Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sailing into disaster

I was over at Less Wrong and came across a discussion of disaster books and the lessons to be learned. Many of them I had heard of, but as with any crowd of bright people there are some interesting finds.

One book noted was Tall Ships Down, a book that goes into details of the the sinking of five modern tall ships:  the 316-foot bark Pamir in 1957; the 117-foot brigantine Albatross in 1961; the 117-foot bark Marques in 1984; the 137-foot schooner Pride of Baltimore in 1986; and the 125-foot brig Maria Asumpta in 1995.

Curious, Less Wrong 20 April 2009

[Discussing the noted book above: Tall Ships Down]

Big lessons:

1) if you have a weakness (personally, in your competence or temperament, or structurally, in your vessel or equipment) and spend enough time in an unpredictable environment, it will eventually be exploited.

2) the fact that an environment is unpredictable does not relieve you from the responsibility of considering risks and working to minimize them.

3) we often have an inkling about our weaknesses, but if we've gotten by so far without major incident, we see no pressing need to address them.

4) if you're the captain/leader of an operation, know what the hell you're doing. if you're the equivalent of an ordinary seaman, make it a priority to become competent enough to identify a leader who doesn't know what the hell s/he's doing.

What I find interesting is that you could take those same proscriptions and apply them to many many human endeavors:  the company you work for, your own company, Portugal, Greece, the United States, etcetera.

In the four lessons, Number 3, is a fairly strong explanation for a lot of our problems.  It takes time, and effort to correct known flaws.  Occasionally we may not have the resources to address the issue in the most thorough manner.

One issue noted in the book, is that during the 19th century, unlike modern tall ships sailing, there was no expectation that ships had a set schedule on which they needed to arrive.  They could be sailed as conservatively as needed without concern for schedule.  The ship showed up when the ship showed, so right there they had one less contributing factor to worry about:  keeping to a schedule.

Pamir - from its memorial page

Friday, June 29, 2012

Ugly numbers census version

Recently released from the census:
  • 2010 median U.S. income (income where half make more, and half make less) is the same as the early 1990's erasing all the gains of the Clinton boom years
  • Median family net worth dropped from $126, 400 in 2007, to $77,300 in 2010
  • Over this same 2007 to 2010 period, median family income dropped 7.7%.
This report comes with a number of charts'  First we show the changes in median and mean (average) income.  As noted above the median is where half the people are above you and half below you.  It is not as sensitive as the average (mean) is to some extreme outliers.  If you have 100 people at a cocktail party and Bill Gates walks in, by the average you have the wealthiest cocktail party in America, while by the median (where Bill gates is just one data point) the wealth has only shifted over to the next wealthiest person.

So note the huge surge in incomes during the housing bubble of  2004-2007 by the average (mean) shows that most people did not see any increases.  In fact they lost a little bit of income.  A loss that rapidly accelerated going into the downturn.  In the downturn, the wealthy, probably because they had more to lose, went down by a greater percentage.

I am hoping that you can click to expand on this chart (blogger seems to be doing that now).  If not you will have to go to the Census Report (pdf) and look on page 17.

There are all sorts of interesting things to see.  We will ignore the average (mean) because I will assume that there are not too many high level bankers coming here for their financial information.

The median household net worth for the 60 to 76 crowd is $128,600.  The drop in home prices hammered home owner assets (median net worth drop 29.1%).  Of course renters got off more  lightly (median net worth drop 5.6%).  Of course the median renter didn't have much in the way of assets to loose.

If you go to page 45 of this report, the report does not break down the ages into the same groupings, making direct comparison difficult.  But they note that the median primary residence of a 55 to 64 year old as being of $220,000 in value, and of a 65-74 year old as $209,500.  This implies that there is an awful lot of debt dragging peoples "net" value down.

Sure enough, if we go to page 57, we find that of the 55 to 64 year old crowd (the boomers) 82 % of of them are in debtThe 65 to 74 year old group has a still surprisingly high 66% indebtedness ratio.  Given that this crowd got to enjoy the absolute heart of the post World War 2 boom, that is a little surprising.  If you go to page 59, you will see that most of the debt against these groups homes is not on the value of the home itself, but that the home was used to secure "other" debt.  So the seniors with homes, used drew out the value of the homes (reverse mortgages, home equity loans, consolidation loans, student loans, etc.) to pay for something else.  Ouch.

One of the traditional pass down economic boosts that one generation passes on to the next is the value of its hard assets.  When you look at Medieval Europe's economic activity, that is often just about all a generation could give to the next.

So as a group, we are making less money, getting more in debt, and drawing down our asset values.  Does this sound like a healthy country?  And we are not yet even into the heart of the baby boomer retirement years.

[Sources: Marginal Review, who I believe got it from the NYT, who got it from the latest Census Report (pdf)]

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pandemic TB

We have been talking about the untreatable super bacteria in India (link) and about the problem with super-tuberculosis problem in general (link 2). Now it is making the front page of the Wall Street Journal. If this were a typical pandemic-apocalypse novel, we would probably be at the point in the first chapter where they say something like "It was first reported in X."

India in Race to Contain Untreatable Tuberculosis
Geeta Annand, Wall Street Journal, 19 June 2012

In December, Dr. Udwadia reported in a medical journal that he had four tuberculosis patients resistant to all treatment. By January, he had a dozen cases, then 15.

A government backlash began immediately. Anonymous health-ministry officials denied the reports through media outlets. They accused Dr. Udwadia and his colleagues of starting a panic. A Mumbai city health official seized patient samples for verification in government labs.

Ashok Kumar, head of India's tuberculosis-control program, said the government was "seriously addressing" the widening drug-resistance problem. However, he refuted Dr. Udwadia's description of a "totally drug-resistant" TB strain—not because there is a treatment, but because the term isn't internationally recognized and a new cure could be discovered.

Tuberculosis has long been a global killer. Traces were found in the skeletons of Egyptian mummies. There are records of the disease from Hippocrates, the Indian Rig Veda and ancient Chinese texts. At the start of the 19th century, tuberculosis was the main cause of death in most of Europe.

India has the largest number of the world's cases—2.3 million of the nearly nine million people afflicted annually—and it is the country's most fatal infectious illness. Government authorities estimated about 100,000 of India's patients have drug-resistant strains, which researchers say can mutate into forms increasingly immune to more and more medicines.

Camilla Rodrigues, lab chief at Hinduja Hospital where most of India's cases have been found, said the strain's total drug resistance was indeed difficult to confirm in a lab. But, she said, it was easily confirmed in clinical practice: Four of 15 patients, whose lab tests showed the strain, have died, despite aggressive treatment. The hospital has since stopped publicly reporting its cases.

India's TB program for years focused on treating regular strains. Patients who didn't improve received the same treatment for longer but with one more antibiotic. The regimen had virtually no chance of defeating resistant strains, experts said.

"It serves merely to amplify resistance over a further eight months, allowing drug-resistant TB to spread,"
India is a destination point for low cost medical services.  It is a major source of foreign capital for the country.  The dollars act as a further incentive to the usual defensiveness of organizations having problems with their status quo working models.

