put on them, which of course proves they were evil all along.

  No, the heroes of the Romanians are the hard working people who work for other people. Great theoreticians, the army of Romanian software developers that left the country to work for multinational corporations, any doctor who would be despised in the country is a hero when working abroad, engineers of all kinds, any white collar job, even people working in construction - which is somehow seen as a clean job. With the caveat that they must not be gipsy or poor stock, they surely left the country to thieve and steal and they are shameful to us all. If people "from the developed countries" (this is a phrase still very much in use in relation to the Western countries) praise a hard working Romanian, the entire country breaths a collective awwh of pride, like dogs petted on their heads for being good boys. "You see?", they say, "Now they see what we are made of!".

  One obvious exception is any managerial job. If you are a manager, you actually do little to nothing, you are an oppressor, not a hard working individual. Even if you got there through your own efforts (and didn't rely on the people you knew or money you had) you have a dirty job that deserves no respect. Unless you are related to the person who judges the situation, in which case you are the pride of the family. 

  The biggest heroes are of course great athletes, especially if they are part of an international team. If a Romanian is part of a of German football team, the entire country believes he would be the reason why Germans are good at football. Of course, people doing great things in Romanian sports are usually seen as part of the endemic corruption in Romanian sports. They still get the status of heroes, but they are always on trial and any mistake will be fatal to their reputation. An interesting exception is Simona Halep, which is the greatest Romanian hero of all, because she goes to international Tennis competitions and wins some of them against the best international tennis players in the world! The fact that she is reasonably good looking doesn't hurt either. She is of the people for the people.

  There are great Romanian writers, for example, but we only value the dead ones. We learn in school about great Eminescu, or Rebreanu, or Blaga. The more poetic, the better. The more obtuse the better. And in order to verify if children really read these big greats, we ask them to write commentaries. And kids just read existing commentaries and summarize them. With the advent of Google and AI, it's impossible to not automate this, since it requires the lowest level of human inventivity. Current writers are poor unknown quantities, always shorted when negotiating with local publishers. And no one reads books anymore anyway, what are they doing? There are great Romanian actors and filmmakers, but few people actually bother to watch Romanian productions. We occasionally see films winning some international prize somewhere and it's usually some drab and depressing drama about people being treated as slaves and behaving like one.

  All these point to a mentality that can only be called "slave mentality". Anything Romanian is poor quality, therefore we export raw material and import the very things made from it. As an example, we export a lot of apples and import a lot of apple juice. The opportunities for Romanians are to either find a good job in Romania or - much better - a good job abroad. To have a company, make your own money, employ other people, is still seen as something dirty. Romanians are not educated on how to make, keep or invest money, instead they are instructed on which jobs are better paid. When I was a child, I knew that I should go for being a medic or a lawyer. Now kids are probably taught to try to go into software. No parent would ever tell a kid to think freely, pursue their dreams and try to make something of themselves through their own strength unless it first starts with being employed somewhere. Surely, dreams can wait, they say, all sad and depressed.

  Funny enough, people who somehow get to be business owners, employers or managers many times behave like slave owners. This is also slave mentality: slaves don't dream of being free, but of becoming masters themselves. This sadly also encourages Romanian employees to feel that anything Romanian sucks. In my career the most unprofessional, choleric, petty and unethical employers were Romanians. With small exceptions that I will attribute to mental illness and not national culture.

  Even when we go on holidays, the biggest complaint we have is "it was nice, but there were too many Romanians there". When we were most complaining about how poor our country was, right after the big R, we were the country importing most expensive cars and high end smartphones.

  This is a sad sad cycle, Romania is and will continue to be a nation of employees. Nothing in our culture impresses the importance of self actualization, of generating and defending our own values, of pushing to get ahead and then actually pulling people with you. Nothing teaches us to band together under those values and fight for them. From all of the cultures we've had contact with, which mostly invaded our country and enslaved us for most of our history, we only learned to slave or enslave others.

  We had and we still have a lot of potential, smart people, hard working people, but is that relevant without a set of values? I personally feel that the Romanians abroad impress their employers, but also their employees or their subordinates and their friends, not by being hard working, but by being open and by not being complete assholes, by being kind and ethical. It hurts me to see how American we have become, partially because of the malevolent influence of Russia, but instead of going for the American ideal declarations of freedom and equality, we emulate the American actions of selfish individuality and status driven inequality. They also pushed this idea that somehow you are either a Capitalist or a Communist, master or slave. This just in case you are not a Fascist or a Terrorist, which makes you gipsy or poor stock.

  Let's abandon this obsolete thinking of masters and slaves and instead think of the others as simply people. Your employer is your partner not your owner, people from other nations are still just people, dreaming is still OK and when you reach the top, give yourself a pat on the back and help others up. Find something you care about and do it. There is nothing on the other end. Every moment is not the first day of your life, but the very last. Make it worthwhile.

