Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Power of Moments by Chip & Dan Heath *****

The Power of Moments by Chip & Dan Heath is an excellent example of many management books focused on motivation and morale. When I was in charge of Research & Development at a long sequence of Silicon Valey start-up companies, I read many of similar books. They all offer magic formulas but are better considered as a source of a few extra tools.

This book is based on one piece of solid research: memory is not uniform. Beginnings, ends, and changes are recalled more often and more strongly than the quotidian routines. Surprises leave an impression, while consistency is forgotten. If you satisfy a customer 100 times and mess up once, they will remember the one problem. The authors call these memorable occasions "moments." The goal is to create as many positive moments as possible.

One example is a company that works to create a positive moment on the employee's first day. The is an occasion which is often ignored, but which also provides a chance to surprise the person and create a moment that will benefit motivation and morale for a long time forward.

However...
"Beware of the soul-sucking force of "reasonableness."
Moments require personal attention and individual effort. Once new employee orientation becomes routine and optimized, the moment disappears. Most employee recognition programs fall into this trap. The goal is to keep the moments fresh. One of the keys is to care about the individuals. Moments are not one-size-fits-all. I found this was true of most motivation and morale issues.

Everyone--managers, employees, teacher, students--performs better when considered individually. An illustrative example is an experiment done with radiologists. One set of x-ray was read in the normal way, while the second set included a picture of the patient along with the x-rays. The x-rays with faces, literally, were read more accurately. The book includes many examples, where a situation was treated as non-routine with positive results. That might be the message of the book.

This is the challenge presented:
Life is full of "form letter in an envelope" moments, waiting to be transformed into something special.
If you manage people, this book will give you some good ideas and inspirations to improve the performance of your team. This is not the whole answer, but it is a solid step in the right direction.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh ****

Ngaio Marsh is a New Zealand author and one of the Four Queens for Crime. Enter a Murderer (1935) might be the first occurrence of a real on-stage murder co-opting the dramatic scripted murder using the prop murder weapon. The deceased is Arthur Surbonadier, degenerate nephew of rich theater owner Jacob Saint. Arthur is part of a love triangle including leading-lady Stephanie Vaughan, and leading-man Felix Gardener. Since everyone saw Felix shot Arthur, the question is who replaced the dummy bullets in the stage gun with live ordnance.

The Scotland Yard Detective-Inspector is Alleyn. Inspector Fox and newspaperman Nigel Bathgate assist him.

As Alleyn observes:
“I’ve been thing that in difficult homicide cases you either get no motive or too many motives. In this instance there are too many.”
Midway through the book, the suspect summary totals a dozen and going on for several pages. Alleyn remarks that the task is difficult because “We’re up against good acting.”

Interesting 1935 vocabulary:

“Sorry to be a bit Hitlerish, but it’ll save time.”

“Why was he sent down?” — expelled from college

“Afterwards, when I took to the boards, he saw me in the first decent part I played — stage, theatre

“He’s been a cat’s-paw, and nothing else.” dupe (derived from La Fontaine's fable, "The Monkey and the Cat")

Many critics credit the Four Queens with the creation of the “cozy mystery” genre. If you are interested in a mystery without tough guys, sex, or violence, Ngaio Marsh is an author to investigate.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Woolly by Ben Mezrich *****

Reading and writing. The three-billion-dollar Human Genome Project established the technology to read DNA. While the first human gene sequence cost the aforementioned $3,000,000,000 in 2003, the same feat can now be completed for under $1,000. Woolly by Ben Mezrich explores the possibilities for writing DNA, also known as synthetic biology.

Returning animals from extinction has already been demonstrated. In 2003, a Spanish team cloned the extinct Pyrenean ibex. They started with a sample that had been preserved in 2000. The process has been demonstrated, the only question is finding an appropriate DNA source. Unfortunately, the further scientists reach back, the harder it is to find well-preserved samples. No one expects to ever find viable sample after 65 million years. Therefore, Jurassic Park will remain forever a fantasy.

The permafrost is a ticking time bomb for climate change. Enormous volumes of methane are trapped in the permafrost ("three times more carbon than all the forests on Earth combined"). If climate change destroys the permafrost, the result will accelerate additional climate change, a deleterious feedback loop. Leaving the winter snowfields fallow insulates the permafrost from the cold and allows the thawing process to progress. Churning the fields exposes the permafrost to the cold and rebuilds it.

Rebuilding the herds that lived in the coldest climates does this. Woolly mammoths are the animals most suited to save the permafrost if we could only find some. The four key traits for mammoths are: hair, small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hemoglobin. Mammoth hemoglobin works at a lower temperature than any know mammal hemoglobin.

The book has several fun characterizations of scientists, such as when Bobby Dhadwar crosses the U.S. border and when asked what he plans to do in the U.S. responds with
"I'm going to be implanting genetically altered DNA from naked mole rats into laboratory mice to try to reverse the aging process."
When the border agents became suspicious, he presented them with his Ph.D. dissertation (Yes, he had it in his trunk) to clarify the matter.