The article notes that there is equipment that can be bought to test patients for drug-resistant TB - tests that take only hours versus months to get results, but at $70,000 a piece, the cost of the machines is prohibitive from the cold-eyed comparison of outputs of a typical Indian's per person share of national output (per capita GNP) of $1,389 (ranking 140 out of 183 countries listed, versus US at $48,387, ranked number 14).

Although the bird flue is the popular media choice for our next global pandemic, Cholera has been with us a long time, and has been there before.  As an airborne disease it has the potential to travel quickly.  If untreatable, it has the potential to become deadly on a grand scale.

What of course people are waiting to see is if the resistant cholera hits that hockey stick curve in the charts.  The hockey stick curve that all exponential trends eventually display if given enough time and resources to run.  To finish our quotes from the article.
Dr. Udwadia said he was worried they [the expensive equipment] would come too late: "We're chasing the snowball down the hill."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peak Oil Extrapolations

The economists blog, Econbrowser, is one of the few economic-focused sites that will also spend a fair amount of time talking about peak oil.

The general discussion is about which forecasting methods have proven to be the most effective (not many), but the final point is a good one.

Simply saying that there is more money and technology to invest in a problem does not guarantee better results.

Peak Oil and Price Incentives
James Hamilton, Econbrowser, 13 June 2012
The IMF model predicts that growth in demand will put continual upward pressure on price, with the inflation-adjusted price of oil headed for $180/barrel by the end of the decade. According to their estimates, those price increases would be sufficient to keep global production increasing at about the same reduced rate we have seen since 2004.
My view is that the IMF researchers' approach is clearly better than the simple Hubbert-Deffeyes linearization, but may still be subject to some of the other problems documented by Boyce (2012), as well as the familiar challenges of statistically distinguishing supply and demand effects. Notwithstanding, the IMF research should help raise awareness of an issue that remains under appreciated by many economists, which is that we will eventually reach a point, and may have already, at which quite significant increases in price and improvements in technology can produce only modest increases in production, or may be insufficient to prevent outright declines in annual crude oil production levels. For those still in doubt about that possibility, I would again call attention to Pennsylvania, the place where the oil industry began in 1859. The price of oil today is 5 times as high in real terms as it was in 1891, and of course there have been tremendous technological advances in the century since then. But the state produced 8 times as much oil in 1891 as it does today.

We like to think that the reason we enjoy our high standards of living is because we have been so clever at figuring out how to use the world's available resources. But we should not dismiss the possibility that there may also have been a nontrivial contribution of simply having been quite lucky to have found an incredibly valuable raw material that for a century and a half or so was relatively easy to obtain. Optimists may expect the next century and a half to look like the last. Benes and coauthors are suggesting that instead we should perhaps expect the next decade be our last within this paradigm, and that perhaps we are going to reset back to energy level usuages more similar to the 17th century. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

No more peak oil!

What a relief.  We can rest easy.  As the Business Insider has informed us:

Rob Wile, Business Insider - Chart of the Day, 14 June 2012 (hat tip: NC)
Below is a graph that we believe cast serious doubt on peak oil theory — the idea that we are imminently in danger of exhausting the world's hydrocarbon supply.
"The world is not structurally short of hydrocarbon resources – as our data on proved reserves confi rms year after year – but long lead times and various forms of access constraints in some regions continue to create challenges for the ability of supply to meet demand growth at reasonable prices."

I am not sure if he is being intentionally dry -saying one thing while meaning another with a very neutral delivery.

The idea of peak oil is not that you run out of reserves, but that production becomes more difficult and costly, and at some point supply flow does begin to dwindle.  How many hydrocarbons are actually in existence is somewhat beside the point.

Is bullet point quote, seems to be a pretty reasonable working definition for peak oil.  You cannot get oil to the market at an affordable - reasonable if you will - price.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Monsanto Soya sunk - Brazilian style

A court ruling in Brazil could do some serious damage to Monsanto's modified genetic seed model.
At issue is not whether farmers owe money on the original seeds, but if they owe money on later generations of seeds. 

The Brazilian soybean  crop, second largest in the world,  totals $24 billion dollars annually and 85% of that crop is produced from engineered seeds.  Originally the use of these seeds was banned in Brazil, and they had to be smuggled in from Argentina; which of course makes for a very muddled situation.

Monsanto is paid for the initial seeds, and there is a 2% royalty fee on subsequent crops, even if the seeds are second generation.

Brazilian farmers win $2 billion judgment against Monsanto
Subodh Varma, Times of India, 12 June 2012 (hat tip: NC)
Five million Brazilian farmers have taken on US based biotech company Monsanto through a lawsuit demanding return of about 6.2 billion euros taken as royalties from them.
In April this year, a judge in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, ruled in favor of the farmers and ordered Monsanto to return royalties paid since 2004 or a minimum of $2 billion. The ruling said that the business practices of seed multinational Monsanto violate the rules of the Brazilian Cultivars Act (No. 9.456/97).  Monsanto has appealed against the order and a federal court ruling on the case is now expected by 2014.

Of course the value of a Euro denominated income stream may change in a future coming soon to many neighborhoods.  But the it is pretty clear that the "intellectual property" method of exporting -you pay us for our knowledge, and you give us your stuff- is not a bullet proof model for success.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

15% Evil

There are a number of ways of defining evil.  However defined, wanton destruction is usually included somewhere within evil's parameters.

Destructor Game (pdf)
 Esther Kessler, Maria Ruiz-Martos, David Skuse, Universitat Jaumi, 2012/11 (hat tip: Overcoming Bias)

Destructive behavior has mostly been investigated by games in which all players have the option to simultaneously destroy (burn) their partners’ money. In the destructor game, players are randomly paired and assigned the roles of destructor versus passive player. The destructor player chooses to destroy or not to destroy a share of his passive partner’s earnings. The passive partner cannot retaliate. In addition, a random event (nature) destroys a percentage of some passive subject’s earnings. From the destructor player’s view, destruction is benefit-less, costless, hidden and unilateral. Unilateral destruction diminishes with respect to bilateral destruction studies, but it does not vanish: 15% of the subjects choose to destroy.
This result suggests that, at least for some, destruction is intrinsically pleasurable.
As Robin Hanson noted, this is not "big" evil.  It is a game after all.  But it is pure evil.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Post apocalyptic Sci Fi short story

Jason Heppenstall at 22 Billion Energy Slaves has posted a free short story.  I lists other options, but I had some trouble finding it.  So I am posting the link here: The Amnesiac.

His general complaint is that there is not enough speculative (science?) that deals with future resource constraints.  The story takes place on the Spanish island of Ibizza.  It used to be a resort, but now it seems to be acting almost as an oversized prison- protective camp for the last vestiges of our culture of  plenty:  body part clones, military clones, pleasure clones. etc.  The collapsed society has turned against them, and they have been sent to the island for their own safety.

