Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thinking, Fast and Slow ****

As a popularizer of Economics and Statistics, no one surpasses Steven Dubner (Freakonomics etc.), but that didn't stop Daniel Kahnman from adding his more rigorous and erudite contribution to the genre: Thinking, Fast and Slow. Of course you wouldn't expect light reading from a Nobel prize winner, would you?

As a psychology professor, Kahnman's book is packed with fascinating experiments and observations. Consider the case of praising good behavior versus punishing bad behavior ... in this specific case, the subjects were Israeli fighter pilots, but that is not really important. Kahnman observed that praising good performance was following by a decreased level of performance, while castigating poor performance was followed by an improvement. Clearly a rebuttal of the positive reinforcement crowd!

But ... as Kahnman explains in exhaustive detail, this is a fault of the human tendency to see cause and effect where none exists. Both above average and below average performances are always followed by average performances. The positive or negative feedback is irrelevant. The instructor could just as well have praised the below average and ranted against the above average.

This book is packed with similar examples and experiments, each followed with detailed analyses backed by Economic, Statistical and Psychological theory, together with the historical evolution of these theories. I found that I was retelling this fascinating vignettes to anyone who was within earshot.

The astute reader might notice that I haven't mentioned thinking, either fast or slow. This book as actually a collection of stories is packaged in four parts: Don't trust what you think, Don't trust statistics, Don't trust experts, and Everything else. The final sections reveals the book as a biographical retrospective covering Kahnman's life work.

The title comes from the first section which introduces System I, the fast, automatic thoughts that control much of human interactions and responses, all below conscious thought, and System II, the slow, conscious thought processes that aspire to rationality and logic. While this is really interesting and insightful, much has been reported on NPR and it is mostly irrelevant to the remaining 75% of the book.

I began the book expecting to learn some new paradigm of thought and action, but instead I found a collection of experiments and observations surrounded by rigorous analyses. As an intellectual omnivore, I found the mixture of serious Statistics, Economics and Experimental Psychology a pleasure to read. For the eclectic dilettante, this is a nice compromise between the popular fluff of Steven Dubner and the dead weight of college textbooks.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen *****

What can I say about Nature Girl? Humor and Hyperbole. Everyone in the story has recognizable motives: the telemarketer who wants to be a successful salesperson, the 12-year-old boy who want to fit in, the fishmonger who wants to sleep with his assistant, the wife who wants a XXX video of her cheating husband, the schizophrenic lady who tracks down the telemarketer, tricks him into flying to Florida, and invents an EcoTour scam to get him out on an isolated island to teach him a lesson. Recognizable, though not necessarily reasonable or believable.

Here are people with everyday desires for successful careers and relationships, and maybe a little sex, but so strange as to be laughable or cry-able. But do not worry, this is a comedy and most characters arrive at a happy ending. In the interim, their adventures are, well, adventures. While most characters survive, the characters a subjected to a wide variety of abuse - groins are subjected to cactus spines, hammering, and a taser; heads crash into a garbage truck, are hit with a tree branch, 2x4, and a guitar. Conventional weapons include a sawed-off shotgun and semi-automatic pistol.

So ... a comedy of zany adventures and and lots of mayhem. If you start it, you won't be able to put it down.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bill and Dave by Michael S Malone ***

Bill & Dave, as anyone who grew up on Silicon Valley knows, is Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Michael S Malone's book is part history, part business advice and part hagiography.

Let's start with the history. You younger reader might not remember this, but in the early 1940's, most of the industrial world was blown to smithereens ... basically everything except the United States. This asymmetry meant laid the groundwork for the greatest period of economic success and expansion the United States has ever or will ever experience. HP was one of the many companies that benefited from this historical accident. This book chronicles how they internalized their success as unique and validation of genius, in spite of the later difficulties when a more normal conditions were restored.

