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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill

I really enjoy the audiobooks of the Dalziel and Pasco series that are read by Brian Glover. Great accent, although it's occasionally hard to decipher, but the voices are great.

Dalziel witnesses the murder of a woman. Problem is that his story doesn't match those of others present in the room. As one would expect, his badgering and harassment soon reveals a host of nefarious activities.There's a side plot, the outcome of which I found a bit bizarre and unsatisfying. A woman has written to Dalziel that she intends to commit suicide and there i an underlying challenge for him to find her. He dismisses, it and it remains for Pasco, at the very end of the book to discover the woman's identity. In the meantime, Dalziel has been cast as God (!) in a local play.  

Several readers have complained the book is not one of Hill's best and that the book drags. The beauty of the series is in the language, ribaldry, and the characters and their interactions. 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Review: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Audiobook: Bill Bryson is a national treasure. I have read all of his books except the most recent and that problem will be remedied shortly. My wife and I especially enjoy listening to Bryson read his own work while driving; Bryson never fails to entertain and inform, the best combination ever.

This book is no exception. He uses the year 1927 as a springboard to recount events and people that defined early 20th century culture such as Lindbergh’s flight, Babe Ruth’s prowess, Tilden’s unusual skill, and Herbert Hoover’s self-aggrandizement. Some of the events have been forgotten and startled me. I don't remember ever hearing of the Bath Massacre. Andrew Kehoe was about to lose his farm to foreclosure and he blamed the school district taxes for his dilemma (ironically he was school board treasurer who had just been defeated for reelection). He packed hundreds of pounds of explosives in the basement of a local school and then watched from his car as children’s body parts were hurled into the air from the massive explosion. 38 elementary school children and six adults were killed with over fifty others injured. That the death was not higher was only because the explosives under other wings of the building did not ignite. More people were killed when he blew up his shrapnel-filled truck with himself in it while rescuers were trying to get children out of the destroyed building. It was shortly discovered he had murdered his wife who was dying of tuberculosis and set fire to all his farm buildings. Sandy Hook pales by comparison.

Another interesting tidbit. When Lindbergh made his famous flight, no one was quite sure how he would be received. The United states was hated by most of Europe, but France and Britain in particular, as they had been forced to take out loans to aid Austria after the war. Congress had forbidding American money to be spent on current or former enemies, so this was a way around that prohibition. Austria then defaulted on the loans, but Congress insisted that France and Britain repay the loans, with interest, even though the U.S. had prospered since a requirement of the transaction was that all the money had to be spent in the United States, a clever form of double-dipping.

Prohibition was one of those curious American phenomena and probably the only case in which of government deliberately poisoned its citizens. Because of the nature of alcohol being used for so many different other purposes besides drinking Industrial alcohol was often denatured and adulterated by the government with all sorts of these are poisons including strychnine so that those people who drank it illegally would suffer the consequences. It was another interesting fact was that many states were upset about the Volstead Act because they lost so much revenue in fact New York's revenue was cut in half when they lost the tax revenue from the sale of alcohol. It made criminals out of honest people, too. (War Against Drugs, anyone?) Churches had an exception (of course) and one church in California offered fourteen different vintages of communion wine. Doctors could prescribe whiskey and it’s estimated that loophole brought them some $40,000,000 in revenue. And, it was dangerous. The murder rate went up by 30%. The revenue agents themselves killed 23 innocent bystanders in a short period of time.

Henry Ford is highlighted. Brilliant in some ways, obnoxious and bigoted in most, he was the only American to have been mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf. Among his more interesting failures was Fordlandia, an attempt to build an all-American city in the middle of the Brazilian jungles. Those who worry about Amazon’s desire to control, will only marvel at Ford’s obsession to control all aspects of his care production so as to keep costs to an absolute minimum in order to produce the best car for the least amount of money. (Part of the reason why he invented the forty-hour week and double his workers pay was to help keep workers from leaving but also so they would have enough money to be able to buy his cars.) Fordlandia was an effort to return Brazil to its former glory as a rubber producer. Ford, the largest consumer of rubber in the world, wanted to control prices. He failed miserably. His manager was a thug, diseases and noxious animals were rampant. Greg Grandin has written a history of the city, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, which I have acquired and look forward to reading.

Another fascinating section discusses the development of radio and television and that greatest of unknown 20th century inventors Philo Farnsworth who came up for the idea of using a cathode ray tube to display images while plowing his father’s field. Ironically, it was a businessman with no inkling of the mechanics of radio that made it ubiquitous. David Sarnoff’s genius was making the connection between content and device. Who would buy a radio if there was nothing to listen to? The first public demonstration, a broadcast of a boxing match turned out to be a fraud as a technical difficulty prevented the live broadcast, but the huge crowd in Times Square listening on speakers to an imaginative reader of ticker tape thought it was live, and that’s all that mattered. Soon NBC was having to create all sorts of expensive content to be delivered for free to radio listeners. Enter advertising.

