Sunday book review: The Necromancer Chronicles, by Amanda Downum

Originally posted here.
The Necromancer Chronicles introduces us to a richly realized world of magic and intrigue. It is a world haunted by spirits and the restless dead, where mages bind spells and spirits alike in gemstones. Our guide through this world is ‭ ‬Issylt Iskaldur, a spy and a necromancer. She serves the throne of Selafai, though she came there as a refugee in her childhood.
The first book, The Drowning City, takes Issylt far from her home, to the canal-washed city of Symir. Built by the Assari Empire when they conquered Sivahra 150 years ago, Symir is still a city sharply divided between rebels and collaborators. Issylt is accompanied by the mercenary partners Adam and Xinai Lin, forming a collection of refugees and strays collected by spymaster Kirilos Orfion. They have one task: Free Sivahra. Assar looks North with covetous eyes, and Selafai would see them warring elsewhere.
Issylt makes contact with Zhirin Laii, apprentice mage. Her lover is the leader of the rebel Jade Tigers, whom Issylt is there to contact. Meanwhile, Xinai alone of the three has come home, and her old family ties lead her towards the terroristic Dai Tranh. As the rival rebels plot against each other, Issylt and Zhirin dance the steps of intrigue with Assari Fire mage Asheris Al Seth and his seeming ally Siddir Bashari. They have their own secrets and their own loyalties as well, not all of them obvious. As each faction jockeys for power, spirits of nature and the dead alike are called into service. The book explores themes of nationalism and loyalty, and what costs are acceptable to preserve family or tradition.

The second book,‭ ‬City of Bones,‭ ‬follows three years later.‭ ‬Issylt ‭ ‬has returned to the Selafain capital of Erishal.‭ ‬Her mentor, Kirilos ,‭ ‬has‭ ‬lost the King’s favor,‭ ‬and as his protégé she has not been called upon recently either.‭ ‬Everything changes when she is called in by the‭ ‬vigiles.‭ They‬ have found a royal signet belonging to the late queen on the body of a murdered prostitute.‭ ‬Despite being ordered off the case,‭ ‬she digs deeper into the matter on her own. ‭ ‬ She finds evidence that the murder and grave robbing are only a small part of a scheme against the Crown she is sworn to serve and the city itself. ‭ ‬Her investigations lead her from the sewers below the city to the royal palace,‭ ‬where she allies herself with Savedra Severos,‭ ‬mistress of the Crown Prince.‭ ‬Savedra is a scion of one of the city’s foremost houses and the previous ruling dynasty.‭ As such, she was ‬raised from the cradle to intrigue and politics.‭ ‬Barred from the marriage that they both desire by the fact that she is transgender and unable to bear the Prince an heir,‭ ‬Savedra uses her skills and contacts to defend him and his unhappy foreign wife from assassins and enemies, always afraid that they may come from‭ ‬her own family’s grudges,‭ ‬old and new.‭
Issylt and Savedra must find a balance between trust,‎ ‏duty,‭ ‬love,‭ ‬and loyalty as obligations pile up‭ ‬as fast as bodies,‭ ‬riot and plague sweep the city,‭ ‬and amidst it all vampires and demons stalk the great and the small alike through the chaos.‭ ‬This book follows themes of family,‭ ‬love,‭ ‬and duty.‭ ‬Characters must balance the ties of family with those of romance,‭ ‬choose between duties and lovers,‭ ‬and come to terms with the aftermath of both deception and honesty with those they love.

The Kingdoms of Dust takes us to the Empire of Assar, where the Ghost Wind blows out of the Sea of Glass. Not seen in a lifetime, it infuses the dreadful sandstorms with necromantic power, and nothing can stand before it. They need a necromancer. One such is Issylt Iskaldur, who has left the city of Erishal with her teenage apprentice Moth in the aftermath of the plot there. They travel first to Iskar, to rescue her old ally Adam from prison. There they are followed by spies an assassins. Many factions in Assar want Issylt, to bind the Ghost Wind, or end it, or to die so that the status quo will remain. The fire-mage Asheris, now advisor to the Empress, calls her in directly, but the wizards of Quietus would recruit her or slay her as she travels. Trailed by a kidnapper and assassin who walks through shadows, they set out across the empty deserts of Assar. Every step is weighted with history, old loves and ancient mistakes. When the secret of the Ghost Wind is made clear, slow death seems the best choice, for any other will slay all that lives. Or is there another option, for one who understands the ways of death and entropomancy? The book deals with themes of choice and necessity, and how people respond when all of their choices are bad ones.

