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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers by Bryan Christy | LibraryThing

The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers by Bryan Christy | LibraryThing:

Ray Van Nostrand is nuts about reptiles. Even as a child, he bought and resold thousands of turtles, snakes, newts and other creepy crawly things. Before regulation of such trade began in the late 20th century (strange to phrase it that way) it was legal to import all sorts of endangered animals. Polio could probably not have been conquered without thousands of monkeys to experiment on. Preventing such trade is the charge of the Fish and Wildife service, a woefully underfunded agency, that struggles to do the best job it can. The book follows the career of Chris Bepler who manages to unravel the web of illegal smuggling done by the Van Nostrand family, owners of Strictly Reptiles, an ostensibly legitimate reptile dealer, which had a virtual monopoly on the business. But this book really isn't about one individual; it's about a very profitable industry and the governments attempts to curtail a business that was devastating endangered species. The reader is also treated to numerous anecdotes, often seemingly unconnected, but interesting, nevertheless.

There is one story very similar to one in [b:The Snake Charmer A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge|2567158|The Snake Charmer A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge|Jamie James||2576306]. Dr. Schmidt, an herpetologst in New York, walked into one of his labs to see an assistant holding up an African snake in an attempt to identify it in a book. Schmidt took the snake, grabbing it a little to far behind the head and was bitten. Turns out it was a boomslang, particularly venomous. Schmidt decided to document his experience from bite to recovery, it having been a small critter and he a reasonably healthy 67. He had some symptoms, but by the next morning appeared to be better, so much so he went to work. He died of respiratory failure later that afternoon. Joe Slowinski, in The Snake Charmer, another herpetologist on an expedition to Burma, reached into a bag that he thought contained a non-venomous mimic of the multi-banded krait, an extremely poisonous snake. He died, too, after documenting his symptoms. Most snake lovers are male and seem to be drawn to an adventurous lifestyle. I don't much care for snakes. I guess that says a lot about me.

Surprisingly enough, much of the business for reptile smugglers came from zoos. Often they would facilitate illegal activities by running front men, hiding paperwork, etc. Even though they could legally import many of the animals they sought, it was easier (with less paperwork) to do it illegally. Zoos compete to get the most people visiting their locations; they also compete professionally. To have the prestige of the "most complete collection of a genus, longevity record, first to breed." It was all one-upsmanship.

Breeding reptiles is not easy. Until the late sixties no one even knew hoe to sex the, The sex organs are concealed within a single excretory vent known as the cloaca. "It was not until 1967, for example, that Peter Brazaitis at the Bronx zoo stuck his finger into a sleeping alligator's cloaca and discovered how to sex alligators." One wonders how long the alligator remained sleeping. Probably leaped several yards in the air. Pretty funny, actually. Hank Molt, the dealer who was doing business with the zoos was finally prosecuted under a multitude of charges. The problem was some prominent zoos were involved and the word came down from on high to lay off. Still, he got one of the largest prison sentences ever (3 months in a federal prison!). But in the meantime some of the regulatory laws were gutted in the process.

Ironically, in another example of the law of unintended consequences, many of the laws (CITES, the Endangered Species Act, the Lacey Act) made trafficking in endangered animals much more profitable. Since the number of people willing to break the law was relatively small, and scarcity made for profitability, the endangered animals were the most sought after making them even more endangered. The biological and the regulatory combined to make the business extremely profitable.

Strictly Reptiles, the Van Nostrand family business was soon attracting the business of smugglers from around thew world. They could supply anything and soon became the target of a new federal task force. Van Nostrand was also selling hundreds of thousands of legal pet store animals and had a sophisticated system set up in his warehouse (an old Frito-Lay warehouse built right on the top of the line between two police jurisdictions, something that came in handy) that would disguise and hide protected species when anyone remotely suspected of being a Fed would show up. His price list was amazing: baby water moccasins for $5, a black mamba for $500, all the way up to a pair of giant Aldabra tortoises for $23,000.

Lots of interesting details about animal smuggling and its unintended consequences. It's not well put together, though. Van Nostrand was a primary source for this book so much of the action is seen through his eyes, but it also follows the career of Chip Bepler, the Fish and Game officer responsible for collecting much of the information for Van Nostrand's successful prosecution. I would have liked to give this book 4 stars, but it ends so abruptly, that I literally checked my Kindle version to make sure I wasn't missing some pages. Chip Bepler died in his late forties so his part just falls off the edge. If you think this review is disjointed, you'll have a good idea of the book. On the other hand, if you like a books filled with lots of detail about a bizarre business, the pages will fly by.

By the way, next time you fly somewhere, the guy's bag next to you may just be filled with endangered snakes or turtles.
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With Hostile Intent by Robert Gandt | LibraryThing

With Hostile Intent by Robert Gandt | LibraryThing:

OK, I admit it, I like airplanes and let's face it, fighter jets hold more than a little allure. So I like stories about fighter jocks, assuming they are reasonably well written, don't confuse they're and there, and have a plot that has some coherence. Gandt is a former Navy fighter jock, flying A-4s off a carrier and then for many years as a Pan Am pilot (he wrote an account of the rise and fall of Pan Am, Skygods.)

His fighter jock novels follow the career of Brick Maxwell (I didn't realize there was a sequence when I started this book so  I'm a bit out of order.)  In addition to Maxwell we have DeLancey, the hotshot squadron commander (a hotshot in his own mind and vindictive SOB); Claire, former GF of Maxwell, now a reporter looking for insider information; Tyrwhitt, Claire's estranged husband who write a column supportive of Saddam but who's really a CIA plant, and assorted other pilots.

There are constant political machinations among the squadron, petty jealousies, harassment of the female pilots, manipulations in return by the some of the women, and pilots with hangovers, problems at home, and many other distractions.  Makes you wonder if drones aren't such a bad idea.  I'm not such if it was the author's intent, but goodness, WW III could be just a hangover away.  I truly hope what DeLancey does is not representative of what Gandt experience during his time flying carrier jets.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Shooting Star by Peter Temple | LibraryThing

Shooting Star by Peter Temple | LibraryThing:

This may be another one of those books enhanced by an outstanding narrator, or, perhaps I'm just enamored of the Australian accent.  Be that as it may, it was a pleasurable listen while doing chores like dishes, etc.

Frank Calder, ex-soldier, and ex-cop, is hired by a rich bad guy to deliver money to kidnappers who have made off with his daughter.  When Calder counsels bringing in the cops, the response is the story of a previous kidnapping of another daughter who was threatened with killing by the abductors, but who managed to free herself and escape.  This time they don’t want to risk police involvement.