Bryson’s writing is a delicious melding words and phrases together that routinely bring a smile to your face (the Tribune’s lawyers revealed the shallow waters of his mind - re Ford). Or after talking about the number of flying accidents he mentioned the man who was injured by a whirling propeller being hit on the head and having his arm sliced off, “leaving him much diminished.”

Bryson’s audio narrative whets the reading appetite.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: The Huckleberry Murders by Patrick McManus

This is a marvelous series: delightful characters, humor, a decent mystery. What more could you ask for.

Sheriff Bo Tully is off to collect huckleberries so his mother can bake him some pies when he meets three hysterical women who have discovered three bodies. There are three hard looking men in town worth investigating. And a local wife who insists her ex-husband has been murdered. Because the bodies were found on federal land, the FBI sends an agent to verify that the investigation is done properly. She soon falls under the spell of doing things the "Blight" way. There's also some raft poling. :)

Series keeps getting better.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Review: Jig by Campbell Armstrong

Being sucker for Irish mysteries, I picked this one up. It's first in the Frank Pagan series. Pagan is a British cop sent over to the U.S. in pursuit of an IRA assassin, nicknamed Jig, who, in turn has been told to track down those who had stolen $10 million intended for the IRA. Throw in a psychotic Protestant minister with his own agenda and the FUV (Free Ulster Volunteers) and things get surprisingly messy with colliding agendas. Pagan and Jig are forced to link up in order to sort things out as ostensible IRA terrorism comes to the United States. To say more would ruin the surprises.

While I wouldn't say this was a favorite book, I will look for more titles by Campbell Armstrong, whose books are being reissued by OpenRoadMedia. Armstrong died in 2013.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Avalanche by Patrick McManus

This is the second Bo Tully story I have read and it's even more enjoyable than the first. The interplay between the characters, Bo father and ex-sheriff who made a fortune as a corrupt sheriff, Lurch, his CSI, Daisy, the secretary, and Herb, the under-sheriff, is charming and humorous.

Bo is called to a resort in the mountains to investigate the disappearance of the co-owner. On the way they are barely missed by an avalanche which we soon learn was deliberately aimed at his vehicle. No more spoilers. The series is a lot of fun, and I intend to read all of them. Reminiscent of the delightful "liturgical" mysteries by Mark Schweizer that are often laugh-out-loud funny.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Review: Afterthoughts by Lawrence Block

This is a collection of afterwords taken from an assortment of Block reissues in which Block (one of my favorite crime writers) discusses the genesis of many of his earlier works and includes autobiographical details that surround the writing.

If you have ever heard Block read one of his own books (he is a master narrator, by the way) you’ll hear his unique cadence even in some of these short essays.

Reading the book is like sitting with Block in a dimly lit bistro and having a lovely chat with an old friend.

Review: The Sledge Patrol: A WWII Epic of Escape, Survival, and Victory by David Howarth

The east coast of Greenland is a vast wasteland inhabited only by a few intrepid hunters. Technically a Danish colony, some 2200 miles away and geographically part of North America, the Greenland governor decided to cast the island’s lot with the allies, after Denmark was overrun by the Germans. It was of strategic importance to the United States and Britain who needed weather reports in order to predict weather over Europe. I didn’t realize just how far north the country is until I looked at a globe. It’s a forbidding country, uninhabited by only a few natives, and with severe weather.

A small group of Arctic-loving Norwegians and Danes protected the vital radio and weather equipment under very difficult circumstances. Ironically, the German captain sent to invade and seize the station was an Arctic climate lover himself and was sympathetic to those who lived and worked there. One cannot help but admire the hardiness of these folks who thought nothing of walking, often with hardly any supplies but a rifle to ward off polar bears, hundreds of miles in horrible conditions, thinking nothing of it.

The culture of these Arctic lovers and Eskimos was the antithesis of what was going on in the rest of the world. To survive they needed to be able to help each other and to count on that assistance. The prospect of shooting someone else or anything not for food was completely foreign to the Eskimos, especially, who had no comprehension of why the fighting was going on hundreds of miles away. The entire Greenland “army” consisted of nine (!) men tasked with patrolling an immense coastline. That they ever ran into anyone else is simply astonishing.