The story ends on an odd note, but it is short and moves fairly quickly.  It would make a could introductory piece for a longer story.  LOL


Friday, June 22, 2012

Memoria English e-version available

Memoria is at Smashwords.  Electronic copies, including kindle format available.

Alex Bobl's post-apocalyptic dystopian novel set in New York City.  Translated by this fine lady.

The blurb is as follows:
When they learn to erase our memories,
When we dismiss violence and deceit as things of the past,
When wars become history we can't remember -

One man will challenge the new order
Because he remembers who he truly is.

Now all the Irene needs to do is explain to Alex, that he is supposed to post about such things at his own blog as well! Not that what he is posting is not timely in its own way. LOL

I am going to work on doing some additional foreign (British doesn't count) originating novels soon.  I am working on David J. Rodger's RPG (role-playing game) derived Dog Eat Dog, which I so far rather like, but after I finish that one, we will procede.

Panic is not enough - Bank downgrade addition

Five of the top six U.S. banks were downgraded today by Moody's.  In some cases the downgrade was severe.  Morgan Stanley was able to convince them to ONLY downgrade them 2 points (vice 3).  Globally 15 major banks were downgraded.

Their new grades:

Source:  Wall Street Journal (found here)

Buried somewhere (o.k. here and here) in our past posts we have brought up the collapse of the an Austrian Bank, Creditanstalt, as one of  the primary agents of the Great Depression.  Coming in 1931, well after the after the 1929 U.S. stock market crash.  It is one of the items that made the Great Depression "Great".
It is useful to realize that the Great Depression itself was not one large unified crash, but a series of crash and recoveries, with each succeeding crash being larger than the one before.  Just as we try and kick the can down the road, with regards to the worldwide debt crises, they did some of that as well back then.
The idea that this crises is all about sub-prime credit lending being pushed by FANNIE and FREDDIE is laughable: wish it were so.
So when I see the Creditanstalt collapse was noted by a columnist at the Financial Times, I take notice.  The fact that a massive bank downgrade interrupts in between the point I write much of this post (in the middle of a book review bonanza), and being able to post it, only emphasises the point.

Panic has become all too rational
Martin Wolf, Financial Times, 5 June 2012 (hat tip: NC)

It is often forgotten that the failure of Austria’s Creditanstalt in 1931 led to a wave of bank failures across the continent. That turned out to be the beginning of the end of the gold standard and caused a second downward leg of the Great Depression itself. The fear must now be that a wave of banking and sovereign failures might cause a similar meltdown inside the eurozone, the closest thing the world now has to the old gold standard. The failure of the eurozone would, in turn, generate further massive disruption in the European and even global financial systems, possibly even knocking over the walls now containing the depression.
How realistic is this fear? Quite realistic.
Creditanstalt from a postcard

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Living the undead lifestyle - pay as you go

I am not sure what sequence I will wind up placing the variety of posts I am working on.  If it were not for a concern for length, I could tack this one onto the end of the baby boomer retirement plight post.

The following is an interview column that I picked up from the Los Angelos Times real estate section.  There are two (two) relevant issues of note.

The person answering the questions is Ezra Becker, vice president of research and consulting at TransUnion, and the tradition hierarchy they are discussing is the fact that people used to pay their mortgage first, the car second, than other bills, and then if they had them, credit cards last.
Paying mortgage isn't a top priority in tough times, research shows
Mary Umberger, Los Angelas TImes, 10 June 2012 (hat tip: NC

What did you study to conclude that there's been a change in attitudes about this hierarchy?
One of the things we noticed at the beginning of the recession was that delinquency rates on mortgages were skyrocketing, but they were controlled in the credit card space. We knew this was weird. If the traditional payment hierarchy were holding true, credit card delinquencies also would have skyrocketed too.
So we studied the data in 2010 and later updated it, concluding that credit cards had, indeed, become the top priority. But we didn't include car payments in those studies, so we did a second update, studying 4 million people who had a mortgage and at least one credit card account and one auto loan.
We found that in 2011, consumers were likely to pay their auto loans before their credit cards, and then their mortgages. It was true in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and across different risk tiers, such as prime versus subprime. It was illuminating to see that credit cards aren't the most important credit to people; it's auto loans.

For consumers who had all three types of credit in 2011, when they became delinquent in any of those categories, 9.5% who were delinquent on an auto loan were current on their credit cards and mortgages. And 17.3% who were delinquent on their credit cards were still up to date on their mortgages and car loans. But a far larger number, 39.1%, who were delinquent on their mortgages stayed current on their credit cards and car loans.

They note that cars are an important item because so many people now need them to get to work, or to find new work: fair enough.   Then we get to the kicker:
Another factor is what we call the timing of consequences. If you stop paying on your credit cards, the credit card account gets closed, and you can't use it anymore. When you stop paying your auto loans, at some point fairly soon people are going to come to take that car away from you.
But when you stop paying the mortgage, the average time to foreclosure in so-called nonjudicial states [in which the courts aren't involved in the process] is 300 days. In judicial states, in which the courts rule in foreclosures, now you're looking at 10 to 20 months before you'll be evicted. 
And you have to look at the idea of equity. In the "traditional" hierarchy, you'd say that people valued their homes above all else. But this is slightly inaccurate: They valued their equity above all else. When equity evaporates for consumers, the home is not so important.
And here is the bonus kicker.  The second point I underlined earlier

But we think it's going to be a few years yet. Our internal forecast for housing is that it won't be fully stabilized until 2017, barring a major change in the environment. It's going to be another five years before we'll revert to the traditional format.
So what we have is the discussion of the real, current trend that people are so poorly off that they are using paying the minimum into their credit card (likely to keep food on the table), and that they are so tapped out on assets, that they really have no assets worth protecting.

And...and, this is the new normal.  A forecast - a refreshingly honest one - that says we are not likely to see "stability" , little less recovery, for 5-years, may as well be saying that we may well never see a change.  Five-year economic plans are notoriously unreliable.  But you like to see a better base-line.  A five year recovery pretty much says that there is no engine to our economy, and that the debt bubble will only settle out through slow inflation - or to use that 1970s term: stagflation.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cat food retirement plans

One of my local papers, Raleigh's News & Observer carried two stories on tapped out seniors.

With all our apocalypse-in-progress and post-apocalyptic novel reviews, we tend to focus on the end of everything.  But our economy is suffering through an enormous amount of one-at-a-time collapses.
The stories overlap a little, but we will start with the income side first.
Motoko Rich, New York Times, 9 June 2012
Even as most Americans are delaying retirement to bolster their savings accounts, the recession and its protracted aftermath have forced many older people who are out of work to draw Social Security much earlier than they had planned.
According to an analysis by Steve Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration, about 200,000 more people filed initial claims in 2009 and 2010 than the agency had predicted before the recession and he said the trend most likely continued in 2011 and 2012, though that is harder to quantify. The most likely reason is joblessness…
Drawing Social Security early has repercussions that will be hard to overcome… Those who collect early get 20 to 30 percent less a month than they would get if they waited until full retirement age, which varies by year of birth.
According to an analysis by Richard W. Johnson, director of the retirement policy program at the Urban Institute, 37 percent of older workers who lost their jobs between 2008 and 2011 and did not return to work ended up claiming Social Security as soon as they turned 62.
So right off the bat, many older workers are headed into employment with a much more restricted income stream than they might expect.  Of course stories about the difficulties of the 55+  crowd finding work go back to the 1990s.

