Friday, May 31, 2013

Confident or Correct: the pundits

Apocalyptic fiction is arguably a project, if not a prediction, of the future.  It should at least relate in some fashion to the present if there is going to some sort of argument for relevance.  The connection can be rather tenuous.
Pundits, people who are in the business of informing the public toward a viewpoint, are supposed to be very much on the mark.  If they are not always predicting, they are usually warning.
There are more than a few apocalyptic pundits out there.
How relevant is reality to their popularity?

For Pundits, It's Better to Be Confident Than Correct
Science Daily, 28 May 2013 (hat tip: MR)
[T]wo Washington State University economics students have demonstrated that it simply doesn't pay as much for a pundit to be accurate as it does to be confident. It's one thing to be a good pundit, but another to be popular.
"In a perfect world, you want to be accurate and confident," says Jadrian Wooten. "If you had to pick, being confident will get you more followers, get you more demand."
Note, that there isn't a negative correlation.  Pundits aren't less accurate  the more popular they are.  It's just that it is beside the point.
Note that this has been shown to be true of pundits close cosines, the investment advisor.  In general, the success of investment advisors falls within the general bell curve of randomness.  Relative to each other (an important distinction) there is little evidence for a skill deferential.  Survival bias and marketing go a long way toward obscuring this point. The future is hard to predict.
In the case of our apocalyptic pundits, it is even harder.  Unless they make some sort of hard date prediction, the apocalypse only comes along every so often.  So a cross check of prediction credentials is a little difficult.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Elite panic and catastrophe

The typical apocalyptic story often has a panic-mode to the collapse of society.  Society's underclass goes crazy when the restraints vanish.  The bedlam caused by riots, and looting and general lawlessness, give the coup de grace to society.
But how realistic is it that the lower classes, which if you are in the 1% elite means most of the general populace, are going to be rioting.
Which is not to say that there are never riots, because there are, but how often are their riots of circumstances, versus riots of anger where the follow on lawless-opportunistic component is used to tarnish the initial cause of anger.  The 1977 New York City Blackout looting comes to mind, but it is actually rather unusual because in most other blackouts that have occurred, New York City has had very limited problems.
Many feel that the lawless populace is more an outgrowth of elite fear, than an actual reality.  Two resent posts, one focusing on Japan, and the other on Haiti, illustrate the point.

Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself (pdf)
Lee Clarke and Caron Chess, Rutgers University, Social Forces, vol. 87, No.2, Dec 2008
Attributions of panic are almost exclusively directed at members of the general public. Here, we inquire into the relationships between elites and panic. We review current research and theorizing about panic, including problems of identifying when it has occurred. We propose three relationships: elites fearing panic, elites causing panic and elites panicking. We use numerous examples, including our own research on the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, to illustrate how these relationships operate. The argument is evocative, not definitive. However, the conceptual utility of explicitly theorizing the relationships between elites and panic shows, among other things, how power works in disasters.
Since the major media outlets are labeled as being the elite, there disaster spouting pushes are labeled, and the political response to this publicity, are the primary agents of elite panic.  I strong secondary contributor is when government agencies get hold of some "issue", usually an issue that will make them more important, or at least expand their scope of powers, pushes hard on some issue. 

My problem with calling this elite-panic is that too much of the "panic" component serves the general interests of those panicking.  It is also debatable how "elite" some of the people making these decisions.  Mostly it is at the mid- to low level types pandering to some perceived audience, although allowances should be made for the low level of functional education -thought processing displayed by these types.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic book covers

You can't have apocalyptic books without a book cover.  Even Kindle-only books generally have some sort of cover to announce the contents and style of writing.
Since many of the apocalyptic writers are unsigned individuals, working on their own, that causes a problem.  While the quality of the written content will vary, it is a obvious that only a few have any skill with visual artistry.  I could site many, many examples of botched covers, but I will be merciful to both the authors and my audience.

So what to do?  Order a pre-made cover from CCR Pre-Designed Book Covers.

The title is obviously to show the presentation style, but it isn't a bad name for an apocalyptic book.
Two that have been purchased and being used are the covers for ML Katz zombie novel The Twice Dead, and JD Gallagher's (not quite released yet)apocalypse by aliens Anunnaki series.

Versus what appears to be the originally intended cover: which is better than most of the self made efforts: but still a bit odd.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Communal Sheltering

We should first start out by noting that it is difficult to build basements in the type of soil that much of Oklahoma rests on.  Wet damp clays expand and contract a lot, so you are at risk of having your house squeezed-pulled apart from below.  That is likely why Auntie Em and company went outside to get to their shelter.

But still, people still had their little shelters.

That is changing.

Why Aren't There More Storm Cellars in Oklahoma
Megan Garber, The Atlantic, 21 May 2013 (hat tip: NC)
Sheltering, in other words, is moving from an individual concern to a collective one. And while community shelters still aren't the norm -- Moore, for example, has no official public shelter, on the logic that sheltering-in-place is often the most prudent strategy -- that shift makes sense. More public shelters will mean more options for people when tornadoes form, as they do, with little notice. One reason tornadoes prove so deadly now is that, given the spread of the suburbs, their funnels simply stand a better chance of touching down where people are. Tornadoes used to hit farmland; now, that same land is increasingly concentrated with people. If the suburbs keep expanding, Paul Douglas put it, "we're going to see more of this." 

Now, the behavior of coastal folks in relation to the threat from hurricanes is egregious enough that I want to make the strong point that there is nothing unusual about this "worry when it happens" and "why didn't/doesn't the government do something about it" attitude.
One of the tricks of the story is to set the bar for protection so high that few individuals could ever afford a shelter.  You don't need missile proof shelters.  You aren't going to be in their for days, a covered trench, a root cellar without the supply space, would work in most circumstances.  Even  a tiny closet made of poured cmu block reinforced with rebar, above ground would probably suffice.  And it is easy enough to build that, building code officials aside, you could do one yourself over time.
But its hopeless.  We are were we are, and you aren't going to turn the wheel back.

Monday, May 27, 2013

AWOL for love

All is not well with our automated post-modern end-of-times militaries.  It appears some of the new troops are abandoning their posts.