When the first ransom amount is delivered and they are ordered to dump the money off a balcony in a crowded sporting event, Calder realizes this is not about money, it's about inflicting pain on the Carson family.  The family lives in a walled in fortress having isolated themselves from the rest of the world in the name of security.  The kidnappers escalate the demands and  Calder decides to get to the bottom. It's a sleazy journey.

Good story with some surprises.  I had trouble identifying with Calder, however.

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FORTAS: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice by Bruce Allen Murphy | LibraryThing

FORTAS: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice by Bruce Allen Murphy | LibraryThing:

Every president, during the last year or so of his term of office, tries to leave his mark on the Supreme Court if opportunity presents. Bush II was certainly provided with ample opportunity and in Alito and Roberts, he picked someone of strong ideological bent. The confirmation battle becomes in such circumstances becomes prolonged and vicious. The aspirant fails in his nomination bid and retires bitterly to the lecture circuit. Such is the story of both Bork and Abe Fortas, Lyndon Johnson’s controversial nominee for Chief Justice (who, ironically, was already serving on the court as an associate justice.) The battle, even more bitter than the one over Bork, is detailed in fascinating detail by Bruce Allen Murphy 

Although questions about his integrity played a part in his downfall (he eventually withdrew his nomination and retired from the court,) Murphy argues persuasively that as in Bork’s case the rejection was primarily ideological. The struggle over Fortas raised the acceptable political temperature well beyond the norm, paving the way for fierce debates over Nixon appointees. (Thank goodness, or we might have had that great proponent of mediocrity G. Harold Carswell trying to figure out which way to hold a book, while sitting on the bench.) By the time of the Bork nomination all restraint was gone. Ironically Fortas was an unlikely candidate for an ideological firestorm. Inside and out of government he was the deal maker not the ideologue: the kind of man that friends like Lyndon Johnson turned to when they wanted to get things done. According to Murphy, this was precisely his undoing. Like Bork, Fortas became a symbol of an embattled white House who was eventually sacrificed in a struggle over the President's beliefs. The ultimate question is whether it serves the Republic by breaking with tradition and answering questions about how a nominee vote on a given issue, thus making a mockery of the idea that judges are independent of Congress and the executive. Presidents will come under increasing pressure to pick candidates who adhere to their own beliefs. What Murphy failed to predict was rather than increasingly bitter battles, the result was the bland non-answer hearings that have become the standard as defined by Roberts.

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Sea Change by ROBERT GODDARD | LibraryThing

Sea Change by ROBERT GODDARD | LibraryThing:

It's 1721, the great South Sea Bubble has collapsed**, and a mapmaker, heavily in debt, is persuaded by his debtor that he must travel to Holland and deliver a package. Turns out it contains a green book listing all those government officials who had been bribed to help investors make money from the bubble.

The Goddard books I have read all have some sort of multi-continent chase in them and this one is a whopper. It takes place in England, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and Italy as several groups pursue the rogues who stole the "green" book, which itself had been purloined.  Shades of Louise de la Valliere and deception abounds on all sides with poor Spandrel caught in the middle.  The Captain was my favorite character.

My only gripe with the book is that I had no sense of place.  Here was a marvelous opportunity to present the results of research into traveling conditions, housing, how people lived, etc., in the early eighteenth century. Instead the focus seems solely on the characters and the chase.  This may also be one of those books in which the audiobook narrator enhances the reading. Very well read.

**The story of the South Seas bubble is fascinating and well-recounted in this wikipedia article  How little times have changed.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Fundamental Error - A Katla KillFile (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing

Fundamental Error - A Katla KillFile (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing:

I'm usually not a fan of short fiction.  Authors often have difficulty building character and scene in a limited number of pages. There are lots of exceptions, I know, and Halm is one of them.  I have read two others in his KatlaKillfiles series and enjoyed both.  I was about to start on his longer fiction when I noticed someone had given this book one star over on GR with no review, only marked as an author-I-don't-want-to-read.  Well, that's like waving a red flag in front of a bull.  I just had to find out if perhaps the problem was too many "fucks" or perhaps some atheistic bent (both good signs for me.)  After reading the novella, I think this reviewer was just peeved about some remark or another. I have no idea.

This story is less linear than the other two I read. The time frame jumps back and forth between the present, where a fundamentalist terrorist has plans to detonate a bomb in a crowded mall. Katla is hired by the brother of the terrorist to prevent the bombing. I won't give away anything other than to say it's a different kind of assignment for Katla even though it does earn a fat fee.  Good story.

I went poking around the author's web site and discovered some interesting stuff about his home city. Apparently the vehicle of choice is a Vespa and as there are so many it's a logical choice for Katla to move around on. Bicycles are ubiquitous and appear to always be in the right in case of an accident. It would seem nothing you say as the driver of a car that has hit a bicycle will get you off the hook.  Sounds like a hazardous place for pedestrians, too.  Read more at More about Vespas at

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Locked Room - A Katla KillFile (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing

Locked Room - A Katla KillFile (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing:

I ran across this author accidentally. I enjoyed his post on a Goodreads group, pulled up his profile and was intrigued by descriptions of his works. I'm always looking for fun reads involving "bad" guys and assassins fits that category nicely. Block's Keller series sets the standard, of course, and Halm ranks right up there.

Katla, or LKE Enterprises as she calls herself, specializes in killing targets in a such way that they look accidental or natural. Coming up with credible scenarios necessarily challenges the authors and this locked-room novella (available for free for your Kindle from Amazon) is certainly as good as anything Carr might have come up with. I like the way Halm integrated some of the newer technologies into the plot. A good story and enjoyable way to spend time while waiting for something.

My only caveat is that, unlike Keller and Dot who go to great lengths to conceal their identity, Katla meets directly with prospective clients. That would seem to make her quite vulnerable if things blow up. Nevertheless, I intend to read all Halm's books. They have the added benefit of being set in Amsterdam, a great city. I did tire of the word anthracite in this story, however. I highly recommend Microchip Murder: A Katla KillFile (in that one the word bascule was perhaps overused. :) ) 

Halm's short novellas are published as part of a mini series called the Katla Killfiles. Get them.

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Microchip Murder - A Katla KillFile (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing

Microchip Murder - A Katla KillFile (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing:

I realize it's not Graham Greene, but I really liked this clever novella about Katla, an assassin, who poses as a representative of LKE Enterprises, a company that for a large fee will rid you permanently of people you don't like or upon whom you wish retribution.  Katla pulls a multi-faceted con in this novella, available for free for your Kindle.

Hired to kill a former employee who stole a microchip containing some very special and unique programming that will make weapons more difficult to track, Katla figures out a way to shift blame for the eventual killing while retrieving the microchip in such a way that ....  You'll just have to read it to find out.  Cunning.  I intend to read all of Halm's books..

