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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering by David P. Billington | LibraryThing

The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering by David P. Billington | LibraryThing: "A classic!

After reading this book I wanted to quit work and return to school to study civil engineering. Of course, I made the mistake of mentioning this to my wife, who fell into paroxysms of laughter, saying she had seen some of the stuff I had built at home, and there was no way she would ever go on a bridge that I designed.

Billington discusses the interrelationship of efficiency, economy, and aesthetics and how great engineering works combine all three of these to the exclusion of none. The great designers manage to balance beauty with simplicity and cost. Frankly, I found this book riveting (pun intended, although he really celebrates the use of concrete as opposed to steel) and never fail to look carefully at bridges with a new eye."

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Dark of the Moon (A Virgil Flowers Novel) by John Sandford | LibraryThing

Dark of the Moon (A Virgil Flowers Novel) by John Sandford | LibraryThing:

I do like this series better than the Sandford's long-running Davenport books, which has become a bit too redundant. This title is the first of the series. Virgil Flowers is with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (kind of a state FBI but with a totally weird name - it really exists.) He has has been sent by Davenport (head of the BCA who always makes cameo appearances in the Flowers' novels) to investigate the killing of a local physician and his wife. The murders have the feel of a revenge killing. On his way there, on the outskirts of town, he stops to watch a fire of the Judd residence. Judd had been hated by most everyone in the community and it's clear the fire is an arson; the amount of accelerants estimated to have been some 20 cans of gasoline used to get things going. That had me wondering. I've lit a pile of brush sprinkled with about a quart of gasoline and damn near singed my eyebrows when it went off. The idea of spreading gasoline around a house with pilot lights etc., and then lighting it makes me wonder how anyone could have done that and escaped injury.) As the investigation progresses, another man and his wife are killed and Virgil is scrambling to find a link between them. 

We briefly see the killings from the point-of-view of the killer, (totally unnecessary, I thought) identified only as Moon which may be a link to a Man-on-the-Moon party that had happened many years earlier or perhaps it relates to the victims all being staged to face to the east. No one knows, but one old senile woman keeps mentioning the man-on-the-moon.

Couple all of that with the DEA and a meth-lab bust, not to mention a local church devoted to a whites only message, a sheriff who wants to get re-elected, one suspect the sheriff is dating and another Virgil is sleeping with who happens to be the sheriff's sister, and you have an explosive mix.

I listened to this. Excellently read by Eric Conger.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts by Antonin Scalia | LibraryThing

Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts by Antonin Scalia | LibraryThing:

Justice Scalia has once again embarked on a defense of textualism, the theory of interpretation that argues one must look back at the original text and stick to the text when deciding a case. There is an enlightening debate between Judge Richard Posner and the book's co-author, Bryan Garner in the pages of The New Republic (see cites below,) which spilled over into several online blogs including the National Review Online.

All of us seek objectivity from the courts. That justices would want to base their decisions on some objective standard is laudable. Yet, we also want some common sense flexibility. Posner believes that Garner and are being obtuse if not disingenuous. Take the example of a statute that says, “ No person may drive any kind of vehicle in the park.” Now let’s say someone in the park is stricken with a heart attack. None of us would want to prohibit an ambulance from driving into the park, yet that’s a clear violation of the statute and a true textualist would *have* to permit prosecution of the driver, yet even Scalia and Garner refuse to go that far, so the line between true textualism and broader interpretation is variable indeed.

Garner and Scalia insist that legislative history and debate should not be a source for judges when making decisions, yet Posner show how Scalia has made exception to this dictum on numerous occasions. This, Posner suggest, hobbles legislatures and predisposes them toward smaller government. Well, duh, isn’t that already the predisposition of conservatives (I hesitate to align small government with conservatism since government has often grown exponentially during the tenure of supposedly and self-anointed conservative presidencies.) Ironically, one might argue that a textualist approach to the ambulance problem cited above would lead to more rather than less regulation since the legislature would be forced to create new regulations defining vehicular exceptions to the original rule. Yet, legislative history showing that the purpose of the legislation was to prohibit ambulances would certainly be on-point.

Context can also not be ignored. The word "draft" depends for its meaning on context. It could refer to curtains blowing in the wind; conscription during wartime, the preliminary sketch of a book; or even a bank note. Scalia and Garner insist that meaning will come from other text in the statute. Nonsense, says Fish. "No, it won’t. Take the sentence, “Let’s avoid the draft.” It could mean “let’s get out of military service” (a fourth meaning of “draft”), or it could mean “let’s go inside and diminish the risk of catching cold,” or it could mean (as spoken by a general manager of a professional sports team) “let’s bypass the unpredictability of the draft (a fifth meaning of draft) and trust in free agency,” or it could mean “let’s not do a draft of the bylaws (a sixth meaning of “draft”) but get right to the finished product.” The text does, as Scalia and Garner say, take it meaning from its purposive context, but the text won’t tell you what that purposive context is."