Ukrainian Killer Dolphins Deserted to Seek Mates - Expert
RiaNovosti, 12 March 2013 (hat tip: NC)
SEVASTOPOL, March 12 (RIA Novosti) - Three of the Ukrainian navy's “killer” dolphins that swam away from their handlers during training exercises probably left to look for mates, an expert said on Tuesday.
Ukrainian media reported earlier this month that only two of five military-trained dolphins returned to their base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol after a recent exercise.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry denied the reports, while refusing to confirm the navy makes use of dolphins, despite the frequent appearance in Ukrainian media of photographs of dolphins with military equipment strapped to them...
A military source in Sevastopol told RIA Novosti last year that the Ukrainian navy had restarted training dolphins to attack enemy combat swimmers and detect mines. The killer-dolphins would be trained to attack enemy combat swimmers using special knives or pistols fixed to their heads, the source said.

from WIkipedia

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book review curiousity

I know what I look for in book reviews.  I am trying to find books worth reading.  I generally presume that that is what most people are looking for.  In my case, reviews of obscure novels are particularly useful, because there are less of them.  I also am aware that different people like novels for different reasons, so unless the author does something to really annoy me, I try to stay somewhat neutral, or balanced within my comments, even while I am noting my own preference.  Since I often hear from people within the comments section that they are interested in books I wasn't all that fond of, I presumably succeed at this effort at least some of the time.
Within my own reviews I also have a secondary option (on my part) of going into some detail, or theme within the book.  If I was into wolves, I might discuss talk about the different types of wolves when reviewing Wolf and Iron for instance.  It adds to the length of the review, but it is the price you pay for me having an opinion (LOL).

The reason I ask is because I do have a number of rather obscure, both newer and older novels.  I want to cover some of the classic, or at least well known, novels, to give some sort of basis for comparison, but when I don't have some book I am really hot-and-heavy to read, what is your preference:  older obscure?; newer obscure?; new not obscure?; short easy reads?; long difficult reads?;  realistic apocalypse?;  the best literary apocalyptic/dystopian novels out there?; or just what ever the random pull from my book shelf, or off my Kindle happens to bring?
I tend to shy away from the really long books, even ones that I know that I will like (Malevil) because I read them many years ago, because they can be a huge time sink.   I am also avoiding too much in the way of themes at the moment, because it tended to lead into too many similar reviews, often with similarly flawed novels, all lumped together.  The EMP series just about killed me, and it was very hard finding realistic-style apocalyptic novels that had been translated into English (rather than Canadian, or Australian, or New Zealander in origin).  Those novels do get written, they just aren't the ones that get translated.
So if you have a relevant, or tangentially relevant opinion, I would like to hear it.  I am not promising I will change anything, but some other viewpoints would be helpful.   I already own enough unread books, so while I am always interested in specific suggestions, there is a good chance I already own it, and just haven't gotten around to reading/reviewing it, or I ran out of $/bookshelf space.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Death by Nostalgia: but only after filing all the forms

Almost a decade ago Frank Zappa predicted the work ending in paperwork and nostalgia.  The short form of the quote is often sited (below highlighted in orange), but here is the longer version.
The really big news of the eighties is the stampede to regurgitate mildly camouflaged musical styles of previous decades, in ever-shrinking cycles of 'nostalgia.'
     (It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice-there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia. When you compute the length of time between THE EVENT and THE NOSTALGIA FOR THE EVENT, the span seems to be about a year less in each cycle.  Eventually within the next quarter of a century, the nostalgia cycles will be so close together that people will not be able to take a step without being nostalgic for the one they just took.  A that point, everything stops.  Death by Nostalgia.) Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book, Touchstone, 1990, p 203
There is still a little time to run on his prediction, but we seem to have defeated the Doom Loop* of nostalgia.  Now we simply 'tweet' our every walking step, or at least half formed thought.  Granted the tweeting and re-tweeting do seem to be somewhat of a stasis type situation, but as long as we can multi task while we tweet, we seem able to stumble along. 
On the paperwork issue, it is a little less clear
The effort needed to comply with federal bureaucracy now has a number. According to new government estimates released this week, Americans spent 8.8 billion hours filling out government forms in fiscal 2010. …In all, the paperwork burden has increased by around 19% over the past decade, up from 7.4 billion hours in fiscal 2000, the White House Office of Management and Budget said (from WSJ via here circa September 2011).
This is talking about the Bush-Obama onslaught before Obamacare has really kicked in.
* Here, "a virtueless circle representative of a deteriorating condition".  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

New virtual Cupcake empires and abuse

Our friend, Kymber, has been perturbed by the recent food abuse posted at this site.  Note, it is our policy, that we are merely reporting, not condoning the behavior represented: Although I will grant you that linking the registration form for a pumpkin-chunkin contest might teeter over that edge just a bit. It certainly isn't promoting good grammer.

In any case, she asks if there is no end to this abuse.  The simple answer is: no. 

Since I disallowed anonymous posts, this is the first "spam" post I have had [now deleted].  It is in response to the follow up on the Endangered Cupcake Empires post.  It took me a minute to realize that it was a different sort of response to the "cupcake" issue than I anticipated.

So you could say, we have a sort of virtual food abuse here: of the "cupcake " sort.

Comment from
Starting an Adult/Porn 3D Virtual Reality company, need donations
I am trying to start a small software company that will develop adult/porn 3D interactive virtual reality programs for the new Oculus Rift VR headset.
Right now the Oculus Rift is in development stage, but I need to raise 300 dollars which is the cost of the developers kit, which includes the VR headset.
I'll be very thankful for your donations and will keep you up to date on the progress of our development. Hopefully we will have rendered porn into 3D and have it ready by the 2014 release date.
Email me at and I'll keep you up to date.
Here's my Bitcoin wallet address, please donate as much or as little as you like. Every bit helps.
My response:
I am sorry, but we are not that sort of cupcake site.  Although I will grant you. sadly, that our posting about virtual girlfriends, comes awfully close to what you are talking about.  We generally like to discuss the possibility of a coming collapse, not contribute to it.  Best luck on your endeavors. -Russell1200

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Advance apocalyptic weaponry: Pumpkin Chunkers

Okay.  I can see where everyone's interests lie.  Everyone wants to know about advanced biodegradable, sustainable munitions for our future combat, apocalyptic or otherwise, scenarios.