Marred only by a couple of editing errors, e.g. "there" instead of "their," but generally well edited.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight by William Langewiesche | LibraryThing

Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight by William Langewiesche | LibraryThing:

Langewiesche, one of my favorite technology writers, and author of the fascinating dissection of the ValueJet crash in Atlantic several months ago, is in love with flying. Inside the Sky is his attempt to convey that passion to non-pilots. He disdains commercial flight, which has reduced the experience of flying to being squeezed into tiny little seats, eliminates any sensation of flying, and suppresses the beauty of being able to see the world from a different vantage.

He's a little crazy, too. He and friends make a fetish of flying into storms, testing their ability to read the weather, avoid ice conditions, and to push the envelope, trying to gain an accumulation of experience. He has critics, of course. "I have always understood their concern. But the pursuit of such weather is an internal act, not a public one, and it is neither as reckless nor as arbitrary as it first may seem. It involves dangers, of course, but to a degree unimaginable to the critics, those dangers are controllable" His chapter recounting one such flight is fascinating, but a trip I prefer to make via page turning, never having been a fan of airsickness.

He writes about the business of air traffic controllers, noting that their job is not so much to prevent collisions - although that's the mystique that has grown up around them - but to get the most efficient use of airspace, which means actually getting planes as close together as possible. Since deregulation and the more prevalent use of hubs, airports have become extremely crowded. Helping the airlines to stay on time is a primary responsibility of the controllers. His comments on the antagonism between controllers and the FAA should be read by everyone. It may exp lain why your next plane is late.

Langewiesche analyzes several accidents to reveal certain basic lessons about flying. The crash of an Air India 747 several years ago resulted from the pilot's misreading of an instrument. Despite other instruments that gave him correct information, he flew the plane into the ground. The pilot relied too much on the instrument, failing to remember that "the cockpit's automated warnings, horns, and flashing lights provide largely just the appearance of safety and that for a variety of practical reasons no amount of automation can yet relieve pilots of the old-fashioned need to concentrate and think clearly in times of trouble." The planes themselves are incredibly strong and the traveler's fear of turbulence is misplaced. Planes are the most weather-worthy of vehicles, stronger than even pilots can imagine.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Heat Lightning (Virgil Flowers, No. 2) by John Sandford | LibraryThing

Heat Lightning (Virgil Flowers, No. 2) by John Sandford | LibraryThing:

I really like the Virgil ("Fucking Flowers") Flowers series. I've read several of the Lucas Davenport books by Sandford and find the Flowers books to have more humor and interest. They are also perfect for listening to while putting up snow fence. I have about 800 feet of snow fence to put up along my lane. For those who don't know what that involves, it means driving fence posts into the ground with a post driver weighing about 20 lbs, unloading rolls of wooden snow fence and then attaching the fence to the posts. It's always done when the weather is shitty (cold and windy and the field often muddy) and for someone my age probably inviting a heart attack. Takes me usually about 4-5 hours so I find a good book to listen to and take my time (I used to get done in about 3 hours.) The Flowers series, read by Eric Conger is perfect. Occasionally, I'll pause and laugh out loud.

The plots are rather routine. In this one a series of murders is being committed. All the dead had been in Vietnam at the same time, although not in the military. The bodies each have a lemon duct-taped in the mouths; several had been slowly tortured. Fine, the investigation is interesting and makes sense, but it's the character of Flowers (who knows his Aeneid) and his relationship to the other cops that I really like. It's obviously not a spoiler to say Virgil gets his man/woman.

The ending is a lot of fun. Sandford certainly has no love for Homeland Security (why does that name always seem to force my arm into an unnatural stiff arm salute? ) The subtext issues of this book must have John Stuart Mill rotating in his grave.

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Zero Three Bravo: Solo Across America in a Small Plane by Mariana Gosnell | LibraryThing

Zero Three Bravo: Solo Across America in a Small Plane by Mariana Gosnell | LibraryThing:

Sort of a Blue Highways of the Sky. Gosnell has a passion for flying, especially in small, single engine planes into uncontrolled airports. She describes the myriad of interesting characters she meets along the way, each with a unique story to tell, and she retells them well. 

She learned to fly in Africa where she and a friend had gone for several months. Since the only way to get around is by small plane, she was once flown from hither to yon in a small Cessna and a young woman pilot. Together they swooped down low over herds of elephants and other wildlife and scenery. Gosnell was enthralled and vowed to learn how to fly. 

Back in the states, she continued her lessons and purchased an old Luscombe, a very serviceable, if antique tail-dragger. (She discusses at length the advantages and disadvantages of the "conventional" v tricycle type landing gear.) 

Her stories reminded me of flights with my uncle when I was barely 10 (This was in the late fifties). He was in the Civil Air Patrol (which I also later joined as a radio officer -- but that's another story) and took me up in his Super Cub, many of which are still around.) Fun.

She beautifully captures the pathos, loneliness, and eccentricities of the people who man the small, often deserted, little airstrips around the country and the yearning many of them feel for the outside world. Particularly poignant was Laura, a thirty-five-year-old mother of Dawson, Georgia, who had learned to fly on a whim and now wanted nothing more to escape the parochialism of the small town where the goals and aspirations for women were pre-determined a century before. Ridiculed and shunned by the community for daring to do something women just don't do (fly a plane), she latched on to Gosnell as a symbol of freedom she didn't have the courage enough to embrace, but which Gosnell (perhaps because she was a cosmopolitan New Yorker) had adopted.

Loved this book.

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In This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology by Claude Welch | LibraryThing

In This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology by Claude Welch | LibraryThing:

Haven't read and most likely never will but discussed the content with the author many times so I feel like I know the content. Quote from one commentator: " the trinitarian conception” of God (p. viii), as a reaction against the premature 19th-century dismissal of the doctrine. This was not a common opinion at the time; Welch was taking a chance in making the prediction." In 1969, NHG Robinson said that Welch’s prediction “could scarcely have proved wider of the mark,” since in Robinson’s estimate “the trinitarian concept has disappeared in all but name from the prevailing articulations of the Christian faith.” But Robinson was watching the wrong indicators (Bultmannians and anglo-empiricists), and Welch’s prediction has come to pass in a remarkable way, as one of the major stories of late twentieth century theology. What enabled Welch to predict the return of the Trinity was not just his historical instincts, but his lively theological awareness. Only a fool would think Christianity was going to keep moving forward without the doctrine of the Trinity; Claude saw that there was a great deal of foolishness and not enough trinitarianism in mid-twentieth century academic theology."

