Wednesday, October 31, 2018

GODLESS WEDNESDAY: Ireland Votes To Abolish Blasphemy Laws

This past weekend voters in Ireland decided to abolish laws against blasphemy by approving a  referendum to remove the word "blasphemous" from the following clause in the constitution of the republic of Ireland:
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
There was also a 2009 law on the books (the Defamation Act of 2009) which included blasphemy as an offense and had never been used but came to public notice in 2015 when openly gay actor Stephen Fry was investigated by the Irish police (after a complaint by an unknown  member of the public) for saying on Irish television "The god that created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac, totally selfish." Fry's potential legal jeopardy put the issue on the map, which eventually led to the referendum this week in which 64.85%  voted YES (43% turnout) to remove blasphemy from the Irish constitution. The government will follow with legislation to implement the will of the people to abolish the "crime" of blasphemy.

Good news!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

2018 WTA YEC: Svitolina Wins Her Biggest Title, Outlasting Stephens 36 62 62

Elina Svitolina won the biggest title of her career by defeating 2017 US Open champion and 2018 French Open finalist Sloane Stephens 3-6 6-2 6-2 to win the 2018 WTA BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore. Svitolina still has not reached a major final despite being in the Top 10 of the WTA tour for well over a year; her win here leaves her at World #4 for the 2018 season. Both Svitolina and Stephens were undefeated in round robin play to reach the semifinals, with Stephens defeating Karolina Pliskova (despite losing the first set 6-0!) and Svitolina outlasted the surprise semifinalist Kiki Bertens in three sets to reach the most important match of the year.

Monday, October 29, 2018

2018 BASEL: Federer Wins 99th Career ATP Title

Roger Federer won his 99th career ATP title at the Swiss Indoors Championships held in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland. Federer defeated Romanian qualifier Marcus Copil 6-4 7-6(5) in his 14th final in Basel to win his 9th title. The only male player who has won more titles is Jimmy Connors, who won 109 titles. I had previously thought that this total was out of range for Federer, but now I'm not so sure.

Friday, October 26, 2018

CELEBRITY FRIDAY: Hillary Clinton Turns 71 Today

Hillary Rodham Clinton turns 71 today. She is the wife of  former U.. President William Jefferson Clinton and the winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. The winner of the electoral  vote, President Trump was born June 17, 1946, so is 72 years old.

Happy Birthday, Hillary!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

“A heartbreaking work of staggering genius” is of course a clichéd title of a famous book by Dave Eggers but in the case of Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia this description would be quite appropriate.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is the first book I have read by this author (although his science fiction work Exit West has been on my radar for awhile as book to be read). I had to read How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia because we have assigned this book as the reading for all entering students at the college at which I work. Happily, the book is a quick read (a mere 222 large-font paperback pages), surprisingly engaging and extraordinarily effective.

It is true what others say that the gimmick of being a self-help book is somewhat off-putting at first and the setting in an unnamed Asian country, following the life and career of its initially destitute protagonist, can appear to be distancing to readers who do not share this positionality. But, by the end, what makes the book work so well is the absolute universality of its themes. That, along with the stunning proficiency of its prose, puts How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia in rarefied company.  

Mohsin Hamid is clearly a master at crafting clever phrases, deploying insightful metaphors and cheeky similes all the while skewering many aspects of society. Just off the top of my head (without consulting the text again) he pokes fun at: the surveillance state; society’s obsession with celebrity; the venality of politics, government and banking; and, of course, the pursuit of “wealth” as a measure of successful life. This last subject is the ostensible topic of the novel, but I would argue the real point of the novel is force the reader to think about their own life and goals while simultaneously depicting a plausible life path for his unnamed protagonist.

One aspect of the book I found incredibly powerful was the way that the author is able to suddenly switch the meaning of the word “you” between his characters. The primary use of “you” is usually referring to the central protagonist whom he is using as an example of someone who is following the author’s “self-help” advice to “get filthy rich in rising Asia.” But sometimes “you” switches to  mean the reader, or another character in the story (often “the pretty girl” who is the love interest of our protagonist).

The structure of the book is sneakily effective at slowly drawing the reader into the plot, while maintaining the “self-help” gimmick with chapter names like “Avoid Idealists,” "Focus on the Fundamentals,” and “Have an Exit Strategy.” By the end of the book I suspect that most people who read the final sentence (which is nearly a page long!) will leave tears dripping on to the page/screen. 