  Rarely have I read such a frustrating book. Civilized to Death is trying to show that our modern life and societal order is not the only solution, that progress doesn't mean what we think it means and that a lot of the things we take for granted about our (pre)history and path as a species is just propaganda. So on one side, I was fascinated by the concepts shown in the books. However the tone of the text is so shrill, inconsistent and self contradicting that I found it infuriating.

  Christopher Ryan is obsessed with hunter gatherer societies. He rose to fame with a book that covered the sexual behavior of our closest relatives: chimps and bonobos, as well as the information he had collected on our ancestors in prehistory about the subject. Again, he was trying to show that most of what we know or take for granted about human sexuality is self interested bullshit, beginning with the arrival of agriculture. In Civilized to Death he just moves even further to blame all the ailments of humanity on that same event and the hierarchical paternalistic profit obsessed society that arose since then. Progress, he argues, can only be measured in human happiness and well being and modern society sucks at that.

  You can skip reading the book and just read the cheat-sheet that the author published on his web site for it. The basic gist is that we were better off hunting and gathering and that modern society is just a self-sustaining meme that leads to our domestication for its own survival, not something that increases our happiness. It's a zoo for ourselves and we should take control over what that zoo looks like and how it treats us.

  I agree with that last statement, but I call bullshit on Ryan's arguments. He vilifies Malthus, but then he claims if we limited our population to 100 million, we would all have enough resources to live without effort. He attacks statistics and experiments as being biased or even intentionally skewed, then he uses statistics and experiments of his own that he likes better. He attacks globalization and how it forced the same narrative on everyone, but then he makes his research and his money with the help of the global communication network that technology provided.

  His worst sin, though, is how we so liberally uses the terms "we" or "humanity" to define the specific group of people that he likes. For example, people are slaves to the drive to work. If they try not to work, the entire society brings hell down on them, so they are forced into this horrific labor camp that the Earth has become. He completely ignores the people that absolutely love to work! Ryan mentions people who could very easily stop working and live a comfortable life, but they don't, only he puts this all on some perceived addiction to work, not that it gives people meaning and fulfilment if doing the thing they love. He talks about how egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies are, but he completely ignores what happens to the members of those groups who do not want to be egalitarian. And so on. He is furious against what he calls the Narrative of Perpetual Progress, which he then dismissively calls NPP in the rest of the book, but he doesn't really come with an alternative.

  And that makes the book very frustrating, because you want to believe what he says, you want to look further into the sources he mentions, but the way he puts everything together feels like very artificial cherry picking. And the ending is always something like "OK, I may have gone too far, but what I really mean is...". No! Just don't go too far. Make me trust what you are saying, not feel I am being swindled by a TED talking Marx!

  Bottom line: a very interesting premise, but poor argumentation. Still worth a read.

  Last Call is about the occult and symbolism, threaded through history, actual famous people, the Vegas culture, the world of gambling and card games, Tarot cards and so on, filled with action and fringy characters. Tim Powers has put a lot of effort in the research and the details and that, ironically, may be the problem of this book. There are too many characters, too deeply rooted into the mythology of chaotic gods and the significance of cards, doing things that you need to reread a few times in order to understand. It gives the book a hallucinatory feeling, like you are there and not there at the same time. This might help people get into the atmosphere or push them away.

  The book is also quite long and just the first of a trilogy. While I've enjoyed living in the world described by the book, and while it is well written, I also found it a chore to read. That doesn't mean it's not a very good book, it's just that I don't think I was its intended audience or maybe reading a few pages before going to sleep or listening to it while walking the dog were not the best situations for getting into the story.

  Bottom line: very interesting concepts and well written, but requires effort from the reader to fully enjoy. I found it a bit too long for comfort and the pacing was a bit unreliable, too. If you're into symbolism and Tarot mythology, this might be the book for you.

  Yesterday I saw one of those things that make me exclaim "Only in Romania!". There was a pharmacy and in front of it there was an old lady waiting her turn to enter, because there can't be too many people inside. Next to her, like a few feet away, there was a maskless man puffing away on a cigarette, his smoky exhalations reaching the masked old woman as she was trying to protect herself and the people in the pharmacy.

  And it made me more attentive to people around me. Bands of maskless high schoolers, with the loud talking, fake swagger and hysterical laughter typical of their age and need for attention were happily walking on the street, not a care in the world, their bravado, as idiotic as it was, clear on their faces. Then groups of parents, masks on their chin, smoking and talking to each other as they supervise their children playing, blocking access ways where people have to squeeze between them in order to pass. I know those people, too. They already believe that they have been exposed as much as they could be, that trying to protect themselves when their children literally exchange spit and snot is futile. Then the drivers, happy that they don't have to wear masks inside their own car, but pretending to forget to use them even when they have to get out to buy something or to get home. Meanwhile, the police has found some specific sweet spots where they hunt for people not doing their duty regarding the pandemic, ignoring all others. And of course, the noseholes. People who wear their masks because it's mandatory, but only on their mouths, because they breathe through their noses.