In one of life's lesser ironies, Dad was asked to write a new introduction to the book several years before his death as they wanted to reissue it.  He told me that he reread it, thought it was a good book, but he didn't believe any of it anymore.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Game: A Thriller (The Game) by Anders de la Motte | LibraryThing

Game: A Thriller (The Game) by Anders de la Motte | LibraryThing:

I was pleased to be offered the first two books in the trilogy by NetGalley.  I had never heard of the books nor the author so I was glad to give it a try. Firstly, let me say I almost abandoned reading the Kindle version in which the editing and formatting of the ARC ebook was so terrible. Appalling.  However some manipulation of the pdf version made a huge difference.  Caveat:  Don't even try to read the Kindle version.  Download the pdf.

But the story is intriguing.  We all know how hard it is to hide a conspiracy in a large institution.  Someone always spills the beans.  But what if events were all part of a big game, controlled by computers, that people could bet on, engaged hundreds of participants with seemingly no relation to events, and that individuals could control by purchasing actions. Cool idea.

HP finds a cell phone on the seat of a train.  It has a message for him, inviting him to join in a game that involves him getting  tasks to accomplish and the phone is used to broadcast video of how he does.  Viewers then watch and rate his actions.  Simultaneously we follow Rebecca, a police inspector, part of the Swedish police bodyguard squad. As the plot unfolds, the lives of HP and Rebecca merge.  Turns out he is her little brother and unwittingly part of the game.    

The book has a Kafkaesque feel.  Some say it reminds them of the Twilight Zone.  I concur.

One quibble: I found the intermingling of flashbacks and multiple viewpoints to be a bit distracting.  I would hope there will be fewer in the remainder of the trilogy, which I intend to start shortly.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a chance to read this book and to provide an honest review.

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Curran Vs. Catholic University: A Study of Authority and Freedom in Conflict by Larry Witham | LibraryThing

Curran Vs. Catholic University: A Study of Authority and Freedom in Conflict by Larry Witham | LibraryThing:

This is a fascinating study in the conflict between academic freedom and the authority of the church to determine what is to be orthodox and how to maintain that orthodoxy. I find it particularly relevant as we now see individual Catholic bishops trying to deny communion to Catholic candidates who are pro-choice. 

The author takes the reader through a fascinating tour of trends in moral theology. including consequentialism *the consequences of an action form the basis for judgment as to its morality,) proportionalism (moral principles should never be violated unless the good resulting outweighs the bad of breaking the rule,) the relative merit of a principle may be determined by the number of adherents, i.e. the probability that a moral position is "safe",) among others, leading to a discussion of relativism. (Geez, I hope I got that right.)

During the 1960's, casuistry, the case-by-case examination of an ethical issue, was making a comeback and Curran was an adherent of this method. Even though casuistry had been adopted by 17th century Jesuits, it had fallen out of favor in the church which had moved toward the development of absolutes (see Humanae Vitae). It was a "concrete methods for concrete problems." Curran's contribution to moral theology was a "theology of compromise, i.e. choosing the lesser of evils. *

Curran's philosophy leaned to Protestant moral theology, so much so, that he became the first Catholic president of the predominantly protestant Society of Christian Ethics. I doubt if that endeared him to his masters at Catholic University.

The Vatican, especially under Ratzinger's reign at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was interested in making sure that ecclesiastical courses were taught by ecclesiastically approved teachers. It's ironic that universities, a product of Christian humanism and its attempt to reconcile Greek and Roman philosophy with the teachings of the Church, have much to thank the church for with regard to academic freedom. In the 12th century, teachers would look to the Church for protection against the interference from merchants and bankers and the rest of the rising capitalist class who wanted to interfere with the academic program. On the other hand, the 12th century provided the roots for subjectivism and personalism in morality thanks to Peter Abelard (whether his little dalliance with Heloise influenced his thinking or not remains speculative.) In any case moral absolutes developed by the Church (which themselves had their roots in Cicero and Greek thought) came under pressure. Abelard insisted that intention was the key to determining the sinfulness of an action, not the action alone. (Of course, this guy gave us the idiotic concept of Limbo, too.) In any case, Ratzinger, later to be known as Benedict XVI, was a firm believer in moral absolutes and the antithesis of the new moral theology and personalism represented by Curran. Raztinger believed that moral decline stemmed from economic liberalism and could only be countered by a return to authority. This appealed to Catholics outside the West who still conflated authority with the supernatural. 

Admittedly, this might seem like a strange reading selection. Given the recent flap at Notre-Dame over whether they should give Obama an honorary degree, or even invite him to speak, I think the relevancy of the desire for authoritarian control and orthodoxy, particularly with a pope who some might consider an extension of Pius's anti-modernist philosophy, I think it's more than relevant. One could argue that the authority would extend only to the ecclesiastical, perhaps, but in the case of Curran, the Vatican, which had to approve all tenure applications, also wanted to prohibit Curran from teaching Catholic theology in non-ecclesiastical classes. 

I find the demand for orthodoxy and authoritarian control inimical to a healthy democratic society. This book provides appropriate historical background and context for those discussions.

*As an aside, I once heard Rushworth Kidder discuss his book [b:How Good People Make Tough Choices Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living|46683|How Good People Make Tough Choices Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living|Rushworth M. Kidder||45789] in which he suggests that the tough choices are never between good and evil, but rather between two shades of good.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Arnheiter affair by Neil Sheehan | LibraryThing

The Arnheiter affair by Neil Sheehan | LibraryThing:

In 1966 Commander Arnheiter was removed from his command of the Vance a radar picket ship, then off the coast of Vietnam. In a scandal that consumed more attention than had the sinking of the Thresher just three years earlier, Vance charged the Navy with a conspiracy that included charges of false rumors and innuendo from his junior officers. He insisted what had happened was nothing less than a mutiny.

Arnheiter was a forty-two-year-old graduate of the Naval Academy (not a good student, he was particularly weak in engineering.) He commanded the Vance for a brief ninety-nine days. The controversy raised issues of subordinate loyalty, the role of a commander at sea and the integrity of the Navy itself.

The captain of a ship, no matter the size, has unequaled power and how that power is demonstrated and used determines the success of the mission and the running of the vessel. Generally, that sense of omnipotence and the loneliness of command can often exaggerate personality characteristics. Arnheiter was very weak at ship handling, mechanics, and management but strong at PR and spit-and-polish. Unfortunately engineering, especially in an old ship like the Vance with its two archaic diesels, required more engineering than polish. The previous skipper and the engineering officer had an understanding of that important role and the Vance had developed a reputation for having a well-managed plant. So when Arnheiter completely tuned out the engineering officer during his first briefing, it was worrisome.

Once they arrived off Vietnam, the situation deteriorated with Arnheiter sending false position reports so he could wangle his way into attacking shore positions. Shades of the Gulf of Tonkin he invented fire on his ship, had used the crew's entertainment fund to buy a speedboat, and acted in a manner that had the crew wondering about his fitness if not sanity. What really got the ball rolling was the concern of Catholics on board who resented being forced to participate in religious activities each Sunday that clearly had a Protestant flavor and was against Navy regulations. 

