March 9th, 2015

Gaslight Chronicles, Boxed Set #2: Cards & Caravans, Ashes & Alchemy, Dragons & Dirigibles SPOILERS

All by Cindy Spencer Pape. Apparently _Ether & Elephants_ will be coming out in a few months, altho the pre-order button was not up for me yesterday.

The Gaslight Chronicles is a series of Victorian Steampunk with vampyres, werewolves and Magick, including the Order of the Round Table and Lovelace College founded by Ada Lovelace. There are Babbage engines and smoke tinted goggles and all sorts of wonderful things.

Judging by the reviews on some of the books, a few caveats are in order.

(1) There is, generally, sex. So if you tend to read historical romances because of their comparative chasteness, you might not find this to your liking. (Also, if that is you, you should probably not be reading my blog.) (Also, these aren't historicals. You did see the bit about vampyres and werewolves and dirigibles and Magick and all, right? They aren't even properly alternate history, because it's a combination of paranormal and steampunk.)

(2) This is a series in which secondary characters from earlier novels becomes protagonists in later novels and protagonists from earlier novels continue to be present, on-stage and off, in later novels. If that sort of everyone-knows-each-other-already thing tends to bother you, don't drop into a book in the middle of the series.

(3) These are very plot-y books. The characters _are_ distinct and not interchangeable, but there is not a lot of character development in any given book. To the extent that you really get to "know" people, it is the core crowd that appeared as older children/younger adults in the first book and that is gradually finding their romantic partners later in the series. And the reason that is working is basically for the same reason that Sherlock Holmes and other series characters work -- you don't get inside their head for any length of time, but you do see them in action over time and that is what character development there is. Hence, plot-y.

(4) If your preference for world building, in the speculative fiction sense, is parsimonious, this place is gonna piss you off, over and over and over again. Like ST:TNG, new crap is invented in every book and may never be mentioned again. As much as you might like to see that particular item re-appear, it probably will not.

The books themselves are novella length, more than novels, which given all of the above is actually a good thing. The arc of the story is basically, Hey, Here's a New Person! in spectacular trouble. In the course of trying to deal with their trouble, someone we already know shows up (obvs not in book 1! Where we are first meeting everyone), they have some amount of instant reaction to each other, which they conceal poorly. They then work on extracting the New Person from the difficulty, and discover that it is a Problem for the Order (of the Round Table, natch), more people show up and the crowd investigates, deals with further attacks, wins out in the end.

AND NOW THE SPOILERS! Sort of. Run away or the Witchfinder will get you!!!!

So: in Cards, Belinda has been convicted by the village of witchcraft and is supposed to burn in the morning. Her Great-Aunt Zara (who we met in an earlier book) has a vision (or similar) and Connor is dispatched. Connor attempts a variety of things, and ultimately extracts her, brings her to Kay Tower where they marry, and then a crowd proceeds from the wedding to investigate the conspiracy against Magick, track it to its source, etc., obvs using the circus as a cover. Because, circus!

In Ashes, Minerva (there's a thing: it was "Linnie" in the previous book and "Minnie" in this one. Boy, watch out for anyone with the surname Engle, too!), ventures out into a winter storm to find help for her feverish four year old (with pointy ears who has never been sick a day in her life -- oooh! We've seen this before!) and fetches up on Sebastian Brown's doorstep. When Seb and Minnie return to where Jane is keeping an eye on Ivy, they are horrified to discover Jane murdered. Fortunately, Ivy is just covered inside and out with black dust. Weird. Everyone troops back to Seb's place, cleans up, sleeps and then we gotta find out what's up with the black dust oozing out of Ivy.

In Dragons, Melody Mackay (Connor's remaining unwed sibling) crashes an experimental airship at Black Heath, with what may well be the best opening paragraph of all time. Inevitably, sprained ankle (come on, it's a romance novel. What were you expecting? A broken back and ensuing paralysis? That would be a _very_ different book!), carried to the house by the burly Victor. Like a certain island in the Hebrides in an earlier entry in this series, Black Heath has been under sustained if somewhat covert attack for a while now. Victor's brother has already died in a steam car accident that knocked his daughter unconscious for a couple days. But Emma is still around, altho both her parents are gone. Do you smell instant family? I DO! This is the most problematic book of this trio, because of the racial stereotypes that appear surrounding the villain. Racial stereotyping is trigger-y throughout the series, mitigated in part by the very, very assimilationist nature of the extended families that provide the glue that binds the series together (lots of adoption, not everyone is hetero, biracial children, etc.). The big issue that I am noticing is that biracial relationships in this series tend to involve white men and brown women, and the women are ... long list of non-positive characteristics. Seb's past fiancee, Vidya, I could probably have excused, but Fleur (who is Chinese) has all the exotic/erotic/treachery/grasping stereotypes going on. Not sure whether I will continue with the series, but for sure you should be aware of it going in. I don't want to oversell Teh Evil here, because it's roughly on a par with stuff that people manage to excuse in movies like Big Trouble in Little China and similar, but it is much more recently written and thus less okay, imo. YMMV.