Scalia, in the meantime, has gone on the offensive. "Scalia denied that he uses legislative history in his decisions: “We are textualists. We are originalists. We are not nuts.”

Personally, in reading the decisions of Heller and MacDonald, and in listening to the oral arguments, it seemed to me that both sides were looking to original intent and legislative history for their own cherry-picking and from differing time periods, the mminority looking to the fear of slave rebellions and hence the need for militias in 1789 while the majority focused on the need for individual armament for blacks to defend themselves against mararauding whites after the Civil War. Posner, in his rebuttal, takes Scalia to taks for doing just that: " I said that “when he [Justice Scalia] looks for the original meaning of eighteenth-century constitutional provisions—as he did in District of Columbia v. Heller, holding that an ordinance forbidding people to own handguns even for the defense of their homes violated the Second Amendment—Scalia is doing legislative history.”

Stanley Fish, in his praise of the book, perversely also noted that the “thesis that textualism is the one mode of legal interpretation that avoids subjectivity and the intrusion into judicial realm of naked political preferences” is wrong. Fish also scolds Scalia, "in NFIB v. Sebelius, Scalia the justice rejects the canon Scalia the author defends — but there can be little doubt that Roberts has canon #38, or something very much like it, in mind when he writes, “every reasonable construction must be resorted to in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.”

Posner ends his review with, “Justice Scalia has called himself in print a “faint-hearted originalist.” It seems he means the adjective at least as sincerely as he means the noun.”

I wondered if Scalia was wise to embark on writing this book. It would seem that his theological canons make him a target for some serious textual parsing.

Regretfully, I fear that Michael Dorfman's comments may be closest to the mark, another validation of confirmation bias. "The core claim of Scalia and Garner is that textual originalism is determinate in a way that other interpretive methodologies are not. If that claim were true, one would expect to find that the votes of judges and Justices who describe themselves as textualist do not strongly correlate with their ideological views, while judges and Justices who reject textualism do vote in ideologically predictable ways. Yet in fact, all judges vote in ideologically predictable ways."

Me? I just want fairness, common sense, and to be left alone. But I sure love the debate. Reading the differing points of view has provided this old man with several very entertaining hours of pleasure.

Garner's response:,0,,0,> and Posner's response: 

 National Review's response to the Posner review.

Stanley Fish:

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Monday, October 28, 2013

The Accounting by William Lashner | LibraryThing

The Accounting by William Lashner | LibraryThing:

I seem to be reading a spate of books lately whose plots revolve around a man on the run, or hiding something, or looking for something, and he has to dig himself out of a hole he's dug for himself.  Not a bad thing, just that it's a well-worn device that usually works.

You know things are off to a good start when the narrator flies in to Las Vegas to check on an old friend and has to remember what signature he used at the bank to open the safe deposit box where cash and the gun was stored. He finds his old friend dead on the bed and some goons out to get him. Realizing that those the three friends had ripped off decades earlier have finally caught up to them, Jon Willing knows he has to abandon his family and disappear. It's not like he wasn't prepared.  But then as is typical, things go wrong, people aren't what he expected, etc.  It's hardly a spoiler to reveal that things work out in the end.  They always do, don't they?

One thing that kept niggling at the back of my mind was the relatively small amount of money involved.  Admittedly, when they stole it it would have been a lot, but after 25 years and with much of it gone, we're really not talking about much.  Nevertheless, this was a real page turner as the chapters flew by, Jon facing some new hurdle his naivete had failed to anticipate.

Shades of Harlan Coben

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Death Bed by Stephen Greenleaf | LibraryThing

Death Bed by Stephen Greenleaf | LibraryThing:

I'd swear sometimes reading Greenleaf that I was actually reading Ross MacDonald (a high compliment.) Paragraphs like: "She inclined her chin toward a chair that was camouflaged by a blue damask spread that lay over it like a shroud. I sat on it anyway and watched Mrs. Covington. Her skin was dappled from circulatory sloth. Bands of black cupped her eyes like nests. Her lips were dry and cracked. Lines of gray stretched through her hair like vapor trails. She was unlovely and knew it.." The phrase "dappled from circulatory sloth," is just so perfect at conveying an image and information. 

Here's another, "The floor made crackling noises beneath my feet, the cry of shrinking souls. I edged onto a stool. For the next five minutes the only sound I heard was the white noise of despair, made up of a lot of other people’s tones and a few of my own." 

There are few writers out there today that can equal those kinds of images. The plot fades into the background. It's nothing special. Thanner is hired to first find the son of a dying rich man. Then the case morphs into a search for Mark Covington, a paranoid reporter who has disappeared and who might have been working on a corruption story. There are kidnappings, ostensible kidnappings, m/f lust, old family secrets, etc. But it's the language that makes Greenleaf shine.

