Sunday, June 16, 2013

Liz and Taylor present: The Economics of Harry Potter

One has to assume the wizarding population of Great Britain to be fairly small. JK Rowling only mentions 7 male wizards in Harry's class. Assuming equal proportions of males and females as well as equal proportions between houses, there should be approximately 14 wizards and witches in each house, so 56 total per year. With seven years at Hogwarts, there should be 392 students total at Hogwarts. Let's give JK Rowling the benefit of the doubt and, assuming Harry's class to be abnormally small, let's say there are 500 students total.

This poses an interesting question. What fraction of the general population is wizards? Using the UK life expectancy of about 77 years in 1997, the total number of wizards would be about 4,300. Using the 1997 population estimate for the UK as fifty million, less than a hundredth of a percent of the population are wizards. This would explain the relative ease of keeping their existence secret and would perhaps suggest that some of the many Ministry of Magic departments devoted to protecting secrecy are redundant.

So if the retirement age is around 65 and 17 is the age of entry into the workplace, the workforce contains about 2,700 workers, ignoring stay at home parents and Muggle born wizards' parents.

According to Quidditch Through the Ages, there are 12 professional Quidditch teams in the UK. Oliver Wood tells Harry in book four that he has been signed to Puddlemere United's reserve team. Puddlemere United is described as a second-tier team in Quidditch Through the Ages, so each team must surely have a reserve team. Each team must then have 14 players, so 168 of the wizards in the UK are playing Quidditch. If each team has only one manager, then 180 wizards are involved in professional Quidditch. This reduces the remaining size of the workforce to 2,520.

Subtracting the number of teachers at Hogwarts, (28 named, minus Dumbledore who is well over retirement age), we hit 2,492. There are 26 shops in Diagon Alley, and we low-ball our estimate of employees per shop at six. While some shops are mentioned as only having one employee, for example, Ollivander's, the Alley is also home to establishments like the Daily Prophet, which has many more. Only one shop from Knockturn Alley is included in this calculation (Borgin & Burkes) and no street peddlers are assumed, so an average of 6 employees is reasonable and likely low. This results in 156 people working at Diagon Alley, bringing the total number of wizards in the workforce down to 2,336. There are 20 shops mentioned in Hogsmeade as well. If we again assume 6 employees per shop, which again is likely low since many are service-intensive, then 120 wizards work in Hogsmeade, bringing the remaining total down to 2,216.

Now we get to the big guns: the Ministry of Magic. Mr. Weasley mentions a task force of five hundred who worked on casting protective spells for the Quidditch World Cup, so there must be at least five hundred workers. The office of the Minister for Magic and Support Staff contains about twenty-five employees (including the minister himself and undersecretaries), which sounds reasonable. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has the Auror office (which contains eleven named members and probably consists of sixty total), and many more minor departments, one of which, the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, is specifically mentioned to contain only two workers. The Department of Intoxicating Substances probably has five (there's not a lot of drinking mentioned in the books) and the Improper Use of Magic Office probably has ten to fifteen. All in all, I estimate the whole department contains about two hundred employees, bringing us down to 1,975.

So since there's seven departments total, I subtract an additional 1,200, bringing the total down to 775. Factoring in the unemployment rate of 7 percent in the UK in 1997, that brings the total down to 585. Five musical bands are mentioned. The Weird Sisters consists of eight members, and we can assume the remaining bands contain at least four members. If each band has one manager, then 29 wizards are involved in music, bringing the remaining total to 556. At least one wizard-run radio station exists (the Wizarding Wireless Network), which must be run by a minimum of four people, reducing the remaining total to 552.

Healers who work for St. Mungo's must also be accounted for. Five floors are used for treatment, plus an upper floor with a tea room and gift shop. If five healers work on each floor plus two trainees, then 35 wizards are involved in treatment. At least four people must work in the tea room and gift shop as servers and cashiers (one for each job for the day shift and night shift), and at least two wizards must work as receptionists (again, one for each shift), then 41 people total must work at St. Mungo's at a minimum. This brings the remaining number of wizards down to 511.

So while we used minimum numbers in this estimate, we feel those numbers are justified because magic use cuts out a lot of menial tasks and reduces the need for employees. Therefore, we feel that the remaining five hundred cannot simply be unemployed. Instead, they must work in the surrounding Muggle communities. Because Hogwarts does not teach math, science, or any useful twenty-first century skill, and they cannot produce a reliable high school transcript, they probably work as unskilled labor. They are probably all Hufflepuffs. (We should note, however, that they can use magic to perform such unskilled labor, making their lives cushier than those of Muggles doing the same jobs.)