One of the things I LOVE about the series is the certainty possessed by so many of the characters (<-- not sarcasm. I am serious about this). They will _blithely_ make decisions that turn out to be incredibly bad in retrospect, and, honestly, not that hard to see as bad ahead of time (I'm going to bundle you off out of the action to be safe ... where you will promptly be kidnapped or worse). They _instantly_ trust people who turn out to be incredibly duplicitous. And then _instantly_ trust someone else, next, who turns out to be fine. Certainty -- even when wrong -- allows for definitive, aggressive action, which makes for a rollicking tale. When you try to write an action tale and fill it with people who suffer from Hamlet-level indecisiveness, it is a fucking chore to read. This is a much better and more believable approach. Do the characters sometimes take a step back and go, how did I not see that coming? Sure! But as soon as they get distracted by the possibility to go do something, the game is, once again, afoot.

NYT editorial on why the Fed should not raise rates yet/soonish

The NYT could have taken the easy path and said, hey, we're not above 2% yet, let's wait until we are. We're at the high end of the current belief system about NAIRU, wait until we're at the bottom. But they did not! They reminded everyone about the dual mandate, and then they went a little further.

"The reason the Fed associates falling unemployment with rising inflation is that, theoretically, more hiring leads to higher wages that, in turn, lead to consumer demand for goods and services, pushing up prices.

In practice, it has been several decades since those relationships have held — in part, because the Fed has usually been too quick to raise rates when wages have started to rise. This has led to a long-term decline in the share of income that goes to worker pay and a long-term increase in the share that goes to stockholders and executives."

They are reminding everyone of the theoretical core of NAIRU and pointing out that if you spike that phenomenon as comprehensively as we have in recent decades, you generate wealth inequality, and that is the current problem. So, yay! Concise and cogent!

But what about that asset bubble on the high end?

"In the meantime, it should use its regulatory tools to ensure that low-interest-rate credit is put to productive uses and not speculative bubbles."

Here's my suggestion: see if you can discourage people from taking margin loans to buy expensive property. Make them actually _sell_ the underlying asset, rather than just borrow against it. That should reduce the bubbliciousness at the high end.

The piece concludes with a swipe at Congress. Because, Congress.

Margin Rate Loans for Real Estate

People do this. I KNOW! WHY???? Two reasons: the amount they want to borrow is too high even for a jumbo, or at least a jumbo that they can find (or, see below: there is a benefit for being able to access the money faster than a conventional loan). Or because they can't _get_ a mortgage because they can't show enough income to satisfy current loan requirements.

What's a margin loan? Well, let's say you have an investment portfolio that you have been shoveling all the money that you save into over a period of years/decades (and it's not a 401K or IRA or Roth IRA or whatever, either because you don't qualify for one of those or you've maxed it out or whatever). In that portfolio is a bunch of stocks, funds, bonds, etc. You've carefully crafted a diverse set of investments over time (or you are holding a huge amount of stock in a company that you helped found/work for) and you don't want to (can't because of special insider trading rules that apply to you) sell the underlying stocks, funds, bonds, etc. Nevertheless, even tho you (a) don't have the cash, (b) can't or don't care to borrow the money in the form of a mortgage against the house (see first paragraph) or (c) can't or don't care to sell assets to generate the cash, you still want to buy a (ludicrously expensive) piece of real estate.

The firm you have the assets at is often willing to loan you money _against_ those assets, in exchange for (a) interest and (b) the right to sell those assets and take the money back that way. So instead of borrowing from a bank that can take your house, you are borrowing from an investment company that can take your ... investments. And generally, the scenario under which they would sell your investments to get their money back is ... in the middle of a crash, when they are worth A Lot Less.

Margin loans for real estate are a terrible idea, because they let people spend insane amounts of money -- after all, this tends to happen when stock portfolios are super plump and people are reluctant to sell because, I dunno, no one wants to sell at or near the peak? they always think it's gonna go higher, and it will, until it doesn't -- running up the price on real estate. And then the assets guaranteeing the loan ... shrivel, and are sold at a loss (either by the "owner" or the other owner, that is, whoever you borrowed the money from), thus making an already expensive decision to buy that real estate even more expensive (to be fair, selling the underlying asset to buy the real estate can have the exact same effect, minus some of the drama).

I know, it's terribly funny because it only happens to people who (a) have a lot of money and (b) are stupid. But it is actually a serious problem in a ton of ways, because this is a bubble. And it is really happening. And it will tend to encourage people to want interest rates to rise to slow down the bubble, AND THAT WILL GUARANTEE YOU NEVER GET A RAISE EVER AGAIN (or more hours or a job at all). While you are busy laughing at stupid rich people, crudely managing their stupidity may result in a whole lot of unavoidable pain for everyone else. Let's not do this.

The first step in Not Doing This is understanding that it is happening, talking about it so we all understand it, and then crafting tools to discourage or eliminate the behavior. We are Not There Yet, because this is the quality of advice out there about margin loans and real estate. Is it opposed to the practice? Yes, yes it is. Is it cogent and concise? Not at all.