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Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566 And the Story of My Ancestor's Treasure Chest by Rien Poortvliet | LibraryThing

Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566 And the Story of My Ancestor's Treasure Chest by Rien Poortvliet | LibraryThing:

The year 1566 was tough for the Dutch. It included a plague, a great freeze, floods, and drought, not to mention a Spanish invasion. Dutch artist Rien Poortviiet has created a gorgeous volume of paintings (Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566 And the Story of My Ancestor's Treasure Chest, representing life as his research showed it to be during that year. He shows in Rembrandtesque detail what clothes people wore, how they got dressed, the misery of the poor, and numerous details of it daily life. For example, many cities had laws regulating the length of knives that could be worn -- perhaps society's first attempt at weapon control. (No doubt the Dutch Sharp Edge Association, also known as the Netherlands Rapier Association, protested vigorously.) The town would hang a wooden knife cut to the s proper length at the town gate so visitors could measure up.

Poortviiet revels in revealing the smallest details. He shows examples of engagement ring and the medallions that peasants their hats. Some were quite humorous; evidently the middle ages wasn't quite as scandalized by the scatological as we have become. Houses had no r house might be numbers, so your house might be the one three houses down from the red boot - the red boot being the sign of a local tanner, perhaps. Men going out for a beer would say, I'm going to pick up a circle," so naturally women getting together for needlework in the evening would have a "sewing circle."

Sanitation was unknown. Garbage and trash were thrown into the streets If a canal passed by the front of a house, it became the catchall of all the debris. Out houses were built over the canal, which was then used for rinsing dishes. It was, however, forbidden to burn deathbed straw within the city limits. Fire itself:: was a constant danger and the city strictly regulated the way houses could be built. Homes with tile or slate roofs were subsidized and, depending on the value of the house, the owner was required to have one or two leather pails on hand, One job of the fire chief was to make sure that there were open holes kept in the ice during the winter for fighting fires.

Traveling was dangerous. Wolves were common, as were robbers and cutthroats. Usually one could tell when approaching a city by the smell, and the sight of bodies hanging from trees. It was required that the condemned confess before being executed so torture was common and the devices used to extract confessions were ingeniously designed to be both beautiful and effective. They are rather vividly portrayed here. Executions were a form of entertainment and it was common for the entire family to attend. The town bailiffs income was derived from the number of criminals or malefactors he was able to torture or execute. (And we thought ticket quotas were bad!) Of course, it wasn't just criminals who got their dues, Anabaptists were also prime fodder for the rack and gallows.

In fact, 1566 was a year or great ferment in the church. The Reformation was beginning to take hold and the anti-idolaters were smashing church icons in a maddening attempt to vent their frustration against the government and the church. All this history is portrayed in hundreds of beautifully detailed paintings and sketches, each supplemented by short text. A magnificent volume.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A History of the Crusades Vol. I: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Volume 1) by Steven Runciman | LibraryThing

A History of the Crusades Vol. I: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Volume 1) by Steven Runciman | LibraryThing:

Steven Runciman in volume 1 of his History of the Crusades:The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem describes an 11th century that witnessed massive movements of peoples and political reorganizations. The Byzantine and Latin churches had parted company in 1054. The Turks were causing great distress among pilgrims who could no longer make the journey to Jerusalem. Until that time the Byzantine Empire, which stretched from Lebanon to Austria to Italy, had maintained a very prosperous and peaceful empire through the use of chicanery and trickery. War was to be avoided: it represented a confession of failure. It was considered shameful, a violation of Christian principles and simply wholesale murder. Occasionally, it could be condoned if against infidels. Pope Urban II and Alexius I, the Byzantine emperor, both looked for a way to heal the great rift and as luck would have it the Turks gave them the excuse they needed. Alexius put in a call to the Council at Piazenza for soldiers to fight the infidel Turks. This played into Urban's hands. He was looking for a way to heal the wounds in the church but also to bring the East under domination of the Roman patriarch. He had become increasingly concerned about the cult of the warrior promoted by the Norman code of chivalry and barbarian heritage. The Crusade would be an ideal way to channel this bellicose activity into an endeavor he could dominate.

He got more than he bargained for. Urban had promised grants of land (with him as suzerain, of course) to crusaders who were successful in battle in the East. Not just soldiers responded to the call. Peter, the Hermit, who preached approaching apocalypse, famines and mass destruction, in 1094 led 20,000 ruffians and brigands on a rampage through Hungary toward Constantinople. At Semlin a dispute arose between the locals and the people's crusade: 4,000 Hungarians were killed. Alexius was worried. He had assumed the soldiers he had asked for would take the southern route and would be a disciplined army. When the People's Crusade finally arrived in Constantinople he moved them through as rapidly as possible. They continued killing everything in the way, mostly Greek Christians. Finally, they were tricked into an ambush by the Turks who killed thousands. The French, German and Italian princes, who arrived later, were more disciplined. When they arrived at Alexius' headguarters they were met graciously, but cautiously, and asked to swear allegiance to Alexius. Reluctantly, they agreed. Generally, they were awed by the immense wealth of the Byzantines not to mention their generally higher level of culture.