The business advice. If you are a busy business person looking for advice, the author correctly assumes you don't want to wade through the swamp of praise and rationalization. The 100-200 business advice one-liners are collected in the back of the book with gems like:
In high tech especially, it is vital to be revolutionary, but dangerous to be Utopian.
Take care of your smallest clients - they may one day be your biggest.
And finally the hagiography. The case of beatification is stated over and over citing such miracles as an early foray in X-Y plotters (if you don't know, don't ask) laying the groundwork for PC printers, and desktop calculators doing the same for PCs. Assumptions only the faithful can believe.

I'm sure retired HPers will love the book, and other Silicon Valley veterans might enjoy the history, though it is biased and repetitive. Otherwise, not much to recommend it.

Disclosure: I benefited by HP's mismanagement in the 1980s when they became a source of well-trained engineers and managers for many Silicon Valley start-ups.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley ****

Baret ... a woman who dressed as man; a female botanist in a male-dominated field; a working-class woman who traveled father [sic] than most aristocrats. How could the eighteenth-century mind classify someone who refused to be bound by her gender or her class?
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley chronicles to life of the extraordinary first woman to circumnavigate the world. Baret lived the life of an explorer and a scientist on an expedition similar to Darwin's , but over 50 years before the voyage of the Beagle. This is a story that foreshadows today's questions of career and family. In addition to the eighteenth-century expected hardships of manual labor, starvation and disease, Baret also suffers gender-specific challenges of sexual harassment and twice has to up a child that is not compatible with the life she has chosen. In the end she retired with a "government stipend for man of science."

While the story is a fascinating look at the eighteenth-century science of the French Enlightenment, the book suffers from the author's uncertainty as to the nature of the text. At times the book is straight history with in-text references, while in other places, historical blanks are filed with fabrications of feeling and motivations. Most disconcerting is a third case where inferred events are loaded down with conjecture and interpretation. In this third category is a gang rape, not in the historical record, but that Ridley discusses at length.

A great story with a flaw presentation.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dog On It by Spencer Quinn *****

Forget Watson or Grace Makutsi, the new detective sidekick is Chet. On the plus side, Chet is full of optimism, enthusiasm, and love. No matter how bad things might get, Chet lives in the moment, a skill aided by his ignorance complex issues like money and numbers, and his Alzheimer's-like lack of medium term memory. On the negative side, even though he seems to solve the crimes ahead of everyone else, his lack of effective communication skills leaves everyone else wondering what's happening. Oh yes, Chet is a dog.

In Dog On It by Spencer Quinn, Cheat and Bernie solve a missing person case involving a teenage girl and Russian gangsters. Since Chet is the narrator, some of the details are unclear, because at some critical junctures, Chet might smell an abandoned hamburger or hear the bark of a she dog, and completely loose interest in the current witnesses, clues, or even the entire case.

Wherever the case leads, Chet has a wonderful time, whether running through the woods, riding shotgun with his face in the breeze, playing with Bernie's son, or interrogating suspects, Chet has pretty much to same reaction, "What was more fun than this? Huh? I ask you."

For a wonderful guilty pleasure, spend a few hours with Chet, a dog is is never guilty about his pleasures.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi W Durrow ****

Just a few days short of my estranged daughter Heather Jasmine Ehrlich's birthday I finished The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi W Durrow. The girl from the title is Rachel. Rachel grows up with many questions, but the one which touched me at this time of year is: "Where is... who is my father?"

For many good hearted reasons, Rachel hears very little of her father as she grows up. Much like my own story, even when she finally gets some news, the result is ambiguous and inconclusive.

This novel, like real life, is richer and deeper than just a missing father, and each revealed truth is accompanied by a harder follow-on question. Rachel's mom is Danish and her father is African American. She's already in school when the family moves from Europe to the United States. Both Rachel and her mother have to adjust to a culture where Rachel is now considered to be Black and that is now her defining characteristic.

Rachel adjusts better than her mother who throws herself and her children off the top of their apartment building. Rachel survives and moves in with her grandmother - her father's mother. By now she is in junior high and she needs to adjust to her maturing sexuality.