Pumpkin Launching (from here)
Mark Robichaux Wall Street Journal
MORTON, Ill. --Ponder this: Will a pumpkin, as it nears the speed of sound, turn into pie in the sky?
In a machine shop in a sea of cornfields here in a place that calls itself the Pumpkin Capital of the World, this is not a theoretical question. For months now, a team of volunteers has worked earnestly on an effort to send a gourd soaring at Mach I.
Their invention is an 18-ton, 100-foot cannon made of 10-inch-diameter plastic pipe, powered by compressed air and mounted on an old cement mixer. Dubbed the Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator, it has already set a world distance record, flinging a pumpkin 2,710 feet -- at a velocity of more than 600 miles per hour, literally faster than some speeding bullets.
At the speed of sound, minimally about 750 mph, the distance record could easily be shattered, assuming the pumpkin doesn't shatter first. For this team of self-described "high-tech rednecks," this is a matter of some urgency and pride, says Matt Parker, a Morton businessman and a team leader. For the team is, at the moment, the undisputed champion of the arcane sport known colloquially to its practitioners as "punkin' chunkin'."
On Nov. 1, all eyes will be on the Q36 when it defends its title as World Champion Punkin' Chunker in Lewes, a small town on the Delaware coast.
For the past 11 years, pumpkin tossers, dragging all manner of contraptions, have converged there to vie for bragging rights in a variety of pumpkin-tossing categories -- human powered, centrifugal, catapult and air cannons. Sponsored by the Roadhouse Steak Joint, a Lewes restaurant, the contest derives from an anvil-throwing game once played here; how the anvil evolved into a pumpkin seems to be lost to history.
The modern contest's rules are clear, however: Pumpkins must weigh 8 to 10 pounds, leave the machine intact and not be propelled by explosives.
Like the rapid advance in, say, computer technology, pumpkin-tossing prowess has improved exponentially since the first contest in 1986 produced a throw of 50 feet. By 1989, large-scale centrifugals, essentially giant slings, were launching pumpkins more than 600 feet, a mark that had doubled by 1993. In 1994, the first serious air cannon appeared and shot a pumpkin more than 2,500 feet. A Delaware-made air cannon named the "Mello Yello" beat that mark with a 2,655-foot shot in 1995, only to be bested by the Q36 last year.
Of course the cannons, though they have the longest range, don't attract all the attention. Last year, a catapult competitor rigged up two telephone poles planted in the ground, fitted huge rubber bands to them and fired a pumpkin from this Paul Bunyanesque slingshot -- pulled taut by a power winch -- 493 feet.
Somewhere, I read that some of the contests had been cancelled.  Possibly they were concerned with talking out a GPS-locator satellite, and not getting their corn rows straight. 

As best I can tell from the town's Pumpkin Festival website, they seem to downplay the contest.  But of course, good fun will not be denied, the contest has a facebook page, and weather not withstanding, there will be a 2013  contest.  Here are the rules.  And here is a registration form.  It looks like they have restricted the propulsive methods to compressed air, no fancy ignitable cocktails.

An example of a rail gun-like pumpkin chunkin air cannon (from here)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

First they came for the cupcakes

Yes it was the cupcake empire first.

Now another group is in trouble:  the newly sprung up fleets of superyachts.

Super yachts are the oversized marine-SUVs of the wealthy set.  Classified as exceeding 30 meters (98 feet).  Most of them are in the Mediterranean, but it is in Hong Kong that the issue is the most acute.

Nice Boat, No Dock
Jason Chow, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2013 (hat tip: NC)
Boat owners have reported shortages from Florida to New Zealand, while prices for berths are surging to new highs across the Mediterranean and elsewhere...
For superyachts, though, there's literally zero space available. Hong Kong's largest yacht, the 213-feet-long Ambrosia III, owned by a reclusive tycoon named Ambrose Young, occupies one of just 16 places at the Gold Coast Marina for boats of that size. The waitlist for a spot at that marina can last up to two years or more, the club says. When Paul Allen's 415-foot-long Octopus came to Hong Kong in 2007, the boat had to dock at an unused commercial wharf. Young did not respond for comment, while Allen declined.
As a point of reference, the large U.S. World War 2 destroyers of the Farragut Class were 104 meters (341 feet) long and carried around 160 men on board.
Berthing spaces for these monsters can get up to the $1-million dollar price tag themselves. 
The people of these boats have seen a drop off in sales as places to park them have become an issue.  Less desirable locations are building spots to lure in these desirable wealthy folks, but the wealthy want to go where the wealthy want to go, and second best is not usually in the vocabulary of someone who owns a 70 meter monster.
It is an interesting demonstration in my mind about how financial money, and real money are not fungible (~equivalent).  Through all the loos money floating out there, you have tons of money floating around in the financial system, but trying to pull it out of that system, and convert into something real, is difficult.  The amount of money quickly outstrips what is available in the real world.  You either devalue your currency (like if the Chinese tried to buy gold with their US $ holdings), you inflate the price of biddable items (rare art), or you run out of the item.
The newest catamaran-style superyacht - Island Paradise model (from here)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Potato Cannons

Who needs that hard to find .22LR ammo anyway.  Everything is going sustainable, and you can't get much more sustainable than home grown ammunition.
Yes, higher powers are showing an interest in the potato gun.
Potato guns are air cannons.  Back when the best thing they could put in a shell was dynamite, they used to use really large air cannon to slowly accelerat the shell down the barrel.  New York was protected by a large (10" caliber ? I think) air cannon that would lob TNT at any invaiding fleet.  So the idea of air canons is sort of a new, old idea.

What is a little new is the potato thing.

US Air Force Measures Potato Cannon Muzzle Velocities
MIT Technology Review, 8 May 2013 (hat tip: MR)
The workhorse projectile launcher for physics demonstrations and a certain kind of hobbyist is the potato cannon. A common design involves using compressed air to accelerate a lump of potato out of a tube...
But a question that will have passed through the minds of many hobbyists is: what is the best fuel for a potato cannon? Today, they get their answer thanks to the work of Michael Courtney at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado and another Courtney at BTG Research in Colorado Springs.