Arnheiter's case is fascinating. He pushed back very hard against his removal and was adept at manipulating the media (which didn't have a clue as to all the details -- even Sheehan admits he and his colleagues should have interviewed more than just Arnheiter for their initial stories,) the Navy brass and Congressmen.

Sheehan does not spare his own profession. 

I and the other reporters who covered the Resnick hear¬ing that May of 1968 were equally guilty of perpetuating the fraud. None of us thought to telephone any of the men who had sailed under Amheiter. We were all too preoccupied with getting into print Arnheiter’s charges that Admiral Semmes was a liar and that his former subordinates were mutineers. Since the Navy had nothing to say, we settled for silence from the other side. I too, without a qualm, wrote stories citing Generous as “the alleged ringleader of the conspiracy . . .” The "alleged” did not make Generous’ guilt any less real to the readers. and The nation’s newspapers suffer from the same hardening of the arteries. The techniques of the government propagandist and the public relations man, which Arnheiter utilized so cleverly, long ago outraced a tired community of hemmed-in reporters, editors who ask the wrong questions and publishers who are more interested in profits than in the quality and accuracy of the information they print. The time-honored newspaper technique of scribbling a few details in a notebook, hustling them into something readable on a typewriter, casting the words into a column, and then rushing on to another story the next day, was appropriate to police-beat reporting in Chicago in the 1920’s. It is an anachronism today. Those of us in the trade know that the consequence of the cycle is the daily publication of falsehood and bias in favor of those who know best how to exploit its weakness. Systematic deception has become a sanctioned practice of government and industry, a reality of modern life that the established newspapers have, for the most part, found convenient to ignore. The question I might ask is whether things are better today than in 1970.

It's a very fast read and hard to put down. I loved Sheehan's other work, particularly A Bright and Shining Lie. Normally, I would have given this 5 stars, but it's clearly an early work and doesn't show the polished writing his later books do.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Sexiest Picture I Have Seen in a Long Time

Every time I pull up the Kindle department on Amazon I am confronted with this picture that conveys such a beautiful image, great looking young lady, reading in the sunshine;  it evokes great feeling.  I love it.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Blind Goddess (Billy Boyle World War II Mystery) by James R. Benn | LibraryThing

A Blind Goddess (Billy Boyle World War II Mystery) by James R. Benn | LibraryThing:

I had read an earlier Billy Boyle novel, so when this latest became available from NetGalley, I downloaded it and added it to my stack.

Captain Billy Boyle works for his uncle as a special investigator. It's World War II and Billy's former occupation as a Boston cop provide him with the skills necessary to look into unusual or sensitive crimes. He has a particular advantage in that his uncle happens to be General Eisenhower. 

His investigation this time at the behest of Major Cosgrove involves the death of a British accountant, but Cosgrove provides few details on why Boyle is even needed. A parallel investigation provides an opportunity for Benn to examine the extreme racism that existed between white and black troops in England during the War. An old friend, Eugene "Tree" Jackson, but one with whom he had had a mysterious falling out several years before, asks Boyle to look into the charge of murder leveled against his gunner. The black troops, welcomed by the English who had few problems with their daughters consorting with them, have been moved out of a popular town and into a backwater village with nothing to do. Tree is sure that his gunner could not have killed the constable he has been accused of killing. 

The local cops also don't think Tree is guilty and the fact that the body, Tom Eastman, a local constable, was found draped over the gravestone of his father, formerly a well-respected policeman, also pointed to someone with local knowledge. Tree had been having an affair with a white wife of a distinctly disagreeable man who beat her.

Benn uses the parallel investigations, including the search for a local girl and the body found of another young girl, to examine the rancorous relations between the American black and white troops. The British did not have the same history of malevolent race relations and black soldiers were welcomed into the local culture much to the consternation of many white Americans. 

This tension provides an interesting backdrop for Billy's investigation. After a rather slow start, the book finds its gear and becomes quite an interesting read.

My thanks to the publisher for this opportunity to read another volume in the Boyle series in exchange for an honest review.

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Saturday, November 09, 2013

Structural Failures

Why Buildings Fall Down: Why Structures Fail by Matthys Levy | LibraryThing:

Why did the pyramid at Meidum shed 250,000 tons of limestone outer casings when few of the others have? Why is the pyramid shape a logical structure for a country where the only available building material is stone? Those and many other questions are answered in a fascinating book by Matthys Levy. The bottom blocks of a pyramid must support the weight of all the blocks above it; those on top support only their own weight, much like a mountain. The classical 52o angle was adopted only after it was understood that the foundation had to be laid on limestone. At Meidum, the bottom layers and foundation were supported by sand, and the casing blocks lay in horizontal layers and were not inclined inward, unlike in all the pyramids that followed.

The light, airy dome has replaced the pyramid as man's alternative to monolithic monuments. The dome originated thirty-three hundred years ago in Assyria. By 200 A.D., the Roman Pantheon represented the peak of the builders' skill. In 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi completed the dome over the Santa Maria de Fiore without using a scaffold. What gives domes their stability and permanence is their curved continuous shape. Unlike arches that require enormous buttresses, the dome shares the load among all its members. They are exceptionally strong and support gravity loads well. Their rigidity makes them susceptible to earthquakes and soil settlement, however. The advent of Christian liturgical requirements, i.e., the cross shape of many buildings, posed great difficulties for medieval builders who wished to incorporate the dome into religious structures. Eggshells, which are difficult to squash when pressed from the ends toward the middle, are really just two domes glued together. The ratio of an eggshell's span to thickness is about 30. That of a conservatively designed dome is usually at least 300, or about ten times stronger.

The book analyzes assorted structural failures. The collapse of the dome at the C.W. Post College of Long Island University provides an interesting example of how a dome that met and exceeded code standards could still collapse because of a failure to anticipate natural conditions. The assumption behind the design was that snow loads on the roof would be uniform. During the storm that collapsed the roof, an east wind blew snow in huge drifts on one side of the dome, stressing it beyond design limits. That, coupled with the natural lifting effect caused by wind passing over the top of a dome (much like a sail) caused the structural members to fail. So even though the total snow load was one-quarter the maximum, it was concentrated on less than one-third of the dome's structure, bringing it down.

A particularly interesting section describes how tuned, dynamic dampers work in large buildings and why they are necessary. All tall buildings oscillate because of the pressure of the wind. This movement, while not necessarily structurally dangerous — although it can be — can cause airsickness in the occupants. A huge tuned (set to the same frequency as the oscillations of the building) concrete block is set on a thin layer of oil at the top of the building. It is connected to the outer walls by enormous steel springs and shock absorbers. When the building begins to oscillate, the damper tends to stay put because of its large inertia and allows the building to slide under it on the layer of oil. The springs on one side of the damper become longer and literally pull the building back into shape. Those on the other side push it to its original position.