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Flaws of Libertarianism, Part 1:NAP

Libertarians like to talk a lot about what they call the Non Aggression principle, which they define as prohibiting “… the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately owned property of another. “(wiki) Like most libertarian principles, this fails to account for the reality of how liberty and freedom are actually encroached upon. Taken as it stands, it will inevitably serve to defend and entrench privilege, while denying the oppressed any ‘legitimate’ recourse. Economic and social coercion can be tools of tyranny as great as any thuggish secret police, unless they are actively combated. Under a libertarian regime, however, these types of coercion are enshrined into law, and defended by the full (physical) force of the state and society at large (since private violence is acceptable under the NAP in case of threats to legally owned property).

Economic coercion takes many forms, but one of the most blatant is the company town, which I will use as a salutary example. Keep in mind that the company town is not a thought experiment; it is a phenomenon which exists today where not prohibited by force of law. In the company town, the company owns every scrap of land within the town. The town is centered on a factory or extractive operation, which is the town’s primary source of employment. Other potential employment is found in support occupations: a general store, a bar, sometimes a brothel depending on local mores, possibly a school and a clinic. These are also run by the company. Housing is provided as an employment benefit, or is rented to workers at exorbitant rates. The company store’s prices are likewise high, and wages at the factory are low, ensuring that money never lasts until the next pay check and the workers are forced to buy necessities on credit. In this situation, the workers cannot fight the company in any respect: anyone who tries to buck the system will be fired, and their spouse, if any, as well. They will then be evicted, either because they and their families are no longer entitled to employment benefits. And/or are in debt of the rent. They have no money to leave town, because they’re in debt to the company store. Anyone who offers them shelter or assistance is subject to the same treatment. This means that, practically speaking, the company threatens their lives if they disobey; they will be thrown out to freeze or starve, and there is no recourse for them. Libertarians insist that this is different from a gun to the head, but are unable to explain how, except that they declare it so.
A more diffuse but equally real example of economic aggression is redlining. Once again, this is a real practice, and one which continues to a degree today. Redlining consists of financial institutions simply refusing services to certain areas, which are largely inhabited by black people.
Banks drew red lines on city maps around the black neighborhoods, and deny mortgages, home improvement loans, and business loans to people who lived there. Insurance companies likewise would not insure homes or businesses owned by people within those boundaries. Denied even the possibility of acquiring capital, the inhabitants of those neighborhoods are at the mercy of rent-seeking landlords and whatever low wage employment may be offered to them (see social coercion, below). They have no opportunity to start a business, own a home, or even acquire significant savings, since they are forced into low wage employment, and the price of rent and groceries is elevated by the need for an absentee owner to gouge out a share. Such money as comes into the neighborhood rapidly flees again, into the pockets of the absentee owners, and the residents are trapped in a permanent cycle of poverty.