David Howarth has done a service of showing us how WW II was truly a *world* war and how it affected even desolate parts or the globe. Fascinating. I suspect some of it was fictionalized as the internal monologues and thinking of some of the participants must have been impossible to document.

N.B. The Wikipedia article on Greenland is quite interesting. It had been populated by people from Iceland until the Little Ice Age of the 13th and 14th centuries when settlements were abandoned. Study of bones shows the populace had been very malnourished. Growing anything must have been close to impossible. One theory, though, holds that they failed because of their Euro-centric thinking driven by the Church and large landowners, when to be successful they should have adopted the culture and ways of the Inuit. The article on Greenland in WW II ( provides additional detail and led me to Sloan Wilson’s Ice Brothers which I will start this afternoon. (Gotta love Kindle and credit cards.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: The Blight Way by Patrick McManus

Charming police procedural of the cozy kind; a Steven Havill novel with more humor, if you will. McManus is a humor writer and this series departs from that genre, but the quirkiness of the characters has a subtle humor that helps you appreciate and like them.

The main character is Sheriff Bo Tully who is called by the local miscreant family to their ranch where a man has been found shot and draped over a fence. Realizing they would be the logical suspects, they thought it might be best to phone it in. Then, again, had they done it, the body would have been buried and not found. Tully knows that. Turns out Vern Littlefield's new wife and the new hands on his ranch (ostensibly he was switching from cattle to grapes!) may be part of something nasty. Tully bring his father along (the former sheriff) for curmudgeonly relief.

The timid among us who are fearful of being exposed to a "bad" word will appreciate McManus as with the Posadas County mysteries. I don't mind one way or the other. The book was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and I will read more in the series.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review: The Devil's Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers by Vicki Ward

A fascinating look at the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers, an investment bank that went bankrupt as a result of hubris and wild speculation in the real estate market and the people that rose and fell with it. I have read numerous books about the tragic effects of credit default swaps and other speculative financial “instruments” that, while the market continued to go up, made spectacular fortunes for people who came to believe they could do no wrong.

The author had access to the notes and journals of Joe Gregory (who ironically refused to be interviewed,) the company’s president. He began the journals in 2003 by encouraging executives to write up they perceptions of the history of the firm. He discovered a huge disparity (as any historian could have predicted) in their accounts and abandoned his goal of writing a history. Those piles of notes proved invaluable to the author.

The company, under its CEO Dick Fuld, who had worked his way up and was with them his whole forty year career, developed its own lavish lifestyle. "As a Lehman wife, you raised your kids by yourself. You had your babies by yourself in the hospital. And then you were supposed to be happy and pretty and smiling when there was an event, and you really would have liked to strangle somebody,” a senior executive's wife explained. Executives were told what to wear, what charities to donate to, how to spend their time, it was a nice little capitalistic oligarchy. " Lehman was the last of the Wall Street firms to go casual on Fridays.” They were extremely competitive and cutthroat. That single-mindedness lead Time to labeled Fuld as one of 25 executives in the country most responsible for the collapse of 2008.

Many people blame the catastrophe on the repeal of Glass-Steagal which had prohibited banks from speculating with their customer’s assets. That’s probably overly simplistic and hardly mentioned in this book that focuses more on the personalities than the precise speculative strategies that inevitably ballooned into an unsustainable bubble. All of Wall Street conspired to create more and more ways of loaning money and then turning those high-interest, often sub-prime, loans into ways of betting money. As long as prices went up everything was rosy; the collapse was spectacular.

The section on Paulson and Geitner’s roles in the “bail-out” is quite interesting. It probably won’t change any minds on whether Lehman should have been bailed out, too or not. And that’s probably my biggest complaint. I would have liked to see conclusions from the author (with evidence for or against) for whether it indeed should have been done. But then again, the book was more about Lehman and that would have widened the scope. It’s a fun, breezy, cautionary book about a sad time that hurt a lot of people but probably not those who should have been hurt. It was published in 2010 so don’t expect the longer view which I need to read.

The blame, however, ultimately belongs to all of us. We all want and need the stock market and Wall Street to thrive and support pension funds, etc., without which we would all be in terrible shape. That said, a return to more regulation would be in all our best interests.

And who said the monarchy was dead. It thrives in the business world. Trump should know.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Review: The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the Energy Revolution and Changed the World by Russell Gold

Russell Gold is a Wall Street Journal reporter whose family had purchased a small Pennsylvania farm as a retreat from Philadelphia.  His parents were approached by an oil company offering them $400,000 plus royalties for the right to drill under their land. Being old time sixties environmentalists they were reluctant but it’s a lot of money and since almost all their neighbors had bought in they figured they might as well. He returns to their story periodically throughout the book to highlight the personal conflicts people have.