But we also have a bottom line problem in our country.  We haven't been living within our means at almost any level since... Well I don't know, sometime before the Vietnam War.  So that curtailed income is colliding with a lot of debt.

Hanah Cho, Baltimore Sun, 9 June 2012 (via Charlotte Observe)By Hanah Cho
From 1992 to 2007, the percentage of households of people in their mid-50s and older with housing and consumer debt rose from 53.8 percent to 63 percent, according to the Washington-based Employee Benefit Research Institute’s [EBRI] research using government data. The problem is even more acute for those 55 to 64, with 81.7 percent carrying debt.
In the same period, the average overall debt for these 55-and-older households more than doubled, to $70,370, according to EBRI.
Some older consumers also are saddled with credit card debt. Among Americans 65 and older, for instance, the average amount of credit card debt rose to $10,235 in 2008 from $8,138 three years earlier, the largest percentage increase among all age groups, according to a survey by Demos, a New York-based public policy institute.
Moreover, other older Americans are haunted by student loans years after they, or their children, left school. Adults 50 and older owe 17 percent of the nation’s $870 billion [now over $1 trillion] in student-loan debt, according to a report in March by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Of course you know the Baby Boomers just love being called "Seniors."

It is obvious that some people could have done a better job planning.  No doubt about it.  But before we get too busy casting stones, it should be remembered that the wages of the blue collar works have -in inflation adjusted terms - stagnated since the mid-1970s.

So intermixed with all the discussions of how to plan for the end of the world scenarios, there needs to be a greater emphasis on just staying on the road until we get to the end: either our own personal end, or the great final dead end.  Living in mobile home with six other seniors as roommates, eating cat food, while you ponder over all the cool equipment you used to own, is not a great endgame strategy.  I did the roommate thing as an adult when money was tight, it boggles my mind to think of doing it at 65+.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Half of U.S. households on benefits

The story notes that the number is up from 30% in the early 1980s.

49.1%: Percent of the population that lives in a household where at least one member received some type of government benefit in the first quarter of 2011.

Food stamps are received in 15% of households,  social security 16%, and 26% have someone on Medicaid.  Only 2% (lower than I would have thought) have someone receiving unemployment benefits.
It is important to note that a lot of people feel that they are “entitled” to their social security benefits as they are only withdrawing the money they put in.  This is an inaccurate summation.  Typically people withdraw every cent of money that they have contributed within the first four years of receiving benefits.  The system was not setup to have the majority of people drawing from it for extended periods of time.
Not surprisingly it is the Social Security and Medicaid benefits that people are most reluctant to cut.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Joshua: A Review

John S. Wilson's Joshua is an apocalypse-in-progress that is starts in area of Nashville, Tennessee, after an economic collapse causes a relatively quick breakdown within the United States.  A sample (first 5 chapters) of the novel can be found here.

John S. Wilson, as self-described (source) has been a truck driver, warehouseman, security guard, air marshaller, insurance salesman, real estate agent, bottle inspector, assembly line worker, forklift operator, and stock boy.  He has been blogging for about a decade with his original site over on the old tripod platform, and at least the front end of the novel was  published online.  He eventually decided to self-publish it in an e-format.  He gave free copies to his blog viewers when he took it off line.  So that I don't give the wrong impression from the start, I will go ahead and say that the author showed a lot of writing disciplined and avoided the usual flaws that novels originating in this format tend to possess.
Our story starts with an immediate encounter between "the man" (about 43 years old and the primary narrative focus of the story, who is looking after Joshua (about 7 years old), and an unknown group of men with rifles.  They are taken captive, and we get to the heart of the story in a narrative flashback.

The Man, as he is referred to, is living just outside of  Nashville, Tennessee, working as some sort of EMS (Emergency Medical Service) technician when the sinking boat known as the U.S. economy crashes upon the rocky shoals of insolvency.  The last government shipments of free food make it to their destination, and are seen no more.  The riots start, and it all begins to unwind. People with somewhere to go, if possible further out from the cities, go there.  The man, has waited a little to long, heads toward his family in Lexington, Kentucky.  He notes early on, that it is Friday, September 13th, so the year should  be either be 2013 or 2019.  Quickly forced to foot, he walks the (center city to cc) 213 miles.  At the point where he is half the way home, and he realizes from what he is seeing, that the old world is never coming back.  Without going into details, as the book continues, he will be doing a lot more traveling than he originally anticipated.

Kentucky on a State Highway (3375) south of Lexington - Since these authors never adequately describe the countryside.
As this is a traveling book, much of the story is somewhat episodic.  You have a variety of mixed one-off encounters, of greatly varying lengths.  Although the encounters often are very similar to the mix you see in the survivalist-apocalypse-in-progress sub-genre, the author brings a much more thoughtful process to the endeavor.  He does have some of Rawles' religious moralizing, but intentionally mixes in a variety of scenarios which show both the advantages, and limitations of that approach.  He also avoids the trap of having the "Christians" all being of the saintly sort.  Although "the man" does some praying and is obviously a devote person, the author keeps at a personal level which I think will make it a bit more accessible to more people. The author, having lived a little in the real world, has a number of rather nasty villains, but they come in a variety of sizes and shapes.  The villains are not simple zombie stand-ins.  He also avoids that latest trend, the super powered suicidal dog packs that live to soak up bullets.

There is a little bit of the governmental stock round up of citizens early on in the novel.  This scene has become almost a matter of faith in some post-apocalyptic circles, so there is not too much point in complaining.  Religion is religion.  If you look at the numbers involved (that old logistical problem) it is highly unlikely the government is going to be forcing many people into camps.  More likely they are going to be places for the connected and well off, and they will be working to keep people out.  A novelistic idea that started off as either voluntary and limited, or partial, is becoming forced and universal.  Since in our novel here, a lot of the action is around the State Capital, Lexington, and it is possible that it is a State initiative, we can let it pass.  Someday, I'll have to do the number crunching (I have already done a little of it in an early post: look at the oil reserve draw down rate) and show just how little supply the military can rely on compared to the task at hand in a homeland crises.

One wise decision that the author makes is to avoid getting into over involved discussions of how it all fell apart.  The main character knows the government was having problems paying its bill, that there was hyperinflation and latter a banking collapse, but it is all rather sketchy in his mind.   This keeps the background to the story mercifully short.
The novel does end a little bit on the cosy side, but that is a wise move for  a first time novelist.  The cosy ending is by far the easiest to satisfyingly pull off with this type of novel. 

Finally, there is the obvious parallel between this novel and no the man-son story in McCarty's The Road, but not to the point of being repetitive.  This world is not so nearly gone as McCarty's which allows for a greater variety of encounters.