Another anecdote was when Dr. Church suggested he might need some "extremely adventurous female humans" to gestate Neandertal embryos, many people replied to volunteer.

If you were fascinated by Jurassic Park, you'll love this book which hypothesizes ways to return extinct animals without the terror of Michael Crichton's imagination, but with the benefits of forestalling climate change and improving human health.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck *****

Grapes of Wrath could have been a cautionary tale for the 1% and a “How to” for the workers, but that does not seem to be John Steinbeck’s style. The result is the reverse: “How to” for the 1% and a cautionary tale for the workers.

I have heard that California no longer requires high school students to read this book. Here is a link to an LA Times opinion piece declaring this Nobel-Prize-winning novel to be “Bad fiction and bad history.” http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-grapes-of-wrath-john-steinbeck-75th-anniversary-20140428-story.html

Synopsis: The story follows the Joads from Oklahoma over Route 66 to California where they pick fruit and cotton. They approach their life with optimism and trust but are met with exploitation and death.
“An’ kin we feed a extra mouth?”
Without turning his head he asked, “Kin we, Ma?”
Ma cleared her throat. “It ain’t kin we? It’s will we?”
Here we see two themes that run through the book. First, when the family is in crisis, the women are strong and take charge. Second, attitude is more important than reality, today is more important than the future.

For example, when pregnant Rose of Sharon bemoans that her husband has left…
Ma went on firmly, “You git aholt on yaself. They’s a lot of us here. You git aholt on yaself. Come here now an’ peel some potatoes. You’re feelin’ sorry for yaself.”
This ‘don’t get discouraged and solve the immediate problems’ attitude gets half the family to the end of the book only to face the winter with no prospects for work, no food, and no money.

When John Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, the committee cited this book. Today it is a classic of American literature and relevant to the 21st century political and economic climate.

Here is another review from 9 years ago: http://1book42day.blogspot.com/2008/10/grapes-of-wrath-by-john-steinbeck.html


Chapters (* indicates background chapter)
1* Drought in Oklahoma
2 Tom Joad released from prison
3* Turtle making it way somewhere
4 ex-Preacher Casy
5* Tractor knocking down a sharecropper’s house
6 Muley Graves has gone crazy, but will not leave the farm
7* Used cars sales
8 Tom Joad’s family, grandparents, parents, brother, two children, pregnant Rose of Sharon & Connie
9* Selling junk to raise cash
10 Last day on the farm and setting west
11* Animals remains: cats, bats, mice
12* Highway 66
13 On the road, grandpa dies, meet the Wilsons, Sairy and husband
14* Sharing food on the road
15* Truckstop
16 Replacing the connecting rods on the truck
17* Camping society: rules and customs
18 Arriving in California, Colorado River, Granma dies, cross Death Valley
19* History of land ownership and conquest
20 Arrive in Hooverville, Connie leaves
21* Migrants to become serfs, small farmers bought up larger one and canneries
22 Central Committee of occupants runs Government camp
23* Recreation activities of migrants
24 The dance and foiling the attempt by outsiders to create a riot
25* Destroy crop when the prices drop, despite people starving
26 Last day in Government camp, Tom killed a cop
27* Cotton
28 Tom goes into hiding and then leaves, Al married, Granma dies
29* Winter means no work, no money, no food
30 Winter rains, floods, Rose of Sharon’s baby dies, shelter in barn

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K Dick ****

Transmigration is the movement of a soul into another body after death.  The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K Dick is a novel of philosophy and religion “inspired by a mystical experience that Dick had.” The story concerns the existence of an afterlife, and particularly souls returning after death. Against the backstory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, multiple characters die and return. The novel is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, following the death of John Lennon (8 December 1980).

Angel Archer is married to Jeff Archer, a perpetual student at UC Berkeley. Angel supports them working at a law office and candle shop. His father is an Episcopal Bishop who questions everything about his faith. His lover and assistant is Kirsten Lundberg. Her younger brother is alternately an obsessed auto mechanic and a schizophrenic committed to an asylum.

Timothy Archer begins to question his theology with the discovery of the Zadokite Documents which contain the central teachings of Jesus but predate Jesus by a century or more. This leads to several failures of faith, three suicides, and two resurrections. The only survivor is Angel Archer, a rationalist and agnostic, as if to say faith with intelligence leads to anxiety and misery.

Part of the challenge many of these characters face is a belief in absolute truth and values.
Tim said, “I would like Janis Joplin to sing Grace.”
“She died in 1970,” I said.
“Then whom do you recommend in her place?” Tim asked.

