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.