Social coercion also takes many forms, from which I will select sexism, simply because I happen to have seen a great deal of discussion of it lately and it’s fresh in my mind. In America today (and also other places, to a greater or lesser extent; I use the U.S. due to personal familiarity), to be a woman means to be denied choices in many ways. There are certain fields that are designated as ‘women’s fields’ in society, while other professions are assumed to be ‘men’s professions.’ When a woman seeks to enter any field that is not designated as appropriate, she will face a large number of obstacles, which will in many case prove insurmountable. To begin with, female students in ‘inappropriate;’ fields are routinely excluded from class discussions by professors, graded more harshly than male counterparts, and often subject to continued ridicule from professors and classmates alike. As a brief digression, before anyone starts up with the ‘toughen up, words will never hurt me’ bullshit, just stop right there. Harassment and ridicule do take a psychological toll, and ongoing psychological stress can and does create medical problems of both psychiatric and non psychiatric types (e.g. ulcers). Suffering from that type of stress also degrades actual performance relative to those who are not under such stresses. Those who persevere will find that they are hired less often, let go sooner, promoted more rarely and paid less than men with the same qualifications. They will also typically continue to suffer harassment, often of a sexual nature, and ongoing ridicule in the course of doing their jobs. They will be assigned to demeaning and subservient tasks and put in positions which ignore their training and credentials. Once again, this constitutes coercion of women into certain areas of life, denying them the free agency men take as their due.

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Soft Infrastructure 1: Health Care

Healthcare is an expense which occurs unpredictably, but is
universal and unavoidable; everyone will need healthcare at some point
in their lives, of some variety. The unpredictable nature of healthcare
costs militates for an insurance-like mechanism for managing payments.
Additionally, ill-health incurs harm to humans, often without human
agency, and thus falls into the same category of events as natural
disasters, and is a threat to others, like an out of control fire.
Furthermore, ill-health has social costs beyond the individual, as they
will be unable to do some or all of their normal tasks, adding the
burden of those tasks or the consequences of their going unfilled to
the load that others carry.

The present system of healthcare in the U.S. is a complete shambles,
which leaves over 1 person in 6 with no health coverage at all1,
left to suffer or die from any illness they cannot pay out of pocket
for. This will commonly have knock-on economic effects, as money going
to these expenses will not be spent elsewhere, and the costs will be
higher as people wait until the need for care is acute. This is the
cause of almost half of the personal bankruptcies in the U.S.2
, bankruptcies which disrupt the housing and financial markets in
addition to those whose lives are broken by them.

Those who do have some coverage get it through their employers,
which has a number of deletorious effects. It reduces job mobility and
impairs the ability of smaller firms to compete due to the costs of
providing such insurance. This coverage is provided by a network of
private insurers, which add to the cost in a number of ways. First off,
there is the requirement that care providers such has hospitals and
clinics, must maintain staff who have no medical duties, but spend all
of their time sorting through the billing processes of dozens of
insurers and meeting their arcane requirements. This adds to the costs
of operating such a program. Duke Medical Center, for instance, has 900
billing clerks on staff, for a 900-bed hospital 3.
Secondly, the private insurers are primarily for-profit entities, and
seek to rake off a percentage for executives and shareholders. This
profit accounts for approximately 15% of insurance company income3
(Employers which cover their own insurance have 6-7% overhead,
for-profit insurance companies have around 20%). Even leaving the
profits aside, overhead in the private system is high compared to the
public sector: Medicare overhead is about 2% of expenditures.4.
Finally, there is the intrinsic inefficiency of subdividing the
population into relatively small risk pools. The nature of insurance is
such that larger risk pools means lower costs, and the largest feasible
risk pool is everyone in the country.

Recently, the U.S. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act,
ostensibly in an effort to improve the healthcare system in the U.S.
While it did do so to a certain extent by outlawing certain
particularly egregious practice by insurers (such as refusing to insure
those with ‘pre-existing conditions’ and dropping customers as soon as
they made claims), it also increased their customer pool by mandating a
tax reduction for those who purchased health insurance. This has many
problems, not least of which is that the recent Supreme Court decision
allowed states to opt out of the expanded Medicaid coverage originally
mandated and the fact that the tax breaks involved are small compared
to the cost of useful health insurance. Unlike the systems of France
and Switzerland, which achieve universal health service with required
purchases of private insurance, the ‘Affordable’ Care Act places no
upper limit on the cost of a basic insurance plan, and the recent
Supreme Court decision allowed states to opt out of the medicaid
expansion which was touted as the equivalent of the subsidies offered
to the poorest citizens of France and Switzerland. Even if we had
entirely modeled our system on one of those countries, it would still
be suboptimal compared to a single-payer system, however. France spends
11.6% of its GDP on health care, while Sweden, for example, spends only
9.6% of their GDP on their single payer system. Of course, either
system would be better then the one we have now, in which we spend
17.6% of our GDP on health care, and still haven’t got universal
coverage5.
1)U.S.
Census

