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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Mysteries, No. 1) by Louise Penny | LibraryThing

Audiobook:  I almost quit listening to this book right in the beginning.  I wasn’t sure where it was going, but the quality of the writing was much better than average so I kept on.  Good thing. It’s a very interesting book, although I must say I didn’t care much for Gamache’s treatment of his new team member, Nicole.  It appeared that he was only interested in a lackey at the feet of the master, rather than an independent thinker, a quality he called arrogant. But that’s OK, one doesn’t have to like the characters.

You can read summaries of the plot all over the place;  no need to be redundant here. I liked the use of the painting providing clues and being at the heart of the dead artist’s relationship to the community. Some interesting details of archery and painting and a nice start to a series that I will certainly follow.  

Not to mention fun details of Quebecois tensions with regard the “English.”  “Quebec works in reality, just not on paper.”  That was the response to a character complaining about the loss of rights to the English who live in Quebec, the French seemingly running the show.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Raid and the Kid by Harri Nykanen | LibraryThing

Nykanen is a Finnish writer of noir.  I stumbled on his name in a review of other Finnish authors and thought I would give him a try.  Despite its 280 pages, it felt like a novella.

Raid is an assassin who stumbles on a kid being chased by some South American drug runners.  The kid had found several kilos of cocaine  being smuggling in shipments of bananas. Son of the grocer where the bananas had been mistakenly shipped, the kid (who is much older than I would consider as a kid) decided to sell what he could, naively unworried about those who actually thought they owned the coke. Raid gets the kid out of his immediate predicament, but he knows they’ll be back so he decides to have the police get involved to take the heat of the kid and his family. Enter police Lt. Jansson who unwittingly has been investigating two murders seemingly unrelated to the coke.

The irony of this book is that it’s about 75% police procedural and really very little of the title character.  Not a problem, just an observation.  I would hope the author might have plans to develop a series around the police characters who, in the main, are far more interesting than Raid.  Fast, uncomplicated read. Sometimes complications can be a good thing.

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Organic, GMO and Industry and what "Natural" means

An excellent article by a scientist who started out defending organic food but after some research discovered some interesting history and facts. She includes some thoughts on what "natural" means. Some selective quotes below:


"I thought organic farming was based on evidence, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t designed by studying what would be best for the environment. On the contrary, to my surprise I found it’s roots were actually in biodynamic agriculture – a method that emphasizes spiritual and mystical perspectives on farming. What? How could I have missed such a point for a decade? The picture I was beginning to piece together was that being ‘organic’ was based on the idea that modern farming – industrial agriculture – was bad, and the old ways of farming were better. That whatever natural was, that was better."

"I began to question if there even was a ‘natural way to farm’? If natural was defined by, say, the exclusion of human activities, then surely there was nothing natural to farming. On the other hand, if we accepted humans as a part of nature, and our continued innovations as part of *our nature*, then all farming was natural. Saying that more traditional farming practices would be inherently better than those using more advanced technology wasn’t a concept that could be settled by a romantic appeal to nature. Only careful definitions of ‘better’, followed by observations, testing, and evaluation of evidence could tell us something about that."

The entire article is at:  http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/05/22/natural-illusions-biologists-failed-attempt-to-defend-organic-food/

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Meaningless evaluations

Whenever I go to have my car fixed, I'm treated to the inevitable request at the end of the service, to fill out a questionnaire on how they performed.  I also always get the admonition to be sure to give them 10 of 10 because anything below that is considered failing. If I have any issues, I need to talk with them, but not use the questionnaire to point out a deficiency

I recently spoke with someone in the hotel industry who said their company did the same thing.  Anything below a perfect score was failing.  I no longer fill out these questionnaires because it is apparent they are not being used to improve service, but rather to brag about how great they are.  After all, if you always get perfect scores from your customers how great you must be.

Evaluations should be used to find out what you are doing wrong so it can be fixed rather than to just get a pat on the back. I see this in grading papers as well. I try to use my evaluations to point out where students need to improve, what they need to do better, but students simply want the high points not necessarily to improve.  (I over-generalize about students, of course. There are many exceptions.  I find few in the business world, however.)

Personally, if I were running a business, I would want customers to be honest and then use the results to measure improvement over time.  My hotelier said they were used to fire staff who didn't get perfect scores for the business.  That's crazy and counter-productive. Evaluations need to be used for improvement not punishment.

In the meantime, I quit filling out the dumb things.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"The Ivy League is, of course, the preferred bleaching tub and charm school of the American oligarchy."

Full disclosure:  I'm an Ivy League grad.

The above is a quote from a fascinating essay by Mike Lofgren who decries the effects on government of what he calls the "Deep State", and intricate and symbiotic conglomerate of public and private institutions that, regardless of which party is in power and despite apparent gridlock, always manages to fund its pet projects.

You can read the entire essay at http://billmoyers.com/2014/02/21/anatomy-of-the-deep-state/

"Petraeus and most of the avatars of the Deep State — the White House advisers who urged Obama not to impose compensation limits on Wall Street CEOs, the contractor-connected think tank experts who besought us to “stay the course” in Iraq, the economic gurus who perpetually demonstrate that globalization and deregulation are a blessing that makes us all better off in the long run — are careful to pretend that they have no ideology. Their preferred pose is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well considered advice based on profound expertise. That is nonsense. They are deeply dyed in the hue of the official ideology of the governing class, an ideology that is neither specifically Democrat nor Republican. Domestically, whatever they might privately believe about essentially diversionary social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, they almost invariably believe in the “Washington Consensus”: financialization, outsourcing, privatization, deregulation and the commodifying of labor. Internationally, they espouse 21st-century “American Exceptionalism”: the right and duty of the United States to meddle in every region of the world with coercive diplomacy and boots on the ground and to ignore painfully won international norms of civilized behavior."