I guess the way to go is with acetylene.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Cupcake empires crash

It is not only the large highly organized political empires that can crash.  Commercial empires can crash.  First it was the Dutch East India Company, now it is the cupcake empire of Crumbs Bake Shop

Doubling in size in less than two years, it has expanded its outposts (retail stores) to 67 locations.

Forget Gold, the Gourmet-Cupcake Market Is Crashing
Emily Maltby and Sarah E. Needleman, Wall Street Journal, 17 April 2013 (hat tip: Big Picture)
After trading at more than $13 a share in mid-2011, Crumbs has sunk to $1.70. It dropped 34% last Friday, in the wake of Crumbs saying that sales for the full year would be down by 22% from earlier projections, and the stock slipped further this week.
Crumbs in part blamed store closures from Hurricane Sandy, but others say the chain is suffering from a larger problem: gourmet-cupcake burnout.
"The novelty has worn off," says Kevin Burke, managing partner of Trinity Capital LLC, a Los Angeles investment banking firm that often works in the restaurant industry...
"It's a short-term trend and we're starting to see a real saturation," he adds. "Demand is flat. And quite frankly, people can bake cupcakes."

There is some sort of cupcake shop in Raleigh, NC in a hip urban location on Glenwood Avenue.  I have never been to it, but my wife and then ~ 6 year old son have.  When they came home with their carefully packaged possessions, they looked like:  cupcakes.

Seems somewhat limiting to me, but then that's probably what a lot of Portuguese probably said at first about trying to sail south along the African coast:  "What for? There's nothing worthwhile down that way?"

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Traveler: A Review

John S. Wilson's Traveler (paperback, Kindle) is a post-apocalyptic novel set four-years after an economic collapse has depopulated much of the country.  Set in what appears to be rural Ohio (mention is made of Mendon, and Fort Wayne, Indiana) where the starving remnants of civilization wander about trying to scrounge up a little to eat.  Some of the scroungers, are of course more violent than others, and our tale is the story of a young boy who through random happenstance joins up with a small group of "bandits".  The book is set in the same world as the authors earlier novel Joshua, but they are independent of each other.

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.  His first novel, Joshua, has done well in sales, which convinced the author to continue the series.
The novel starts well into the period of collapse.  Although, I note it as being a post-apocalyptic, that is true only in the sense that modern society is gone.  The dramatic parts of the transition are past, but the slower, less certain societal transitions are still in progress.  Although, the physical portions of the story are mostly involved in the tactics of a small gang of highwaymen, with a little bit of military training, the back-story theme is about what is truly right or wrong in a world of starvation and desperate survival.
The main character is a teenager, Jason, who a group of agreeable bandits capture with the intent of garnering some information about an area he has passed through.   Figuring that a teenager who can survive three years on his own in a collapse has some natural survival instincts, they convince him to join up with their gang.  The gang takes something of the middle road in their activities, although they will take just about everything useful their targets have, they treat potential sources of information well, and don't make a habit of killing people out of hand.  Of course, being a bandit is a rough business, so their good behavior is often more theoretically than real.
James, is ambivalent about all this.  He eats better with the bandits, but he is not of a particularly violent disposition, and has more the temperament of a sneak-thief, than a mugger.  Much of the tension of the novel comes from him deciding what is both the wise, and the right thing to do.
Much of what is interesting is the various tactics that the bandits use to get the drop on the handful of people who are holding out in the bad times.  A number of these people are of a survivalist temperament, so they make tempting, if often well armed targets.  Most of the people they are going after put at least some thought into their security.  If they didn't they wouldn't have lasted that long.  But the gang is often able to take advantage of peoples, kinder instincts.  People who were given a little help by someone, will give them information in exchange for food.  Other times, they can use some variations of Trojan Horse tactics, to get surprise.  Most groups simply aren't up to the task of stopping a well planned attack by skilled people.  It is pretty funny, because in the many prepper-style apocalyptic novels, the tactics would work extremely well against most of the survivalists portrayed.  If there is a general tactical flaw in these prepper's defences, it is too much reliance of a single hard point, with maybe one auxiliary oversite post.  As we commented back some time ago on fortifications, skilled troops can generally take strong points fairly readily once they loose their flanking forces.  Here there are usually no flanking forces by design.  One particular location, has Mr. Rawles' Patriot folks written all over it.
Did I like the book?  Yes, in a number of post-apocalyptic stories, the bad guys are more interesting than the heroes.  This book cuts to the chase by following along with the bad guys.  The book does change its focus somewhat about 3/4ths of the way through and become a more "entangles" story, and as is common with these stories, the level of collapse seems to vary from time to time.  So while the ending fades a little, it is the way the author ties up his right versus wrong theme, and he actually does a pretty good job of it.  Bad is bad, but good is overrated at times.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism: it is in the here and now, or at least the here and now after everything falls apart.  Supplies are a major issue, and injuries are to be avoided.  There is no over the top heroics.  Just a lot of desperation.  Some of the bad guys at the end are a little over the top, but I would still say it is a 7. 
Readability: it is relatively short, and at times a page turner.  There is a fair amount of action, or at least working toward setting up that action.  It is a 6.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cyberstorm: A Review

Matthew Mather's Cyberstorm (Amazon, Amazon.UK)is an apocalypse-in-progress set in Chelsea, a residential enclave in lower Manhattan (NYC).  The cause of the collapse is a massive winter blizzard, and a modern version of indirect warfare, the type of warfare that weak nations use to keep stronger opponents at bay.  The French used to call it guerre de course (war of the chase) with their commerce raiders, today it takes the form of digital warfare on your opponent's infrastructure, with some germ warfare, drone attacks, and what-not thrown in for good measure.  In this novel, we get the worms eye view from citizens suffering its effects.

Matthew Mather is author of the six-part Atopia Chronicles (40k copies sold as an independent).  His day job has included a variety of high tech start ups (example). He lives with his girlfriend, Julie,  in Montreal, with their three dogs and a cat, and now travels back and forth to Charlotte, NC.  I couldn't figure out if their four legged friends travel back and forth with them. A white paper of his on the merger of space and cyberspace as the new high ground in the next war is here.

