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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Another Man's Moccasins: Longmire # 4 Review

Sheriff Longmire is back in Wyoming nursing Katie back to health following the devastating attack on her in the last book. This one has parallel plots: one involving a Vietnamese woman whose body was found along a highway, and the other Longmire's experiences as a Marine CID investigator in Vietnam assigned to find the source of some drugs. They begin to merge when Longmire discovers that an elderly Vietnamese was following the woman; he says she was his granddaughter. And then there’s the huge Indian found homeless in an underpass who had also served in Vietnam.

I recommend not starting the series with this book. The development of the characters and their personalities is what drives the series and the intermingling of the Vietnam story with the present day doesn’t always work that well, at least in the audio version. Very ably read by George Guidall.

Well above average police procedural series. However, I continue to think the relationship between Vic, his deputy, and Longmire, is not a path for the author to take. Aside from the March-December aspect, supervisors should never, ever, ever have an intimate relationship with a supervisee. And to make matters worse, Katie is beginning a relationship with Vic’s brother. Tsk, tsk.

I'm reading/listening my way through the entire series

One of the great stories and plays: Becket by Jean Anouilh

If you have never seen Becket, the movie, with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton, you must. It's based on this play by Jean Anouilh that I had never read. I ran across the LA Theaterworks production on Audible and gave it a try. Wonderful production and play. My only complaint is that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the voices to determine who was speaking. If you can, get a copy of the printed play to read along with the audio.

I won't bother with any kind of plot summary. Everyone knows (or should know) the story of Henry II and his stormy relationship with Thomas Becket. It has ethnic and religious conflict; dispute that remain unsettled to this day.

Another great movie related to Henry II is Lion in Winter, also with Peter O'Toole. Get both of them. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Drink Before the War by Dennis LeHane review

I watched and then read Mystic River several years ago and was impressed, but for some reason never started on the Kinzie/Gennaro P.I. series. Thinking it was time to rectify that oversight, I saw there were several available on Scribd, the ebook subscription service, for which I had a thirty-day trial. (This is not a commercial, but if you read a lot of ebooks Oyster and Scribd are worth a look.) I also had the first in the series, A Drink Before the War, from Audible read by Jonathan Davis)

I read several reviews on Amazon, and there were the usual carping from those who demand perfect accuracy regarding historical references and, of course, a couple who refuse to read further as soon as they get some reference to a gun that might have the color of the barrel wrong or some such thing and the others who faint at the first sexual innuendo.

My standards are a bit less prosaic. All I look for in a fictional P.I. series are interesting characters, a reasonable amount of verisimilitude in the way people behave, and respectable writing. When I need information I’ll read history and for superb language there’s always Faulkner.

LeHane more than meets those standards. It a good story that sets the stage nicely for future novels in the series and suitably noir. Gennaro and Kinzie have been hired by some politicians to find a cleaning lady who disappeared and had made off with some important “documents.” Turns out (no surprise) the documents have nothing to do with a pending bill and the two partners have to make some decisions as to the trajectory of their investigation.

I recommend reading the series in order. This first in the series has a lot of back story in the dysfunctional relationships Patrick and Angie had with their father and spouse respectively.

Looking forward to reading more.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

History News Network | University Presidents Are Laughing All the Way to the Bank While the People Who Work for Them Are on Food Stamps

History News Network | University Presidents Are Laughing All the Way to the Bank While the People Who Work for Them Are on Food Stamps:

 "The rapidly-rising tuition at public and private institutions has sent student debt climbing to unprecedented levels. In 2012, students owed a staggering $1.2 trillion, an amount that surpassed Americans’ credit card debt. "

The $2,700 per course for adjuncts seems high for some schools.  At my college, the tenured faculty have a strong union and a very good contract, yet they have stubbornly resisted including the adjuncts in their bargaining unit. As a result, the adjuncts are subsidizing the tenured faculty and if you look at total revenue per courses for each instructor, ALL of the full-time faculty lose money for the college.  I know of several cases where a PT faculty member is carrying a student load that's 55% of that of the FT faculty member in the same department yet being paid less than 20% of the FT faculty member's salary. (And we won't even mention fringe benefits like an office and health care.) The income inequality between tenured and non-tenured is even more startling than for presidents.
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Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Pardon by James Grippando

An innocent man is executed, and a guilty man is set free. Grippando  gets things off to a fast start. 