Thermal stresses must also be considered in building and bridge design. As steel beams in a bridge expand from the heat in summer, the bridge must be permitted to expand by using rollers, or the compression caused by the prevention of expansion would reduce the carrying capacity. Air-conditioned buildings pose unique problems because the outside beams may be expanding while the inside beams are contracting because of the temperature differential. This can cause unwanted bending unless structural reinforcement is present.

The chapter on dams is instructive. Many earthen dams, built centuries ago, have survived thousands of years. The Romans built numerous masonry dams on a base three to four times the width of the dam's height. It remained for a Scottish engineer in the 19th century to show that the base width need be no more than the height. Of 1,764 dams built in the United States before 1959, one in fifty failed for a variety of reasons, a rather high failure rate. The most famous collapse is that of the Johnstown dam in 1889, which killed more than three thousand people. It had been completed in 1853 and was intended to provide a steady source of water for a Pennsylvania canal. By 1860, the canal was already obsolete; railroads were taking over the hauling of freight. Soon the dam was in a state of disrepair. When it was sold to new owners they made dangerous modifications that reduced the spillway to less than one-third of its original capacity. The five-inch rainfall that was blamed for the dam's failure would never have destroyed the dam in its original configuration.

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Friday, November 08, 2013

Ἔρως, Τάρταρος and Προμηθεύς

California Fire and Life by Don Winslow | LibraryThing:

Wonderful book. What more could you ask for: a good mystery, lots of detail about fire investigations, interesting character. I really enjoyed the section in the fire academy when the instructor is going through all the little details about fire and he uses the metaphor of a man seducing a woman. Fascinating: “Oxidation occurs. Act One: The Smoldering Phase. The seduction, if you will, the chemical reaction between oxygen and solid molecules in which the oxygen tries to induce heat in the solid matter. The seduction might take a fraction of a second—in the case of a hot number like gasoline or kerosene or some other liquid accelerant, the roundheels of the flammable street corner, I might tell you. Switching metaphors, liquid accelerants are the aphrodisiacs of the fire seduction. They are the storied Spanish fly, the fine wine, the manly cologne, the American Express Platinum Card left casually by the side of the couch. They can get the passion ignited in a big hurry. 

Jack is a really competent arson investigator., but one with a checkered past. He's sent by his boss to check out a fire that killed a woman. It appears to be a simple case of accidental death. Soon Jack is mixed up in something that's way over his head and that he didn't see coming at all. (Neither did I.) But Jack has a sense of wanting to do things right. 

Winslow writes great scenes. There's one love-making scene that's really erotic and another involving an attempted run-off-the-road that's very well done. One of the bad guys gets very well done, too. With just the right touch of humor.

One quibble. He says at one point, "Heated gas is lighter than air so it rises—witness your Goodyear blimp." Not an accurate example; a hot-air balloon perhaps, but the blimps have helium which is lighter than air.

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Family, Money and Murder

Fatal Obsession by Stephen Greenleaf | LibraryThing:

Marsh returns home to Chaldea, a town of about 6,000 in the Midwest where he grew up. Sale of the family farm is up for discussion among the four siblings. Gail, his sister is married to Tom who is retired with a crippling disease; Curt is the family black sheep; and Matt is just married to his third wife, a real "looker". The Tanner acreage is sought after by several different groups: a coal company wants to pull out a seam of coal, the local Chamber wants to develop it, and the mineral rights are being sought by an oil company. The will that left the children the property, which until now has been rented out to a neighboring farmer, said any decision to sell had to be approved by three of the four so the lobbying among the siblings has begin in earnest, not to mention from local stalwarts who also want to influence their decision. Gail wants it to remain a farm for her daughter Karen and her husband Paul. But then Billy, Curt's son, is found hanging from a tree in the park, and apparent suicide. Marsh doesn't think so.

I really liked the evocative sense of place. Not to mention paragraphs like the following: I had taken advantage of a vulnerable time for Gail, and by springing my surprise I had forced her to act like something she was not -- a personification of Midwestern religiosity, the pseudo-piety that finds Biblequoting, teetotaling deacons ranting against niggers and hippies and bemoaning welfare and cheating the tax man all the while.

It's a mess. There's nothing worse than a family squabble about money. To my mind inheritance taxes should be 100%. Let children make their own way. (I am now officially hiding from my kids.) :)

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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Not Short Enough

Breach of Trust (Buffa, D. W.) by D. W. Buffa | LibraryThing:

Good legal drama, emphasis on legal.  The book bogs down when it strays away from the courtroom.

VP Browning is an interesting character. We learn he memorized Lincoln's 2nd inaugural address, "to make it his own," and that ever since the United States had gone downhill, that that address represented the pinnacle of American history. He attended Harvard Law School not to become a lawyer, but because he wanted to learn the law. Now, stunted in his role as vice-president, he finds himself under attack and a former classmate, Jimmy Haviland, under indictment for the murder of Annie Malreaux whom they both loved who had ostensibly fallen from a window years before. Browning hires Antonelli to be his classmate's attorney, with the goal of insulating himself from the political fallout.  Clearly, Browning, and Antonelli, believe that the purpose of the trial is not to convict a killer, but to bring Browning into disrepute so he cannot run for president against the current President Walker. As Antonelli notes in his opening statement,, "Why would the prosecution not call the only witness to the death, someone who was present in the room when Annie fell or was pushed from their hotel room to her death many years earlier, a death that had officially been ruled an accident.

The premise that the White House would resurrect a twenty-year-old case to embarrass the sitting VP so they could get him to resign and not run for president so they could appoint a new Chief Justice as the current Chief is in the hospital and expected to expire soon (let me catch my breath) is bizarre if not ridiculous.

For some reason, this book has a flavor similar to those of Richard North Patterson, and I kept having the feeling I had read it before, unlikely. It reeks of middle age disillusionment, political corruption, and hidden agendas. Everyone has his trust breached.

Layering a book with seemingly irrelevant digressions can be tricky. The reader has to have some interest in the subject of those digressions which often are at the expense of plot.  Buffa manages to pull it off in this book -- most of the time.  Things will be cooking along nicely in the courtroom and then, as if he has no prep work to do, he'll trot off someplace or with someone and muse upon his life and friends. Stick to the courtroom.

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Too Short

Driving Lessons by Ed McBain | LibraryThing:

A teacher giving a driving lesson to a bright young coed hits a woman and kills her.  That she's his wife complicates matters.  That he doesn't remember the event and appears to have been plastered out of his skill makes things worse.  Everyone, including the coed, swears the teacher is blameless and that he didn't imbibe.  Yet his system contains a huge dose of Seconal. But why was the wife seeking counsel from a priest outside her parish twice a week. What happened to the second cup that had McDonald's Coke in it?  Why did the driver, Andy, not want to have children, and why was his wife, the dead woman, trying so hard to have one?