Through all of this her family and friends take turns supporting and sabotaging her. In the end I have no better idea about Rachel's future than I do about Heather Jasmine Ehrlich's, or anyone else's for that matter. A wonderful story of growing up in a real world.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Spider Web by Earlene Fowler ****

What do you think of when you hear Morrow Bay, Pismo Beach, and Cal Poly? If you're from California, you think of San Luis Obispo. If you're a fan of mystery writer Earlene Fowler, author of Spider Web, you might think of San Celina, completely recognizable to anyone who has been near San Luis Obispo as SLO itself, as the locals refer to this delightful college/agricultural town in central California (in the no-direction's-land between Northern and Southern California, and not to every be confused with the Central Valley).

One again Benni Harper solves an interlocking set of mysteries with her unique emphasis feelings and suspicions in a plot where the sweet and sentimental are more often hiding in the shadows than anything evil, or even slightly impolite or naughty. A fantasy for anyone who believes that people are basically cute and cuddly - rhe we-are-all-kittens-and-puppies-inside school of sociology.

A wonderful story for Cal Poly alumni and readers of zero-body-count mysteries.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi ****

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi is a family history/memoir that reads like a James Michener novel of the last 100 years of Iraqi history -- by following the ups and downs of the Chalabi family. This is a must-read for anyone the least bit interested in the Iraqi situation.

The story begins before Iraq: when Mesopotamia was a province of the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning of the 19th century this had been the case for over 400 years. While thousands of years ago, this area had been the cradle of western civilization, by the early 1900s, it was a patchwork of tribal territories between the Ottoman powers in Turkey and the Persian powers in Iran. While predominantly Arab (vs Persian) and Muslim (vs Christian), the popular sentiment was up for grabs with with minorities favoring the West (Britain or US) or the East (Communists), or a smattering of other allegiances, such as smaller religious groups and fascism.

By this time everything was in place for today's conflicts: Kurds, Sunni domination of Shi'a, and even oil. The story opens with World War I and the British liberation of Iraq, with eerie parallels to the US liberation almost 100 years later.

Through the eyes of the well-to-do, connected, Shi'a family, the book traces the ups and downs, successes and disappointments of the Iraqi middle class. The role of the west is especially cyclical and disturbing, with the interest in oil reserves and ignorance/disregard of the people.

Overall this is a richer picture of Iraq then available in news - both fascinating and enlightening, as all history should be.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks ****

Alexica and Agnosia, Prosopagnisia, Strabismis and Stereopis headlne in neurologist Oliver Sack's latest offering, The Mind's Eye, on rare and fascinating brain behaviors. As usual, he has written a fascinating volume of lesions and plasticity.

However, since these essays are centered around case studies, the book is accessible to a general audience that might be lacking in medical, scientific and Latinate background. Interestingly, such people are rarely included in his cases; most people discussed seem to be accomplished artists or people with medical degrees.

The book open with three case studies, a concert pianist, an artist, and an author, all with variations of alexia (the inability to recognize words) and agnosia (the inability to recognize objects). These are all cases where eye sight - lens, retina, optic nerve, etc. - is fully intact and the problem is traceable (with brain imaging: CAT scans and fMRI) to some brain abnormality, such as PCA - posterior cortical atrophy. As might be expected the book is long on Latin descriptions with a few causes (stroke) and no real mechanisms.

Brain science has made tremendous progress through the use of brain imaging which means scientists no longer have to wait for the patient to die to see what is happening. While some areas of the brain have been identified, progress is hampered by two poorly understood phenomena.

The first is variability: human behavior and abilities vary widely, and these case studies seem to include those beyond the 3-sigma range - certainly no place to find principles to apply to the general population.

The second is the near mystical term: plasticity. Brain science is torn between innate and acquired abilities. When a lesion consistently causes the same deficit (alexia) or an ability seems to be in place from birth (facial recognition), the scientists talk of innate structures. However, when someone recovers from serious brain damage or overcomes blindness or deafness, plasticity reigns supreme.