Problems of greed and politics arose immediately upon their departure for Jerusalem. At Antioch, following a long siege, the Franks took the city but instantly argued over who was to control it. 

In the meantime, Alexius who was dismayed by the Franks' miserable treatment of the native Greek Christians whose protector he officially was, opened negotiations with the Egyptian Fatimids, who then ruled Palestine and who generally had been quite tolerant of native Christians and Jews. The Fatimids offered safe conduct for all pilgrims, but the Crusaders by this time saw Jerusalem within their grasp.
In July of 1099 the city fell. The massacre which followed was to sour relations between Moslems and Latin Christianity for centuries. The Crusaders murdered everyone in Jerusalem. The Moslems had been willing to accept the Franks as just one more factor in the tangled political environment of the Middle East, but the slaughter in Jerusalem became proof to them of bloodthirsty Christian fanaticism. Treatment of local Christians who had been sent out of Jerusalem before its fall was not much better. Local priests were tortured to reveal where they had hidden sacred relics of the Cross (they were reluctant to turn them over to a foreign patriarch.)

After 4 years of struggle the First Crusade ended with the creation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem under the leadership of Baldwin of Bologne, a penniless French knight who was to be a good king, but the Crusade had sown the seeds of mischief which would generate the undying enmity of the Moslem world.

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If Snow Hadn't Fallen (Lacey Flint Novels) by S.J. Bolton | LibraryThing

If Snow Hadn't Fallen (Lacey Flint Novels) by S.J. Bolton | LibraryThing:

This novella follows Bolton's first Lacey Flint book, Now You See Me. It's the perfect length and a marvelous short read. While it builds on events that occur in the first of the series, which had quite a twist at the end, this one could stand alone quite nicely.

Lacey happens to witness and be the first on scene to a devastatingly cruel attack on a man, a local, well-respected Pakistani surgeon.  He had been doused in petrol and  burned to death while being taunted by a group of five masked individuals.  While trying to save the man, she sees someone in black running away. Sirens frighten off the perpetrators.  The police have reason to believe he was killed by five local white thugs and this is nothing more than a hate crime.  Lacey is haunted by the crime and keeps seeing the cloaked figure visiting the site of the burning, but it manages to skip away mysteriously before she can confront it.

Excellent story.  My only quibble would be that having read the first novel, the time allotted between this event and her shocking story in the first novel just didn't seem long enough for her to be integrated back into the force.

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Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton | LibraryThing

Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton | LibraryThing:

" Normally, I remain skeptical when the killer targets a policeman, or the cop's personal history or family intervene into the plot. In this case, however, Bolton pulls it off. The events in Lacy's past become a way not just to link her with the killer, but also help to define who she is for the reader.

DC Lacey Flint is obsessed with serial killers. It's why she joined the force. The book begins with her failing to prevent the stabbing of a young woman who was attacked while Flint was fumbling for her keys in a hallway. She didn't see the attacker, a situation that doesn't impress the investigating officers. One of these happens to be DI Joe Joesbury.

An anonymous letter sent to a local newspaper points out the similarities between this killing and that of Jack the Ripper. (Oh, my God, I can hear you exclaim; not another one, but hold your disgust, Bolton handles this very well.) More I should not reveal lest I awake the spoiler police.

Bolton had written several stand-alone thrillers before beginning this series. I will have to take a look at some of them."

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett--Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles by William Prochnau | LibraryThing

Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett--Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles by William Prochnau | LibraryThing:

It didn't take long for the relationship between the press and the United States government to go sour in Vietnam. Already by the early sixties, reporters could easily see the discrepancy between what officialswanted everyone to believe and the obvious reality of what was happening.
One egregious example was the arrival of the Coor, an escort carrier that sailed up the river for 45miles to moor near Saigon. U.S. sailors and many helicopters were easily visible on deck to anyonewatching from the riverbank. The army newspaper Stars and Stripes had announced the Coor's
departure from San Francisco, even delineating what units were going. When reporters based in Vietnam mentioned the arrival in their dispatches, official Washington demanded to know where the leakwas. They thought all they had to do was pretend something wasn't true and it wouldn't be so.
Vietnam mentioned the arrival in their dispatches, official Washington demanded to know where the leak was. They thought all they had to do was pretend something wasn't true and it wouldn't be so. Reporters who simply noted the obvious were somehow considered unpatriotic.

The Diem family considered by those who knew them to be "bizarre," loved U.S. billions in aid but hated the reporters, too. Diem had a philosophical view himself, noting that if you invite a dog into the house you have to accept the fleas that come with it. The Vietnam War redefined the role of reporters. Malcolm Browne (see [book:Muddy Boots and Red Socks] learned - and taught subsequent journalists - I to always write what you
see; ihe embassy' could never be trusted to convey anything close to the truth. The administration - at least under Kennedy and early Johnson - tried to hide the war, and their denial that American troops were engaged in fighting was clearly a lie to anyone who was there. Often this contradiction led to disharmony between the news organizations and their field reporters. The establishment press, led by Joseph Alsop who made very careful, short visits that confirmed his preconceived views by only talking
to rear echelon types. Henry Luce took advantage of the American people's relative indifference, to promote their own Cold War agendas.