We have discovered dark secret of the Harry Potter wizarding world. Hogwarts does not prepare graduates for the real world, and instead teaches them the easy way out. But, really, wouldn't you be OK working in construction if you could also apparate?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Review: Kydona: From Ashes, by Thomas K. Krug III

After being pleasantly surprised by Kydona, I was more than happy to pick up the sequel, Kydona: From Ashes. My main complaint with the first book in this series was that it moved slowly and many of the mysteries introduced didn't get a good resolution. What I loved were the strong, complex characters. The sequel is the exact opposite--it moves quickly and it's full of action and intrigue. But the characters suffer, and one new character in particular made me want to throw up in the back of my mouth.
This chick. I can't stand this chick. 

The story begins as Prince Marcus and his friends in the Royal Watch enter the rebellious province of Kydona and march on the army gathered by tsaritsa Nadiya. The Watch is much better trained and equipped than the enemy, but they're vastly outnumbered. It's up to Marcus to use his intelligence and skill at arms to find ways to counteract them. As he proves himself, he rises through the ranks. But the Kydonians just keep coming, and soon Marcus is captured by the enemy. He resorts to extremes to escape, accumulating in a thrilling nighttime chase through a dark and foreign forest, as he tries to destroy his country's greatest weapon so that it won't fall into enemy hands.

This is the best part of the book. Krug's descriptions of combat are easy to visualize and haunting. The vast empty plains and the fear of his characters stick with you. Marcus, his best friend Vernon, and the overbearing but courageous Roberte de Auffay are all entertaining, realistic characters, though in many places the scene is stolen by Chaplain Stallings, a priest of the war god who quotes lines from scripture as he charges into battle, wearing a skull shaped helmet and wielding a giant mace. By the time they faced their inevitable defeat, I was on the edge of my seat and eager to see what comes next.

But when a captive Marcus is dragged back to the Kydonian court, all the life is sucked out of the book by the Kydonian leader Nadiya. She intrigued me when she was mentioned in the first book--a young woman thought dead for many years, who had returned to claim her crown and win her kingdom's independence. I thought she would make a good counterpart for Marcus, who's lead a relatively privileged life, to meet a royal woman who had to fight for everything she had.

Unfortunately, Nadiya turned out to be a huge disappointment. She's beautiful, hates violence, argues about the values of democracy (which felt so out of place in this alternate universe), and is so compassionate everyone who meets her thinks she's an angel. While her personal flaws are mentioned--like an over-fondness of alcohol--they never impact her in a negative manner. Despite being alone in the world from a very young age, she needs Marcus to protect her. Everyone goes out of their way to say how much they love her and anyone who doesn't love her is probably a villain. Marcus, even though he's a great warrior and leader, can also be very judgmental and rude.

The inevitable love affair between the two feels so forced. Marcus goes from an irresponsible playboy in the first book to a devoted husband on the turn of a dime. There's no development there. The scenes between him and Nadiya are so gushy they feel fake. Aside from a few misunderstandings at the beginning of their courtship, there's no tension between them at all, and real relationships aren't like that. I'm not saying that the author made Nadiya a Relationship Sue on purpose, but his attempts at giving her flaws are weak, especially since her two flaws (an overactive libido and a drinking problem) either benefit Marcus or don't negatively impact her in a major way (for example, she drunkenly cheats on him). Every other page, we're constantly reminded of how much they love each other.

At the start of the book, I thought I could read five more books easily set in this world. Krug writes great conflict, and this book is worth reading if only for the first part alone. But for a story to be truly believable, all aspects have to be up to par, and bungling the main romance story line is an excellent way to screw up your plot for good.

My rating? As epic fantasy, three and a half stars. As a novel, three.

You can find Kydona: From Ashes here. You can also find my book, Iceclaw, here.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Fun, Games at County-Mandated CPR Training

My favorite part about being employed is getting to walk through those mysterious little back doors you see in every place of business. What lies beyond those mysterious portals? Other than employee break rooms and old refrigerators? Nothing's so thrilling about a new job as is walking down the service stairs and entering a world known only to a select few.

If I didn't evaluate potential jobs by the presence of 'Employees Only' signs, I'd probably make a lot more money.

So this summer, I'm working as a camp counselor at Riverbend Park. There's a very nice employee break room and we also get to use the back entrance at the nature center. There's a whole room beneath the building stuffed with art supplies. But seeing as how we're working with children, it's only appropriate we all get CPR certified. Actually, it's the law.

This show discusses Game of Thrones more than I actually have at my job. This saddens me. 
When I arrive at the CPR seminar, held in the charmingly picturesque nature center, I find one of the county safety instructors freaking out at the sight of a charmingly picturesque spider, which is silly, because that spider isn't even on the 'Venomous Animals' page of our county-mandated safety guides. The other instructor  directs me to sign in, and I run through the old mental game of whether I should put down 'Liz' or 'Elizabeth'. Behind me, the fishing instructors are talking about the fish they caught that morning and the fish they want to catch when the seminar is over. I sit next to one of the park naturalists, who is probably the only person I've ever met who is actually named Rita. Since Italian ice is my favorite thing in the entire universe (besides Game of Thrones), I wind up salivating every time someone calls her name.