Jack Swytek is estranged from his father, now the governor, who had been elected on a law-and-order platform, promising to expedite executions. Barely two hours before the electrocution of Fernandez, Jack is visited by a man in a ski mask who, insisting on lawyer-client confidentiality, shows him proof that Fernandez is innocent because he, himself, is the killer.

Jack heads for the governor’s mansion where he and his father face off about the impending execution. Insisting he cannot provide proof of the man’s innocence because of client confidentiality (personally, I would have broken it immediately, self-serving lawyer ethics be damned) Jack is unable to convince his father to call it off.

Shift to a few years later as Jack manages to get a killer’s confession thrown out and the jury releases Goss, a vicious killer.  Then Goss is killed and the governor and Jack are being setup for his murder.  Usually, in a case like this, the premise is undermined by illogical actions of the characters.  Grippando has avoided that by making the rationale for why Jack and his father can’t communicate, quite plausible.

The best legal dramas have great courtroom scenes.  Unfortunately, the courtroom scenes were but a small portion of the book. The plot is ingenious and tricky, although how the killer manages to be in some of those places had me buffaloed. And I knocked off a star for a ludicrous ending.   I had hoped for something much more subtle and intelligent.

Available on Amazon:

Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Plummet

Enjoyable read.  I was a bit disconcerted at first by the backstory backflips which seemed to interfere with the progression of the plot. But, you get used to them, and they fit stylistically after a while.

Three major characters:  Micah Grayson, a new associate at Sullivan & Adler, Raphael Bianco, his mentor, a jaded 7th year associate struggling to become partner, and Gabe Weiss, a partner known as Lord Vader,  who has just killed his wife’s lover.

Really a riveting story.  I’ll read more from this author. One wonders of the character of Micah has more than a few autobiographical elements for the author. He is an attorney from Kentucky who clerked for a judge and then moved to New York to work for a large law firm. The legal profession gets little respect from lawyers who turn to fiction, not to mention non-fiction.  It’s truly depressing.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Wrong Quarry (Hard Case Crime) by Max Allan Collins

I have read all the Keller, Quarry and Parker books except for this, the most recent.  It’s good.

What is it about “hit man” books that attracts us (or me anyway?) I suspect it’s the lifestyle, the hunt, the tracking, etc. The Walter Mitty quality of it all. I think it would be great fun -- except for the killing part.  There I draw the line.  Guess I’d be a lousy hit man.  Come to think of it, I’ve never had women fawning all over me either.  That’s OK, my wife loves me.

Collins has taking Quarry in a novel direction.  Rather than being hired through a middle man to hit people, he’s managed to obtain the list of contacts kept by the broker and is using it to determine who the target might be.  He then contacts the target and offers to eliminate the threat from the hit man -- for a fee, of course.

Cute.  You can read a basic plot summary above, so I don’t feel it necessary to reiterate it. Let’s just say that after the preliminaries, Quarry thinks something's just not right.


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Friday, May 16, 2014

No Downlink: A Dramatic Narrative About the Challenger Accident and Our Time by Claus Jensen

Read in conjunction with Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

The author, a huge fan of Richard Feynman, draws on Feynman's work to discuss the problems and events leading up to the Challenger accident. I remember being at we work when one of the other deans popped in to report the explosion. This was still when Shuttle launches were watched with great interest by the public and the presence of Christa Maculiife added especial interest. Her kids were watching in school. Just imagine...

The Rogers Commission was the result, and Feynman's famous demonstration with ice water and the O-rings made everyone's favorite list of stories. Reagan in his memoirs dismisses the accident in two sentences. We had a problem, identified it, and got on with things. The author explains the systemic flaws in this book that cannot be dismissed so easily.

NASA was symbolic of large systems that surround us today, all very complex, that often devolve into uncontrollable entities where individuals eschew responsibility and suffer from bitter internal politics. Jensen examines the role of management theories in the structure of these large scale systems and the rise of HR (now, as we all know, totally out of control.) He cites Weber’s book on management (it’s impossible to have a large system without a bureaucracy) and discusses the set of principles Weber regarded as key. Note that one of them communication, and how to sort out what’s important from the river of data, was to play a part in the Challenger disaster.

Jensen does a very nice job of the examining management change during the early 60's you have a cyst was on teamwork working together I'm not punishing people for failure and the way management changed over the years before the Challenger accident is instructive He draws heavily in this section on a book I think everyone should read: Normal Accidents. The substantial disadvantages of tightly coupled systems resulted in several problems for NASA and the Apollo and Gemini programs.