Did I enjoy the novel?  Yes I did.  I was glad I finished it as quickly as I did because it will allow me to have this round of reviews end on a positive note.  Although the use of "the man" to refer to the main character throughout the novel is a bit of a mistake, and tends to make the story a little less personal, the man is generally a good person, and will generally try to help people if he can.  That he has some tough learning lessons as the story goes on is of course one of the themes that makes these apocalypse-in-progress novels so interesting.    That being said, it is not a christian warm and comfy sing along.  There are adult discussions, and most would view it as inappropriate for a YA audience.

For our descriptive (not qualitative) categorizations, Realism and Readability: 1 to 7 with 7 being high.

Realism, I used to call grittiness.  It is gritty.  It is mostly a day-to-day struggle to find food, and much of the time they are half starving.  There is an appropriate mix of good people, evil people, and a number of people in-between.  Fortunately for our duo, they run into them in mostly the correct order or it would have been a shorter book.  There are a few survival hints dropped along the way, but it is not a how-to manual.  It maxs out at 7.

Readability is not intended to as a ranking of its literary qualities, but literally how painless, fast, and easy of a read is it.  The novel is very close to a page turner through all but its earliest portions.  It is a straightforward telling, and what philosophical discussions as occur are fairly straightforward.  The answers might not be easy, but the dilemmas are clear.  With a slight deduct for the clumsy start, it is a 6. 
Update (12/2/2012) The author sent me the following note:
The book has been reformatted and edited, Also, although there are no big changes several scenes have been extended too.
Since I have already given this novel a strong recommendation, the additional editing would likely only extend that recommendation.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The War After Armageddon: A Review

Ralph Peters' The War After Armageddon is an dystopian near future novel with elements of an apocalypse-in-progress.  The major catastrophic elements are a doomed Islamic rebellions in Europe, and a major Christian - Muslim war in the Middle East with the heavy use of old school armored and mechanized units.  Nuclear bombs are used, including what looks like a false flag strike at Las Vegas.
Ralph Peters is an retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army.   Most of his service was in Germany in armored unites and in military intelligence.  He writes both fiction and public opinion essays, and appears frequently as a "talking head" on Fox News. He has written Civil War historical fiction under the name Owen Perry.

My first Ralph Peter's novel was 1989's Red Army, a warning novel that indicated the presumptions of the then current, various military thrillers, such as Harold Coyle's Team Yankee. that always had the NATO forces winning over the rigid, straight jacket mentality Soviets, were very misleading.  Red Army might have been titled Red Victory.  It was correct in believing that the presumed superiority of U.S. doctrine would lead to victory over greater Soviet numbers was more wishful in its thinking than likely.  That is came out just before the fall of the Berlin wall is an unfortunate bit of timing for a very interesting book; A bit of timing however that should have forewarned the author as to the merits of his prognosticating abilities.

Since that time Mr. Peters seems to have descended into that madness of pundocracy that inhabits the talking heads of the various cable news shows.  He takes bold positions, and for someone who had worked in the intelligence community has a lot of black and white answers to our problems:  many of the solutions involving assassinating people we think are dangerous to us: journalist, Julian Assange, etcetera.  To a distant outsider, he seems to have fallen into the fairly normal pundit problem of needing to have sound-bite opinions on too many subjects.  It doesn't matter which side of the right-left divide you work on- you are going to wind up looking crazy, foolish, or both before it is all over.  Of course, for the ex-military types,  if money and ego stroking are your primary motivations, you can laugh all the way to the bank in between striking Pattonesque posses in front of the mirror.

The author's stated purpose in writing The War After the Apocalypse (from the Author's notes) is to "engage" several areas of enduring concern:  the iniquity of fanaticism in the name of any faith, the danger of nuclear proliferation among parties not dependably subject to deterrence, and our militarise reliance on electronics that may prove all too fragile in a major war.

These are rather disparate threads to try and bring together into a novel.  They are brought together:  but not successfully.  What you wind up with is an excuse to get some 1980s style Red Army action going on in the Middle East without all those pesky technical advances that have occurred since the 1973 Yom Kippur War left Sagger missile guidance wires draped all over the Israeli tanks.

If you are thinking, oh no, not another Arab - Israeli rehash, don't worry, it is far more discombobulated than that.  You see we have the Christian Fanatical forces of the United States Army and Air Force against the new Muslim Caliph of Damascus-Baghdad going at it. 

Well they go at it occasionally.  Mostly we have a lot of backstabbing intrigue going within the U.S. officer corp with the Christian fundamentalists going after the bold, brave, incisive, only-man-who-can-win, "Flintlock" Harris.  To all this intrigue is added enough of the staff work as to make it truly boring.

The book is a mess.  You wouldn't think that it would be possible to resurrect the Nazi-like Germans with cattle cars, bring the Caliphate of Baghdad into the 21st century, and stage a Christian fundamentalist coop within the United States, and make it boring - but you can.  Snippets of action, not always very convincing, with just a intrigue and espionage.   Intrigue and espionage that is of the relative sophistication of fourth graders passing notes in class, and don't do much for a book that is supposed to be a "warning" of the plausible, not the slightly possible.  Certainly elements of what are happening in the novel are worrisome.  It's not an accident that Mr. Peters places some of the more extreme elements of his Christian fanaticism within the U.S. Air Force.  But the level of plotting and double dealing here is just absurd.  The bad guys schemes make the Japanese battle plan for (or Leyette Gulf for that matter) look like masterworks of simplicity by comparison. 

Well, obviously I didn't like the novel.  As a piece of pundocracy that it cloaks itself in speculative fiction, I find it reprehensible.  Where I have seen positive reviews, they site the various themes (terror nukes, middle east mid-scale nuclear war, religious fanaticism) and act as if these themes are treated in some coherent fashion.   Unfortunately, saying that you are going to write a book that illustrates important themes and ideas, and actually delivering on that statement are two very different matters.  It's like saying that the Spiderman comics delivers on the theme of student work-study balance, and then making it boring to boot.

For our descriptive metrics of Realism and Readability.  Rating 1 to 7 with 7 being high.

The novel has a facade of realism as it jets around from place to place, and scene to scene.  But it is an odd realism:  right from the start we have discussions about how the war is a long distance World War 2 style affair, and the use of technology is so ham-handed that it almost take the novel back to a lower technology level than his 1989 Red Army.  It is realism with no attachment to reality.   It does involve some concerns about logistics, and as I said, there are staff meetings.  Rating: one point below the average: 3.

Readability is poor.  I abandoned this book for a considerable period of time, before coming back to complete it.  As anyone who has gone through enough of my reviews can attest, I can plow through some pretty mind numbing stuff, so that should be a warning.  It is 370 pages (hard back edition) of rambling chaotic plotting.   It is confusing, and very slow moving at times.  At the risk of bringing in qualitative aspects into a descriptive rating, a near-abandoned book simply cannot be said to be "readable". It is a 2.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Minnesota Cold: A Review

 Cynthia Kraack's  Minnesota Cold is a post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel set in a Minnesota of 2035 that is recovering from the effects of nuclear war.  It is post-apocalyptic in that the area has settled down, and the issues of the disaster itself are seconard at most.  The dystopian comes from the greater "Minnesota Territory" being run in a high tech, but low resource Fascist Homeland Security remnant.