Gold provides a riveting account of the development of fracking from its extraordinary technological success to its environmental impacts.  It’s truly astonishing that this intricate technology has resulted in the United States becoming a net energy exporter barely a decade after “peak oil” had been proclaimed. The book mixes technical details with profiles of the major players, often focusing on the financial details, which can’t be easily separated from the evolution of oil drilling.

It’s perhaps ironic, that most of the anti-fracking environmental antagonism comes from geographical areas not affected by the drilling. Larger cities that depend on natural gas and heating, for example, have become hotbeds of anti-fracking activity, yet those people are little affected by the economic and environmental plusses and minuses of the activity except for lower prices for energy.

Some of the allegiances formed to promote fracking are interesting.  The Sierra Club worked with Chesapeake Energy to fight the development of coal plants in Texas and elsewhere, arguing that global warming was a far greater threat.*  That Chesapeake was giving them substantial amounts of money didn’t hurt either, but the environmental group has become split among those favoring just conservation opposed to some realists arguing that it’s better to focus on energy that reduces the carbon footprint like natural gas and nuclear power. Ironically, the shift to natural gas means the U.S., which hasn’t ratified the Kyoto protocols, will come closer to meeting the reduction in carbon emissions than any of the signatories.

Gold says that’s a very good thing and supports fracking (the reason why it’s now spelled that way as opposed to the more technically popular “fracing” is interesting) but notes the industry and regulators need to work on better sealing of the wells which is where most of the problems arise. Surprisingly, there was no mention of fracking-generated earthquakes, although perhaps being published in 2014, the concern had yet to be raised.

No energy generating process is unopposed.  Dams drown villages; mines are dirty and dangerous; transporting fuel in pipelines, ships, and trains risks spills and fires; drilling is obnoxious, wind generators destroy the landscape and kill birds; and nuclear, in many ways the least harmful, suffers from ignorance of new technology and problems of early technology.

A very interesting read.

*Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame has embraced GMOs, nuclear energy, and other technologies, arguing that global warming is the greatest threat.  An interesting article detailing his evolution in thinking is

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Review: The Run of his Life: The People versus O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin

I remember the intense discussions surrounding the trial and the O.J. trial and the passions it engendered. We didn’t have over-the-air TV at the time (still don’t and don’t care) so we could only follow in the newspapers and on the radio.

Recently we watched the docudrama based on this book. It’s excellent and those participants who are still with us have indicated it’s quite accurate. I’ve always enjoyed Toobin’s books so I looked this one up; it’s spellbinding, providing a lot more detail and background than the TV show ever could.

To those insisting the jury should have found OJ guilty, I reply that the jury saw only a fraction of what TV viewers saw. They were sequestered for close to eight months with no access to TV or newspapers (the section on the jury revolt is entertaining) and of the original 12 seated jurors, only three remained by the end of the trial. I don’t know what would have happened had they run out of alternates and that was close to happening. The jurors were treated like prisoners for the many months of the trial, often being sent out of the court while the lawyers argued over interesting points of law, many times with attendant fireworks. They were not permitted TVs or radios, had their newspapers censored and cut up, had their room keys taken away every night, and were permitted one “conjugal” visit per week with their spouse. Conversations with other jurors were monitored to make sure they didn’t talk of the trial.

Couple all this with the long history of police abuse of blacks in Los Angeles and you have a recipe for the verdict. Toobin sets the stage with a short history of the LAPD. It was another of those unintended consequences where an attempt to do something really good backfired in the long run. In an effort to eliminate the rampant corruption that had become the LAPD, it was separated from the highly political world and redesigned to become a more meritocracy. The LAPD became an entity unto itself, completely unaccountable, very self-defensive, and unfortunately a bastion of white privilege and racism.

Toobin gives a great deal of credit for the verdict (aside from a lot of prosecutorial arrogance and incompetence) to Barry Scheck (one of the early founders of the Innocence Project) on the defense team whose meticulous study of the DNA evidence and development of the complicated almost self-contradictory theory that the LAPD was both incredibly incompetent while being sinisterly brilliant. He worked tirelessly, unlike the more famous lawyers on the team who often seemed more interested in their own careers than their client’s future. Scheck’s theory melded perfectly with Cochran’s race-oriented approach and between the two provided mountains of doubt for the jury to deliberate.*

Ultimately, the question came down to reasonable doubt. A key moment was when Furman pled the fifth when he was asked if he had manipulated the evidence. That alone would supply enough reasonable doubt, not to mention the debacle with the glove, I would have voted for acquittal, too. The trial testimony reeked of reasonable doubt in spite of overwhelming physical evidence of Simpson’s guilt.