“I think what she’s trying to say,” Kirsten said, “is that no one will ever take Joplin’s place.”
Dick forsees “fake news.”
“But it is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise. The intelligence agency call it disinformation.”
This is my favorite quote:
It strikes me as semi-meaningless to say, "You are only as old as you feel" because, in point of fact, age and illness are going to win out, and this stupid statement only resonates with people in good health who have not undergone...traumas.
One theme of this book is the danger of education.
That is the trouble with education, I realized; you have been everywhere before, seen everything, vicariously; it has already happened to you.
In another hint at the cause of these suicides, the suggestion is that a rush to a conclusion destroys life. Suicide is a rush to the conclusion of life.
What if a symphony orchestra was intent only on reaching the final coda?...The music is in the process, the unfolding; if you hasten it, you destroy it.
If you have an interest in theology and philosophy, this book is recommended. The bibliography includes: Dante, Goethe, Plato, Prabhavananda, Tillich, and Virgil, and more obscure writers. Note: As an indication of the times, the reference for Friedrich Schiller is the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Raylan (Book 3) by Elmore Leonard ***

Raylan Givens is a US Marshall assigned to northern Kentucky. The novel reads like three novellas stitched together. The first is about Layla, a transplant nurse who steals kidneys, followed by Carol Conlan, a tough, coal-company negotiator who includes murder as one of her tactics, and finally, Jackie Nevada, a college student and professional poker player. There is also Delroy who recruits strippers to rob banks for him. Everyone is armed and shoots to kill.

Raylan is a caricature, a movie role, and the crimes are novel. Many of Elmore Leonard books became books, and I get the impression that this might be better on the screen than on the page. (Raylan was the protagonist of a TV series.) The body count is too-many-to-count, but the narrative is more comedy than drama because people die quickly with a minimum of pain and suffering—or description.

An interesting dialogue between Carol Conlan, Ivy League lawyer, and Boyd, dim-witted local who is her gofer and stooge…
What he said was, “You know you ended a sentence with a preposition? You said, ‘She’s here in a nursing home we’re paying for’”
“Caught being ungrammatical.” Carol staring at his serious face. “How should I have said it?”
“She’s here in a nursing home,” Boyd said, “for which we’re paying the costs.”
Aside from the grammar rule being “something up which with I will not put,” this is out of character for Boyd who is otherwise a sincere simpleton, and the book which is mostly dialect, reminiscent of Mark Twain.

Two trivial things bothered me. The first was my problem. Each time I see UK, I think United Kingdom, aka England, but in this context, it refers to University of Kentucky. The book ended before I acclimated to this ambiguity. The other I only mention because this is a HarperCollins book: “a phone number in black marker witten on the palm, before it was smudged with blood.” WITTEN?

Raylon is cool under fire and never without a clever reply in backwoods Kentucky patois. Anyone interested in mayhem and murder will enjoy this collection of stories.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella *****

Laura Lington is at her 105-year-old great aunt Sadie’s funeral when her aunt’s ghost appears and convinces Laura she needs to stop the funeral and find aunt Sadie’s necklace. Thus, Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella opens to a madcap adventure of romance, mystery, and intrigue. Aunt Sadie might be 105 years old, but her ghost is stuck in the 1920s.

Not only is Laura being bossed around by a ghost, but her business partner has deserted her to sun on the beach with her boyfriend in Goa. Before the reader could become attached to this hard luck story, Linda proves to be her own worst enemy by responding to each challenge with a fabricated story that exacerbates her troubles. For example, when she decided to stop the funeral, she fabricated her aunt’s murder. She does this so often, I more often want to slap her upside the head rather than give her my sympathy.

The book borders on the historical genre and includes many details of the roaring twenties.
“My face is covered in pale powder, with a spot of rouge on each cheek. My eyes are heavily outlined in black kohl. My lids are smeared with a lurid green paste, which came out of a Bakelite case. I still don’ know exactly what’s on my eyelashes: some weird lump of black goo which Sadie called “Cosmetique.” She made me boil it up in a frying pan and then smear it all over my lashes.”
I loved the story and the resolution except for one point. The author believes old people really feel young inside. “They’re all in their twenties inside.” This is much like the nonsense that there is a thin person inside each heavy one. The foolishness is naïve, prejudice of thin, young people. I have retired and have no interest in reliving my 20s. The arrogance of youth and health is nothing to be proud of and mars this otherwise wonderful book.

Whether you like a good mystery where everything is revealed in the end and the bad guys get their comeuppance, or you are enamored with the culture and styles of the roaring twenties, this is the book for you.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Camino Island by John Grisham *****

John Grisham made his reputation writing legal thrillers. Camino Island is about a heist of the original manuscripts for F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. As with his other novels, the action opens with black and white—good and evil—opposed in righteous battle, but by the end, the colors and positions blur to a murky gray.

Five men stage a clever heist from Princeton’s rare book collection. Two are immediately caught by the FBI. A remaining partner murders another. One leaves the country. That remaining thief does his best to turns the stolen goods into cash.

The insurance company traces the manuscripts to Bruce Cable, a bookseller on Camino Island. They hire, Mercer Mann, a struggling author with connections to Camino Island, to get close to Bruce Cable.

As a background to the main action of retrieving the manuscripts, a collection of authors talks about the publishing business: publishers, agents, sellers, book tours, and, of course, authors. The authors divide themselves into good and bad; literary and commercial; successful and struggling; drunk and sober.

Myra Beckwith writes romance/pornography. She was very prolific and commercially successful.

Her partner: Leigh Trane were one beautiful literary novel, which no one bought and is struggling with her next one.