In some cases, both are intermixed to explain some difficult conundrum. The most interesting example of this is alexia. There is clearly an area of the brain consistently responsible for word recognition. But how can this be when word recognition is too recent to have any impact on evolution. Based on this problem, Wallace, the other discoverer of evolution, declared this to be proof of God's hand in the creation of humans.

The unconvincing scientific argument is that the brain has innate pattern recognition - the (dubious) support for this is that some computer program declared that all alphabets/characters share common characteristics (hopefully) determined by these innate brain structure and everything else associated with reading is plasticity. Scientifically this is an improvement on "the hand of God," but still need some research.

A wonderful book of odd diseases and science; only marred by a long chapter transcribed from the author's journal which is missing much needed composition and editing. A chapter easily skipped.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht ***

In The Tiger's Wife, author Tea Obreht deals with the horror of the Serb-Croatian conflicts from the perspective of Natalia, a young doctor who lives within the conflict. This is not a story of blood and battle, but of fear and misunderstanding.
when confounded by the extremes of life ... people would turn first to superstition ... to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.
This is a story with ghosts and a deathless man that double-crossed the devil and can't not die, but knows when others are going. Of course, there is also the Tiger's wife who we only know by all the rumors around her, her abusive husband, and a tiger that may or may not exist, and may of may not have escaped from the zoo, that may or may not open again.

It is also a story of hope and hopelessness.
When your fight has purpose - to free you from something ... - it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about ... your name, the places where your blood is anchored ... there is nothing but hate ...
This surreal tale highlights the horror of the people living within the war zone, their terror and frustrations and the ordinary things that continue within the fighting. Happy things like reading a favorite book book and sad things like chronic diseases.

Tea Obreht brings war alive with the daily lives of those behind the front lines and outside the battle, but certainly not outside the emotional distress.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Myth of the Rational Market by Justin Fox ****

The Myth of the Rational Market by Justin Fox is just what it claims to be: a history. However, since this is the (checkered) history of an idea that has never been fully accepted or rejected, don't expect any narrative arc, climax or resolution.

The concept of a rational market at various times has meant that markets are correct, will soon be correct, or might be correct eventually. It might also imply that no one can beat the market, or those that beat the market were just lucky, or to beat the market consistently is very hard. Regardless of the interpretation, academics and practitioners have used this investigation to earn Nobel prizes and/or billions of dollars. Sometimes the focus is on the future (usually during boom times) and at others on the past (usually after crashes).

Justin Fox is an exhaustive researcher and covers the ground in detail with adequate mention of every significant economist, policy wonk, financial analyst, and money manager of the 20th century. Harvard, MIT and Chicago get the most mentions but many other schools are also mentioned.

If you are interested in the history of economic and finance, you will not be disappointed.

If you are interested in investing advice, here it is: Buy and hold index funds. This has been the answer since Vanguard introduce such funds in 1976.

If you want to know if it is possible to do better, the answer is a resounding yes; markets are inefficient and a few very smart folk with enormous resources beat them from time to time.

If you want to know whether you can do better, forget it!

Those are the short answers. The long form also makes interesting reading.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dead Zero by Stephen Hunter **

Dead Zero by Stephen Hunter is another novel in the continuing saga of Bob Lee Swagger, USMC sniper. However, it seems that, by his own confession in the acknowledgements, Hunter has run out of ideas. This plot is borrowed from Death of a Thin-Skinned Animal by Patrick Alexander (out of print, 1976), updated and made very silly.


The plot, full of Hunter's standard fare: macho Marines, catalogues of armaments and accessories, and violent fire fights, all builds to a bizarre climax with a Rube Goldberg device to target a missile at the Rose Garden, a location certainly well known within the accuracy required for the available kill zone. A wonderful example of the unbelievable motivated by the unnecessary, but this is what happens when a popular author is out of ideas.