  And yes, all of these are selfish assholes, but that's not my point now. These people are contributing to the rise of infections, but only a few weeks ago, when the rates were plummeting, they were careful with the masks, the distance, everything. The first and simplest hypothesis on why this happens is that as people stop wearing masks, infections start rising, and it surely does explain a lot, but it's not enough. These people could have relaxed weeks ago. Why now?

  My theory is that as schools opened, the number of people not wearing masks on the streets increased. Whether due to parent fatigue (let's call it that) or idiotic bravado or because some of them are too small to wear masks, children have skewed the proportion of people being responsible. And like a switch being flipped, other have started copying the same behavior. It's not even something conscious. I have difficulty believing people are actually reasoning that if a four year old doesn't wear mask, they should stop, too. It's a social phenomenon, a monkey see, monkey do thing. This has nothing to do with charts or numbers or public announcements which clearly show that we have now reversed our trend and the percentage of sick people is rising again. Another subconscious trigger is that more light is coming from the sun as we head towards spring. People attach darkness with crisis and light with things getting better. And yes, again, without thinking about it.

  This means several things. One of them is that communication of the facts doesn't function as it should. This is on the media and their panic inducing way of reporting things. They only discuss the bad things, the shocking things, not the good ones. Numbers don't matter for people who have lived in fear for months. At one point or another they are going to break and act out. The solution is to reward people when things are going well, to inspire rather than scare people off. It would have been easy to understand and feel what is going on if, after weeks of smiling news anchors congratulation the population for their efforts, they would have turned sad and announced the trend is reversing. But they don't do this and that makes them responsible.

  Second thing is that statistically people are barely aware of their existence. Like automatons they live their lives and copy each other's behaviors without a single thought. If prompted, they will find rationalizations for their actions after the fact, then feel resentment towards the person that forced them to make the effort. There is no solution for this, I am afraid. It falls on the authorities to be aware of this and act preventively to ensure a healthy proportion of people looking like they are doing the right thing. Note: looking like. This can also mean good propaganda or spin. Who would have thought that I would ever advocate for that?

  Finally, this cannot be turned into another cat and mouse game, where the authorities are punishing people when they catch them, so people do bad things when the police is not there. This is not a carrot and stick situation. The ingrained distrust of authorities and petty selfishness we learned during the Communist era makes traditional measures from the government fail miserably or even backfire. This is the most difficult thing yet: change the ways the system works in order to reward people for their good work. This is anathema to Romanian life and politics, but it must be done. Social responsibility needs to be bred back into our national DNA. Otherwise we will remain a nation of assholes like the guy in the image.

  Gina Kolata's Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 starts with a question that, I believe, is more important than the cause of the epidemic or even its terrible effects: Why don't we know about what happened in 1918? Why isn't it taught at school, why isn't there more information about what happened, why aren't there more books, songs, reports, movies and memoirs about what can be safely called the biggest killer event in human history in terms of numbers? Not only regular people, but also medical professionals find themselves surprised to know so little about it. In fact, if we weren't living during pandemic times right now and the parallel hadn't been drawn, we would still be in a general state of ignorance about the very existence of the event.

  And it's not only the military censorship during World War I, which surely had a lot to do with it, but a more insidious and yet generalized reason: people want to forget about it. The story is not one of heroism, it doesn't follow the hero's journey, it doesn't end with humanity defeating its foe, with suffering teaching an important lesson or with a patriarchal being or group coming to the rescue. Instead, it is one of utter defeat, of something unknown devastating tens of millions of lives, while they are incapable to do anything and no one comes to their aid or even acknowledges their suffering. Just senseless death, then it's over. Just like surviving a bear attack after the bear got bored of clawing and biting bits of your crying, self pissing helpless body.

  Yet the rest of the book is about the unsung heroes of the story, scientists that attempt to learn from the experience and guard against it happening again. It follows people trying to find the infectious agent that caused the 1918 pandemic, identify it and pry its secrets. These are people that focus on a task and obsess about finding ways to complete it. They work tirelessly in labs, dig up century old frozen bodies to find what killed them, overcome obstacles (mostly put there by other people) and are the only ones who actually know anything about something and can guide action against future disease.

  Gina Kolata's book is a great read in these times, because it not only shows people are actually doing something about epidemics, even if no one is excitedly talking about it in the media, but also shows how every pandemic follows a predictable path. It's not just our politicians that seem to be completely baffled on what to do. It's not just our scientists who get blocked in their work by malicious rumor and public opinion about things they understand nothing about. It's not just our industry that for financial reasons thwarts efforts to do something and not just us that think random chemicals can safeguard us from the new threat. Epidemics are the great stories that no one learns from and therefore we are all doomed to repeat living through them.