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a tour de force by a very talented writer using a clever premise and unexpected literary device to produce a work of fiction which is surprisingly effective.

Title: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Mohsin Hamid.
Paperback: 222 pages.
 Riverhead Books.
Date Published: March 5, 2013.
Date Read: August 20, 2018.

★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (4.0/4.0).


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

GODLESS WEDNESDAY: Deism versus Theism

As someone who believes in godlessness, i.e. I reject both theism and deism. However, it is at least useful to understand these terms if one is going to have reasonable dialogue between the religious and irreligious. For example, the graphic at the top of this page explains the difference between theism and deism.

One of the more annoying aspects of interactions between believers and non-believers is the ignorance of "believers" about the diversity of people's beliefs. I have found that most people who are godless like myself are not that way because "we don't know better" or "haven't been exposed to religion." Really? You think in a world dominated by religion and religious voices like this one, you think people turn away from religion because we haven't been exposed to the right one, which just happens to be yours?

Hat/tip to Atheistic_1

Monday, October 22, 2018

EYE CANDY: Maxs Souza (3rd time!)

Maxs Souza is another one of those hot Brazilian models that I love to post about here. Other examples are Robert Oliveira, Jones Tamar, Alan Taurus, Guilherme Rofino and many more. Maxs has appeared as Eye Candy before (April 9, 2018 and October 16, 2017).

Friday, October 19, 2018

2018 WTA YEC: Draw Is Set (Halep Withdraws); Osaka, Kerber, Stephens in Same Group

The WTA Year End Championships is starting in Singapore this weekend. Participation is restricted to the Top 8 performers on the WTA tour, which usually (but not always) includes the winners of the 4 Grand Slam tournaments through out the year. This is the last year the

Last year's winner was Caroline Wozniacki who used that momentum to win her first major at this year's Australian Open. This year's French Open winner (and year-end #1) is Simona Halep but she had to withdraw, giving a chance to Kiki Bertens to become the first Dutch player in over two decades to make the Elite Eight. 2018 Wimbledon champion Angie Kerber and 2018 US Open champion Naomi Osaka round out this year's honor roll of major champions. However, there are two other major champions in the draw, Sloane Stephens, 2017 US Open champ, and Petra Kvitova, 2-time Wimbledon champion.

The final 8 are placed into 2 groups of 4 each and then play round-robin tournament to identify the top two in each group, who then play elimination semifinals against members from the other group to reach the final.Last year, Wozniacki defeated Venus Williams.

The two groups are:

  • Red Group 

  • [1] Angelique Kerber 

  • [3] Naomi Osaka 

  • [5] Sloane Stephens 

  • [8] Kiki Bertens 

  • White Group 

  • [2] Caroline Wozniacki 

  • [4] Petra Kvitova 

  • [6] Elina Svitolina 

  • [7] Karolina Pliskova
The Red Group in my opinion is the tougher group. Interestingly, Steohens has the head-to-head edge here, while Kvitova has the edge in the White Group (these are problematic names, by the way, why not use names of famous former champions, like the men do?).

I predict that Wozniacki and Kvitova will emerge from the White Group and Stephens and Osaka will emerge from Red Group. Singapore is a relatively slow indoor hard court, which I would give a slight edge to Kvitova overall.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers, #3) by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third entry in a loosely connected set of books written by Becky Chambers called the Wayfarers series. It is set in a Universe where many generations before humans have been forced to abandon Earth and conducted an exodus into space on 32 generation ships formed from the metals and materials of their cities. Eventually the Exodan Fleet made it to a part of space where they met and were allowed entry into a thriving community of alien lifeforms called the Galactic Commons.

The Wayfarers stories began with A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet in 2016 and continued with A Closed and Common Orbit in 2017. Although I was not very enamored of the first book, it definitely had a lot of award-worthy buzz for a debut novel and even now has an average Goodreads rating well above 4.0 out of more than 40k ratings, which is impressive. The structure of that book was off-putting to me in that Chambers uses the now-familiar George R.R. Martin structure of each subsequent chapter being named for and centered around different characters. In A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, the characters are the 7 members of the crew of a ship, and Chambers goes into details about their backgrounds and home planet. However, I simply didn't care much about any of the characters and there's very little plot development, but the universe the book is set in was compelling enough to convince me to read the sequel. A Closed and Common Orbit has less than the half the number of ratings of its predecessor but an even higher average rating, with good reason. (It was also on the short list for the 2017 Hugo award for Best Novel.)