Still , if you are a fan of USMC sniper Bob Lee Swagger, this is probably the next must read in the series.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

D is for Deadbeat by Sue Grafton ****

"D" is for Deadbeatby Sue Grafton is another murder in Santa Teresa solved by Kinsey Millhone. As usual, a pleasant read.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr ****

Set in the desert of southwest New Mexico and western Texas, near Carlsbad Caverns (where the book was purchased), Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr opens as Anna Pidgeon, National Park Service (NPS) ranger, discovers the corpse of another NPS ranger, apparently killed by a mountain lion. While the NPS, the FBI, and local law enforcement all accept this at face value, Anna finds many of the details suspicious.

First, the corpse was found in the midst of an area of saw grass, yet the corpse was free of scratches. Even more suspicious, the experienced ranger had packed for hiking in the back country, but didn't pack any water. This sets the tone for the story that follows. Anna is a careful observer of life in the desert. This is a murder where the clues are delivered by the unique environment of the southwestern desert: climate, terrain, flora and fauna, making this book as much an enjoyable excursion into the desert as a whodunit.

The only flaw (certainly unavoidable and forgivable) is the obsolete technological plots points from 1993. This includes the limited pictures on a roll of film and the delays required for them to be developed. Also the challenges of finding a public telephone.

Overall a fine nature book and western yarn.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Dinosaur Hunters by Homer Hickam ***

You remember Homer Hickam, the author of the memoir Rocket Boys, which was made into the movie October Sky. His latest novel is The Dinosaur Hunter. Mike Wire is a former LAPD Homicide Detective (stop me if you heard this before), now living as a ranch hand in eastern Montana. As you might have guessed to setting and characters are comfortable and familiar: taciturn, tough, independent ranchers, mistrusted outsiders, survivalists concerned about black helicopters, guns, rodeo, two-stepping, ...

The new wrinkle is Dr Pickford, a paleontologist, with his two sexy lady assistants. Indeed, much of the book is dedicated to the details of paleontological field work, theories about the life of T Rex, of course, the famous K-T extinction - incidentally not caused by the meteor this time.

This is a book with written with Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park etc.) in mind, but I felt that thriller/mystery part of the formula was patched on with rather flimsy plotting and resolved in a deus ex machina way.

In this end, this is a pleasant read of comfortable cliches about modern cowboys and the idyllic life of the untamed west. If you expect no more than a pleasant few hours of reading, you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Home for Broken Hearts by Rowan Coleman ***

The Home for Broken Hearts by Rowan Coleman chronicles Ellen Wood and her son Charlie a year after the tragic death of her husband Nick. In order to balance her budget she takes in three boarders: Sabine, on trial separation from her husband, Allegra, septuagenarian writer of hot romance novels, and Matt, a writer for a sleazy men's magazine. Into this mix is added, Hannah, Ellen's much younger sister.

Amid much angst and introspection, Ellen works through her grief and resulting agoraphobia, Matt struggles with his life as a exploiter of women, and everyone else does their best to play their unsurprising, stereotypical roles.

From the Book Club Guide:
Ellen's pivotal moment of power, confidence, and clarity occurs when she dons her green dress and sexy undergarments. Go to your book club meeting dressed up in the outfit that make you feel your most self-assured.
Aside from the obvious, my biggest disappointment was the lack of resolution around the dead husband Nick. Nick was a possessive, controlling, demanding, and cheating husband. He isolated Ellen from all outside contact and interests and then abandoned her emotionally. Her agoraphobia was much in place before he died. As the poster child for an abusive husband, he got off very lightly. Much more was said about the emotional risks of sexual fantasies and consensual sex.

Don't waste you time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury ****

Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury is a dense, comprehensive history of chocolate candy. Comprehensive? Yes! Topics include: development and manufacture of a wide variety of current and historical chocolate products, international aspects of growing and marketing chocolate, political, social, and business history, family histories, and biographies of the major players. The book includes the major chocolate companies: Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, Lindt, Houten, Nestle, and others. So comprehensive that most readers will find some parts of great interest and other parts that are best skimmed over.