Mercer Mann is like Leigh Trane: One well-received novel and years of writer’s block
.
Bob Cobb is too drunk to write anything acceptable to his agent or published. Andy Adam is also a previously successful writer, but too drunk now.

Amy Slater is a commercial success with vampire novels.

Jay Arklerood is a brooding poet and frustrated literary star.

The list goes on and on with clever dinner parties, allusions to sex, and plenty of gossip and sarcasm.

There is even a list of advice to writers:
1. No prologues
2. Not too many characters
3. Not too many big words
4. Use quotes for dialogue
5. Looks for sentences and scenes to cut

Let’s call this a writer’s procedural. As a writer, I enjoyed it, and as a John Grisham fan, I also enjoyed it.

I consider the distinguishing feature of Grisham’s writing is his ambivalent endings. As in his legal novels, the conclusion is not a victory for the virtuous and punishment for the evil, but a real-world realization that life goes on and justice requires compromise and acceptance.

Even though this is not a legal procedural, John Grisham fans will not be disappointed. The characters and complexity are there. The author delivers the procedural details readers expect in the mechanics of writing, publishing, and rare book collecting, instead of legal issues. One might imagine, the author has left the legal profession so long ago, that this is now the world where he has the necessary expertise to write in his style.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mercies in Disguise by Gina Kolata ****

Mercies in Disguise by Gina Kolata is two books. First, the science journey to understand Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker (GSS) syndrome and related diseases. Two Nobel prizes were awarded along the way. Second is about a family's challenges with this hereditary disease, which strikes mid-life and is invariably fatal after a long downhill deterioration.


First the science story: GSS, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), Mad Cow Disease, and Scrapie (sheep and goats) are a family of diseases that are both contagious and hereditary. In the case of contagious transmission, exposure to the contagion and disease symptoms are separated by years or decades. In the case of inheritance, symptoms do not appear for similarly long times.

Ultimately, the diseases are not caused by any living disease agent. Not bacteria. Not viruses. Nothing that contained DNA or RNA. This was a totally new disease mechanism. A protein which is now called a prion. The genetic mutation for GSS was discovered through two years of DNA sequencing. Today, it could be done in two days.


While people can now be tested for these diseases, there is no cure in sight.


Second, the people story. If someone is identified with GSS, they will suffer a debilitating, fatal disease in middle age, and have a 50% chance of passing this disease on to their children. While there is no cure, science offers some alternatives for couples who would like to have children.


The couple can become pregnant and screen for GSS, much the same as couples screen for Downs Syndrome. If the baby has GSS, the couple can choose to terminate the pregnancy or not. The other alternative is IVF. In this case, before the embryo is implanted, it can similarly be screened and only implant those embryos without the GSS mutation.


Much of the drama of the second part deals with conflicts among the options provided by science and the dictates of religions. As if to emphasize the impact of religious doctrines, the couple is mixed Christian and Jewish. The families seem to have the same problems with the mixed aspect of the union as the genetic screening and terminations.


The first part of the book will appeal readers interested in the workings of medical research. The second part of the book is all about difficulties when religion and science offer conflicting alternatives. The book is helpfully divided into two parts for readers who are only interested in one of these two stories.


 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Harry Potter (Book I) by J K Rowling ***


Revisiting Harry Potter after two decades, left me surprised by its fame and fortune. The author once subsisted on government assistance and is now worth about one billion dollars. The protagonist (Harry Potter) is oddly passive, being tossed from one situation to another with little personal concern or contribution to the outcome. The book is a collection of elements from mythology and popular culture: British boarding schools, witches on broomsticks, dittany a medicinal plant from Crete, Cerberus the three-headed dog, and Nicolas Flamel, the famous alchemist.

Harry Potter starts as an infant, who somehow defeats the Voldemort. This sets a trend of unexpected and unexplained victories. Harry is a champion Quidditch player through no fault or effort on his own. He moves though the story with little knowledge of the danger, protected by a collection of protectors from Hagrid and Dumbledore to Hermione and Ron. With his vault of gold in Gringotts, he is the epitome of a “trust fund” child.

Harry position as a hapless passenger in his life’s voyage is supported by the third-person point of view that is nearly omniscient. When rare feelings are disclosed they are ascribed to a group than to Harry individually.
“So now they had something else to worry about…”
The book runs out a steam at the end and finishes in a flurry of clichés.
“As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

Friday, September 1, 2017

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez *****

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published in 1963, is a classic of Latin American Literature and Magic Realism. The author received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. What can I add?

This is a long book, a cross between Gulliver’s Travels and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It covers a hundred years of history, but you can read it without knowledge to the actual events. Reality and magic are seamlessly mixed. Six generations of characters share a handful of names and many live over one hundred years. I found the book disorienting and fascinating.

The book starts with the founding of Macondo in the jungle at the edge of a swamp. In the beginning, the village was idyllic.
“We are so peaceful that none of us has died even of a natural death. You can see that we still don’t have a cemetery.”
Next came a series of rebellions between the conservatives and the liberals.
“Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night…”
Next came a period of prosperity and technological progress.
“How wonderful! We have a telegraph office in Macondo now.”
Finally came the colonization by the banana company. Everything ends with disaster, destruction, and death.