In Record of a Spaceborn Few the story is centered firmly in the Exodan Fleet with passing references to the numerous planets that humans have colonized throughout the galaxy instead of focusing on one ship and its crew like in the first book. (Although to be fair, by going over the backstory of the crew, we did learrn more about more of the other planets in the Wayfarers universe than we do in this book.) The plot of A Closed and Common Orbit was much more story-focused, as it dealt with a continuation of the story of one of the crew members from the first book and has a fascinating focus on the cultural norms of a society filled with multiple, variegated forms of alien life.

In the third entry in the Wayfarers series, Chambers has the good sense to make the civilization and culture of the Exodan Fleet the central aspect of the story, more as it was in Book 2. This time she does this by focusing on several characters who play specific roles: a disaffected teenager who wants to rebel against Exodan society; an alien amateur anthropologist who is visiting the ship the story is centered around and a lesbian librarian who is shepherding her around; a clueless human "Grounder" who leaves his planet to visit the Fleet to make his fortune; a single parent with two kids and who yearns for a better life; a spiritual leader who actually does find a hooker with a heart of gold. It is an eclectic mix, and this feature is one of the great strengths of the novel. The main characters and side characters are diverse in age, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation and other factors.

However I still found Record of a Spaceborn Few to be a slow, somewhat forced read for me. It started off very slowly, and I thought it would become a repeat of the first book where I hated all the characters but instead what happened is that all of the characters grew on me and I was anxious and interested in what happens to them. It's clear that plot is not really what Chambers is interested in, as much more of the focus is on the contours of the character's lives. Happily, Chambers obliges with codas for most of the characters at the end of the book which tell you what happens to them six months to two years after the main events of the central plot are resolved. This allows the reader to end the book on a hopeful and satisfied note.

Title: Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers, #3).
Becky Chambers.
Paperback: 359 pages.
Date Published: July 24, 2018.
Date Read: October 13, 2018.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

GODLESS WEDNESDAY: Stephen Hawking Says "There Is No God" In Posthumous Book

Stephen Hawking, one of the world's most renowned scientists, who died earlier this year at the age of 76 on March 13, has published a book where he reiterates his atheistic beliefs. This is not a new occurrence; Hawking's atheistic beliefs have been well-documented.

For example, this is a quote which comes close to what I believe as well,
We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.
As always, Hawking expresses the truth in a simple, declarative way.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Washington State Supreme Court Abolishes Death Penalty!

There are now twenty states that do not have the death penalty! Last week, the Washington State Supreme Court declared that state's death penalty unconstitutional in State v. Gregory, saying:
The death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and raciallybiased manner. While this particular case provides an opportunity to specificallyaddress racial disproportionality, the underlying issues that underpin our holding are rooted in the arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is generally administered. As noted by appellant, the use of the death penalty is unequally applied—sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant. The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section 14 of our state constitution.
The ruling is based entirely on the State constitution so it is not appealable to, or dependent on, the United States Supreme Court.

Hat/tip to ACLU

Thursday, October 11, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic, #3) by V.E. Schwab

A Conjuring of Light is the third and final entry in the Shades of Magic trilogy written by V.E. Schwab. 
The books are set in a universe with four parallel worlds that are connected via various flavors of London (Red, White, Grey and Black). These are listed in diminishing order of magical resonance, with Red London where almost all the action takes place and Black London is a ruined, barren place where magic ceased  to exist ages before. The main characters in the trilogy are Kell, Lila, Holland, Rhy and Alucard. Most of these characters have special magic abilities that allow them to travel between the Londons and all but Alucard appeared in all three books in the trilogy. You can read my reviews of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows for my thoughts on the complex relationships between these main characters. Instead, since this is the final book in the trilogy I want to give my opinion on both A Conjuring of Light and the Shades of Magic trilogy as a whole.

The trilogy structure is a familiar one in the science fiction and fantasy genre. Typically, the first book is usually quite strong, introducing the compelling characters, the setting of the exciting story, which often has some plot elements resolved but leaves some to be dealt with in the subsequent books. Oftentimes the second book is not as good as the first because the characters are now familiar to the reader so the frisson that arises from novelty is lost and the author can’t conclude all the plot threads because there’s a third entry yet to come. Then the final entry often disappoints because it has to resolve all the plot points that have been introduced in the first two books and some of the characters that we have gotten to know over two books don’t make it to the end. I point this out to note how difficult it is to have a compelling trilogy.