The on-site reporters' questioning of the war's conduct brought down the wrath of the power structure. The Diem family hated having their corruption exposed, and Madame Nhu made life very difficult for any reporter who dared to hint that she might be something other than what she wanted
portrayed. Kennedy was so infuriated by some of David Halberstam's reporting that he called the New York Times publisher to have Halberstam removed. Fortunately,' the president was ignored. 

When Charles Bailey of the Minneapolis Tribune, asked Ronald Ross, also of the Tribune how he should prepare for his tour of duty in Vietnam, Ross, who had been in Vietnam for some time, told him that he need read only [book:Catch-22], [book:The Quiet American], and [book:Alice in Wonderland]. The best friends of the correspondents were not the Noltings and Harkins and Diems, but the grunts and the officers out in the field, who could see what was happening and were dismayed by the lies their bosses were distributing.

The irony is that none of the reporters questioned whether the war should be fought. They were Cold Warriors. They wanted to win, but they could see that the United States had embarked on a flawed strategy. They were tired of being lied to and they resented - as did the grunts in the field - seeing the policy wonks and rear-guard spit-and-polish pansies lie about the obvious. (See also Neil Sheehan's
biography of John Paul Vann, [book:A Bright and Shining Lie].)

If Prochnau errs in this fascinating book, it is to attribute too much to the revolutionary nature of the
change in reporting the war. As Philip Knightley brilliantly showed in his history of lying during war ([book:The
First Casualty: from the Crimea to Vietnam : the War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth
Maker], the prevarication of the establishment had been the rule rather than the exception. Lying has always been endemic to those in power. Eisenhower never forgave the CIA for giving him false information leading to his humiliating public lie about Gary Powers and the U-2. Nor have things changed: Raymond Bonners Newes exposed the massacre at El Mozote led to his vilification as a liar until the truth was revealed after several years. (See [book:Weakness and Deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador]) A democracy must have a source of truth in order for those who vote to make valid judgments. Too often correspondents' on-the-scene reports are ignored or suppressed. Between 1901 and 1914, Frederic William Wile dispatched thousands of reports documenting the German war machine buildup, to no avail. (See [book:On the Front Lines: following America's foreign correspondents across the twentieth century] by Michael Emery.)

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Hoover Dam: An American Adventure by Joseph E. Stevens | LibraryThing

Hoover Dam: An American Adventure by Joseph E. Stevens | LibraryThing:

The Hoover Dam, an extraordinary engineering achievement of the thirties, was originally called the Boulder Dam because it was to span Boulder Canyon. This is ironic because the dam actually spans Black Canyon. The early assumption was that Boulder Canyon would be the better site, but early geological surveys revealed better foundation rock at the Black Canyon location ' by that time the decision had been made, the name Boulder had stuck to the project. That is, until Governor Wilbur of Nevada arbitrarily named it the Hoover Dam at the ceremonies that marked the beginning of the work - to a storm of protest. The name would switch back and forth between Boulder and Hoover until it officially became the Hoover Dam in 1947.

The political machinations to get the enabling legislation were as much a feat as the engineering. Arizona claimed the whole project was unconstitutional and filed suits in, federal court to stop the project. They worried probably accurately - that California wanted to steal all the water of the Colorado for itself. Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, fought the project for a more selfish reason: he owned hundreds of thousands of acres in a Mexican valley that might lose its source of water should it all be diverted by the dam to other locations. The sheer size of the project was staggering. It would be the largest dam on earth: 726 feet high and 650 feet wide at the base, a graceful but solid convex arch presenting its gravity mass to the enormous pressure of the water it held back. At the top, it was 45 feet wide and became a highway connecting Nevada and Arizona. In order to build the dam, water was detoured around the site through four massive fifty-foot high, concrete-lined tunnels through the mountain rock. More than a thousand feet long, the tunnels were engineering marvels in themselves. A 26-mile railroad was built to bring supplies to the site and town that had to be built to house the workers.

The contract for the dam was awarded just as the full impact of the 1929 stock market crash began to have effect. Unemployed men, desperate for work, flocked to 'Ragtown," located on the outskirts of Las Vegas, hoping to get a position working on the dam. Those who were hired faced miserable working conditions in spite of efforts by the contractor, Six Companies, to make conditions bearable. During July the average low temperature was 950, and in the bypass tunnels temperatures of 1400 were not uncommon. Heat exhaustion began killing people. Conditions improved somewhat following a report by company physiologists that the men were dying of dehydration. Thereafter, unlimited water was supplied with meals and carried to the men by water boys. The exhaustion produced by the extreme heat made the men lethargic and careless. Accidents became commonplace.