2)N.I.H.
3)PHNP
4)Kaiser Foundation
5)OECD

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Just Deserts

clint eastwood

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
William Munny, Unforgiven

Moralists, especially authoritarian types, tend to go on a lot about what people deserve. Criminals deserve punishment, only some poor people deserve help, the hard working deserve a reward, etc. However, in an empirically based ethical system, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

In the case of criminals, for instance, the question is one of harm. Whether a child molester deserves to be in prison is irrelevant to the decision. The question is whether the individual is a danger to others, and if so, they must be segregated from society to prevent such harm. In the case of pedophiles, it appears to be the case that their sexual urges are not of their choosing, anymore than anyone else’s. This is irrelevant when it comes to dealing with them, however, except insofar as knowing it allows us to make useful predictions about what means are needed to prevent future harm. By contrast, someone whose crime was theft likely has an entirely different reason for their actions, and preventing further theft might well be as simple as providing the individual in question with an opportunity for work at a decent wage. The assorted other crimes of property and violence will fall somewhere between these extremes, depending on the nature of the crime and its motivation, while the victimless crimes have no place in criminal statutes to begin with. Overall, the purpose of a well ordered criminal justice system should be the minimization of future harm and the rectification to the extent possible of harm already done.

The other major area where people talk incessantly about deserts is when it comes to money, work, and property. This is generally subdivided into complaints about taxation, wages, and welfare programs, each of which I will address separately.

Taxes are a constant argument, particularly with glibertarians and other right-wing ‘economic conservatives.’ They will insist that taxation in general constitutes theft by force, and that the particular practice of assessing a progressive income tax is the height of unfairness, as the rich ‘deserve’ to keep their money, for which they allegedly worked very hard. The first complaint is absurd on the face of it. Taxation is necessary to pay for infrastructure, including a system of property laws and the courts to enforce same. It is an intrinsic part of any human society larger than a hunter-gatherer band, the only real questions being a) how much infrastructure is provided and b) how the taxes are collected. The amount of infrastructure possible varies with a society’s level of technology (without electricity you can’t install high speed data connections), but within those limitations, it can actually be calculated how much and what types of infrastructure should be built.

The second complaint looks superficially valid from a fairness standpoint, although the pragmatic reasons mentioned below would still override it even if so, but even on that level the argument falls flat. The more wealth you have, the more you stand to lose, and the more reliant you are on society’s infrastructure to guard and keep it. Thus, you owe more to the upkeep of that infrastructure than someone not obtaining such benefit from it. Further, it would not have been possible to attain that level of wealth at all unless that infrastructure were in place to begin with. Even the moderately wealthy in the first world today are in absolute terms richer than any king in the middle ages, while the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the Koch and Walton families control more wealth than even contemporary absolute rulers of broken down Third World countries.

In even more pragmatic terms, economies work better the higher the velocity of the money that passes through them. The wealthier a person is, the less of their income they spend directly, and the more of it is tied up in savings, stocks, and bonds, which do little to nothing to circulate the money they contain. Conversely, the poor tend to spend money rapidly, which results in a need for goods and services, and the people providing them to get paid, and thus the money circulates. If the government is going to move money around to spend paying people to create and maintain infrastructure, it is better to take it from a place where it isn’t moving and put it in motion than to slow it down by taking it out of the hands of someone who would spend it immediately. Furthermore, the wealthy person suffers less negative effect from the loss of that money; 255 of a million dollars a year leaves one with $750000, which is enough still for quite an extravagant lifestyle, while taking 25% from someone making $26,000 (roughly the median income), leaves them with only $19,500, putting them now below the poverty line. Finally, it is simply more efficient to collect $250000 once from one person than to chase after the 39 median income people you’d have to get $6500 out of.