The novel surprised me.  It is getting a lot of justifiable attention from within the sci-fi community, but until the shoehorned ending, does not read like science fiction novel.  The characters are relatively normal people going about the Lower Manhattan version of their everyday lives.  In Manhattan, this means you have people living in really really expensive little one-room studio, or just slightly larger apartments,  that are very expensive.  Our hero, Mitchell, like the author, is a serial entrepreneur.  His wife, a lawyer, left the work force to stay home a couple years with their new baby.  Their good friends, Chuck and Susie from Virginia, live across the hall, and have an even younger little baby of their own.  Chuck is the paranoid survivalist of the group.  An elderly Russian couple, survivors of the WW2 Siege of Leningrad (I have met the type) live next door and will help with watching the little one from time to time. And the cast of interesting and plausible characters goes on.

Through conversations with Chuck we get a fair amount of background on the delicacies of the modern world's web-based infrastructure. To illustrate the problem (and getting a little off tangent with the review) we have a couple of links (hat tip to Early Warning).  One shows What Happened When One Man Pinged the Whole Internet and mapped out the location point of all the business and industrial locations that allow remote access to anyone with a connection.

Which would be the precursor to taking them down with a Flash Worm (pdf) . Per the abstract:
Flash worms follow a pre-computed spread tree using prior knowledge of all systems vulnerable to the worm’s exploit. In previous work we suggested that a flash worm could saturate one million vulnerable hosts on the Internet in under 30 seconds. We grossly over-estimated.
A lot of those systems are the heating/air-conditioning systems of modern buildings.  Granted, that it while it is difficult finding controls contractors who can actually get all the different manufacturers equipment to work together, it presumably is easier just to turn everything off through a backdoor.  In the novel, because of the arctic blast of weather, there is a running joke that the Canadians are at fault:  Maybe, as we noted in an earlier post:
A Canadian company that makes equipment and software for critical industrial control systems planted a backdoor login account in its flagship operating system, according to a security researcher, potentially allowing attackers to access the devices online. 
The primary reason for the backdoor is so people can access their equipment when they loose their password, or lockup the software.  They don't want to pay for a technician to fly out and physically reset it, so they set it up so they can do it remotely.  It is a little like when you loose cable service, and the company checks/and resets your cable modem remotely.  It is a great feature, but has some Black Swan potential.

Anyway, back to the book.  I thought a book by a techie, would have all sorts of detailed interactions with these systems as the techie races against time to save the day.  Something like the typical thriller "hero averts apocalypse" type novel, with maybe a little bit of gloom and doom to keep it moving along.  That is not what we have.

What we have is, time wise, a pretty quick breakdown in New York City.  Power goes down, water runs out.   Communications except some radio stations start winding down as the stations run out of fuel for their generators.  The authorities keep promising to get power back on but pretty quickly, nobody believes them.  The device of the huge series of blizzards takes the place of the road blocks and what-not that occur in your militia-style collapse to keep people in place.  Because it generally takes some money (rent control not withstanding), or at least some cash flow to live in this section of Manhattan, you need the blizzard to keep everyone from running off to their weekend home in Connecticut. It works to keep the group intact, and to give some blow by blow details of bad things happening.  It makes for some additional adventure as we get an escape from New York meme floating out there.

At first, people work together pretty well.  Some cash quickly spent, some minor league looting, and some prepping, and the fact that most of the residents are gone for the holidays, keeps the building a reasonably happy place.  They can steal gasoline from snow buried cars, and heating oil diesel for generator fuel.  There are occasional issues with some serious bad guys.  The local hospital's generator breaks down, and many in the building go to help them move patients (by pushing gurneys down the icy streets) to alternate locations: which gives them valuable New York Police contacts.  Some of the police go home, but enough of everyone sticks around to keep the city from turning into complete mayhem right away.  Because we have techies here, they even manage to develop an ad hoc point-to-point phone system that helps revive some communication issues.

But about half-way through the novel (Day 11 - January 2) our folks in the building start running out of food.  One item that frustrates me with the more realistic novels, is that regardless of the starting point, our main characters are always the people that find the preppers cache, or luck into some other source of food.  They may get hungry, but they aren't really desperate.  In this one, by Day 28, some of the frozen dead bodies are missing.  People are sucking down stored red cross blood plasma.  And these are the some of the good guys.

Now for the bad part (and you may skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want teasers)  The book's ending falls apart badly.  There are two common endings to these types of stories. One is the cozy, which has society collapse, but the remnants build a more rustic, self-reliant, semi-utopia in its wake.  The other is to have an almost magical recovery back to normalcy.  There is some discussion about how we will be wiser, and some sadness over the losses along the way, but we can go back to eating, at least a high fiber, low calorie version of our Big Mac.  The first type of ending, the cozy, whatever its plausibility, at the storytelling level can usually be made to work: the second rarely does.  If it does work, it is because it is tacked on at the end almost as a beside-the-point epilogue.

Here we have an extend back to normalcy, that makes the additional sin of wasting much of our time improbably force feeding the novel as a prequel to his previously released Autopia Chronicles. The ending not only ends in sweetness, but actually undoes much of the earlier noted disaster series.  I am guessing the author thought it was a clever plot twist, but it makes the main characters look like idiots, and as a reader, you come to feel that you have been both mislead and wasted a fair amount of time.  That the premises of the whole plot-twist toward recovery is rather improbable doesn't help.  If the stew pot in the living room with bones sticking out was too over the top in one direction, the recovery twist doubles the return favor in the opposite direction.  My guess is that he was trying to make it something of an anti-militia novel.  I am not opposed to poking fun at militia scenarios, I have enjoyed doing it myself at times, but the attempt is not successful here.

Did I like it?  I think the first portions of the book are worthwhile because they actually go through step by step plausible timeline for an urban collapse.  At the national level, any aid from a still standing government, will go to the major cities first.  But at the same time, the shear size of the task makes a hand-out/bread line method of distribution daunting.  So with some caveats as noted above, I did like the novel: just not as much as I might have.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is fairly straightforward.  The story is set in the here and now.  They have infants, pregnant mothers, sympathetic strangers, less sympathetic neighbors, and dangerous criminals to deal with.  A novel where people are starving and dreaming about food is generally a pretty realistic one.  It is a 7.
Readability is also straightforward.  With most of the action moving along at a day by day pacing, you probably aren't going to get a page turner unless its the type of novel that features retired Navy SEALS.  With the exception of the last few chapters, which are out of step with the main plot line, it moves along fairly well, and there isn't any magical realism, or deep symbolism to distract from the story line.  With a deduct for the slow pacing caused by the day to day chronology, it is a 5.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The American Book of the Dead: A Review

Henry Baum's American Book of the Dead (Amazon, Amazon.UK)  is an apocalyptic novel that tells of the run up to, and destruction of 99.9%+ percent of the earths population in a World War 3 that was intentionally triggered by conspiratorial forces that include the  President of the United States.  Although, there is an American Book of the Dead 2 that may be bought separately or as a package with this one, this novel works well enough as a stand alone story.