The instructors tell us to go over to the dummies they've set up to practice giving chest compressions. I make the obligatory joke about it being kinder to let the dummies slip away, since they're missing all their limbs and half their torsos. No one laughs. And that one always killed in TJ PE! But I kneel down besides my dummy anyway, on my county provided knee-pad. I assume those just magically appear whenever someone collapses with a stopped heart.

I pound on the dummy's chest so hard my sunglasses flop down onto my face and my ring cuts into my fingers. Nevertheless, the little LEDs in the dummy's chest flash red, which I assume is dummy for "I'm dying, you idiot!" The instructor has to correct my hand placement five times before it starts to flash green. I notice the dummies have skin tones from all different races, but all share the same dead face. The instructor keeps an extra face in her bag, the sight of which makes me want to scrub off my neurons with bleach.
Maybe she could lend it to him?
Then we get to practice breathing through a rescue mask, another handy piece of equipment I will totally remember how to use during an emergency. Afterwards, we get to rub off the dummies's dead faces with rubbing alcohol, because we haven't suffered enough. The instructor points out that we shouldn't give mouth-to-mouth to anyone who's vomiting. I totally agree.

Then we move on to the AEDs, the cool little machines where you have to say "Clear!" and then make sure everyone is actually clear before you press the shock button. The instructor shows us how to stick the pads on someone's chest. I note that every demonstration figure is male and wince while asking what to do if the patient is an extremely large breasted woman.

"It's not always going to be a large breasted woman," the instructor points out, and then gives us a nice explanation about lifting up rolls of fat that, you know, I really didn't need to hear.

My notes at this point say "Don't use AEDs on mules gnats or if he's in a band." It's eleven, I'm tired, and I'm still freaking out over the Game of Thrones season finale. Let's see what other gems come from me not being able to understand my own handwriting: "Spook the snake watches . . ." Oh, wait, there's a snake in that building named Spook who was watching us as we practiced giving the Heimlich to baby dolls. Apparently, you can roll the baby from one hand to the other by firmly gripping its head. It's a very professional and terrible thing to do.

The instructor finishes the workshop by grabbing the baby dolls by the legs and throwing them into bags. I suppose it's a mark of my preparedness as a camp counselor that I didn't even flinch.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Book Review: Everwinter, by Elizabeth Baxter

Epic fantasy is easy to write. Good epic fantasy isn't. Some writers rely only on ancient cliches--you got your elves, your dwarves, check the boxes, blah blah blah. Some writers are so inventive that they create worlds that don't make sense. Some use one dimensional stock characters, and some create wonderful characters that linger in boring plots (I'm looking at you here, S.M. Sterling!) Writing epic fantasy is first and foremost a balancing act--and one where Elizabeth Baxter's wonderful book, Everwinter, exceeds all my expectations.

Pretty shiny thing!

The opening pages, where a mad king releases the frozen weather of the Everwinter on his kingdom, feel a little stock, but soon we're swept to the city of Ral Tora, where the powerful Guild of Engineers works on an ambitious plan to heat their frozen city. Our hero, Bramwell Thornley (Bram to his friends), is a young engineer with sharp instincts and a crippling fear of heights, who likes nothing better than drinking with his friends--much more sympathetic a hero than the farmboys and shepherds of old! When an envoy from the northern city of Variss (a seemingly possessed enemy) arrives and claims his entire city has been destroyed, Bram finds himself questioning his belief in a rational, orderly universe. Driven by curiosity, Bram investigates the mysteries of Ral Tora's past--and finds himself teaming up with Astrid, the frigid ruler of the city of Chellin, on a quest to end the Everwinter for once and for all.

The characters in this story are so well drawn. Even as Bram grows as a hero, he doesn't lose track of his roots. He's still afraid of heights and tends to intellectually analyze all his problems. Astrid, the ruler of Chellin, keeps you guessing about her allegiances and plans. Falen, one of Bram's fellow engineers and a native of Variss, is tough, devoted, and smart. Even the supporting characters--from Bram's friends, to the elite Panther soldiers of Ral Tora, to a corrupt High Priest--are fleshed out and complex. The world shines--I loved the magical creatures Baxter invented, from the sea-serpent like tashen to the dolarchu, giant otters one can ride.  The cities of Ral Tora and Chellin both have their own feel and cultures, and well-handled description make them vivid.

The writing style is smooth and elegant, reminiscent of Robert Jordan, with perhaps fewer cliches. The mythology is amazing, with the old gods of the world both creepy and intriguing.

Like many epic fantasies, this one takes a while to get going. Bram doesn't have much of a goal in the first half of the book, but the world building and character development is so strong I didn't even mind. There's a few plot points I thought were a little contrived, but again, I felt like they didn't really matter so much in such a strong story.

My rating? As an epic fantasy, five stars out of five. As a novel, four.

You can find Everwinter here