Another interesting facet of the book is his examination of the relationship between the industrial/military complex (as defined by Eisenhower) and how NASA was taken over by the military once the lustre of space exploration had waned. The defense department and contractors had so intertwined contracts with thousands of communities and businesses, that it became increasingly difficult for Congressmen to vote against military (and by extension NASA since the military was now often dictating NASA specs) expenditures. 

Soon, as military companies merged large monoliths were created who, thanks to cost-plus contracts, could charge whatever they wanted. We had created a society of state capitalism. But it wasn’t just corporations who fed at government's teat. Universities fought to get grants at the expense of academic freedom. Soon an astonishing 88% of CalTech’s budget was from the government; 66% of MIT’s and even 25% of Harvard’s.

Even as the military denigrated the civilian NASA’s efforts, they were attempting behind the scenes to gain control over the program and the budget. Edward Teller was pushing Star Wars to a technologically ignorant president who loved the fantastical concept. (Never mind that cost estimates approached one trillion dollars -- the balance wouldn’t come due until he was out of office.) NASA meanwhile, had been taken over by true believers ever mindful of the need to keep the budget money flowing. Shuttles were often cobbled together from cannibalized parts from other shuttles to keep to the schedule. (The Air Force had estimated. there was a 1 in 35 chance of a disaster, making the program the most dangerous technological initiative ever.) NASA was not above telling its own version of everything. “Of all the organizations that I have dealt with … I have only seen one that lied. It was NASA. From the top to the bottom they lie … The reason they lie, of course, is because they arc wrapped up in a higher calling. In their eyes they arc white lies. They tell lies in order to do what has to be done. Because in the end the result will be for the betterment of the public. So they arc not lying from evil. But. nevertheless, they are lying.”
Can you imagine starting from scratch and putting a man on the moon in today’s contentious environment? We’d never make it to Boise.

And to follow up on that achievement, the shuttle was developed under extraordinary conditions. “Never before had a new spacecraft carried human beings on its maiden trip. And never, ever before had anyone tried to bring a spacecraft the size of a DC-9 back down through the earth’s atmosphere. Never before had there been rocket engines as powerful as those which would be required here; never before had a rocket engine filled with highly combustible liquid oxygen and hydrogen been ignited on the ground, while positioned right alongside an enormous fuel tank. And never before had it been necessary for a rocket engine to be reused, or to have a total combustion time of over seven hours. All previous rocket engines bad done well if they lasted a modest number of minutes before petering out.” 

And then they wanted to put non-test-pilots on the thing. The idea that an ordinary citizen could travel along was strongly resisted by the astronauts who understood the risks, but management wanted to show the public that space travel could be safe as commercial air travel. But no flight went without some difficulty. In one case a supplier had left out two pins from a spacesuit. Metal shavings were found blocking an oxygen release vent. Fortunately, the mission had to be cut short for other reasons. Had they tried to use the spacesuit it could have exploded, possibly smashing a hole in the orbiter. Problems with brakes were endemic. And the tiles (later linked to the Columbia disaster) were a constant problem.

The problems with the Columbia in the mission preceding that of the Challenger laid the foundation for its explosion. Delayed seven times, it was supposed to carry a Congressmen (who claimed God was instrumental in his going) into space. Each delay meant the countdown (some 2,000 pages) had to be restarted. Then there was a weather delay in getting the Columbia back, a problem because they needed parts off it for the Challenger. So the pressure to launch was immense. And we know the result.

Less a history of just the Challenger disaster, Jensen writes of the history of rocket development in the first section at some length, a distance some readers who prefer focus on the Challenger accident may not wish to travel. I thought it was excellent and provided a good background for some of the technical detail down the road. An excellent book.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Southern Cross: A John Marshall Tanner Novel by Stephen Greenleaf

I attended my 40th high school reunion a few years ago. It was a bit bizarre. I talked about it with my vet some weeks later who, in his inimitably deliberate way explained why he never went to his reunions. "I didn't like the people then, so why would I like them now."  Greenleaf describes it well himself:

“For one thing, it was summer, so the flora was on its most verdant behavior rather than curled in the scruffy somnolence it suffered during most of the academic term. Tempers had flared and moods had plummeted during those dull gray months of winter—loves were lost, friendships severed, studies neglected, often irretrievably. The tardy lift of spring never quite made up for it, not even the year the baseball team went 26 and 5 and Gil and I were named all-league.
       More troubling than the intemperate cycles of botany and meteorology was my sense—grounded in resentments I didn’t know' I had until I boarded the flight that morning—that the attentions lavished on the grounds and buildings, as well as on the pursuits that pulsed within them, contrasted markedly with the neglect of more essential needs. Lack of guidance, or even notable concern, on matters ranging from career choice to social deftness to symptoms of personal dysfunction had left many of my peers, including myself, in a fog that led us down wrong roads. On the day I graduated and went out into the world, I knew more about the Renaissance than I knew about myself.”

At the reunion, Tanner met up with his best friend from college, Seth, who asked him to come to South Carolina where he is an established lawyer and has a  problem. He's made lots of enemies by defending Civil Rights type and most recently a black girl who wants to enter the Palisades, a thinly disguised Citadel.  He’s received an audio tape threatening his life, but what really worries him is that the voice on the tape is that of his son.  With minimal digging, Tanner soon realizes there are connections to events of the early sixties where youth, sex, jealousy, and idealism all collided to affect events twenty years later.

There are many different kinds of enjoyable mysteries: some emphasize action, others ideas, and some language.  Greenleaf’s action is cerebral and displays it in marvelous use of language.  I’ve read about eleven of his fourteen books. I’ll be very sorry to finish them.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Rogue - A Katla Novel (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm

This book grabs you right at the beginning and won’t let go. Laure Cohn is a U.S. agent trying to trap whoever is operating as Loki Enterprises. The U.S. would like to enlist h/her for its own purposes.  They set up a target, hire Loki and then watch as Katla kills the men in the airport on tape and in front of numerous witnesses but they can’t prove a thing, it was so cleverly done.

It’s soon a cat-and-mouse game between numerous police agencies (Deborah Stern is back) and Katla (and Bram who has become much more involved in helping to plan her projects.)

I believe this is the last of the series now available so I hope Halm is hard at work on some more.  I suggest reading the Katla series in order starting with the shorts.  Good, entertaining reading.

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Is Hiding Even Possible?

"What's Kafkaesque, is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behaviour, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world." Kafka Biographer

Professor Vertesi, sociologist at Princeton, in an experiment, tried to prevent marketing types from learning of her pregnancy by eliminating all references on social media and using cash exclusively. The ramifications were more than she bargained for.

Some quotes:  "The first is Melvin Kranzberg's observation that "technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral". Our technologies have values built into them, which is why Vertesi in her talk cites someone's observation that "the iPod is a tool to make us moral" (because it encourages people to buy music rather than download it illicitly) and philosophers argue about whether surveillance encourages moral – ie socially approved – behaviour (think speed cameras)."

"You said you quit all Google products two years ago. What was the breaking point for you?
When Google knew I was engaged before anybody else did, that did it for me."

Friday, May 09, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Swindlers

It begins with an innocent enough conversation. Arthur Morrison, lawyer extraordinaire, has been invited on a yacht by Nelson St. James and his beautiful wife for the weekend.  A strange thing happens when Danielle, St, James’s wife kisses him and wonders why he doesn’t remember her.  It’s only after a visit with an old friend from college, Terry Larson, an ex-prosecutor in Los Angeles, who had been investigating St. James, that Terry tells him Danielle is actually Janine Llewelyn, the little sister of a girl Morrison had wanted to marry, but who had turned down his proposal (much to her later consternation.)
Terry had left the US Attorney’s office in frustration.  He had been building a case against St. James. He had evidence  that the manipulative billionaire  had swindled many people.  He was sure St. James was soon to be indicted and urged Morrison not to take his case if asked.  Sure enough the indictment is handed up, but St. James disappears on his boat.  Then, several months later the boat arrives in San Francisco.  St. James is dead, murdered by his wife the cops insist, and Danielle wants Morrison to defend her against the murder charge.
The charges are all based on circumstantial evidence. The body had gone overboard, the gun had the prints of both husband and wife, no one saw the killing, and Morrison did a wonderful job of planting all sorts of doubt in the minds of the jurors.  Even the monetary motive disappeared when Morrison got St. James’s attorney to reveal the will had been changed so that if he died his wife would get nothing, whereas if he divorced her, the prenuptial would have left her comfortable indeed.  He rests the defense but then Danielle drops a bombshell.  She has told Morrison over and over that she had indeed killed her husband and now she insists, against his counsel, she wants to testify. “I know what I’m doing,” she says.
Buffa has written a fine tale that draws you in.  Just remember the title is in the plural.