The work was dangerous enough without inattentiveness. Agitation by IWW recruiters brought about one short strike, but the plentiful supply of workers coupled with the shortage of jobs gave the company the upper hand. It did prod the supervisors to develop additional ways to reduce suffering. No one could control the weather, and the
summer of 1931 was particularly brutal. Temperatures averaged 12 degrees above normal all summer. Conditions did improve following completion of Boulder City, a federally financed city to house the workers.

The city was run with fascistic control by Sims Ely, who had been hired by the Bureau of Reclamation to make sure nothing happened that would embarrass the administration. They were frightened that the "anything goes" atmosphere of nearby Las Vegas would lead to all sorts of immoral behavior. Ely had total control over the police, all government actions, including judicial functions. He couldn't stop all the bootlegging without a small army, but he made the penalties for drunkenness so severe that one would have to think twice before drinking.Anyone caught intoxicated was immediately fired. To reinforce his edicts, he periodically issued press releases reminding the workers about the depression and the difficulty of finding a job should they lose their place on the dam. He also had a fetish about neatness, and if he found trash on someone's yard the offender was certain to receive a summons and a lecture. Occasionally, he acted as a one-man divorce court. If he suspected marital problems he would assign child custody and dissolve marriages. Under the reign of his ranger deputy (who, incidentally, had started his own gambling operation in Boulder), evictions ran as high as three per day, an astonishing figure given that fully one-third of the workforce had been evicted in one year. Complaining was held to a minimum - the job applicant list held 22,000 thousand names.

The dam was designed to last thousands of years. When viewed at night, all lighted up, it does convey the extraordinary testament to the many men who provided the fantastic effort to complete the domination of the river.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Abortion the Clash of Absolutes by Laurence H Tribe | LibraryThing

Abortion the Clash of Absolutes by Laurence H Tribe | LibraryThing:

The constitutional issues presented by the debate over Roe v Wade are fascinating. Lawrence Tribe reviews those questions in Abortion: Clash of Absolutes. Tribe is professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. He contends the debate revolves around two absolutes: the right of the fetus to life and the right of the woman to control her body.

This conundrum is unique to the 20th century. In early post-revolutionary America abortion was legal and common. The first law against abortion was not passed until 1821 when abortion was prohibited only after viability or movement (usually the 4th or 5th month). Most early abortion laws were intended to protect the mother. The death rate from abortions was as high as 30% in hospitals, but abortions continued to increase until by the mid-19th century it was estimated that there was 1 abortion for every 4 live births. (Ironically, it is now calculated that a woman is 23 times more likely to die from childbirth than from a 1st trimester abortion in the 1990s; hence it has been argued that the life of the pregnant mother is always in danger when compared to the risk of abortion.)

Aristotelian and Rabbinic traditional doctrine theorized the fetus was not human until "animation" (40 days for a male and 80 days for a female after conception). Animation was defined as "infused with a soul."

Abortion laws gradually became more restrictive during the early 20th century until, ironically, pressure from the clergy resulted in a relaxation of those laws in the early 60s. The measles epidemic and the thalidomide tragedies had forced many women to seek illegal abortions and the clergy were appalled by the result. They formed an organization to refer women to clinics where they could obtain safe abortions. Paradoxically, it was Governor Ronald Reagan who was one of the first governors to sign into law a bill permitting abortion on demand (1967).

After placing abortion in historical context, Tribe delves into its constitutional aspects, dealing with each argument in turn from all sides. It is again ironic (so much of the issue is) that Roe v Wade, considered by some a notorious example of judicial activism, was written by a conservative justice (Blackmun), under a conservative Chief Justice (Burger), who was appointed by a conservative president (Nixon), precisely to reverse the perceived avalanche of "activist" decisions.

Generally, the pro-abortion camp has based their constitutional argument on unenumerated (not explicitly stated) privacy rights found to be flowing from several on the Bill of Rights. Precedent includes other court decisions including Skinner v Oklahoma, 1943, which guaranteed the right to reproduce, i.e. the state could not interfere with the parental decision to have a child; and Griswold v Connecticut, 1965, which overturned a Connecticut law prohibiting the use of contraceptives.

Anti-abortion spokesmen, Judge Bork among others, have argued the right to privacy is no where stated in the Constitution; that abortion and the right of a woman to do what she wants with her body are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Tribe considers this reasoning flawed. If the right of privacy to control one's body is not firmly entrenched as a constitutional principle, then government could legally and constitutionally mandate abortion at some future date for some ostensibly socially desirable goal such as population control or eugenics. Such is currently the case in China.

This prospect is not so far-fetched as it may seem. For years states have forced the sterilization of mental defectives, and one must remember Justice Holmes' famous argument that "three generations of imbeciles are enough." In fact, the state of Virginia required forced, involuntary sterilizations of the "unfit" as late as 1972.

On the other hand, if privacy and a woman's right to chose become the predominant ideology, then government loses the right to control an individual's body and ultimate liberty resides with the individual.

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The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant | LibraryThing

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant | LibraryThing:

Absolutely fascinating book. 