  Flu is also a great companion to Barry's The Great Influenza book. While that one was more historical in nature and focused more on the path the virus took and how people reacted to it, Kolata is almost taking the reverse path, starting with current efforts to understand what happened in 1918 and thus slowly creating a picture of the events then, through the work of dedicated scientists and the biological information discovered about the virus.

  Bottom line: this is a book well worth reading, particularly in these troubled times. Hell, it's not like you have a lot of other things to do anyway!

  Submission is the most French book I've ever read. It's an intellectual examination of political France (and by extension the whole Europe) from the viewpoint of a womanising, wine drinking, misanthropic, misogynistic university professor as it is suddenly, but without resistance, turning Muslim. Bound to generate reactions, the book is tongue-in-cheek offending everything and everybody: political systems and pundits, religions and zealots, apathetic atheists, women, muslims. But it is also examining human failings and demanding a solution that doesn't completely suck. This is the first Michel Houellebecq book I've read. It intrigued me and I may read another soon.

  Just a few quotes to wet your appetite:

  • the mediocrity of the ‘political offerings’ was almost surprising. A centre-left candidate would be elected, serve either one or two terms, depending how charismatic he was, then for obscure reasons he would fail to complete a third. When people got tired of that candidate, and the centre-left in general, we’d witness the phenomenon of democratic change , and the voters would install a candidate of the centre-right, also for one or two terms, depending on his personal appeal. Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.
  • As I got older, I also found myself agreeing more with Nietzsche, as is no doubt inevitable once your plumbing starts to fail. And I found myself more interested in Elohim, the sublime organiser of the constellations, than in his insipid offspring. Jesus had loved men too much, that was the problem; to let himself be crucified for their sake showed, at the very least, a lack of taste , as the old faggot would have put it.
  • For men, love is nothing more than gratitude for the gift of pleasure, and no one had ever given me more pleasure than Myriam. She could contract her pussy at will (sometimes softly, with a slow, irresistible pressure; sometimes in sharp, rebellious little tugs); when she gave me her little arse, she swivelled it around with infinite grace. As for her blow jobs, I’d never encountered anything like them. She approached each one as if it were her first, and would be her last. Any single one of them would have been enough to justify a man’s existence.

The protagonist is a professor whose only love appears to be Joris-Karl Huysmans, of who he thinks constantly and of who he wrote the dissertation that allowed him his position teaching in the Sorbonne university. As the system in France is turned upside down by a combination of voter apathy and political mathematics, a Muslim party gains majority and, under the skillful leadership of its charismatic leader, it begins to turn France and then the whole Europe into a moderate Muslim empire fueled by petro-dollars.

Of course the premise is ridiculous, after all the book was written before Trump came to power, which seemed equally ridiculous right before it happened. The book compares the submission of women to their men, the only true way of achieving happiness, to submission to a religion, or a political system, or a literary philosophy. It is masturbatory in nature and speaks to one's weakness and decay. It is not an islamophobic book, it's a trollish, nihilistic book, meant to show how reasonable a change like that might seem when supported by politics and media and allowed by lassitude and apathy. Usually books like these end up describing the advent of some Nazi government ruling with violence, fear and ruthlessness. Houellebecq says no: let it be a moderate Muslim party that each divided part of society accepts for different reasons, but accept, submit, they do. The main character ends up considering converting to Islam and living his life married to three wives and teaching in the private Muslim university of Sorbonne.

  Octavia E. Butler blew my mind with her Xenogenesis trilogy, where she explored the needs and choices of human beings when their control is taken away from them not by aggressive beings, but by god like aliens who can control and change the very nature of one's body and mind and kindly, like parents who know best, rape Earth and all the humanity for three long books. It was daring, it was thought provoking, it was sickening.

  I can see similar motifs in Fledgling, where the point of view is that of an amnesiac vampire who needs to understand who and what she is and find the people who killed her entire family and almost killed her as well. Vampires are not evil in this book, instead just having the ability to completely redirect the feelings of people they feed from towards adulation and love, a bit like the aliens in Xenogenesis. And consider the fact that the protagonist looks like a ten year old black girl and in just a few chapters she has consensual sex with a large man. I wonder what the hell happened to Butler when she was young!

  Unfortunately, the story starts with this very intriguing reimagining of vampire lore, with a feel reminding me a bit of Let the Right One In, only to become mired in a sort of legal proceeding and then abruptly end. It's a fine exploration of this new idea of the vampire, but not much more. I liked the book, it was interesting from beginning to end, but it felt mostly like an intellectual exercise that could have become something so much better with just a little refinement and further exploration.

  Bottom line: I recommend it, as it again fiddles with our notions of propriety, sexuality and race, but Xenogenesis was much better.