Henry Baum was raised and lives in Los Angeles, which may explain why his first two novels, North of Sunset, The Golden Calf, poke fun at Hollywood.  This novel, in a rather satirical fashion, that has been described as a cross between Philip K. Dick, and the conspiratorial musings of Robert Anton Wilson, takes on the apocalypse at the juxtaposition of the Apocalypse of John (aka Revelations), World War 3, and Area 51.  It also reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut's, Breakfast of Champions, with its narrator-audience cross-talk.

A difficult novel to summarize, but we here we go: a  middle ages professor in Los Angeles becomes privy through a serious of dream sequences to an apocalyptic plot to depopulate the world sufficiently to make it nice and comfy for a chosen group of folks in 2040.  Through dream-transmission, he attempts to warn the non-select of impending doom, and send them to areas of safety.  Based on the final survival count, he has limited success.  Sound straightforward?  What makes it confusing is the narrative conceit that all of what is happening to this professor, was written down in a novel in 2008 written by his younger self, and that it was an even older self (presumably who is living in a period past the time frame of the book) is influencing the young author (in 2008) so that he will get the story "right".  As the narrator has three active levels within the story, and two of the three are somewhat aware of the process, you have all sorts of story and time loops going on.  Is the author creating the story, or recording it?  If the author is creating the story, than who is at fault?  The conspirators, or the author?

The hero of the story, Eugene Meyers, is a sad sack professor who fairly early sees his barely legal daughter acting in a porn movie online.   A little bit of time is spent with him, mostly unsuccessfully, confronting this situation.  Beyond the shock value, it is the main introduction point of the social collapse that has occurred within the United States in 2040.  As a counterpoint to this Sodom and Gomorrah atmosphere , the country has elected a religious, crusading president to clean up the mess.   Unknown to the country, he has decided to clean it all up by bringing about a biblical end times.  The president seems to be loosely based on President George W. Bush.  While he is portrayed as a rather dim bulb, he has the support of a number of people, including his powerful father, who are working toward an end times to their own purposes.

I won't go to much further into the plotting.  It is confusing enough that at one point I accidentally skipped a few chapters and didn't even realize it until I had read through two more chapters.  I think a typical reader is going to be in a semi-state of confusion much of the time anyway. 

The intent of the novel (based on this interview) seems to be to explore the intersection of religion, fanaticism, and violence.  I am not sure it really succeeds.  The President's father, who engineered much of the war, and who wanted to push a non-doctrinal, global belief structure fades into the background at the end, but seems to have been somewhat vindicated by events.  As Paul Brians sarcastically noted in Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, one of the primary outcomes in fictional nuclear wars is that people become telepaths.  That is not exactly what we have here, but we definitely seem to have the "higher consciousness through holocaust" meme going on here.  All of this is well and good, and it is all very nice to propound on the idea that we should be thinking "outside of the box" to solve our problems.  But thinking outside the box takes a lot of discipline if you are not simply going come off as unhinged.  I don't see much discipline here.

Did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, but I didn't hate it either.  I definitely saw the Robert Anton Wilson influence, and possibly someone who is deeply involved in his Illuminatus! Trilogy might find this novel interesting.  There were a lot of clever conceits, but most of the characters were either not particularly interesting, or were not deeply explored.  None of them were real enough to create a belief in the world to where you were concerned with the outcome.  That leaves you with some fuzzy headed philosophizing that often starts out well enough, but is too loosely spun to maintain its coherence.  I am going to be presumptuous and presume that the author has a rather loose attachment to reality, which tends to make his satire fall flat.  A novel with a 2009 copyright, the year that Bush left office,  is beating him up through a satirical carbon copy  for starting World War 3 in 2040?  Since we are not too worried about relevance, why not bring in Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crises while we are at?  At least then we could play footsies with Marilyn.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism?  There is magic, there is even a bit appearance by some elves, and leprechauns.  There are newly created string-theory nukes that vaporize people, but do nothing else.  There is a tiny amount of lip service paid to stocking up supplies to ride out the coming storm, but it is the easiest survival scenario imaginable.  It is a 1.
Readability?  I started the novel, got about 50 pages in, and stopped.  I picked it back up because I wanted a fourth novel for this series of reviews- and figured I could gut it out. In that I succeeded, and I didn't particularly dislike it.  But a book that I voluntarily put aside for possible finishing later, is by definition a slog.  The biggest problem is the squirrelly time line, and confusing sequence of events.  It is a confusing, difficult read:  a 2.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Odds Against Tomorrow: A Review

Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow (Amazon, Amazon.UK) is a disaster novel (localized apocalypse-in-progress) set primarily in New York City with the destructive agent being a weather-whiplash (see below) of drought and flooding along the Northeastern U.S. seaboard.

Nathaniel Rich was born and raised in New York City, and studied literature and the Italian language at Yale.  He a few years ago, he transplanted himself to New Orleans.  He writes magazine articles, and book reviews.  Originally the novel was viewed as a New York City meets Hurricane Katrina affair, but the reality of Hurricane Sandy overtook reality so that a few rewrites were needed (interview).  The author's close proximity to the effects of Katrina, even many years after the fact, also created some changes:
I rewrote the final third of the novel after moving to New Orleans. I had read extensively about Katrina but reading can only get you so far. Living here, observing the lasting trauma of the storm, even seven years after the fact, I understood its power in a more visceral way. I wanted the final pages of the novel to reflect that.
He notes his influences as being (second interview) , Italo Svevo , a pioneer of the Italian psychological novel, and within the disaster genre, J.G. Ballard.  He notes Ballard's Drowned World, with has London flooded by rising seas, but particularly notes his disaster through social collapse:  High Rise.
It is a short, terrifying novel about a large apartment tower—a “vertical city”—whose occupants, cut off from the world, deteriorate into savages. It’s about class warfare, the aporia [contradiction, doubt] of modern life, and free-floating anxiety—a beautiful, psychotic nightmare.
The agent of disaster, a disaster which covers much of the Northeastern coastal zones, is a severe drought, followed up by a huge hurricane:  Hurricane Tammy, or as the book calls it, the hurricane named after a fat girl.