Most of the characters lived solitary lives, seemingly trapped in their personal world of magic. One lady corresponds with invisible doctors; a man dedicates his life to translating incomprehensible writings. Most relationships are fleeting and fraught. Engagements outnumber marriages. Most births are from short-term relationships. Women tend to be virgins.
“The women in this house are worse than mules.”
Men tend to focus on prostitutes (women who are hungry) or affairs. Relationships are temporary. Solitary and solitude describe everyone.

Much of this solitary behavior is ritualized and futile. One character makes intricate gold fishes, only to melt them down to have material to make some more.
“…the hereditary vice of making something just to unmake it.”
The book is full of astute observations about European manner.
“[She] was the only mortal creature in that town full of bastards who did not feel confused at the sight of sixteen pieces of silverware [at a place setting] …so many…were not meant for a human being but for a centipede.”
“she did not understand the relationship of Catholicism with life but only its relationship to death as if it were not a religion but a compendium of funeral conventions.”
This is a book to read and enjoy. Here are some of the author’s thoughts on literature:
“The world must be fucked up, when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.”
“…literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people.”
“[He] dedicated himself to peruse the manuscripts…with so much more pleasure when he could not understand them.”

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Library of Light and Shadow by M J Rose ***

The Library of Light and Shadow by M J Rose

Delphine Duplessi is a daughter of La Lune, a member of a long line of witches, each with their own individual magick. Her talent is drawing people’s secrets and futures when she is wearing her satin blindfold. Even under ordinary circumstances, she is sensitive to feelings and intentions by seeing auras. These capabilities bring her more difficulties than benefits. For example, her visions lead her to abandon her one true love and do not help her locate Nicholas Flamel’s ancient book of alchemy.

Delphine accidentally creates a shadow drawing standing over her true love, Mathieu, covered with his blood with the knife in her hand. To prevent this and save his life, she breaks up with him and leaves him in Paris and moves to New York. The curse of all daughters of La Lune is that they may only have a single love. This sacrifice to save him means she will never love anyone. The is the first mystery.

She kept a diary of her time with Mathieu and rereads her romantic and sexual encounters as consolation for her loveless existence. Warning: some of the sex scenes are explicit.

The second mystery is to find the book of alchemy hidden in a castle owned by a famous opera star. She uses her blindfold to draw shadow pictures of the castle. While she finds a famous painting (should be in the Louvre) and a hidden opium den, the pictures never lead her to the missing book.
In the end, I found the revelations of both mysteries to be predictable.

This is a Simon and Shuster book, so I feel it is fair game to point out inconsistencies that the editors should have fixed.

  1. While she is sensitive to almost everyone’s feelings, she completely misses that his fiance’s family (in 1920s New York) is anti-Semitic.
  2. When she arrives in France at La Harve, she quickly drives north to Cannes. Today Cannes is a 12-hour drive south of La Harve.
  3. Having been away from Mathieu for five years (about 2,000 days), she bemoans a 6,000-day absence.

If you are interested romance and an occult mystery, this is the book for you.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Half-Life by Frank Close ****

Bruno Pontecorvo was an important twentieth-century physicist, a student of Enrico Fermi, a member of the Manhattan Project, and central to neutrino research and the development of the Standard Model of particle physics. You might have two responses to this information. First, you might ask, “Standard Model? What is that?” In that case, this biography written by a physicist is not for you. The author assumes at least a passing familiarity with for quantum mechanics and particle physics. Second, you might ask, “Why I haven’t I heard of him?” or even, “Why didn’t he receive a Nobel Prize.” In this latter case, Half-Life by Frank Close is the book you’ve been looking for.

Bruno Pontecorvo escaped the Fascists in Italy by going to France. He escaped the German invasion of France, by going to the United States. He avoided the xenophobic Americans by moving to Canada. After World War II, he took British Citizenship and moved to England to avoid McCarthyism. Then, in 1950 while on vacation with his family in Italy, he defected to the U.S.S.R. with his Swedish wife Marianne, and three sons, Gil, Tito, and Antonio.

The first job he had in the United States was prospecting for oil in Oklahoma during the war.
“One-day Bruno was driving a truck full of geophysical instruments… the police became suspicious when they noticed the array of unusual instruments… they realized he wasn’t American and exclaimed, “Enemy alien!” … the police, who thought he was reaching for a gun, immediately immobilized him… the police explained that he had risked being killed.”
Soon afterward he moved to Canada.

Following Pontecorvo’s defection, the British and American security services examined their files in detail uncovering many humorous-in-retrospect incidents. In one case, a British file warned of the dearth of British citizens on the Canadian part of the Manhattan Project. However, history showed that the only British citizen was a Russian spy. In another case, they questioned a British intelligence officer for not consulting the Italians about Pontocorvo’s history as a member of the Communist Party.
[he sighed that] in 1943 Britain had been at war with Italy, so “consultation would have been rather difficult.”
On the science side of the story, there was a mystery for 40 years about the detection of neutrinos from the Sun. I remember reading periodic science stories about, first the building of bigger detectors, and then discovering a shortage of observed neutrinos. Pontecorvo ultimately helped to solve this mystery by explaining how some solar neutrinos changed on their way to the detectors. This was the first I’ve read about the solution to this problem.