Cynthia Kraack was born in Wisconsin. She graduated  from Marquette University’s College of Journalism,  later she earned a Masters degree from the University of Minnesota in labor economics and educational psychology and graduated from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. Ms. Kraack initially worked in corporate communications  in Milwaukee.  She now lives in Saint Paul Minnesota with her husband, and has two children.  Ms. Kraack has a second novel, Ashwood, that is also set in a near future Minnesota which is slowly collapsing under the weight of the declining global economy.  It does not appear to be either a sequel or prequel to Minnesota Cold.

I decided to read this novel, out of the many options I have on hand, because I had read a couple of other apocalyptic novels set in Minnesota (Memory Boy and Deperate Times) that were going to be in this round of reviews, and thought I would round out the obvious grouping.  There is yet another novel, an urban fantasy of a sort of  voodoo-tech punk styling, by Emma Bull, Bone Dance, that is set in a post-apocalyptic Minneapolis.  So if you are looking to make your survival decisions based on PA novels, you might want to avoid Minnesota as potentially dangerous territory with apocali thick on the ground.

In our story here, the war started in 2015.  The Middle East was annihilated.  Nuclear winter and fallout ensued.  The U.S. territory is not effected by the war directly as Washington D.C. is still standing.  By 2016 the weather had cleared some and the various pieces were putting themselves back together.    The United States has broken up into twelve independent governments loosely associated together for purposes of foreign relations.  "Minnesota" is organized along the boundary lines of the old Federal Reserve Ninth District boundaries including parts of Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

During the troubled tiems, all of the 12 United States Districts close their borders to the desperate crowds of immigrants, and it is the start of internal travel controls within the greater United States.  Eventually, Minnesota throws out all foreign born people residing within the State (legal or otherwise) who can not demonstrate necessary skills.  The narrator's husband is the highest ranking U.S. official (a Federal Judge) left in what is now referred to as the Minnesota territory.   The nararator refers to the government structure as capitalist-fascist.  But doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what exactly that would mean.  Facism and communism share a lot of characteristics, and she actually does a fairly good job of making it a communist one.  Rationing, almost by definition is the abrogation of pricing as a mechanism of distribution, and would normally be thought of as a more "communal" method:  what we have here is a lot of rationing.   

Although not a lot of details are given about the other eleven territories, Minnesota is not one of the nicer of the places to live in post-apocalyptic America.  Courts are closed to all but business cases, and the news services have been organized so as to become part of the government.  Restrictions on medical care are begun.  At the time of the story, the other eleven territories are beginning to reintegrate their court systems.  Minnesota has closed down the Federal courts and going it alone.

The story begins with Sarah Dodge finding out that she is terminally ill, and that the territory will not provide the resources to extend her life further.   They are not killing her actively, just withdrawing support.  However, Sarah is suspicious and thinks their role may be more of an active one.

At this point, we are barely into our story and we are hit with an odd extended interlude where the narrator in looking over her life experience relives her bitter early years when she first moved to Minneapolis and had a child with what eventually came to be an abusive husband of Puerto Rican dissent.  As the novel continues, these extended flashbacks to family issues, of various relevance to our story line, continue.

Between the family interludes, the novel at times it is trying to push into John LeCarre territory- a combination of who-done-it spy novel, with speculations on the true nature of our society.  But the espionage revelations come too easy.  At one point of deep mystery, the spy-types just drag Sarah into a secure office and tell her what is going on. 

Both themes get intermingled with a fair amount of  upper class baby-boomer self fulfillment.
Doug thought the Baby Boomers' combined life experience would be more of a threat to Minnesota [powers that be] than our use of resources [as they got older]..(Kindle 873 of 4423).
Yes those boomers with their dangerous life experiences! LOL - do they ever quite with their self-described specialness?  Later we get:
...not one of my children considered publicly challenging today's leaders.  My generation was the last group with experience in doing that. I felt like a soldier trained for the wrong war, waiting for the wrong transport (1922 of 4423).
Ah yes, the Woodstock generation will ride again to save the day!

Of course someone who thought in these generalities would be a bit of a fool, and Sarah Dodge is more than a little bit of a fool.  Even though she is manuvering to save her own life, and gain more freedom for her extended family, she simply cannot keep her mouth shut.  She calls people, who she isn't supposed to know asking them for help, and foments disidence within the families grade schoolers at a time when it would be best to lay low.  If it were not for a variety of people helping her out, she wouldn't survive 5 minutes, and would accomplish nothing.  Her main value to the forces of enlightenment is symbolic -widow of the independent minded Judge - and asset based - the Judge left her some key, useful assets that they need.

The story combines an odd mix, of  cold war spy novel (with Minnesota the stand in for the East Germans), and end of life family health care paranoia.  If you took a  dystopian YA novels, and aged the self-involved teenaged protagonists by 55 years, you would get something of the feel of the novel.  Sallie is not as well behaved as the youngsters in a YA novel.  She complains, she resists direction from people who actually know what they are doing, she constantly wants to change the plans to suit her preferences.  She is supposed to be undercover, yet she is constnantly writing a journal.  There was a lot of work put into making this dystopian have a feel of reality, and it is very much a dystopia. Unfortunately, we have to share it with Sallie.

Did I like it?  Well I didn't dislike it, or maybe it would be more honest to say that I only disliked it a little bit, but wanted to like it more.  There is a fair amount of health care activity in this drama, and that is not an area I get real excited about.  The John LeCarre style spy novel would be more interesting, but Sarah Dodge is an inept spy.  The length of the family backstory is odd.  Odder is that for the most part, the final resolution of the different strands of the family drama take place "off screen".  At times it was an interesting story, but it was not a great story.  Although not consistently maintained, there are the elements of paranoia, so wonderful in a dystopian novel.For a first novel, it was a worthy effort, but truthfully, her second novel looks like it might be the better read.

O.K. we have our descriptive ratings.  Descriptive as in not qualitative.  One to 7 with 7 being highest.  Realsim and readability. 

Realism is strateforward.  It is a realistic novel with enough science fiction speculation mostly medical advances), and with a society enough changed from our current one to deduct points.  In the middle at 4.

Readabilty is trickier.  The author rights reasonably well, and their is very little in the way of heavy symbolism.  We do get the sacrificial gay-hero that we discussed earlier in Desperate Times (Gay heroes are not allowed to live in PA novels). But I tend to view that as a rather light form of PC (politically correct) thinking taking a strange (a little twisted in my view) form.  The real deduct on readability is the extended family backstory, and the rambling philosiphiesing throughout the novel.  Readabilty is not merit driven.  Kant might force me to invent the "O" score.   I feel safe in saying it is somewhere between a 3 and 4, and will stay with the 3.