The Primorye region of the Soviet Union is like an anomaly, existing at the confluence of arboreal forest and subarctic environments. It’s at the intersection of four distinct bio-regions. It’s home to a huge variety of species not found elsewhere: sturgeon the size of alligators, It pushes the limits of the four and attempts to classify the area by biologists have resulted in “marble-mouthed results.” Here’s Vaillant’s description: “Here, timber wolves and reindeer share terrain with spoonbills and poisonous snakes, and twenty-pound Eurasian vultures will compete for carrion with saber-beaked jungle crows. Birch, spruce, oak, and fir can grow in the same valley as wild kiwis, giant lotus, and sixty-foot lilacs, while pine trees bearing edible nuts may be hung with wild grapes and magnolia vines. These, in turn, feed and shelter herds of wild boar and families of musk deer whose four-inch fangs give them the appearance of evolutionary outtakes. Nowhere else can a wolverine, brown bear, or moose drink from the same river as a leopard, in a watershed that also hosts cork trees, bamboo, and solitary yews that predate the Orthodox Church. In the midst of this, Himalayan black bears build haphazard platforms in wild cherry trees that seem too fragile for the task, opium poppies nod in the sun, and ginseng keeps its secret in dappled shade…. It is over this surreal menagerie that the Amur tiger reigns supreme.”

Many of the “quintessential” cultural objects associated with North American Indians originated in this area and made their way across the Bering Strait to the Americas: the birchbark canoe, tepee, totem poles, bows and arrows, dog sled and kayak-style paddles. 
Lots of interesting material here beside the land itself and the hunt for a hungry tiger who has begun eating humans. It’s an area that is closer to Australia than Moscow, very close to the Sino-Russian border, how perestroika has affected the poor residents, 

The tiger, having been injured by a poacher, is no longer able to hunt and takes revenge (tigers are imbued with supernatural qualities by the locals,) in the area in far south eastern Russia around Sobolonye, described by Vaillant as “the last settlement at the end of a road that, when not buried in snow, can go from choking dust to sucking mud in the space of an hour... The place has the feel of a North American mining town circa 1925, only with fewer straight lines." Yuri Trush’s job is to track and kill the tiger. Politically, the area is isolated and forgotten. One postman described it as anarchic. Poachers seek to make a living off Chinese desire for tiger skins and testicles.

Valiant mixes in evolutionary theory with the story. To make it out of Africa early humans had to develop the brain power and skill to survive when faced with such a formidable foe. Ghosts of our ancestors abilities haunt and inform our responses. Richard Koss, a psychologist created a virtual savanna devoid of anything but thorn bushes, a boulder, and a rocky crevasse. He presented this to several American preschoolers and then introduced a lion into the virtual world and asked the children what they would do. One in six picked the boulder -- these would not have survived against the lion. The remaining 80% picked the thorn bush or crevasse.

The NYTimes reviewer compared this book to Moby Dick, “alternating a gripping chase narrative with dense explanations of the culture and ecology surrounding that chase. “Jaws” fans will recognize the dramatic strategy of keeping the beast offstage as much as possible to allow terror to fill in the blanks, as well as a certain lurid detail at the book’s end, which I won’t reveal.” High praise in my book.

I feel sorry for those who complained that the story dragged and there was not enough action in the tiger hunt. This is a wonderfully detailed examination of a culture and the effects of political and cultural changes on a people isolated from the rest of the world and what extreme poverty forces people to do to survive. It’s also the story of evolutionary competition between two apex predators. Non-fiction at its best.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Deadly Stillwater (McRyan Mystery Series) by Roger Stelljes | LibraryThing

Deadly Stillwater (McRyan Mystery Series) by Roger Stelljes | LibraryThing:

 "Rather bizarre mix-up in the contents of this book. I ordered it from Smashwords some time ago, read it thinking it was First Case which was the cover title, but the interior title said Deadly Stillwater and that does seem to be the content. This is not literature, but a solid police procedural of the investigation into the kidnapping two daughters: one that of local rich lawyer's daughter and the other that of the police chief. The kidnappers have planned meticulously, the FBI has been brought in, and everyone is stumped as the kidnappers seem to anticipate and drive their every move.

A minor quibble is that the amount of detecting they managed to do in a very short period of time (while searching for the buried girls) seemed unrealistic and driving between communities was done with the speed of light. Still, good story which moves right along."

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hostile Witness by William Lashner | LibraryThing

Hostile Witness by William Lashner | LibraryThing:

"Loved this legal thriller, first in the Victor Carl series, and read by Richard Ferrone, a favorite narrator. Victor is a small time Philadelphia lawyer, epitome of the ambulance chaser, recently abandoned by a legal partner who took along the best clients, and facing ever-mounting bills.  He's approached by Prescott, a well-known attorney from a huge firm, with a great deal to settle one of Victor's questionable lawsuits, and the prospect of even more money, if he'll take on legal representation of the sleazy sidekick of a politician, or, is it the sidekick of a sleezy politician. His greed getting the better of him, he soon learns he is just to do what he's told, but he's not sure why, and he learns quickly as soon as he decides to truly represent his client.  