This book was more of a history than a biography as there were few personal stories. One anecdote demonstrated how scientists view the world. Pontecorvo hypothesized that there were more beautiful women in Paris that Marseilles. He immediately suggested an experiment. “Just count the number of plain women that pass before an attractive one appears.” He was eighty at the time.

If you have an interest in the high-energy physics in the latter part of the twentieth century, and the cold war, this is the book for you.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What do you care... by Richard Feynman ****

What do you care about what other people think? by Richard Feynman is billed as a sequel to Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman. Unfortunately, like many sequels, it is a disappointment. Surely you're joking is a classic and anyone interested in science should read this. It is undoubtedly one of the best books about the ethics and ethos of science.

If you are not familiar with Feynman, briefly he was a brilliant physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Caltech, and received a Nobel Prize.

This book divides into three parts. The first is the sequel the Surely you're joking with vignettes from Feynman's life, notably about his courtship and marriage to his first wife, who died very young. If you enjoyed, the first book, you enjoy this also.

The second section is a small collection of letters to and from Feynman.

 The third section chronicles his participation on the Presidential Commission that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. This is a combination of Faynmen stories like Surely you're joking and a report on the disaster. I personally consider it to be the definitive report. It is what I recall.

The Challenger section is also a nostalgic piece of a time when people trusted scientists and news reporters were interested in the truth.

If you've already read Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman, this is an enjoyable addendum. The other reason to read this book is for the excellent discussion of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with some advice for technical managers.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore *****

NIGHTMARES. True-story horror. More nightmares. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore tells the story of poor, young women hired to paint radium (glow-in-the-dark) dials. They received radiation poisoning with no relief or protection from the government or their employers. Radiation poisoning is horrific - pain, disintegrating bones, cancer, and disfigurement.

The company commissioned an early investigation that identified radium poisoning as the problem. The company suppressed the report and instructed the managers to deny any risk and maintain an atmosphere of confidence.
"An atmosphere of confidence is just as contagious as one of alarm and doubt."
Arrayed against the women were more than just the companies making glow-in-the-dark alarm clocks (I had one when I was young.) There was a big pre-FDA medical treatment industry dosing people with radium in many forms. In addition, the military used these dials in many applications from watches for infantry to controls for avionics.

The case dragged on until the women were elated just to have the moral victory that declared the company was at fault. Most received no compensation and no one was punished.

More? The laws didn't really change until Eben Byers, "a world-renowned industrialist and playboy," died of radium poisoning. The Chicago Times wrote:
"The shoot to kill when it comes to cattle thieves in Illinois, and fish and fowl are safeguarded by stringent game laws, but womenfolk come cheap."
Imagine the tobacco cover-up: deceit, disinformation, and delay. The radium industry killed fewer people, but the arrogance and behavior were similar. Well researched and thorough. The author tries to end on a positive note, but the facts prevent this. Read it if you dare.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury ****

Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is more a short story collection than a novel. Bradbury's low opinion of the human race (Americans) is demonstrated as different stories replay historical injustices such as the genocide associated with colonization, book burning (which he visits at length a few years later in Fahrenheit 451), Jim Crow era injustices, and ultimately the end of life on earth.
"What about the rocket? What about Minnesota?"
...
"That's right. Nothing. Nothing at all anymore. No more Minneapolis, no more rockets, no more Earth."
As was common for many early Science Fiction writers, Bradbury tends to get on a soapbox.

In "And the moon be still as bright" published by Standard Magazine, 1948, the target is religion.
"[Martians] knew how to blend art into their living. It's always been a thing apart for Americans... Art was something you took in Sunday doses, mixed with religion, perhaps."
"Yes. [Martians] knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other."

In another piece, Bradbury satirizes Jim Crow laws with blacks all leaving for Mars.
"I can't figure why they left now. With things lookin' up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? ... more and more states passin' anti-lynching bills ... They make almost as good money as a white man."
For all Bradbury's enlighten views, he suffered from one blind spot, along with many of the early SF writers. Women. In considering the heroic male colonists, he dismisses the women with a single line.
Everyone knew who the first women would be.
I'm pretty sure he did not mean scientists.

This is a classic from the 50s, but I wouldn't move it to the top of my list.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Spirits United by Alice Duncan ****

It's 1924 and Daisy Gumm Majesty's fiance Detective Sam Rotondo has accompanied her to the Pasadena Public Library to resupply her family of voracious readers. This quotidian outing is interrupted by the discovery of a murdered librarian among the biographies.

In addition to being a delightful cozy mystery, Spirits United by Alice Duncan is a well researched historical novel. Of the many library books mentioned, I found the mention of the up and coming Virginia Wolff, Edith Wharton,  and Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, three of the more interesting.

Daisy is interested in the next presidential election, as that will be her first presidential ballot.

Of the many fashion notes, including lots of different hats, was Daisy approval of all the 1920s fashion except the bust flatteners required by the popular straight-line styles.