The argument here is basically, "it's too risky". And if the person whose broker is trying to get them to use a margin loan to buy a house takes "it's too risky" back to the broker, the broker is JUST GOING TO TALK FASTER. And then the idiot will be an idiot. Which may turn out fine, but probably not.

"Margin loans are variable-rate loans. The interest rate will vary among brokers. A quick review of current rates finds great variation. A 15- or 30-year fixed-rate mortgage appears to be a bargain compared with what some brokerage firms charge. Are you willing to move your account to get the lowest margin loan rate?

There are plenty of other risks if using margin to finance your home. Aside from interest rate risk, you face the possibility of a margin call if the value of your investments declines."

Other coverage of margin loans to buy real estate, scary to think this is, in part, what is driving the California real estate market this go-round:

At least _they_ point out that margin call risk is huge and that some people are just using the margin loan to win a bidding war for a house, and will then line up more traditional financing later. But horrifying, that this has become so normal in the last couple years, and this article is mostly about how to do it better, rather than about how it needs to stop.

Free range kid CPS non-decision

As near as I can tell, there is no debate as to what happened: 10 year old and 6 year old, unaccompanied on 1 mile walk to park. Some other adult saw this happening and called police. Police picked up the children. CPS became involved (honestly? How does CPS NOT get involved if your children are picked up by police.). Antics involving free range parenting advocates ensued.

2 month investigation, possible outcomes were: ruled out (didn't happen), unsubstantiated (keep an open file, otherwise no action unless something else happens) and indicated (would have required some sort of action beyond open file). The parents received the middle one, which is the very best possible outcome they could have hoped for.

But that is not how this quote suggests they saw it: "“We don’t feel it was appropriate for an investigation to start, much less conclude that we are responsible for some form of child neglect,” said Danielle Meitiv, who said she and her husband plan to appeal and worry about being investigated again by CPS."

Maryland CPS has a policy on this exact subject:

"Maryland Child Protective Services Procedures (SSA95-13) define an "unattended child" as:

A child under eight left alone or in the care of a person who is not reliable or who is under 13.

A child aged eight through 12 left alone for longer than brief periods without support systems which should include phone numbers of parents, other family members or neighbors, information about personal safety, and what to do in an emergency. Children in this age group may not be left to care for children under the age of eight."

And they are in violation of that policy. I tried to find the Wheaton public library policy on unattended children, because I'm betting this family was in violation of that as well, when they previously let the kids walk unattended to the Wheaton library.

I'm a little unclear on what the goal of the parents here is. If the goal is, "No person should report my kid to the cops for wandering around while young and unattended," I think they will probably not attain that goal, altho presumably their children will, over time, age out of the reportable range. If the goal is, "When someone reports my kid to the cops, I hope the cops do not respond", I guess that actually frightens me a lot and I would work to counter that goal. If the goal is, "When the cops interact with my children, I hope they send my kids on their way or bring them home to me without telling CPS," then I think I also find that frightening, because I think that while cops are amazing, brave and well-trained people, and many of them are excellent parents, I _don't_ think they have the appropriate training to decide what to do with a child who is wandering around unattended and young. CPS are the people who have that expertise; I want them to call CPS. CPS has taken a good first step (did NOT take the kids away or lock the parents up; _did_ induce a healthy concern about being out of alignment on parenting values with the larger, surrounding community), but I expect more steps will be needed (because it looks like the parents are _really_ idealistic, and retain an idea that the larger community will start seeing things their way).

I suspect that many of the parents involved in free range parenting were raised in a completely car-oriented, adult supervision sort of way, and the idea of being able to walk around and go places without parents/adults and the structures they impose is romantic and appealing. Because I had to walk a mile to school in grade school after my older sisters had aged into junior high and high school, as a third grader and responsible for a first grader, I don't find the lack of supervision and adult presence romantic and appealing. I find it, frankly, terrifying. As a 14 year old, I walked the same walk to pick up an 8 year old and a 5 year old to walk them to their house and keep an eye on them until their sheet rocker dad or bank teller mom came home. My $1.75/hour child care was all they could afford. But when I look back on that job (I loved the kids and the parents were kind, hard working people doing their very best), I see child labor (me) and a special needs 5 year old who was not getting anything like what he needed.

Presumably, there is some sort of balance to be found between never a moment to oneself as a child and being responsible at a too-young age for someone even younger. I hope we figure it out. Soon.

ETA: An alternative perspective on free-range parenting from the 1970s. The now adult then child was then 12, which is older than 10. And older than 6, for that matter.

It's unclear what the author's take-away is on this, but it doesn't sound uniformly positive ("victim", "extreme", and some negative language on the parental partying).

It is, I should add, _really funny_, and, like riding around in the back of a pickup truck on the freeway, quite fun at first, until you start thinking about it, and then the parental decree that that was Never Gonna Happen Again doesn't actually sound that ridiculous. Also, the freeway pickup truck thing was really cold.