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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: Burglar on the Prowl by Lawrence Block

The “Burglar” series books are always charming and this one is no exception. Bernie is on the prowl for a score but is soon (as usual) enmeshed in a murder that brings new meaning to the word “complicated.” The plot is intricate and the “long arm of coincidence” sets off his internal alarms and you might think it overreaches, but these books are read for the style and dialogues. In classic style, Bernie gets everyone together for the final denouement.

Lots of fun.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: B-Shifter by Nick Brunacini

Brunacini begins this book with a description of the 1960’s fire that almost killed his father, a captain at the time, working a diner fire. They were making an interior attack and making good progress. The roof had been ventilated, the windows smashed to move the heat out, when the Battalion commander arrived. He loved to direct traffic so after ordering the arriving ladder trucks to pour water (8 tons a minute) on the fire from above, and without waiting to find out where the truck and engine companies were he went off to direct traffic.

As we all know, heat rises and all that water forced the heat and smoke back down into the building and on to the firemen working below. In those days, breathing apparatus consisted of filters over the nose and mouth that would routinely get clogged with soot and debris which would then get wiped off and a modicum of breath could then be taken in. His partner pulled him out technically dead, no pulse. Fortunately an ambulance was on scene (this was one of the changes the almost dead fire captain made when he became chief -- have the fire department take on EMS responsibilities.) They stuck in an airway and got him revived on the way to the hospital. Nick’s father, Alan, became one of the best respected fire chiefs in the country making many changes. He was one of the first to study fire science and brought about numerous safety changes, this in a profession that was resistant to any kind of change. (Giving up horses to pull the wagons was a battle and for years captains insisted on washing the fire engines’ wheel before backing into the station as they formerly had been covered in manure.)

Firefighters have always been deeply conservative and resistant to change. In fact, the old saying goes that George Washington was head of a fire company and when he left to go somewhere told his deputy not to change anything. George then died before he returned and they refused to change anything since. There’s real competition to be the first on the nozzle since putting water on a fire is a real rush. Most calls are medical ones, often to the same lonely people with morphing ailments, so the firefighters often long for a good structure fire. “Firefighters will search out and fight over a nozzle much like Bulls sniff out and fight over cows in heat. Bulls do it because their biology programs it into them ; firefighters exhibit these behaviors because at the very core, we are self-destructive adolescents”

It’s an often humorous book but he often writes beautifully about the job. Each fire has its own personality. Most structure fires are hot and smoky with little to no visibility. You generally don't see much flame. If the immediate fire area is vertically ventilated before you actually find and extinguish the blaze, the smoke and heat rise up and away. This makes for a very beautiful fire. Sometimes you can see all the solid fuel vaporize into gas. Sofas, chairs, wallpaper, children's toys and everything else in the fire area retain their basic shapes, but their surfaces radiate an aura of transparent energy finished with a blue shy blush of flame. Nature is one serious bitch. Especially when the water pressure from the hose disintegrates a burned body.

Very enjoyable read.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Obama as Conservative

The labels conservative and liberal have lost all meaning as a way to define the current crop of politicians. Obama, in particular, resists those labels. His signature achievement, the so-called ObamaCare, is a virtual copy of the plan developed by the Heritage Foundation in 1991 and then submitted to the Senate in 1993 as the Health Equity and Access Reform Act by the Republican leadership as an alternative the abortive health reform proposals of the Clintons. The proposal included the following features: An individual mandate; Creation of purchasing pools; Standardized benefits; Vouchers for the poor to buy insurance; A ban on denying coverage based on a pre-existing condition. Sound familiar? That bill was copied by Romney in Massachusetts for his own state health care plan, and then Obama copied it in large part from what Romney had created in Massachusetts. Which probably explains why it hasn’t worked that well, but doesn't explain the thoughtless opposition from the Republicans. They were essentially dissing their own plan. Ironically, the Clinton plan contained a mandate, but it was an employer mandate; the Republican/Heritage Foundation alternative proposed an “individual” mandate. Obama himself has said the health exchange idea came directly from the Heritage Foundation’s proposals of 1991.

In foreign policy, Obama’s root are equally conservative. Jeffrey Goldberg in his recent article in The Atlantic noted that Obama is a foreign policy pragmatist who admired Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,”) who was President H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor. His general philosophy, in opposition to his advisor and UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell, is that American soldiers should not be placed in harm’s way unless the United States is directly threatened, and that it is not our role to solve humanitarian crises or to attack foreign sovereigns who may be slaughtering their own citizens. She the interventionist; he the non-interventionist. Ironically, he is proud of not having enforced the “red line” while most of the European diplomats (at least according to John Dickerson) suggest that was a terrible strategy showing weakness. You can’t say you will do something and then not do it. “Presidents’ words have to mean something.” Goldberg also quotes Obama as saying that you have to have something in place after destroying a country (speaking of Libya which has now descended into chaos), a lesson he should have learned from Bush’s mistakes in Iraq, mistakes Obama campaigned against in 2008.