There is actually a rather natural linkage between the extremes of drought and drenching:

Extreme Drought to Flood in Georgia: Weather Whiplash Strikes Again
Dr. Jeff Master's Wonderblog, 6 May 2013
The remarkable storm that brought record-breaking May snows and cold to the Midwest last week continues to spin over the Southeast U.S. The storm is unleashing flooding rains, bringing a case of "Weather Whiplash" to Georgia: flooding where extreme drought had existed just a few months ago.
Weather Whiplash--a term originally coined by science writer Andrew Freedman of to describe extreme shifts between cold and hot weather--is also a excellent phrase we can use to describe some of the rapid transitions between extreme drought and floods seen in recent years. I brought up a remarkable example in mid-April, when a 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi River north of St. Louis reached damaging major flood levels less than four months after near-record low water levels restricted barge traffic, forcing the Army Corp to blast out rocks from the river bottom to enable navigation. As the climate warms, the new normal in coming decades is going to be more and more extreme "Weather Whiplash" drought-flood cycles like we have seen in the Midwest and in Georgia this year. A warmer atmosphere is capable of bringing heavier downpours, since warmer air can hold more water vapor. But you still need a low pressure system to come along and wring that moisture out of the air to get rain. When natural fluctuations in jet stream patterns take storms away from a region, creating a drought, the extra water vapor in the air won't do you any good. There will be no mechanism to lift the moisture, condense it, and generate drought-busting rains. The drought that ensues will be more intense, since temperatures will be hotter and the soil will dry out more.
All right, I admit it, I have been stalling.  It is an interesting enough story, but not the easiest to explain.  So I guess I will just have to dive in.

Our hero, Mitchell is perpetually frightened of potential and or impending doom.  If there is a disaster scenario out there, he is aware of it, and worried about it.  He deals with this near paralyzing fear by distracting himself with the mathematical number crunching in working out the scope and odds of his imagined doom.   His first counter point in our story is a young lady, Elsa, who suffers from Brugada Syndrome, a heart disorder that will likely lead to her early death.  However, unlike Mitchell, she does not cower in fear, but does her best to push her naturalist agenda, even at the risk of a speedy demise.  Early in the novel, some fast thinking by Mitchell  saves her life, and a strong, platonic bond is formed between the two.

Elsa heads to the deep woods of Main, where using her boyfriends money she sets up a commune.  Mitchell heads to New York City with hopes of a high paying consulting gig.  Very quickly he comes across a new "Risk Mitigation" firm.  For someone who has spent his whole life calculating the odds of impending doom, Mitchell is perfect.  He not only can spin the scenarios at the tip of a hat, he delivers them with conviction.

While all this is going on, we have are having the big drought noted above.  As is rather obvious from the front cover, the drought doesn't last long.  Not too surprisingly Mitchell sees it coming and is able to warn his clients of the coming doom, and oddly enough, they believe him and take necessary actions.  But Mitchell, and Jane,  a young lady coworker, are not allowed by their evil boss, Mr. Charnoble, to get out of New York and are caught up with all the flooding.

From there we get an at times humorous, never particularly frightening escape from New York scenario.   The story continues on from there with a number of interesting, but not very direct, comments on reality, disasters, the meaning of life, etc.  Neither Elsa, nor Mitchells differing scenarios make too much difference in the eventual outcome of the novel, and for reasons that are a little unclear, they come to almost switch life styles and view points on what constitutes a coherent life strategy.  Poor Jane, gets drag along for the ride, but with her practical, mercantile disposition, she seems to come closest to getting what she wants in the end.

Did I like it?  It was interesting.  At 306 pages, it read fairly quickly.  Not a page turner through most of the length, but with enough odd little bits of wisdom and anecdotes to keep it interesting.  The various back and forth swings in character actions through the book do make for some confusion, and based on the information on hand, it seems like many of the characters are prime candidates for being swept away by some future hurricane.  In net, I would give it a qualified recommendation.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism isn't really there.  He notes that he did a lot of research on worst case scenarios, but after the 2004 Tsunamis and Katrina, of the world's coast-bound people, only a New Yorker, would be surprised by the worst-case scenarios. Much like J.G. Ballard, who he notes as an influence, direct realism is not the main point: the point is reaching a higher realism through satire.  There is a fair amount of poking fun, and humor, and much of the entire affair has a light breeziness to it that makes it difficult to take seriously in the immediate danger sense.  So when we see that the idyllic back woods of Main have descended into some sort of Hobbesian hell, it is not a Heart of Darkness moment where we are paralyzed by "the horror".  It does bring a number of valid points about what people, and life in general, are actually like in a real-world crises so I will give it a relatively high mark for a satire: a 3.
Readability is a little harder.  It is light and breezy. It moves along well.  But it is difficult figure out what the point of all of this is.  None of the solutions, recommendations, proposed within the novel seem work really well.  If you stay on the coast your swamped. If you go rustic, and live in the back woods, the pampered, terrified hordes fleeing the disaster will find and you swamp you in a different fashion.  Still, if you ignore the confusion towards deeper meanings I think you can get to a literary 5.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A few more reviews

When I started the last series of reviews, I had a few books started and one that I had put down in a temporary pause.  I usually have a number of books going at one time, so if I narrow down the numbers I can usually splurt out a few pretty quickly.  So I will have 4 more reviews next week:

In intended order:

Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow:  New York City floods with a satirical touch

Henry Baum's The American Book of the Dead:  World War 3 kills almost everyone in a satirical, Illuminati style conspiracy

Matthew Mather's Cyberstorm: A mostly straight up collapse story, with the rarity of being set in a major U.S. city: in this case New York City in a tucked away lower Manhattan residential neighborhood.