Daisy was quite progressive for 1924.
"Sam didn't care much for Harold... a peach of a guy and one of my very best friends... Harold was a homosexual. It wasn't Harold's fault."
"I didn't like the notion of small animals sacrificing their lives so I could wear their fur."
"We knew what married folks did with each other. And I also knew ways to avoid pregnancy until we decided to have children."
There were many cars: Chevrolets, Hudsons, and even a Stutz Bearcat, plus washing machines with wringers, iodine antiseptics, mimeograph machines, and mascara.
"You see, that black strip is the mascara itself... You wet the brush, rub it on the black strip, and then apply the brush to your eyelashes."
This is a delightful cozy mystery with food by Daisy's Aunt Vi, an excellent cook, and the fashions by Daisy herself, an accomplished seamstress. An enjoyable read, highly recommended.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan *****

Nina Redmond’s branch library closed and the main library is more interested in multimedia and the Internet than books. Whether she wants to move into the book-free future or not, there is little chance the new administration will offer her a job. The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan is a romance about Nina’s new adventures, life, and love.

The “Bookshop on the Corner” is a mobile bookshop, and much of the story is a paean to books and readers, with references to specific books and the joys and transformational qualities of reading. With the is an occasional nod to poetry, the emphasis is on fiction and novels. There is even a comment on the evil of banning books.
“You know,” he said, “when my parents were little, books were banned…”
The secondary theme is the idyllic life in the Scottish Highlands.
“[Kirrinfief] was an actual community, not just a long row of houses full of people who happened to live next to each other. There was a difference, and she had simply not realized it before.”
“…up here in the peace and the wilds of the great valleys and deep lochs of Scotland she had found something that suited her, that soothed her soul”
When someone in the village needed help, many people got together because “It needed doing, that was all.”

Since this is a HarpersCollins book, I feel justified to complain about edit fail. When Nina arrives in Kirrinfief Scotland, “She took out her phone regardless and check it. No signal.”

However, the next day, in an even more remote location, “She took a selfie of herself with the lambs behind her and sent it… Her roommate immediately replied.”

Somehow, overnight, this sleepy Scottish village was miraculously online.

This is a heartwarming tale of books and small towns. An enjoyable tale for all book lovers.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Cat's Pajamas by Ray Bradbury ****



The Cat's Pajamas by Ray Bradbury is a short story collection with a mixture of stories from the post-WWII decade mixed with stories from the first years of the 21st century. In his introduction, Bradbury discusses his short stories as metaphors. The core of each story is a metaphor. For example, The House (1947) compares marriage with a home improvement project.
“All married life you build – build egos, build houses, build children.”
Hail to the Chief (2003-04) imagines a dozen U.S. Senators gambling away the United States at an Indian casino.

The Cat’s Pajama’s (2003) is a love story in the style of O’Henry about two strangers who meet when they both try to rescue the same cat.

Sixty-Six (2003) is a story of cultural appropriation.

All My Enemies are Dead (2003) and The Completist (2003-04) are also surprise endings in the style of O’Henry. The first about friendship and growing old, and the other about parenting and growing old.

Most of the older stories hold up well, though We’ll Just Act Natural (1948-49) dates itself with the inclusion of phoning time ’to check if the clock is correct. I found the newer stories more engaging.

The twenty short stories vary between surprise endings reminiscent of O’Henry and enigmatic ones reminiscent of The Tiger, or The Lady? An enjoyable read in all cases.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Nature of Plants by Dawson & Lucas *****

An encyclopedic sourcebook on plant life. The Nature of Plants by Dawson & Lucas groups plants by environment: dry, wet, cold, etc. Additionally, special consideration is afforded to parasites, symbiotes, fire, salt, and the relationship with animals. There is also an excellent chapter on single-cell plants and another on evolution. Each chapter on a particular class of plants surveys those plants by specific worldwide geographic areas.

Not all photosynthesis is the same. Most plants use C3. Plants that need to conserve water use CAM, and plants that must endure high temperatures (such as desert ephemerals) use C4.

The largest family of flowering plants are daisies (Asteraceae) but may be displaced by orchids (Orchidaceae) which are now over 30,000 species.

What I call chaparral in California is also called maquis (French), matorral (Spanish), kwongan (Australia) or fynbos (South Africa).

The book would be even better if it had some maps, as geography is central to the information. The authors also have a tendency to use technical language without accompanying explanation.

There is a very interesting discussion of flower's relation to pollinators. Bees are red-green colorblind, so their flowers tend to be yellow or blue. Flowers for nighttime pollinators such as bats and moths tend to whites. Insects get the fragrant flowers and birds, with color vision, but no smell, get the brightly colored ones.

Did I say encyclopedic? This is the book for plant biology, ecology, geography, and evolution. An excellent resource for students and writers. Lavishly illustrated with full-color photographs throughout. (One caveat: the author supports climate change deniers - one place.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman ****

I was raised on Edith Hamilton's Mythology which will release its 75th anniversary edition in September 2017.  Mythology can be presented extensively (short descriptions of as many characters and stories as possible) or intensively (a few topics in depth). Edith Hamilton tended towards the former, while Neil Gaiman tends toward the latter.