Cynthia Kraack

Friday, June 15, 2012

Memoria trailer released

Briefly interrupting our this round of reviews, the English translation of the Russian novel Memoria: A Corporation of Lies is about to be released.

The trailer is already here at Galaktionova's website.
It will be interesting to see a Russian take on a dystopian - post apocalyptic New York City.  The general take of the plot is that it tells of Frank Shelby's confrontation with the powerful Memoria Corporation that makes billions by erasing people's traumatic memories.  Given that this is all happening after some sort of devastating resource was implies that a lot of people have bad memories that they would like erased.

As for the regular roundup of books.  The last book is scheduled for Monday, and I was fortunate to be able to end it on a favorable note.

Coming soon to the English language

Then: A Review

Julie Myerson's Then is an apocalypse-in-progress told in the freezing cold wastelands that are left of a near future London.  At 9:22 in the morning a catastrophic (solar/celestial?) phenomena sweeps over London, and likely the rest of the world: first there is fire, and than there is ice:  lots of ice.

Julie Myerson has written both fiction and non-fictional works.  At least some of her non-fiction has centered around her family life, and in Great Britain she is a bit of a controversial figure.  Some of her anonymous writings, at a column for the Guardian, titled Living with Teenagers (review), had people comparing her family to the (non-anonymous) Osbourne Family- and then her writing became non-anonymous.  This story does not appear to be autobiographical in any particular way.

This story centers around an unnamed woman who is hiding out with a small group of survivors in an office building somewhere near the intersection of  Bishopsgate and Houndsditch in London England.

Bishopsgate near Houndsditch, the glass high rise is possibly where they are hiding out (from Google Streetview)

The group is not doing very well, and our main protagonist, an obviously attractive woman, has sever memory loss problems and not only cannot remember her distant past, but has difficulty remembering her immediate goings on.  She does not know her name, and has to be constantly reminded not only of her companions names, but sometimes takes them for strangers.

Obviously traumatized, the woman's story has an odd pattern to it as she struggles to slowly put the pieces together.  As she puts the pieces together, the story gets more disturbing, not less, and the past, present, and even to some degree that future get a little tangled together.  It is a tense and very disturbing book.  I have seen some comparisons to McCarty's The Road, but it also has some of the confusion and urban setting (but none of the humor) of the movie Twelve Monkeys, and  some of the spookiness of Sixth Sense.  With such severe memory loss, it is difficult to say what is real at times.

I won't go to far into the story.  I did enjoy it, but more as a psychological scare/horror story than as a rendition of the apocalypse.  It certainly deals with some of the issues of starvation, and fear, but there is a sort of ethereal spookiness that gives it a very different tone.  Apocalyptic narratives can work very well as non-supernatural horror;  Red Queen being another exceptional entry in this category.  If you are not too faint hearted,  it is an exceptional way to make yourself a little bit nervous.

To our descriptive ratings.  Realism and readability: 1 to 7 with 7 being the top of the scale.

The book is intended to be a bit surreal and leave you guessing.  As with all good horror writing, it draws you into the characters and brings you into the moment.  However, it is obvious that a lot of what is going on is backward looking.  Much of the narrative is not physically real, but a case of memory, and an unreliable narrator.  The mystery of wondering what has happened is intense.  You could put it almost anywhere on the scale,  but some of the very terrifying situations that arise have me placing realism at the mid-point: 4. 

Readability is tough.  Because much of the novel is psychological - Ms. Myerson is messing with your head - it is not exactly an easy read. She does not use quotations marks so as to make it unclear as to when someone is saying or thinking something at times.  Balancing this is its manageable length, and straightforward prose.  The authoress gets to her point without too much wordiness:  a literary 3.

Julie Myerson

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Desperate Times: A Review

Nicholas Antinozzi's Desperate Times is an apocalypse-in-progress set after a U.S. debt default initiates a very fast, panicked collapse.  It is the first of three novels, but somewhat stands alone on its merits: such as they are.

Nicholas Antinozzi lives (according to his facebook page) in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.  He has little doubts as to his writing skill:
He believes that the literary envelope has been pushed too far and he prides himself on writing things a grandmother, or even a young teenager might stumble across, and read from cover to cover without blushing (bio source).
But enough about him: him about himself:
I'd prefer to offer a bit of advice: Death rides on the wind and it waits for no man. Find something you love and nurture that something into whatever you can make of it. Celebrate achievement after learning from your mistakes. Never, ever, waste time (non-bio source).
Death rides on the wind, so we will take his advise, and stop wasting time with his bio and get on with the reviewing.
The novel starts off with our hero, Jimmy Logan, being ushered into his bosses office and being told that the company is shutting down, and that the boss is headed for the hills.  Or since it is Minnesota, the low wetland area filled with glacier carved lakes in the northern reaches of the state.  It is exactly the same territory as where Will Weaver's YA apocalypse-in-progress novel Memory Boy. and some of Cythia Crack's Minnesota Cold takes place.  It is one of those odd coincidences that I pick up two three collapse novels almost back-to-back from such a remote area of the country.  Based on novels written, I always thought Texas was one of those surprise collapse hot spots; I guess I will have to add Minnesota to the list.

In any case, the boss is something along the lines of Jimmy's god parent so he invites Jimmy up to his luxurious woodland camp to ride out the apocalypse. 
At this point we are treated to what will become one of many rants:
"Our entire system of government was corrupted, and our economy has been running on smoke and mirrors. Where do you think that bailout money is right now? I'll tell you- it's in the bank accounts of those crooked bastards who caused this mess in the first place. We should've demanded heads, but like sheep we've become, we trusted out government to do the right thing. They let this happen. No, they made this happen. The fools just kept printing money."
The rants occasionally have something to do with the story.

Apparently the good people of Minnesota are a rather panic prone group.  Before the working day has even finished, there is panic on the streets.  In one of the many head scratching moments of the novel, Jimmy is sent off by this supposedly prepared person with a pile of cash to buy supplies at inflated prices.  There is of course violence and mayhem.
At this point we are introduced to Jimmy's girlfriend.  She refuses to go with him to the hideaway, and when Jimmy runs into an ex-girlfriend latter in the story, the start of an incredibly tedious subplot begins.  Jimmy winds up with two gorgeous girlfriends, and has to choose.

Jimmy eventually makes it back to the boss' house where everyone has assembled to ride up to the woodlands camp.  Of course the Godfather's wife has invited all sorts of people, so it is a rather large convoy.  One of the people she invites is her gay hair dresser. 

Normally, I wouldn't think of a gay hair dresser as being any better or worse to take with you on an extended stay at a woodlands camp.  O.K, I'll admit, a gay hair dresser, or any hair dresser would probably be low on my list.  Nothing against hairdressers, but in my limited world view, all things being equal, I wouldn't rank them high on my list of survival types in an apocalyptic world.  I am sure there are potential apocalypses where style points count, but thisisn't one them.  And of course, as usual, I would be wrong.