Kate, the lead detective with problems at home of her own, keeps stumbling over odd little discrepancies.  I'm going to downgrade this book because it was too short.  It's barely a novella and  would be a nice outline for a fine McBain novel, but the ending was too predictable, the investigation should have been fleshed out, and the suspense better.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Papal Bull: An Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church by Joe Wenke | LibraryThing

Papal Bull: An Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church by Joe Wenke | LibraryThing:

When you run across reviews of this book some describing it as humorless, others as very funny, you know the author as struck a nerve with those suffering from confirmation bias. It won't change anyone's mind, but serves rather as a way for those who find the ridiculousness of religion, most specifically here the Catholic Church, to reinforce their views.  (Full disclosure:  I fall into this camp.)

Wenke is one of those lapsed Catholics (Catholic schools seem to churn them out by the bucketful; I know a ridiculous number) who delights in pointing out the silliness of Catholic traditions, dogma and doctrines. Now, I'm not Catholic, but I believe the church has done away with the idea of Limbo is not official Catholic doctrine, so his well-reasoned sarcastic remarks easily poking holes in the whole idea resonates, but is irrelevant.

Wenke is right to hold up many of these beliefs to ridicule. So many have little basis in the Bible, not to mention trying to decide which Bible one means: the Old Testament, New Testament, (the Gods of each being quite different)  Aryan or Athanasian view with regard to the Trinity. They all seem so arbitrary and designed to foster political control.

The bottom line is that if you are a non-believer like me, or a lapsed Catholic, you'll find the book a very quick and humorous confirmation of what you already accept, a decent source for pithy and sarcastic explanations of nonsensical religious beliefs.  Fundamentalist Protestants won't even be aware the book exists and most of them think Catholics aren't Christian anyway.  Regular Protestants will enjoy seeing the Catholic Church get skewered, but ultimately it won't have any influence on them.  Justice Scalia will find the book sacrilegious, but who cares what he thinks?  (Did I really say that?)

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a few laughs at the expense of the Catholic Church in return for an honest appraisal of the book.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Dresden: A Survivor's Story (Kindle Single) by Victor Gregg | LibraryThing

Dresden: A Survivor's Story (Kindle Single) by Victor Gregg | LibraryThing:

Ninety-three-year-old Victor Gregg sorts through his memories of surviving the dreadful firebombing of Dresden. Captured at Arnhem, he had escaped from several prisons, but then had committed an act of sabotage that resulted in a death sentence. He was imprisoned with many other condemned men in a long building with a domed glass ceiling in the heart of Dresden.

He barely escaped death in the first wave of bombers; his co-condemned who had been sentenced with him was not so lucky. The walls of their building collapsed and all streamed out as the incendiaries began to fall. Luck was with him as he was conscripted by an extremely conscientious and organized German officer to fight the fires along with a group of soldiers. The task was worse than Sisyphean and they finally hunkered down in a field along the railroad tracks, watching in horror as people were sucked into the fires by extremely strong winds fanning created by the inferno. It wasn’t really what you could call a wind or even a gale, the air that was being drawn in from the outside to feed the inferno was like a solid object, so great was its force. The women were clutching onto the men sensing the danger of being sucked across the open ground into the centre of the enormous bonfire, that had once been the centre of Dresden. Further along the line the station was engulfed. I am not certain that this was the main Railway Station of Dresden but it was a station of sorts. I never got near it, so I cannot say. It had a centre arch, we could all see, which suddenly collapsed and still not one bomb had landed.

Huge tanks filled with water proved to be an illusory haven as the fires heated the water and the slippery sides of the tanks prevented people from escaping leaving them to be boiled alive. Those not trapped in the buildings but who happened to be hit by the phosphorus used in the incendiary bombs became human torches as the phosphoros could not be extinguished.

Their task then morphed into rescue attempts as he and others, soldiers, prisoners, refugees, anyone who could banded together under command of this officer whom he labeled the "General." Their efforts were for naught as they tunneled into cellars where people had sought refuge only to be suffocated as the oxygen was used up by the fires and then their bodies became but piles of rubble. They were hauled out and what remained incinerated in the tanks that had been filled with water.

Told to report to a camp for prisoners, he decided not to risk being recognized as a man marked for execution and so walked east toward the Russian front. He reached it and his skill at getting American Chevy trucks going made him indispensable until he was repatriated to the British Army.

His feelings about the episode remain strong and not a pacifist by any means argues against any future campaigns like those conducted against civilians in WW II. By the time of the bombing of Dresden the formula for the mass murder of civilians had been bought to a fine art. The commanders had developed a technique: first of all fires are started; then canyons of devastated buildings are created to draw the air to feed the inferno thus creating the winds and the fire storm; finally come the blockbusters that demolish everything and trap the helpless victims inside shelters that turn into ovens from which there is no escape. Ironically the ghastly events that I have tried to describe in these pages took place on the Christian holidays of Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.

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Can't Even Begin to Think of a Title

Girlvert: A Porno Memoir by Oriana Small | LibraryThing:

Without question, this book would win every award for the worst cover ever.   The significance of the fist becomes apparent only about mid-way through the book *spoiler* (it relates to bulemia. It stands out to me as much as the first time I had sex (May 27th, 1995). I was thirteen years old. Bulimia and sex started at roughly the same age. I threw up every meal, every day. It gave me pleasure, actually, even though I know it’s not healthy behavior. I loved it—it was exhilarating, I could feel a rush in my entire body, a rush of fluids out of the stomach, mouth, eyes, and nose all at once. I found it more orgasmic than sex, until I finally had orgasms at age nineteen. . . Only in porn would a person’s wretched habit of shoving her hand all the way down her throat be considered a talent. I was praised and encouraged to puke and fist my mouth. It was perfect. I loved myself and my eating disorder.)

Oriana Small, aka Ashley Blue, had a mother who didn't care whether she drank, smoked, had sex, or took drugs.  Mostly because she did all those things herself. Her mother had multiple partners most of whom regarded Oriana from a prurient rather than paternal view.

There are some contradictions. Her story of her mother and stepfathers (her birth father deserted them before her teen years) seeming disregard for her behavior conflicts with this paragraph, However, as gut-wrenching as the idea of my family’s reaction to pornography was, it wasn’t as powerful as the allure. I have never been a good kid. I’ve always liked being bad. I practiced smoking cigarettes in the mirror when I was thirteen and was the first girl to have sex in the eighth grade. I was suspended on my first day of high school for smoking, then again for wearing too short a miniskirt. I knew of better ways to behave, but they were not what I preferred. Breaking the rules was much more exciting. Porn was attractive because I knew it was bad. I didn’t know how I could ever face my aunts, uncles, cousins, and sister afterward, or if my actions would force them to stop loving me. I would be a bigger sinner to them, for sure. None of them would believe that this was the best I could do, or that it would make me happy. These relatives all helped raise me when my own parents failed. I didn’t want to disappoint them. But disappointment was inevitable. It felt like I was choosing porn over family, and my old life was ending.