However, the description of the generic trilogy I gave above  fits the Shades of Magic trilogy to a tee. I quite enjoyed  A Darker Shade of Magic  and was slightly less impressed with A Gathering of Shadows but still liked the second book overall. There are multiple problems with the third book, A Conjuring of Light, the main one being that it is simply too long. This is often a common problem of third books in a trilogy (c.f. The Return of the King in the Lord of the Rings books) although there are definite counterexamples (Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs trilogy and Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations are two trilogies in which each entry is uniformly excellent).

There are several good aspects of A Conjuring of Light. The centering of the most prominent female character, Lila Bard, is a plus. Additionally, the romantic scenes include those between same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex couples. There are many action scenes, which are written quite well. There’s also a lot of dead bodies, oftentimes of important characters who had made it through the first two books, which raises the emotional impact of the book. However, the story does drag in some parts and it took me longer to finish this book then the other two and I don't think this was due to its increased length. Overall, the third entry is not as compelling as the first two but I would recommend the trilogy and I'm glad I finally read it.

Title: A Conjuring of Light (Shade of Magic, #3).
AuthorV.E. Schwab.
Length: 624 pages.
Publisher: Tor.
Published: February 21, 2017.
Read: October 6, 2018.

GOODREADS RATING: ★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Tuesday, October 09, 2018

TENNIS TUESDAY: Osaka Reaches World #4; Kiki Hits Top 10, Sabalenka at 11; Fed/Nole/Delpo Battle For #2 In Shanghai; Woz Wins Title #30

2018 US Open champion Naomi Osaka reached World #4 in the rankings, matching the highest ever ranking by a Japanese female player (Kimiko Date). Osaka has played very well since becoming a major champion, reaching a final and semifinal in consecutive tournaments. Kiki Bertens cemented her career-best year by reaching the Top 10 for the first time on the back of winning 3 titles in 2018. She becomes the first Dutch woman to reach this height since Brenda Shultz-McCarthy. Bertens just edged out Aryna Sabalenka, who is at #11 in the rankings and clearly poised to go higher. Sabalenka was the only player to take a set off of Osaka in New York and won the Wuhan Open and followed that up by defeating Garbine Muguruza in Beijing, where she reached the quarterfinals. Sabalenka first reached the Top 100 for the first time almost exactly a year ago.

The 2018 US Open finalists Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro are in the hunt to replace Roger Federer at the World #2 spot. Federer is the defending champion at the Shanghai Masters (which has one of the fastest court speeds on the ATP Tour). All Djokovic reaches the final in Shanghai he will be the new world #2, and has a chance to end the year at World #1 by doing well at the year-end championships in London, which he as won 5 times already. Del Potro has to hope the Serbian loses before the semifinals and that he wins the title to reach world #2. In the unlikely event that happens, a streak of 13 years where the top 2 spots have been held by members of the big 4  (Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray) will come to a close.

Since Angie Kerber lost early in Beijing, Simona Halep should be able to maintain her lead at the top spot through the Year-End Tour Championships in Singapore. Wozniacki is the defending champion so she can't increase her points total to challenge Halep at the top of the WTA rankings, despite winning her 30th career title in Beijing last weekend.

Monday, October 08, 2018

EYE CANDY: Nana-Kofi Adams

Nanakofi Adams is a British bodybuilder of African descent who is on Instagram (@nanakofi_adams). According to his Model Mayhem page, Nana-Kofi is 29 years old, 6-feet tall weighing 198 pounds and wears size 11(!) shoes.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

GRAPHIC: What Kind Of Voter Are You Depends On How Much Government You Want: Dismantle, Streamline, Rebuild, or Expand?

An interesting analysis of partisanship in a report from the Brooking Institution. They split all voters into four categories: dismantlers, streamliners, rebuilders and expanders. They are each defined thusly:

The report then goes on to analyze how each of the major partisan groups: democrats, republicans and independents are made up of various groupings of these four types (or ideologies) and how this has changed over time. It's worth a read!

Friday, October 05, 2018

CELEBRITY FRIDAY: Openly Gay MacArthur "Genius" Fellow Gregg Gonsalves

The 2018 MacArthur Fellows were announced yesterday and at least one of the "genius grant" winners is openly gay: Gregg Gonsalves, a well-known HIV/AIDS activist who was instrumental in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) in the 1990s. More recently he has become a global health advocate and received  a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Yale University in 2017.