While Greek Mythology has a vast pantheon, Norse Mythology tends to revolve around Odin, Thor, and Loki with an emphasis on tall tales, reminiscent of Paul Bunyon. The stories are full of huge appetites, powerful weapons, and supernatural ship and animals.

My biggest surprise was Loki. Loki is a shapeshifter and a trickster. I thought him to be similar to Coyote in the mythology of the American Southwest, and Fox is many other traditions. However, I discovered Loki to be much darker. It starts with Thor. When something goes wrong, his first thought is that it's Loki's fault. However, Loki is more sinister than just stealing Thor's hammer. Loki causes so much death and destruction that the gods ultimately punish him with eternal bondage and torture.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman makes a nice companion, as Edith Hamilton's classic emphasizes Greek and Roman mythology with the briefest coverage of Norse mythology. 


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin ****

A novel about the gossip and scandal surrounding a short story of gossip and scandal recounting the original gossip and scandal. A non-fiction novel about the popularizer of the non-fiction novel. The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is a Russian nesting doll of Truman Capote and New York City high society in the 60s and 70s.

The main characters, Truman Capote and his glamorous swans, are people raised in modest circumstances who moved to New York City and hit it big with the attitude
"I'm different. I'm special. I'm more."
Truman Capote coupled this arrogance with a disdain for his roots.
"No one else in that dusty Alabama town knew what a writer was."
This success is shown to be coupled with a private desperation.
"It's not easy, you know, trying so hard to-to act as if everything is just fine."
The women subscribe to pre-feminist doctrines.
"Men, the dear boys, did need to be taken care of, and American women were particularly bad at that, so intent on having their own fun."
The story presents an almost humorous view of the super-rich. Babe Paley was served on her own private china in hotels which stocked it just for her, and her newspapers were ironed.

In the end, this is a cautionary tale of fame and fortune.
"Because being rich, she'd found out, wasn't really that much fun."
Like a Greek tragedy all the proud fall into an abyss of death, despair, and loneliness.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody ****

It's 1926 and Kate Shackleton has taken her niece Harriet for a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody mixes the idyllic small village atmosphere with murder. Murders actually.

They stay are a deceased aunt's house. Ten years previous the owner of a public house had been murdered in front of his establishment. Someone was tried and hung for the murder, but the aunt went to her grave believing that the wrong man was convicted.

In addition, a local farmer was poisoned. Reminiscent of the previous murder, everyone agrees on the suspect, motive, and means.

As the astute reader of mysteries will expect, neither turns out to be the true culprit.

A delight cozy mystery with enough delight in the British countryside and surprising plot twists.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning ****

Imagine that your mother has died and your father has an affair with your mother's illegitimate half-sister, who is the same age as you. This is the story of Martha Jefferson told in the historical novel: Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning. The half-sister is Sally Hemings, an enslaved person, given to Thomas Jefferson by his father-in-law. This is the same Thomas Jefferson that authored the Declaration of Independence and was the third president of the United States, but this book is about his daughter Martha. The "affair" lasted until Thomas Jefferson died.

Beyond this strained family situation, the time period is the 18th century. Women vow to obey and serve their husbands. Pregnancy brings the risk of either mother or child dying. Martha lost several children and her mother and sister in childbirth. Regardless, she had eleven children. As Thomas Jefferson appears to have understood, a doctor's treatment ould bring death as well as cure. This describes a life of privilege. The situation for enslaved people is unspeakably worse.

The book with its undertones of emancipation for enslaved people and rights for women often seems quite modern.  When faced with a public scandal, Thomas Jefferson realizes that any response would just fan the flames and increases the bad publicity.

Martha would be comfortable in the 21st century. She notices the asymmetry of marriage vows, the many explicit and subtle ways enslaved people are disenfranchised. She is concerned about families being broken up, enslaved women being raped, the arbitrary punishment meted out to satisfy the psychological needs of the white people and independent of any action be the enslaved people.

The author reconciles Martha's "woke" understandings and the historical record by presenting her a powerless, frustrated victim.

In the author's note at the end, she asks,
"Were there happy endings for anyone? You decide."
For me, I found the story to be a tragedy, an underserved tragedy without catharsis. The lesson I took away was not to be born in the 18th century.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally ***

There is a broad spectrum between fiction and non-fiction. Historical fiction is somewhere in the middle. Some historical fiction is predominantly fiction drawing on the historical record primarily for the setting. [Disclosure, I am writing a novel like this set during the Thera explosion of the Minoan era on Crete.] Other historical fiction moves very close to non-fiction with historical figures as the main characters. Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally is of the latter type, focusing on Elizabeth Balcombe, a friend of Napolean during his exile on St. Helena. This is certainly a challenge as there is much published, both fiction and non-fiction about Betsy, including other memoirs.

I found this novel to read much like non-fiction, and thought it might have been more enjoyable if I had been a better student of Napolean. In fact, I didn't know where St. Helena was located until I read this book.