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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death

Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death:

I find it ironic that many of those in favor of the death penalty don't believe that government ever gets things right.  Yet, here, where a life is involved they are so sure that big government works.

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Two great quotes

"All those of you who believe in telekinesis, raise my hand."

A Hispanic-looking woman in line in a supermarket is talking on her cell to a friend.  The guy behind her complains to her, "Lady, if you want to speak Mexican, go back to Mexico." To which she replied, " I was speaking Navajo, if you want to speak English, go back to England."

FIRM AMBITIONS (Rachel Gold Mystery) by Michael Kahn

Hmmmm.  How to describe the first chapter of this book.  Rachel has moved to St. Louis where she has started a new firm.  Her first client is, well, how shall we put this.  The case involves a will, an irate wife, fellatio, Big Macs with special sauce, Golden Showers, Visa statements, and the threat of photographs. It’s also very funny.

Although she has sworn never to take another divorce case, Rachel is persuaded by Anne, her sister, to help Eileen Landau. As she soon learns, Eileen is having an affair with Andros, a local fitness instructor, otherwise spelled g.i.g.o.l.o. When Andros turns up dead in a hotel room where he and Eileen were having a tryst and Eileen admits she skipped after watching him in the throes of being poisoned, Rachel knows she has a problem, especially since Eileen took along Andros’s briefcase that contained some rather explicit pictures of the two of them.  But it turns out that Rachel’s sister is also in a photo album kept by the dead man and she is charged with his murder.

Rachel’s investigation begins to turn up all sorts of complications.  Good mystery.  Light on the legal side.   Benny continues to amuse and delight.
To wit:  (pun intended)

“Probably because normal people believe that a bowel movement is a private act,” I said.

Benny clicked off the flashlight and closed his book. “And sex isn’t?”

“Yeah, but sex sells books.”

“I’m not just talking hot-sex junk fiction,” he said. “I’m talking front page of the New York Times Book Review fiction. I’m talking Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike, Alice Hoffman. You’ve got people shtupping like crazy in those books. Blow jobs, hand jobs, rim jobs—you name it.”

I shrugged. “Maybe the authors think that a sexual encounter is a way to reveal something about a character’s personality.”

He gave me an astounded look. “And taking a dump isn’t?”

I'm reading the entire series.

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Friday, May 02, 2014

TRIAL - A Legal Thriller by Clifford Irving

I found this book in a list of recommended courtroom dramas.   It's really good.

Warren Blackburn is trying to rehabilitate his law career after signing his name to an affidavit that contains information he knows is false.  He was trying to help someone get a lighter sentence, believing the man's sob story about needing to stay out of jail to help his kids. Turns out it was bullshit. Warren was lucky to get off with a year's suspension and and probation.

Now having to resort to scrounging up whatever cases the judges will throw at him to defend indigent clients, he stumbles on a capital case, which, on the surface appears to be a prosecutorial wet dream and should plead out quickly.  Problem is his client is innocent of the murder of the Vietnamese man who was killed in a fit of road rage.  We're given that up front.  He’s been seen committing the murder.  Of course, we all know about eyewitness testimony: “As for Siva Singh, Warren saw her as a sincere woman who believed in law and order and wanted to help the police. Eyewitnesses were always so sure of what they had seen. Once they had committed themselves to a story, they had a vested interest in keeping to it. Most eyewitnesses don’t have time to tell red from green or short from tall. They make it up later, without realizing it. Everyone seemed to know that except juries.”

And then Warren is offered second chair in a big murder case where the client is most certainly guilty.  Under pressure from the judge to settle this slam-dunk-for-the-prosecution case, Warren is soon faced with having to take over the big case when the lead attorney dies of a stroke.

The case involves the murder of her husband by a rich woman suspected of having been involved in several other murders. She's claiming self-defense, that her husband attacked her with a poker so she had to shoot him. But one evening during a practice session for the trial she reveals her hatred for Asians, and Warren happens to see some peculiar damage on the front of her car. Damage that could possibly link his two cases together and put him in a horribly awkward position.

Books that present characters with a real moral dilemma are always more interesting than those that don't. This book has a doozy.  The outcome is quite satisfactory.

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