Victor's method for keeping his clothes clean is inspired.  He has a small washer dryer unit in his apartment.  He uses the washer as a hamper and when it's full turns it on.  The dryer is his closet and he just removes clothes from it as needed.  The undershirts have a pink tinge and everything is creased, but what the hell, creased is his trademark, anyway. The scene where Veronica, a beautiful plaything, pops over at two in the morning and he describes the detritus in his refrigerator is classic. 

Morris Kasputin (spelling?) , the fat little Jewish detective is a marvelous character. 

Lashner is far better than the later Grisham and as good as the early stuff. 

Favorite quote: "The only difference between a politician and a viper is that the viper's fangs retract." 

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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Review of Involuntary Witness

"Whole worlds pass by us and we don't notice." Guido Guerrieri is an Italian advocate just coming out of a rough patch of depression. His wife has left him and he's just been struggling along until he's assigned the case of an African immigrant accused of killing a young boy. Abdou Thiam, the client, absolutely refuses to settle in spite of overwhelming circumstantial evidence against him. So the case goes to trial. The trial has a surface appearance of fairness, but at its core there is a subtext of racism that reminds us of sham trials of blacks in the U.S. After all, all those "niggers" look the same, as one of the witnesses insists.   The trial revolves around the concept of involuntary falsehood., i.e. can a witness not lie, yet tell an untruth.  It's a concept that involves memory, false memory, manipulation of memory, and what how much of what we see is merely a confirmation of what we have already decided the truth to be. As the Chinese say, two-thirds of what we see is behind our eyes.

Those who dislike legal dramas heavy on courtroom settings will be disappointed. I love those kinds of scenes so this book really held my interest. 

Very interesting legal drama that reveals some of the similarities and differences between the American and Italian legal system. Clearly the pressure to settle and plead out a case is tremendous. The cost of a trial, the "discount" in the sentence available to those who plead, the time required; all conspire to encourage everyone, even the innocent, to "cop" a plea. 

I will certainly read/listen to more in the series. Very ably read as always by Sean Barrett.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Review of the Last Clinic


Darla is a former Philadelphia homicide cop who moved down to Jackson, Mississippi following the termination of  her football star husband who was killed in a car accident soon thereafter. She now works for the Hinds County Sheriff's department. Shelby, the Sheriff, asks her to come back from leave and investigate the murder of a local religious icon who has been shotgunned in front of the abortion clinic where he was protesting and harassing clinic staff and patients.  

Unfortunately, Darla gets paired with the worst detective in the department, Tommy, a fan of the dead reverend, and one who has already made up his mind that the clinic doctor is the culprit. He also performs as an Elvis impersonator on weekends.

 He did look a little like Elvis in the face, especially with those razor-cut sideburns and the pompadour hair dyed jet black. But then there was his body, a shorter version of the bloated older Elvis. He was more like Elvis as a Hobbit. Darla pictured Kendall whacking him with his Gibson back in high school and thought how he’d probably never lived it down. It was funny but also pathetic. Jackson, with a metro population of over 400,000, still had a small-town way of remembering every embarrassing thing anybody ever did. . .An officer don’t get demoted for being stupid. Usually they get an assistant, which unfortunately we can’t afford at present. To get fired, a detective like Tommy needs to get caught doing something downright illegal. Then maybe we can do a little wrist slapping. Unfortunately, Tommy ain’t got the smarts to try anything ambitious.

Much to Darla and Shelby's consternation, it's Tommy who keeps bringing in the suspects.  He has the contacts and loves the publicity that accompanies solving crimes. Perhaps if Darla would quit mooning over the good doctor and got busy she might do better at solving the crime. I think my favorite character is Uther Pendragon (yes, of Arthurian fame,) the geek brought in as an intern whose pattern recognition software ultimately solves a peripheral series of crimes. 

The investigation itself is perhaps the weakest part of the book. It's the humorous passages that kept me reading.   Here's another example:

 "It all sounded sweet, but was it sugar or saccharin? People in Mississippi always managed to sound so nice. Always using phrases like “bless his heart” when you knew they hated the person they were talking about. Kendall once said, “You can call anyone in the state anything you like, as long as you bless their heart afterward. For instance, I could say ‘My ex-husband is a lying, cheating, morally bankrupt, no-good prick, bless his heart.’ That would be perfectly acceptable in polite society. You just have to bless their heart.” 

Not to mention the horrifying story of the Hemmings Plantation prostitution scheme. I note the author lives in Jackson, and I would hope that revelation has no basis in fact. 
Excellent police procedural with all the elements I like: humor, interesting characters, and a good mystery. I really enjoyed this book and hope a series results.  My thanks to the publisher for this advance copy in return for my objective review.  Note that quotes are from the uncorrected proof.  

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