Some very amusing phrases by Toobin: “On the night of the murders, the jury learned, Kaelin spent from 7:45 to 8:30 P.M. in O.J.’s Jacuzzi—a marination of almost superhuman duration;” and describing one of the prosecutors as “ a trial lawyer with the stage presence of a voice-mail attendant.”

*A comment on how Schenk’s actions in the Innocence Project and the Simpson trial might appear at odds: “According to Richard Lewontin, a professor of population genetics at Harvard, ‘Unlike most lawyers, Barry and Peter really know what they’re talking about when it comes to the technology. When they’ve defended clients, they’ve done brilliant work in showing the problems with the DNA labs. On the other hand, I have to say, they have no compunction about supporting the technology when it’s useful for the defense. They are defense attorneys—and they’re not always consistent, because they’re defense attorneys.’ “

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Kansas City Archdioceses and the Girl Scouts

The Archdiocese of Kansas City has embarked on a silly crusade against the Girl Scouts, arguing that the Girl Scouts are somehow allied with Planned Parenthood and therefore not in tune with Catholic values. Fine. Aside from the Catholic tradition of protecting pederasts (see Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal by David France, innumerable other books, not to mention the Ferns report in Ireland that documented widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests and many other books and articles,) the church has embarked on a path that seeks to force those of different religious persuasions to adopt their view. The Girl Scouts position is clear

One argument is that there is no explicit right to abortion in the Constitution. Explain to me where there is *not* that right. There are plenty of unenumerated rights. That's the whole point of the 9th and 10th amendments. Individuals have every religious right to be against abortion under the free exercise clause, but the establishment clause prohibits government from providing support for any(!) religious belief system. The Catholic Church in recent years (contrary to their stated positions during the anti-Catholic wave when Kennedy was running for president) is trying to force society in general into adopting their anti-sex, anti-abortion, anti-contraception, very narrow religious point-of-view, and trying to get government (read their position in the Hobby Lobby case not to mention Notre Dame's silly argument that was destroyed by Posner in the 7th Circuit) to enforce their religious views. That's a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Another argument is that murder was against the law at the time of the writing of the Constitution. Certainly. But abortion as murder is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even St Thomas Aquinas didn't consider abortion to be murder until the "quickening" of the fetus, something that occurs around the 20th week. (The idea that a fetus could be human before the formation of the cerebral cortex is ludicrous.) "Although Bracton said that abortion of a quickened fetus was homicide, later writers insisted that it could not be homicide at common law. The proposition that abortion cannot be homicide is reiterated by practically every major writer on English criminal law, from William Staunford and William Lambard in the sixteenth century, through Edward Coke and Matthew Hale in the seventeenth century, to William Hawkins and William Blackstone in the eighteenth century. Homicide was agreed to require the prior birth of the victim."* The writers of the Constitution were intimately familiar with those writers. Abortion was an ecclesiastical offense. Don't inflict your narrow religious views on the rest of us. We believe in the free exercise of religion, not the free exercise to practice only one form of religion.

Even more ironically, if the Catholic Church had any sense, they would be supporting Planned Parenthood, which promotes and supports contraception. Preventing pregnancy obviously reduces abortion. If they were really serious about opposing abortion, they would be standing on the street corners handing out condoms.

*Read more: Abortion - Abortion In English Law - Fetus, Quickening, Homicide, and Century - JRank Articles

Other excellent reading is "Facts of Life: Science and the abortion Controversy" by Harold Morowitz
and The True Meaning of the Establishment Clause

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Fine Line Between Indignity and Inanity, or, The Travails of Travel

I was thinking over recent events related to travel while basking in a hot shower this morning and the difference small things can make to the general impression of a trip. I recently returned from a very pleasant trip to Seattle. I had a great trip out on the Empire Builder. The train arrived early, the accommodations were very nice, the food good; it was very relaxing. Seattle itself was its usual charming and wet self, but the rain made itself known mostly when I wasn't outside walking around (or perhaps I was just clever enough to schedule myself around it.) The museums were all spectacular and everything was fun, public transportation making it easy and inexpensive to get around.

The return trip on a new American Airlines 737-800 was as to be expected, overbooked, very full, cramped (the poor tall fellow next to me in the middle seat suffering from a cold which he indelicately managed to transfer to me) spent the four-hour flight with his knees in his nose after the girl in front of him reclined her seat all the way. (Why do we need to have seats that recline, anyway?) He never complained (no doubt being a seasoned and hardened traveler used to the indignity of it all.) The flight entertainment system was quite good, and I had some nice NC earphones, so my suffering was no worse than usual.