Welfare operates on similar principles; a person who is not receiving wages is essentially removed from the economy both as a producer and as a stimulator of production. Forcing people in this situation to burn through all of their capital and putting them in positions that impair their ability to find paid work of some kind prolongs the period during which they will not be producing as much wealth as they might, and further reduces the amount by which they stimulate productivity, which further reduces the demand for labor in a vicious cycle. Providing financial support to them ensures that they remain stimulators of production, and reduces the likelihood that they will incur untenable emergency costs as well as the likelihood that they will begin committing criminal activity and causing further harm. Whether someone ‘deserves’ to have money according to some arbitrary standard is irrelevant; everyone benefits from ensuring that no one starves.

Hard work is another bugaboo of the moralist. They will insist that hard work inherently pays off, and everyone who is wealthy got that way through hard work, and that only people who work hard deserve any type of material property whatsoever. Leaving aside that both of these precepts are patently untrue (if necessary, I will devote another post to why this is the case), they are once again irrelevant. One alleged corollary of these precepts is that unions are evil, because they shelter lazy workers and prevent good workers from receiving higher pay than the aforementioned lazy individuals. The problem is that in the real world, in a corporate environment, individuals have effectively no power to negotiate their wages, and these wages will only be based on productivity in any way if the company calculates that they can pay less that way, and will constantly increase the amount of productivity needed to get the same pay. On the other side, if employees can be let go very easily, they can be let go easily for any reason at all, and will be. These facts played out constantly through the 18th and 19th centuries, which is what led to the formation of unions in the first place. Ensuring relatively high wages, which is empirically something which follows from a unionized workforce, is a good thing for the same reasons mentioned above: velocity of money makes the economy go round.

That’s all for now

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Assholes and woo

Since I’m having a hard slog reading enough glibertarian trolls to do a good analysis, I will once again put off that post for local news and woo.

Here in Portland, where I live, we have one of the lowest rated of church attendance in the nation (I think 3rd lowest, but I can’t be bothered to check right now). That doesn’t mean we don’t have our share , or more than our share, of woo-peddlers. One of these, a bookseller named David Mark Morrison, is taking his woo-peddling a step further, by diverting already short educational resources and clogging the court system with his bullshit. Morrison is suing the Portland Public School system for exposing his child to the dangers of WI-FI RADIATION!1!!1!11Eleventy!

That’s right, this asshole has decided that he knows more than the epidemiologists who have found no connection between EMF radiation and any health hazards whatsoever. So far the district has spent over $172,000 hiring lawyers and experts to debunk that clown parade that David Morrison has brought forth as his ‘expert witnesses.’ Cheif among these ‘experts’ is Barrie Trower, who claims to have bachelor’s degree in physics, to have worked on top secret British Navy ‘microwave warfare’ projects, and consulted for the King of South Africa*. He is billed in many conspiracy websites as a ‘Professor of Physics,’ but no institution is ever named, nor can I locate any college or university with a Barrie Trower affiliated with them, so this claim is also a lie.

Trower insists that “Wi-Fi uses a similar frequency to a microwave oven.” This is a conclusive demonstration that Trower knows nothing whatsoever about physics, as he is clearly unaware of how a microwave oven in fact works. Microwave radiation is non-ionizing radiation. It heats food due to the amount of energy involved, and the only relevance that the wavelength has is that it should be in the absorbtion spectrum for water. Microwaves are used because they get a good return on invested energy. The common household microwave oven produces about 700W of energy at a frequency of roughly 2.4 Ghz, for a wavelength of 122mm. A WiFi node emits at a frequency of 2.4-5 Ghz, but in a standard node, uses 0.2W of energy ot put out the signal. This is three orders of magnitude less than a microwave oven, and a microwave oven is completely incapable of causing cancer. The only ill effects of a microwave oven are the heating of fluids, and that is entirely an artifact of the amplitude. A Wifi signal is incapable of producing a degree of warming that would even register against the background temperature of the human body.