Getting into the porn industry almost on a whim, and encouraged by her boyfriend, it provided fast and relatively easy money which they needed to fuel their cocaine habit which in turn was fueled by the industry's need for her to be always up and willing.  Lots of details of the porn industry.  Not a pretty scene and one begins to hate Tyler, her boyfriends, a weak, lily-livered SOB, for getting her into it.  Not that she was completely unwilling.  One interesting tidbit, Not a lot of directors like to shoot real couples having sex on film. Couples tend to bring all of their relationship problems into the sex scene and feelings always get hurt. Tyler and I were one of those couples. I preferred to wait until we got in the car to fight, but he liked to slam bathroom doors and pull me aside in front of the other porn people. We would be standing just a couple of feet away from the camera, naked with tears in our eyes, arguing about the amount of love I actually had for him. Every little thing he did at home to irritate me got dragged into the scene.

It's certainly not a way to get rich. What money we didn’t spend on coke went into the pill fund. Even before the porno started, Tyler and I would foolishly buy “E” pills with what little money we had to spare. I remembered simpler days when Tyler and I were so broke that we lived off of frozen edamame and ice cream. That is when you really feel in love for the first time, when you’re poor. We had nothing but each other for comfort and entertainment. It was a beautiful time. Now we had all of this money. Overnight, we had instant success in the porno business and could buy as many drugs as we wanted. We were still young and had our looks, too. The party never had to end. There were many different people who sold us drugs. Tyler always found someone with stuff for sale. He was like a divining rod in a crowd.

Reading the book is like watching a horrible train wreck in very slow motion. It has a certain gruesome fascination, a forlorn hope that no one gets hurt,  but it intrigues nevertheless.
It's a tragic story but with a hopeful ending.

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Sunday, November 03, 2013

Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story Of A Doctor Who Got Away With Murder by James B. Stewart | LibraryThing

Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story Of A Doctor Who Got Away With Murder by James B. Stewart | LibraryThing:

As one might expect, the medical establishment has not been happy with this book. A quick look at reveals more than 70 customer reviews. Those with apparent ties to medicine look askance; those without medical affiliation loved the book although it terrified most readers, including me. Forget traditional vampire and slasher books; this is the real horror Story. 

Michael Swango is a charming, debonair, handsome, and intelligent young man. He’s also a psychopath and a very convincing liar. He has a sterling academic record, scoring in the top of his class in high school, and at Millikin University, finally graduating summa cum laude from Quincy College. He entered SIU’s relatively new medical school in 1979, and was rather odd even then. His classmates remember him as bizarre, indulging in militaristic and antisocial activities, and he kept mostly to himself. He had been a Marine for a while -- his father had served in Vietnam, but even after his two tours of duty remained distant from his children -- and would often drop to the floor and do hundreds of pushups. No one could understand when he found time to study, but he claimed he never slept, and he seemed to have an obsession with death and traumatic accidents. He commuted miles to Springfield, Illinois where he worked as an ambulance attendant. He even gave his name to a peculiar method of cramming for exams. On Saturdays at SIU, exams were given in assorted modules, and Swango would run out of the room after each one and quickly reread the material the next test was to cover. Soon his classmates referred to this as “Swangoing,” a practice they viewed as close to cheating; in fact when it became more generally popular, the administration finally prohibited it. His behavior during his final rotation concerned many fellow students and he came within one vote of expulsion, but he managed to flummox the faculty and graduated late, moving on to a residency in neurosurgery. There, one of his student colleagues noticed that an unusual number of patients went “code,” or died, following seemingly normal or routine visits for histories and physicals by Swango. It even became something of a joke among the students that if you wanted to get rid of someone, “send them to Swango.” He was unable to graduate with his class because he butchered his obstetrics rotation so badly, but graduate he finally did. He was matched to a residency at Ohio State University, where a highly unusual string of deaths took place. 

The nurses -- the relationship between nurses and doctors at OSU was one of master and slave and the nurses were rarely listened to -- were the first to notice weird things, and finally a woman who saw Swango administering an injection to her, whereupon she became almost instantly paralyzed, managed to rattle her bed to get the attention of others and she survived. The investigation that followed is detailed by Stewart, and it’s what I found most disturbing. I can understand how medical schools might not investigate the history of the residents or doctors thoroughly. After all, one tends to be rather trusting, and it’s often difficult not to want to believe what people say, but OSU repeatedly refused to believe the patients’ and nurses’ reports of disturbing events. When the OSU police force and state licensing board later tried to investigate, they were repeatedly stonewalled by a very tight-knit old-boy network. Swango returned to Illinois following his suspension from the OSU program (because of the stonewalling, police were unable to collect evidence related to the deaths) and was hired as an emergency medical technician. He loved working extra hours and regaling everyone with the gory details of traffic accidents and other tragedies. His co-workers noticed that whenever Swango treated any of them to food, he would never eat any, and they became violently ill. They reported their suspicions of attempted poisoning to the police, and Swango was convicted of non fatally attempting to poison his colleagues. A search of his lodgings revealed recipes for poisons, stores of arsenic, and hoards of paralytic agents that were often difficult to trace. Swango served a term in prison, but, after his release, he managed to be matched to a medical residency program in South Dakota. Suspicious deaths again began to occur. This was to be repeated at several locations, Swango always managing to cajole his way into a new position through creative lying and disingenuousness. He eventually wound up in Africa at several missionary hospitals where he was more quickly found out due to a closer working relationship between police and hospital officials. 

The FBI had meanwhile begun an investigation, motivated especially by the death of Swango’s wife before he left for Africa, and they arrested him on his return at O’Hare, managing only to charge him with falsification of records on his medical applications. He was due to be released from prison July 15, 2000, and according to an update in a review of Stewart’s book in the New England Journal of Medicine, he may be charged with murder. Stewart estimates that Swango may have been responsible for killing some sixty people. Dr. Richard Ratzan, NEJM’s reviewer, takes a more responsible position in his reaction to the book than most reviewers with medical ties, who are extremely defensive. Dr. Ratzan notes that, in his 13 years on the Connecticut medical examining board, he could not “think of one case brought to us by another physician. It should be the standard of practice to try to segregate any colleague who we think may be likely to hurt an unsuspecting but trusting person who comes to us sick and asking for help.” Unfortunately, as this book shows, failure to responsibly evaluate colleagues can have tragic results.

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