The worst part of any flight now, as every traveler knows, is the airport and TSA. From the moment you set foot in the terminal you realize that everyone (even other passengers) views you as the "enemy" and potential terrorist. Loudspeaker messages remind you to constantly be vigilant for unattended bags, people nervously eye others (especially those of darker skin or wearing a turban); interminable lines where dogs walk up the lines sniffing for explosives, currency, drugs and probably also liquids over three ounces (give me a chemist and I'll show you how to create a problem with fewer than three ounces.)

After waiting patiently in line for 30 minutes and removing belt, shoes, and emptying pockets so I could be body scanned, my carry on was selected for hand search. No problem, I always arrive at the airport at least three hours early -- that's what Kindles and laptops are for, right? Of course, that meant extra waiting until the surliest TSA rep showed up. (One dares not try to be friendly or joke with these guys, that's guaranteed to make them suspicious, after all you are a potential terrorist.)

Now, I like to avoid buying plastic bottles whenever possible, and I had my usual container with less than 3 ounces of Mt. Dew (it's a clear bottle) in my bag, intending to fill it up with water later (I was trying to ration my doses of caffeine). The guy holds it up, looks at me clearly disapprovingly; after all, I'm white, 70-years-old, with a beard so clearly a threat, and wanted to know what it was. Not wanting to make a problem, I offered to drink the contents right there. I was informed that in order to do so I would have to exit security and drink it outside security and then go through security again. Or, throw the bottle in the trash (well he would, I wasn't allowed to touch anything.) So much for that bottle. I have racked my brain trying to figure out how we are safer by drinking the contents outside security, just making more work for them but having to process me all over again. But what the hey.

Now I enjoy flying, i.e. being in a plane as it goes up and down, but the airport experience has gotten so ridiculous, the inane approaching indignity, that from now on it's car or train (I'd have to be chained and dragged on to a bus -why aren't there luxury non-stop buses with wi-fi and snacks to get places?) When the airport experience (I do hate that word) becomes so inane that it approaches the ridiculous, it's time to get off.

Review: Back to Bologna by Michael Dibdin

If you like Aurelio Zen novels, this book might disappoint you. If you enjoy Michael Dibdin, you’ll love this story. Aurelio is really just a peripheral character. He’s recovering from surgery and trying to fix his relationship with Jenna. (Reading some of the earlier novels first would be useful.) Dibdin’s goal in this wickedly funny and cynical view of Italian academia and upper crust is to skewer the phoniness of the elites and famous. Lots of in jokes including a hidden appearance of Umberto Eco disguised as Eduardo Ugo as a semiotics professor which gives you an idea of Dibdin’s humor.

I suggest reading some of the earlier books in the series and Googling “Ruritania.” The crime is irrelevant and plays second fiddle to Dibdin’s irreverent look at Italiana and gentle spoofing of Italian detective stories. Dibdin has a way with words that often brings a smile to one’s face.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: After the First Death by Lawrence Block

Another reissue of a Block classic that was originally published in 1969. A man wakes in a hotel room only to discover he is covered in blood and there is a dead girl he has apparently murdered while in an alcoholic haze. He had done this before, and had, in fact, just been released from prison for the murder of another prostitute. He was sure of his innocence the first time; now he’s not sure of what he might have done. Could he have done it again?

A lot of Block’s later themes are beginning to show in this book which has the elements of sixties romanticism: the hooker with the heart of gold; redemption, and the Hollywood ending with a slight twist. But it’s a good story even though lacking some of the subtleties of Black’s later work. Very pleasant airplane read.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

United Airlines 3411: A Case Study in Linkages

The United Airlines fiasco will surely go down as a case study in how not to do things. It had all the elements of potential disaster, and the restriction on Chicago Aviation Authority officers (they were not Chicago police officers) not being permitted to carry guns may be the only thing that prevented a death that would have made the episode considerably worse. As with many disasters it’s rarely one factor that causes the event; it’s the piling on or linkage of several mistakes that when compounded inevitably lead to failure.

1. Passengers were fully seated, any overbooking had been taken care of at the gate, as it should be, and the plane was apparently close to push back and under control of the captain.
-The first problem arose when four United employees approached the agent and said they had to be in Louisville for a flight. (There is some uncertainty about what flight that was, but one report said it was to be the next afternoon.)
-The agent had several options at this point:
--Tell them to grab a different flight
--Bump four seated passengers to accommodate the employees
--Arrange for alternative transportation to Louisville by limo (that option seems to have occurred to no one) which was only 5 hrs by car and would have cost far less than the $3200 they were willing to pay bumped passengers. It would have certainly be exponentially less than the resulting firestorm.
--The agent chose to bump passengers.