As might be imagined by the author's name, the main thread is the cradle to death history of Cadbury. The company was started by Quakers. The beginnings were touch and go as they struggled to find a business and product formula that might be successful. In the 19th century, many companies were struggling to find a chocolate product that could be manufactured consistently, delivered to consumers without spoiling, and tasty.

Once the company was successful, the challenge was to deploy their riches in a way consistent with their Quaker ideals. At the turn of the 20th century, their goals coincided for the growing labor and public welfare movements. In England, the various Quaker businesses had a positive impact on public policy.

However, starting with World War I, the business climate changed with the rise of bigger, profit-oriented businesses. This was the beginning of the decline of Cadbury as moral force and an independent organization. The final demise did not occur until almost 100 years later.

This is an excellent book which can be read as general history, evolution of social policy, condemnation of modern business, or, even, the history of chocolate candy. Truly, something for everyone.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Summer the South by Cathy Houlton *****

Summer in the South by Cathy Houlton opens with Ava Dabrowski, grown daughter of peripatetic, hippie mom Clotilde, struggling to write a novel which writing while working at an ad agency in Chicago. In frustration she quits her job and accepts a room for the summer in rural Tennessee from a friend from school, Will Fraser, with an old southern family. Imagine the child of a live-for-moment hippie in with a family who consider everyone who made their money after the War of 1812 to be new money.

This is a great novel, not because it is yet another obituary for the antebellum south, though it is partially that; nor because it is yet another condemnation of an arrogant aristocracy, though it is partially that also. At its core, Summer in the South, is about finding identity in the 21st century.

The protagonists are struggling to find themselves in a world of overwhelming parents and ancestors. Eva constantly tries to reconcile her life with her mother's and her estranged father's, while Will is saddled with 200 years of family history and secrets. In the end both have to break with the past, and learn to be their own person. The way this unfolds makes this novel compelling and enlightening.

I found the climax and resolution surprising, believable and hopeful.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Proofiness by Charles Seife **

Proofiness by Charles is a goofy, hyperbolic book about other people using math in goofy and hyperbolic ways. Think of as a meta snake oil about the sale of snake oil.

Much of the book is a rehash of old stories about Vietnam War statistics, gerrymandering, interpolation of the census, the Bush-Dole election, capital punishment and other predominantly liberal issues. If you haven't followed these issues from a quantitative point of view, you might find this interesting.

I found the detailed analysis of the Franken election in Minnesota fun reading. I was even able to get past the author's love of cutesy invented vocabulary such as proofiness, fruit packing, and Potemkin numbers.

I found the book more goofy than proofy, but since so much was redundant, it was a very fast read.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Solar by Ian McEwan ****

Popular psychology is littered with theories correlating business success with various conditions from Asperger's to sociopathy. Ian McEwan's latest book, Solar, offers a fictional version of these theories. The protagonist, Nobel laureate Micheal Beard, follows in the tradition of Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov (who my illiterate spell checker wants me to replace with Kalashnikov of AK-47 fame) - intelligent, self-obsessed and amoral.

This book is a cautionary tale, so expect Michael Beard to meet a tragic ending. While the dust jacket advertises this as a "darkly satirical" novel, my experience with entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley found the story to be closer to the truth than the author realized or was willing to admit. Especially revealing is Michael Beard's moral gymnastics balancing his accomplishments against the litter of damaged human lives left in his wake.

Note to Science Fiction readers. This is book is perilously close to being SF with its plot dependence on quantum physics, global warming, and speculative approaches to solar energy. Of course, the publisher prefers 'darkly satirical' to 'science fiction', as the latter severely limits the book's financial potential. Read this one and nominate it for a Hugo.

If you enjoy hyper-intelligent psychopaths, and who doesn't, this is a good choice.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pampered to Death by Laura Levine ****

What's not to like about a witty, sarcastic heroine named Jaine Austen and her spoiled cat named Prozac trapped in a weight-loss spa with movie stars, a supermarket checkout clerk, and the diet Nazi? In between her snide judgements on everyone in sight and her escapades to procure snacks for herself and Prozac, she solves the murder mystery.