The current debates on both the Republican and Democratic stages have been ramping up of the rhetoric to unsustainable levels, all subtlety having been lost. Robert Gates has noted that in the debates (Gates, for my money, would have been an outstanding Republican candidate for president, having read his memoir Duty in which he displays a serious understanding of foreign policy but also the difficulties of the “shadow government.”) Gates has little respect for Obama’s foreign policy (he served as Defense Secretary under Obama) but even less for the Republican crop of candidates: ““People are out there making threats and promises that are totally unrealistic, totally unattainable. Either they really believe what they’re saying or they’re cynical and opportunistic and, in a way, you hope it’s the latter, because God forbid they actually believe some of the things that they’re saying.”


Review: Hidden River by Adrian McKinty

Audiobook: Ex-DCDS (Detective Constable Drug Squad), Alec Lawson, is unemployed, living with his Dad, and hooked on heroin when they learn of the death of Victoria Patawaski, his first girlfriend, who had ostensibly been killed during a mugging in the United States (we know from the beginning that’s not the case.) The story unfolds like the peeling of an onion with multiple layers and the reason for Lawson’s addiction comes to the fore along with revelations of the corruption higher in the police force.

Lawson is paid by the girl’s father to travel to Denver and find out what happened to his daughter. He had received an anonymous letter from someone in Denver suggesting that the mugging was not that at all, but rather a deliberate killing. Alex and his friend John are soon sought by the Denver police for an accidental killing and Alex has been warned that if he returns to Belfast he’ll be killed by those in the police wishing to hide their involvement in illegal activities. It’s no wonder he seeks refuge in smack. The killing is related to Victoria's involvement with an environmental organization run by a couple of brothers with political ambitions.

But therein lay one of the problems with the story. I had trouble believing that anyone who had become so dependent on heroin could function quite as brilliantly and covertly as Alex does. Hidden River is one of McKinty's early books, and while it reveals some of the really wonderful plotting and writing of the Sean Duffy series (which I really like - all of them), it had a tendency to be unfocused in spots and overly long (that's hard for me to admit since I generally like long books.) Perhaps it’s the locale, McKinty really shines when his stories are situated in Ireland.

Here’s a nice metaphor: “She had a smile like a sun-drenched cornfield over a missile silo.”

Gerard Doyle does his usual outstanding narration.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Utah v Streiff: The Prevalence of Arrest Warrants

I was listening to the oral arguments of this case Monday and was struck by some rather incredible statistics: in some poorer black communities as many as 80% of the citizens have outstanding arrest warrants, most for minor traffic offenses. So part of the question was whether the police had an incentive to randomly stop people just for the purpose of warrants checks.

What happened in this case was that the officer was observing a house for suspected drug activity based on an anonymous tip. He saw a fellow leave the house and walk away. In what was admitted by the state to be an unlawful stop, the officer searched the man and found some drug paraphernalia (this was ruled inadmissible because the stop was illegal) but the officer also did a warrants check and discovered an outstanding arrest warrant so the man was arrested. Streiff was arguing that the warrants check should also have been thrown out because the stop was illegal.

I was a bit sympathetic to the officer until I remembered a more personal case. When my oldest son was in his twenties he had trouble paying his car insurance so I decided to help him by paying it for him. In Illinois, if ever you don't pay your car insurance, you go into a pool that has to purchase a certain kind of insurance that's tracked by the state. I did not know that. I was just paying regular insurance. The cost was the same. Because of that a warrant was issued for his arrest. (Note that you are not notified of a warrant for your arrest.) As it happens, he was stopped in the small town (pop. 1500) close to where we live after visiting us with his daughter, age 11, for going 40 mph in a 30 mph zone. The local cop ran a warrants check, found the warrant, placed my son in handcuffs, (leaving his daughter on the sidewalk - fortunately she called us with her cell phone or she would have been just left there) and my son was hauled off to jail. Whether the fact that my son is black (he's adopted) and my granddaughter mixed race in an overwhelmingly white community is relevant in the cop's conduct, I leave to your imagination. We got it all straightened out, but my son had to spend a night in jail for what ultimately was my mistake.

It was clear from the colloquy between Justice Alito and Justice Sotomayor that Justice Alito had no idea that the issuance of warrants is automatic in traffic offenses (not to mention failure to appear for jury duty, and parking tickets) and that many otherwise innocent people are out there walking/driving around with warrants they may not even know about. The way she called him out on it though hardly bodes well for collegiality in the future.

Interesting to see how this one will turn out; probably 4-4 thus affirming Utah Supreme Court's overturning of the lower courts. Audio