The official summary of Dr. Gonsalves' work from the MacArthur Foundation is:
Gregg Gonsalves is an epidemiologist and global health advocate integrating his experiences as a community activist with quantitative analysis and operations research to improve responses to global public health challenges. For nearly three decades, Gonsalves was an HIV/AIDS activist, working with domestic and international organizations such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa. His efforts to connect the HIV/AIDS community with top-tier researchers and scientists were a critical catalyst to fundamental advances in scientific knowledge of the disease. These experiences deeply informed his later training in epidemiology and current efforts to optimize the effectiveness of health programs for epidemic diseases, particularly within poor and marginalized communities. 
Using a variety of quantitative approaches and operations research modeling, Gonsalves has determined how to identify hot spots for HIV testing in real time in order to maximize identification of undiagnosed HIV-positive persons; shed light on ways to minimize dropout of HIV-positive patients at key points in the care continuum; and assessed the epidemiological costs of emerging epidemics of HIV in the United States due to intravenous drug use and lack of needle exchange programs. In another line of research, Gonsalves examined the link between high rates of sexual violence against women living in informal settlements in Cape Town, South Africa, and the lack of indoor sanitation—the remote location of facilities left women vulnerable to attacks. He developed a mathematical model that determined the optimal number of new facilities and demonstrated that sanitation investments by the city would significantly reduce instances of sexual violence as well as their associated costs. 
Gonsalves co-founded the Global Health Justice Partnership (GHJP), an interdisciplinary initiative between the schools of law and public health at Yale University, to further advance human rights and social justice perspectives in public health and legal research, practice, and teaching. Working in cooperation with local nongovernmental organizations, GHJP mobilizes research and evidence around pressing health issues and translates that evidence into action. For example, GHJP and colleagues in South Africa documented the failure of mining companies and the South African government to compensate families for tuberculosis (TB) and silicosis acquired in the mines, and they continue to advocate for policy reform based on their comparative research. Currently, GHJP is working with organizations in Brazil to investigate the role of the war on drugs and high incarceration rates on the community burden of TB as well as advocacy for wider availability of hepatitis C treatment in U.S. prisons. Through these initiatives, Gonsalves is training a new generation of researchers who, like himself, work across public health and human rights sectors, scholarly research, and activism to correct disparities in global public health.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in the Shades of Magic trilogy. This time the cast of characters is expanded beyond Lila (the gender-bending thief with surprisingly powerful magical abilities), Kell (the magical Antari who can travel between parallel worlds) and Rhy (the prince of Arnes and Kell’s adopted brother). The main addition is Alucard Emery, the rakish captain of The Night Spire, the pirate ship that Lila has been working on for the last several months.

The key feature of these series of books is the fact there are four versions of London (Red, Grey, White and Black), and, of course, the presence of magic (based around the elements). In this book, most of the story takes place in Red London (which is in the nation of Arnes, ruled by Rhy's father, the King. The plot revolves around the Element Games, a magic competition held every four years between contestants from the three main countries in Red London’s world: Arnes, Vesk and Faro.

Through a series of deceptions and suspiciously coincidental events Kell, Lila and Alucard all compete in the Games (but most of them not under their real names). Meanwhile the relationships between all of the competitors (and Rhy) become increasingly tangled and complex. Rhy and Alucard. Rhy and Kell. Lila and Kell. Lila and Alucard.

In the first book A Darker Shade of Magic it felt as if the stakes of the resolution of the plot were very high, as one world (White London) attempted to take over another (Red London) and one of our main characters actually died (and was then resurrected by magic). In this second book, the stakes are very different. There is the question of who will win the magic competition and the effect that will have on the characters involved and their relationships. But I didn’t feel this was as compelling a hook on which to hand the story as the first book. However, I am still curious as to how the entire story will be concluded in the third and final book.

Rating: 4 stars.

TitleA Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic, #2).
AuthorV.E. Schwab.
Length: 512 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Published: February 23, 2016.
Read: September 15, 2018.

GOODREADS RATING: ★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Monday, October 01, 2018

MadProfessah in Barbados

I was in Barbados this weekend on my way back from the Caribbean to visit family members.

See my Instagram feed (@ronbuckmire) for more info.


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