You see this is a special hairdresser.  He is an ex-special forces- Green Beret- hair dresser.  The gay Green Beret becomes another sub-rant-plot, as the author attempts to use this poorly plotted novel to convince his captive audience that gay people can make good soldiers too.  Apparently not feeling that enough verbiage was spent on this subject, he has even written a prequel featuring this character.  This is the second third gay apocalyptic-good guy champion that I have run into recently,  Oddly, in the both the somewhat over the top Etiquette for an Apocalypse, and the left-leaning Minnesota Cold the whole issue is more subdued: not here.  In any case, apparently gay good guys are too inconvenient to keep around for the end plotting.  In all three novels, the gay-hero goes down in glory.  They apparently can be heroes:  But they must not be left alive!

As soon as we get to hear our hair dressers life story in a buddy moment, I knew he was toast.  So we have to have the gay guy dying in the sobbing arms of the guy with two girl friends.  I tell you the tears were flowing.  To reuse one of my favorite quotes from Oscar Wilde  "one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."
Now I know what your saying to yourself - or maybe to me,
"Russell, your giving up us too much information, your giving away all the novels twists, turns, and surprises."

Do not be concerned.  The author will do that for you.  I have never seen a novel drop so many hints as to future problems or outcomes.  Just one example: On what so far has been a peaceful ride toward the campground:
It was the last sunset that some of the travelers would ever see.  The innocence would would be torn from their eyes as the outside world changed beyond  their comprehension.

Foreshadowing with a sledgehammer.  There is lots of this.  If it were not for  the confused plotting and improbability of much of the action, there would be no surprises at all.

Let's do a little thought exercise, lets pretend we are in an apocalypse in progress ourselves.  And we are thinking aloud here:
"Okay, so we are in a convoy of vehicles 20 + strong, with a tractor trailer to haul our supplies, and it is still the first day of the event.  We are heading into the northern watery reaches of Minnesota – an area so wet that the natives joke that the state bird should be the mosquito.
We stop of at a rest stop to take a break.  
Who is going to show up?
Why of course, you know who is going to show up!  The motorcycle gang!  The ever present post-apocalyptic panzer brigade to rescue the action!
Now, why are these motorcyclists headed north? We know they are headed North because they say so. The can’t be getting chased by the law because, even on this very first day of panic, there is no law out supposedly. One idea might be that they have grabbed all the loot they can get and are headed to safety.  But we know that that is not the case.  All they have is a stolen school bus.
So why, do the battle gods of the apocalypse, the "one-precenters" head north on the very first day, away from all the fun and excitement that they have spent their lives (by post-apocalyptic novel logic anyway) dreaming of. These guys are ready, and organized to rumble on the very first day. No hesitation. They are ready to kill. So why are they headed north to nowhere?  The stated reason to miss all this fun is that they are going up to a house they lost after a drug bust.  But that is a mindbogglingly thin reason.  So what is the real reason?

Because that is where our group is. And since it is even less plausible that a large enough gang of motorcyclists (or much anything else other than moose or bears) would be coming from the northern wilderness, they must be headed the same way as our good guys. And there must be a whole mess of them heading off to nowhere or they wouldn’t tangle with such a large group of obviously prepared folks.

Our author is taking the modern ethic of “it’s all about me” and applying it to our hero. Just as the rampaging hordes in One Second After decide to walk up into the mountains because that is where the hero lives, the motorcyclist must act in such a way that they will interfere with our hero – its apocalyptic karma chameleon– action must happen.

Now if the novel was obviously intended as a light bit of fun, I wouldn't make much of the whole episode, but along with the rants, the novel has odd little historical factoids sprinkled in at the chapter headings: Roosevelt confiscating gold, that kind of think.  As with the rants, not all of these factoids are particularly pertinent to their current situation.   Our heroic group is broke, so it is hard to see why they would be worried about gold confiscation.  Obviously the author is trying to educate us.  As a novel with obvious educational intents, we must hold it to a different standard.

There is lots of talk about the powers of FEMA in a novel where the U. S. Federal Government, via the National Guard, only puts in a very limited appearance.  The National Guard does start to roundup people and put them in camps.  What is not clear from the storyline is who they actually round up.  Since the nearby town were this brutal roundup occurs was already captured by the biker hordes, and we see the biker hordes later, it is not clear why there is anyone in the town to round up, and why the few hiding survivors wouldn't leave their presumably biker-enslaved town.  And while we are at it, if there are enough National Guardsmen to round up people in a little town in Minnesota in the middle of nowhere, and they literally have time and resources to go door-to-door, and round everyone up.  Why don't they just stop and do a little law enforcing?   They seem to have a lot of supplies and manpower.
O.k. it is obvious that I don't like the book.  That the author appears to have used sock puppets and/or friends to game the Amazon reviews of the book doesn't exactly thrill me either.  He is certainly not the first - my favorite being the academic rivals who trash each others esoteric tomes of lore - but for someone who claims to be a Joe Everyman, it is surprisingly cynical behaviour.
So let us move onto our descriptive ratings: 1 to 7 with 7 being high.  Normally, these are purely descriptive in nature, but I will use the opportunity to pound a little further on the book.

Let us start with realism.

The book is just not very logical.  Groups are running around, and doing all these inexplicable things, mostly awful, to each other with very little real sense of proportionality.  Are the free wheeling, life loving partying crowd really going to extort food by threatening to burn people at the stake?, just so they can go off and continue partying?  Desperate people do desperate things, but normal people don't party.  And with a different group that they run into, would rescued Christians response to their rescuers by violently turning on them and taking away their little camp so that you can better wait out the rapture?: with the same group being sure to keep the pretty women captives on hand?, even though their leader is a woman?
There is fair amount of combat, and none of it shows any signs that the author has done any study on the subject outside of watching movies and possibly playing first-person shooter video games.  They are amazing.  In an areas that is loaded with deer rifles, he has the characters building a wood palisade as their means of defense.  In real life bullets are going to go right through the wooden wall, and likely the splintering wood will make the injuries even more severe.   He seems to think that an M-16 on fully automatic acts like some sort of fire hose of death.  At one point, four men (granted one of them our gay superhero) take out sixty armed bikers, by virtue of surrounding them and shooting them up.   Four against Sixty, the bikers mostly all fall down and die instantly.  Many of them being cut in half by the deadly undersized carbine rounds coming from the fully auto M16s. 

There is discussion of how long the supplies will last, but unless I imagined it, the extend of their supplies seems to shift around allot.  One minute they have plenty of supplies, the next they are going to be running out soon.  There is no real quantifiable number ever noted.

So no, I don't think this book is a reasonable simulacrum of a society in collapse.  It is an action adventure movie in book form.  Some of the events are so improbable as to be of a magical nature.  The only item I can think of that is "realistic" is the general incompetence of the group.  The boss' wife inviting all her friends to their retreat is a very special moment.  I am going to say that realism is a 2. 

Readability is a little tougher.  The book was disjointed, and illogical but if you don't think to hard about it, you can probably flow through all the activity without too much trouble.   The plotting drags at many points with very uneven pacing.  It is not a page turner, but there is enough, almost random at times, activity to keep you awake through the "which girlfriend" ruminations.  It is a 3.