Pampered to Death by Laura Levine is certainly a guilty pleasure kind of book. Jaine Austen's mixture of self-deprecation, brutal self-honesty, and superiority to everyone else is endearing. When the diet Nazi confiscates her snacks, and even meaner, Prozac's treats, I felt like I should run to cupboard to gobble down a sympathetic treat. When Prozac stole one of the spa's koi, I was rooting for her to dine on her purloined catch.

But in line with Jaine Austen's tolerant attitude, except for the required death to make this a murder mystery, everyone else turns out just fine.

A good book to accompany Ben & Jerry and hot fudge sauce.

Echo by Jack McDevitt **** 2010 370

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Echo by Jack McDevitt ****

Echo by Jack McDevitt is new science fiction in the classic optimistic model (as opposed to the classic dystopic model). This is a novel of space exploration during a time of intergalactic peace. Science and technology have solved most problems except the human kind: hubris, jealousy, greed, and guilt. McDevitt's well-drawn characters demonstrate ample quantities of these qualities and many other of the timeless human foibles.

McDevitt has put together an intricate mystery of first contact - certainly a classic theme. While the characters visit the far reaches of the galaxy, they do it with a minimum of exposition. This is a particularly classic touch, as many of the newer SF writers seems so enamored with their tech that they forget to be storytellers and fall back on stilted textbook exposition.

The mystery is also wrapped up at the end with several clever reveals - making this book a pleasure from beginning to end. If you love SF from the 50s and 60s, you'll love this too.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wicked River: the Mississippi by Lee Sandlin ****

Wicked River: The Mississippi by Lee Sandlin recounts the history of the Mississippi during the first part of the nineteenth century from before the War of 1812 through the Civil War. Even though Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were a published decades later, this is the period Mark Twain wrote about.

Rather than telling the story chronologically, Sandlin covers the period with chapters on different aspects of the culture and historical events, including pirates, the Madrid earthquake, commerce, the Battle for Vicksburg, slave insurrections, and panoramas.

Panoramas? What was a Mississippi panorama? The panoramas were typically canvas paintings 20 feet high and several hundred yards long. They contained paintings of life and scenery along the river. These were the precursor to movies. People gathered in theaters and watched the panorama scrolled scrolled across the stage to the accompaniment of a narrator and music. The scenes included dramatic wilderness and current events like floods.

I found the book fascinating with its combination of hard history and details from daily life. Sandlin draws on a wide variety of sources from old newspapers and broadsheets to diaries and letters. This is a casual reader with each chapter relatively independent of the others.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Quantum Man by Lawrence M Krauss ****

Like many boomers, I have are morbid fear of acting my age, especially as my age keeps increasing. I constantly strive to join the next generation or the one after that - the generation of my kids and even my grandkids. Some times I succeed, like playing War of Warcraft, but others ... like rock climbing for example ... I am just resigned to be left behind.

One such generational challenge is physics. My generation learned physics (I took two years of the stuff at MIT) before quantum electrodynamics (QED) really took hold. In order to catch up, I try to read a (popular) book on quantum physics every few year in the hope that eventually it will become clear to me.

Quantum Man by Lawrence M Krauss is just such a book. The author follows the discovery and evolution or QED and QCD through the life story of Richard Feynman, one the the great physicists of the 20th century. Unfortunately the book is neither science or biography, but a mixture of both, and left me wanting more science and more biography.

I felt that the author was so close to his subject - he is a physicist and knew Feynman personally - that he assumed too much of his readers. Even with my previous knowledge of QED and Feynman, I found many sections too abbreviated. Many biographical points were touched just briefly, as for example Feynman's long relationship with strip clubs, and many points of quantum physics were described as historical disagreements without ever clearly presenting the ultimate resolution.

The biography and science presented were interesting, even if incomplete.