2.The second problem arose when no one wanted to accept the voucher offer. (Note that vouchers suck. They come with all sorts of restrictions.
-Options open to the agent:
--Offer cash in increasing amounts (not sure if United/Republic policy offered this as an option)
--Offer cash instead of a voucher
--Force removal of four passengers
--Reported at first to be random, it was then said they used a sophisticated algorithm. How that formula made the choices has not been revealed and certainly was unknown to the passengers. Had it been, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
Three passengers reluctantly decided to leave rather than face forced removal which apparently was made as a threat. One passenger did not.

3.Problem three
-Someone (the agent?) called in security
-Questions remain.
--What were the officers (they were not Chicago police but Airport Security) told.
---Their reaction may well have been dictated by what they were told. Was this passenger a security risk? Was he unruly? Why was he being removed?

4.Problem four: Who was told what and who was in charge?
-An investigation needs to be made into just what they were told and their perception of who was in charge.
--Was the captain aware of the commotion in the cabin?
--Who was in charge of the officers?
--What were they told to do?

-All of these things had a bearing on the outcome.

5. Training
-The level of force was clearly excessive.
--How had the officers been trained to deal with the situation?
--How do you get a concussion, broken nose, and lose two front teeth by being dragged out of an airline seat?
I have a suspicion - item e is not supported by any evidence so it’s purely speculative -- that the following sequence occurred
Officers drag the man off the plane. He looks unconscious so may have hit his head (or been hit on the head)
Officers lose control of the man in the jetway or at the gate (!!!!!! how could that happen with three of them?)
Man runs back on the plane uttering incoherent statements (Kill me, I want to go home - let’s not forget he had escaped from Vietnam)
--The plane is emptied of passengers ostensibly to clean up the blood.
---The man is beaten to subdue him by the officers in the back of the plane. That’s when most of the injuries occurred.
---The man is taken off in a stretcher to the hospital.

6.Attitudinal Issues
-Post 9/11 passengers are treated as the “enemy” and as “potential terrorists” as soon as they enter the airport. Certainly TSA regards them as such and everyone in the airport is warned about strangers and unattended bags, etc., checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, searched, x-rayed, etc. This has infected the way crew view the passengers. They are considered as possible terrorists - --All of them. I think this is very important in causing the result on flight 3411.
-The United CEO had just replaced a CEO forced to resign because of his connection to the Bridgegate scandal. He wanted to be seen as supportive of the employees and not reflexively dismissive of their actions.

7. PR Missteps
-The United CEO made statements without being in possession of all (or one wonders, any) of the facts. The United PR department should be fired en masse for their bad advice.
-The second “apology” was horrible in its use of a new euphemism (re-accomodate) that simply inflamed a bad situation. Here again, waiting to collect all the information should be mandatory. Some thinking before speaking might also be useful.
-The final apology was a good one, but considering that the videos had gone viral in China where United wants to have a larger presence, seemed disingenuous and stemmed more from a fear of what the impact might be on their business in China, so its positive impact was lessened considerably.

8. Who was in charge?
-The episode gave the impression that no one was in charge.
--The pilot? Ultimately he needs to take some responsibility as he is presumably in charge of the plane. He had the authority to step in at any point and just say “stop” until things could be figured out.
--The gate agent? s/he presumably had authority to manipulate the amounts offered to passengers. Was s/he under pressure to keep the amounts as low as possible?
--The flight attendants? Couldn’t they have stopped the action at any point? Did they believe they had no authority to do so?
--Does United empower its employees to fix problems?
--The security officers? Did they assume they were in charge because they represented power and force? Again. What were they told about the ostensible threat and who told them? It seems not unreasonable their actions were governed to some extent by what they had been told and their perception of the event.

Note that at any point if someone had stepped in and said “stop let’s sit down and talk about this” or examined their options, the disaster would not have occurred. Clearly the passengers all felt cowed and the United employees unempowered. Each assumed someone else would make everything right. As in Charles Perrow’s excellent book, Normal Accidents*, breaking any one of the links in a coupled system will always prevent disaster. Someone has to break that link.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Hang Fire by Henry Kisor

I have read all the previous books in the Steve Martinez series. Steve is a Lakota Indian working as a deputy sheriff (now sheriff) in the Upper Peninsula. I’ve also read all of Kisor’s non-fiction books and I’ve enjoyed everything immensely. This one seemed a bit off to me. Perhaps it was the absence of Gina, or the potential relationship with Sue, or that he is now in charge, I don’t know. It’s still very entertaining. It concerns the murders of several people, some apparent accidents, using relic smooth bore rifles. The killer is expert with the antiques and we get to see into the mind, such as it is, of the religious zealot, but her motivations are never very clear to me. Still, I liked the sense of place and the prosaic nature of the investigations. On to the next in the series.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Review: Swiss Spy by Alex Gerlis

