Friday, August 28, 2009

Last night I attended the first public meeting of Make Oakland Better Now, a new organization focused on trying to improve Oakland, particularly in the three areas of public safety, infrastructure and city government accountability/transparency.

This is the first time I've attended a meeting for a political/grassroots organization like this, so it was pretty interesting. There was a decent sized crowd, probably around 100 people. Sadly, for such a diverse city, the meeting was not very diverse - almost exclusively older white people with a smattering of younger people.

The meeting organizers did a good job of laying out why they thought a new organization was needed and what they hoped to accomplish. I thought it was very good that they had realized that in order to be effective they need to focus on a small number of topics, and target things that can be measured and have impact.

I think they key will be in what comes next. The meeting broke up into three groups, each focusing on one of the improvement areas. I joined the group on transparency/accountability. There were some interesting points raised, but I think the person moderating this group needed to be more assertive in keeping the discussion on topic and coming up with concrete next steps. The "report out" from the other groups seemed more complete because of this. Our group ended up saying that we wanted to research the budget more and produce a version more people could understand, and do more with PR for the city. The first one isn't surprising since the moderator was a budget person and brought that up as the first thing, which influenced the direction of the whole discussion. The second is a nice, and important, idea, but is completely off topic for transparency/accountability of city government. Keeping it in totally undermines the focused approach of the organizers.

If I stay involved, I will try to influence this sub-group to re-focus on transparency and accountability, part of which includes understanding the budget.
This morning I finished Likely to Die by Linda Fairstein.

I don't know if this is a typical book in this series about a NY assistant district attorney, but it is a very weak book.

It seems the author, a NY assistant district attorny, is too focused on capturing the realities of her life in the novel. For example, there are too many characters thrown at the reader, with little purpose for many of them. Presumably these all map to real people the author deals with, but putting them in the novel without giving them significance in the story is pointless. There are also significant digressions where one character tells another about various sex crimes they are prosecuting or need help investigating. The author points out in a post-script that these details are all taken from real cases, but who cares? She seems to ignore whether or not it helps the story she is trying to tell.

In addition, the protagonist is almost inert for most of the novel. Since the plot never gets to the point of an actual trial, something surprising in and of itself for a book with a trial lawyer as the main character, the protagonist spends most of the book alternating following the police around as they investigate and relaxing while the police are off investigating things.

The book also fails on basic writing tasks. For example, there is an issue raised about a possible relationship the protagonists date and the murder, the protagonist is shown being very concerned about it and then it is never cleared up by the end of book.

Overall, one of the weakest books I've read in a long time. Too bad - I was hoping for something interesting because there are few legal thrillers told from the prosecution point of view.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Latest book finished - Elantris by Brandon Sanderson.

Elantris is Sanderson's first book, and it is an impressive debut with compelling characters and a setting that feels new.

The world he creates feels like it has a lot of back story, although this the rarest of fantasy beasts - a stand alone novel. There is enough to build on that I suspect there will be a sequel at some point, but the novel feels complete as it is.

It tells the story set ten years after the fall of the titular city, populated by members of the population that have been changed by a mysterious process to be powerful magical beings with the ability to manipulate the world around them. After the fall, these same creatures are turned into half dead creatures that have no abilities and can't heal and therefore deteriorate into madness over time. On top of that is the conflict between one expansive empire based on an aggressive religion and the surrounding kingdoms.

A lot of the plot elements feel new, rather than a standard re-tread of fantasy ideas. Sanderson weds that to a nice handling of characters, particularly his villains, who have more depth than is typical for the genre.

He has some other series novels now, and based on this book I will probably check them out at some point.