John S. Wilson's Traveler:  An almost straight up preppers tail within the Joshua  setting:  with a major twist: it features the bad guys.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Follow all instructions

This man, visiting from Rhode Island was using his GPS (Global Positioning System) to navigate his way through Riverside Park in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  The GPS told him to turn right, so he turned right - down a set of steps.
The picture shows the car hung up going down the first set of steps, and waiting for a tow truck.  If it was a newer park their might have been a handicap ramp he could have proceeded down.

Man Trusts GPS More Than Own Eyesight And Drives Down Stairs

Original picture here
While I am sure he was using he was using his GPS, we should also consider the possibility that he was simultaneously talking into his cell phone.  One should always try to push the level of distraction to the maximum.

In the post-apocalyptic novels that we feature here, the GPS system is often still working, at least for a time.  So the (weak) corollary here, make sure there are no barricades or collapsed across the road before you turn.  And watch out of zombies! They are terrible J-walkers.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

2030: A Review

Albert Brook's 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America (Amazon, Amazon U.K. )is a dystopian story of an earth quake in Los Angeles  against the backdrop of a United States so bankrupt that it cannot pay for any repairs, and a population of medically assisted boomers who just won't go away and die. All of which builds up toward a political turning point that might be called apocalyptic.

Albert Brooks is a famous comedian,  actor, film writer and director.  He received an academy award nomination in 1987 for veteran TV correspondent/reporter Aaron Altman in the movie Broadcast News.  He is, to put it mildly, famous. This is his first novel.
As our story begins, we see a vacuous wealthy, and older population, living the better life through holograms, and other technical gadgetry, and a younger population being taxed to death to pay for their elder's lifestyle.  The generational dystopia has been somewhat done before. David Brin's Earth back in 1990 comes to mind.  Brin set his narrative in 2038, and Brooks gives global warming a cameo appearance, so there are some interesting parallels. between the books.
In our near future world, the elderly, by virtue of medical discoveries that increase lifespan (cure for cancer, et al), lead by the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), now so dominate civic life that younger folks are overtaxed, over in debt, while still portraying the sort of cluelessness and entitlement that middle-upper class Americans tend to portray today.  Some of the economic foibles, don’t completely make sense.  If retirees are just hanging out and living off their government provided support, than why are aren’t their more jobs for the under-represented youth?  It is a world populated by the middle class.  Presumably the children of the blue collar or poor have already been euthanized or packed off to some reservation
The Chinese are the perfect people.  You would have to go back to the 1980s and the rise of the Japanese economy (before the big bust) to see such laudatory praise.  That, in the real world, the Chinese have their own aging bubble, just a little behind our own, to worry about, and that theirs is much larger is beside the point.  Somehow, the Chinese have become the technical wizards of everything.  Granted, in twenty years, the Japanese went from being known for making cheap plastic toys to first class engineering, and Taiwan itself does some fine engineering, but that does not guarantee that China will go the same route.  Ask the Philippines about Asian Tiger disappointments.  But in our novel here, the Chinese are wonderful.

The Americans are a portrayed as a weak, self centered, and self riotous bunch.  While I wouldn't deny there is that element to our modern culture, there isn't much explanation as to why we are uniquely in trouble.   None of the Americans are particularly admirable.

It is possible that the author intends it all as a satirical sendup.  There is a bit of humorous flippancy that lightens the proceedings. But it all inhabits a sort of muddled middle ground.  You can have a satire that ennobles the downtrodden at the same time as it pokes fun at them.  Toole's Confederacy of Dunces is possibly the ultimate classic for pulling that off within that dystopia that is called reality.  But within our novel, if there is nobility to be found anywhere, to the point that  the not very veiled, the authoritarianism of the Chinese seems an appealing alternative.

Well it did get good reviews in the New York Times .  They note that "it’s as purposeful as it is funny."  I would suspect the possibility of there being an acquired taste for this sort of thing if it weren't his first novel.  Maybe the reviewer wants an invite to his next dinner party?  If that seems a harsh assessment, than you have a pretty good sense of the tenor of the novel.  The novel is centered right at the heart of American Un-exceptionalism.  All motives are tainted, all are suspect, mediocrity reigns.  The Archdruid had a nice little discussion about religion, and their close cosines, civil religions, the other day.  He noted that many civil “religions” (non-theistic beliefs that have religious qualities to them) as with  most theistic religions have an anti-religions. Anti-religions go to extremes to take the polar opposite view of their counter party. So if their is a civil religion of “American Exceptionalism” that was once common. Then there will be an anti-religion that has absolutely everything that America does being wrong and evil.
“The civil religion of Americanism, for example, has as its antireligion the devout and richly detailed claim, common among American radicals of all stripes, that the United States is uniquely evil among the world’s nations. This creed, or anticreed, simply inverts the standard notions of American exceptionalism without changing them in any other way”. from The Archdruid Report: The Fate of Civil Religions, 3 April 2013.
I think this bias goes a long way toward explaining the good reviews in the New York Times .

For myself, I am somewhere in the middle ground.  The United States is a big, powerful country, and that is not going to easily change.  But I don't particularly buy into the view that we will return to a once glorious past if we just fixed our political/economic situation. I think our country has had some good moments, but the concept that much of our past was particularly glorious, requires a fair amount of self editing. So while I found some of Mr. Brooks barbs humorous, I also found them to eventually be more tiresome than funny.  And at the point where the novel isn't funny, the completely over the top plotline starts to loose any real purpose.  Satire that is dull, is not effective satire.  If you wanted crushing satire that covers our current situation, you would be much better off reading Gone Girl.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism:  It is close to our contemporary world, people are broke, and getting broker.  I don't buy into some of the political setup, but remember the cause-of-collapse (coc?) doesn't count.  To the extent there is satire, satire tends to stretch a current truth to make a point.   Novels that tend to spend a lot of time in the Whitehouse tend to loose a little touch with reality as well.  Still above the mid-point at a 5.
Readability:  There is not too much in the way of deep symbolism, or if there is, it was too deep for me to notice.  The author wanders around through the barren lives of the various protagonists, some of them extremely peripheral to the actual main plot line, so it is not by any stretch a page turner.   Again, it is a 5.