*A position which has not existed since 1961

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Is-ought fallacies

I am working on a longer post, but ubtil then, some thoughts on the naturalistic fallacy.

The is-ought problem appears to mostly derive from a conflation of different values of is. I would argue that we need to distinguish between things that are unchangeable versus things that are presently true but can be altered. For instance, an unalterable ‘is’ would be human biology: humans need to eat, have sex drives, etc. These things are not changeable, so any moral or ethical system has to take them into account. The various bizarre rules about sex promulgated by religions almost invariably run afoul of basic human needs. Conversely, systems of sexual mores that recognize each individual as an independent sexual being are much more likely to be followed, and can and do include better mechanisms for preventing and dealing with transgressions.

On a less directly biological note, urban design and planning have to take into account the facts of moving people from one place to another; a certain amount of road surface can only hold a certain number of vehicles, any space used for parking means space that isn’t used for buildings, and longer distances take longer to travel. In order to allow people to get where they need to go, what ought to be done is heavily dependent on immutable factors.

In contrast, the argument (which I have encountered) that marijuana ought to be illegal because it is illegal, or that gays have always been mistreated, so therefore it’s good to do so, are entirely specious. These are fallacies of the ‘evolution says survival of the fittest therefore social darwinism’ type. These things are socially constructed and created behaviors, and they can be changed the same way. Therefore, questions of ‘ought’ in these matters are entirely matters of harm done and unfair treatment. Since being homosexual is not harmful, and treating homosexuals badly is, the we ought not do the latter. Since using marijuana is not harmful, and being incarcerated is, we ought not incarcerate marijuana users. I have deliberately used both a volitional and non-volitional behavior here, incidentally. Ethically speaking, there is no good reason to treat them differently.

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Promethics

My roommate Justin is a former Randist, diverging from her philosophy when he realized that reality differed from that described in Randist theology. I am a strict utilitarian consequentialist, with an epistemology that largely begins and ends with the scientific method. We share a conviction that ethic 1 should be based on an examination of the real-world consequences of a given ethic or system of ethics. Broadly speaking, an ethical system should be judged by the degree to which is cultivates human life2 , health, happiness, and prosperity. All of these things are measurable quantities, and we can empirically determine what behaviors, social and individual, improve or damage them.

We elected to call the systematization of ethics based on those standards Promethics, after Prometheus, the Titan of Greek legend, whose name means ‘Forethought.’ It is an ethical system based on forethought, on examining the consequences of different actions and evaluating them based on quantifiable standards. The axioms of Promethics are

  1. There is such a thing as objective reality
  2. We can know things about it

Justin likes to add the Law of Identity, but I don’t think that that’s actually necessary. Working from these, we can develop several second-order axioms3 , which can be used as the direct basis for an ethical system

  1. Humans are social primates, and can be expected to behave as such
  2. Humans have certain inbuilt cognitive biases, which unless corrected for can interfere with accurately modeling the world; thus claims to accurate models must be subjected to extensive testing by multiple individuals using rigorous techniques for reducing the effect of observer bias
  3. Any model of the world, and any system based on any model of the world, is subject to revision in the face of new evidence
  4. Some societies and ethical codes produce objectively better outcomes than others

Applied to the real world, Promethics calls for strong human rights protections, robust and well-maintained physical and social infrastructure4 , and a focus on science and research. Market capitalism, as advocated by the Austrian/Chicago school, is antithetical to Promethics, as the policies called for have resulted in disaster every time they have been implemented.

1 For the purposes of this blog, I will use ethics to refer to codes of behavior governing group interactions, violation of which will receive censure from other members of the group, and morals/morality to refer to internalized codes of behavior, violation of which will cause feelings of guilt within the violator.

2 Human life requires a viable neural system. Anyone bringing forced-birther bullshit in here will get the banhammer, no warnings, no exceptions. Be told.

3 Axioms which require proof externally to the system in which they are used as axioms, rather than first-order axioms, without which any systematization or discussion is impossible.

4 Social infrastructure includes things like the educational system, health care, social safety nets, etc.

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