Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Vanishing of Flight MH370 by Richard Quest ****

"Many people have asked me how I can write a book about MH370 when authorities haven't found the plane and the ending of the story remains unknown."
The Vanishing of Flight MH370 by Richard Quest is more and less than the story of the Boeing 777 that left Malaysia on March 8, 2014, never to be seen again. Without the main story, "What happened?" Quest (appropriate name, right?) fills his book with the stories of the families, the investigators, and, like Ouroboros eating his tail, the news reporters.

Richard Quest is a CNN aviation correspondence, and CNN was the news organization that invested the most resources and air time to this story. For a time, CNN was 24/7 on this story. Jon Stewart of the Daily Show mocked them, but their viewers loved it. At the time, many people accused to CNN of padding their coverage to fill the demands of 24-hours news coverage. One might say something similar about this book.

Given the task to report everything, except the resolution which is still unknown, the author reviews all the air crashes since Pan Am 103 crashed over Lockerbie Scotland in 1988. If you are a nervous flyer, this litany of accidents and deliberate events will not be helpful. However, taking a step back, we can be encouraged by the variety of conditions. There is no pattern, fatal crashes tend to be unique and not repeated.

As each crash tends to be unique, the governments, scientists, and airline executives are never prepared and struggle with the right balance of caution and disclosure. For example, over a year after the disappearance a piece of the plane (flaperon) was found.
"It was a very strange situation: everyone agreed that this was a 777 flaperon, but no one would say it was THE flaperon. Yet what else could it be? There were no other missing 777s in that part of the world.
Like the CNN viewers, many readers will find the book fascinating, with its extensive research, comprehensive reporting, and accessible treatment of hyper-technical topics. I certainly enjoyed it.

Friday, July 29, 2016

You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt ****

"I like this." What does it mean that we like something?
You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt makes it clear that that tastes are transient both for individuals and for societies. In the short term, our preferences are are consistent, but in the long run, they vary significantly. In experiments where people could not remember making a choice, that choice still influenced there preferences.
"We seem to have a preference that we prefer our preferences."
The act of choosing leaves a lasting impact on our likes.

A word on the title: You May Also Like. This title misled me to believe that there would be a lot about recommendation engines such as those used by Netflix and Amazon. There was one chapter (it was great), but most of the research was about food, beer, and cats. Much of this latter research is older and has been presented before.

As a senior citizen, I found myself thinking that the entire question of taste and style, identifying the best, and striving for excellence is a pastime of younger folks. I could not identify with the urgency and dedication to selecting be best beer or music. Could it be that the drive for comparison with peers is something that wanes with maturity? Or could it be that we've seen so many fashions come and go that the ebb and flow of style is no longer interesting?

This book is fascinating because tastes are so contradictory. Like rats, we are neophobic omnivores. We will eat anything, but are wary of new foods. This is balanced by food monotony, where we resist eating the same thing day after day (except for breakfast, and 3rd world societies). An enjoyable read with lots of stories of scientific studies and judging food, beer, and cats.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer *****

The Starter Wife by Gigi Grazer appears to be a novel fashion and gossip set in the Malibu Colony (near the intersection of Malibu Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway). Readers looking for local color, hip dialogue, and Hollywood gossip will not be disappointed. However, Grazer also delivers genuine characters dealing with the life changes that come with age, changes universal beyond the cliches and stereotypes of Hollywood's cult of youth with its emphasis on maintaining a young appearance at all costs.

The story centers around Gracie, in her early forties, who is being divorced by her movie producer husband, and her two friends, Will who is gay, and Joan who is married to a rich, geriatric husband.

In between dealing with the challenges of age, clever dialogue provides comic relief.
"They're called Ugg boots," Gracie said, "because they're ugly and they're called boots. And Mommy needs to get a pair. We're living in Malibu now, Jaden. It's the law."
"You want to have dinner tomorrow night?" Lou asked.
Gracie just looked at him. "I usually have dinner every night."
On a more serious note, Gracie's friend Joan is being divorced by her geriatric husband. Both women are around forty. Her husband, previously thought to be closer to the grave than not, is leaving Joan for another woman.
"Someone older," Joan said, choking.
"How much older?" Gracie asked.
"She's seventy," Joan said. "How'm I supposed to compete with that?"
While this book is an easy read, light and breezy, with plenty of humor, it also explores the effects of age on all of us. Thus, it reaches beyond the trite stories of Hollywood to more universal truths of the limitations and compromises everyone must address as the years add up.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Clockwork Lives by Kevin J Anderson ****

Clockwork Lives by Kevin J Anderson is a sequel to Clockwork Angels. The blurb presents this book as a steampunk Canterbury Tales. To bring the analogy up to date, it is a steampunk series (like a TV series): a collection of independent stories loosely tried together with a continuing narrative.

The protagonist is Miranda Peake who has been sent on a quest by her father's will. Before she can inherit his considerable wealth, she must fill a magical book with life stories. Each story merely requires a drop of blood, after which the book writes the true story of that person's life. Some lives are written a a few lines, while others take many pages. The longer stories are the content of this book.

As Miranda travels the steampunk world, she not only collects stories, but also finds herself. In her quest, she broadens her few from her small village childhood to a world view of differences and what might be important to her. Her home in Albion is governed by The Watchmaker's Stability. Her travels give her the opportunity to consider whether she likes stability.

If you like steampunk, this volume offers plenty of gears and steam engines, with mechanical people, balloon travel, and lots of alchemy. A fun read.