Henry is on his way back to Switzerland from Britain. It’s 1939 and he’s stopped at the border before getting on his flight. Edgar, a member of the British Secret Service then blackmails him into spying for them. After some training he’s sent back to Switzerland through France where he is to wait for more instructions. In France, however, Henry circuitously and surreptitiously sneaks away briefly to meet with his Russian handlers. Turns out he’s a Russian spy and his handlers now think they control a double agent. But then we learn the British are fully aware of Henry’s relationship with the Russians. Add a Jewish woman and her daughter hiding from the Gestapo and the plot thickens beyond stew.

I love complicated spy thrillers.

Review: Family of Spies by Pete Early

Another of those must reads after watching the eponymous movie. I have this need to always find out what really happened, i.e., what verity there might be in the dramatic film version compared to real life. Some background reading revealed that John A. Walker’s achievements were monumental. The Soviets could read our communications but not break the code until Walker gave them the code cards. But that was only half of the puzzle. The North Korean hijacking of the Pueblo in 1968 gave them the machine (whether that was the intent of the hijacking remains an interesting speculation.) Why the U.S. didn’t change all its codes after the hijacking baffles me, but they didn’t, and the Soviets could read all the U.S. military traffic until 1980 when the system was changed. That was millions of coded messages. “K-mart store has better security than the U.S. Navy,” John told the author in one of his interviews.

This is the extraordinary story of John Walker who, as a Navy warrant officer, passed vital secrets to the Russians, not out of any political conviction, but purely for the money. He successfully enlisted his friends and relatives in his operation. This went on for more than twenty years. And he would never have been caught except John’s maltreatment of his wife. In fact, the FBI initially discounted Barbara’s revelations much as they ignored the information they had on the 9/11 attackers. John soon realized their ineptitude. “I began to realize that the FBI is not like it is on television. You see, the FBI doesn’t really do any investigating. It doesn’t know how to investigate. The FBI is not powerful at all because its agents are really just bureaucrats and they have the same inherent ineptitude of all government bureaucrats. All they do is spend their days waiting for some snitch to call them and turn someone in. That’s how they operate, and I was beginning to sense that.”

I have always said that the danger to an institution is more likely to come from within (this applies to computer facilities and well as American society - especially with Trump now on the loose.) Of course, that is the danger inherent in trust and it’s virtually impossible to live in a society devoid of trust so the balance between trust and openness and self-protection is a delicate one. “Perhaps it is time for intelligence experts to rethink this central concept of attitudinal loyalty, this idea that Americans don’t betray their country to foreign powers the way that Europeans are perceived to do quite regularly. We trust our citizens to an extent that is almost unknown in history and unheard of in most other countries. This is as it should be. However, we live in a society where money is no longer a mere commodity, but a sacrament. Money is power, possessions, persona, sex, and status.”

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Review: Black Orchestra by JJ Toner

Lt. Kurt Muller, nephew of the infamous Reinhold Heydrich, reports for work at the Abwehr one morning only to discover the body of his colleague, an ostensible suicide. It was certainly a peculiar way to kill oneself, pointing the gun to the back of his head before pulling the trigger. Odd indeed and Kurt starts asking a few questions, wondering why the Kripo is taking such little interest in the case. He’s soon promoted to the translation section where they receive all incoming signals which are then translated and distributed. The Gestapo takes an interest in Kurt’s meddling and it’s only because of his relationship to Heydrich that he’s not shot.

Kurt is sent to Ireland, where he was born, to find out what happened to their Irish agents. There he learns of the “Black Orchestra,” originally a college chess club, to which his father (his mother was German) and several others now prominent in the Abwehr had belonged. He finds himself enmeshed in a vicious political battle to take down Hitler but also for control of the Reich’s security forces orchestrated by his uncle.

It’s often a convoluted story with a few gaps but a fun read that barrels along.

Some nice similes: :”Our conversation was like a loose clutch” i.e., slow to start and jerky.”

Review: Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

What if you suspected that an ostensible suicide was really a murder, but one of the “locked room” variety and it might have been cleverly designed in a way so that you, as a detective inspector who had already solved a different locked room puzzle, would never considered the new murder as a locked room riddle because the real world likelihood of being faced with two such enigmas was completely improbable. |

And yet, according to Bayes’ Theorem which describes “the probability of an event, based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event,” the fact that you knew of the previous locked room investigation might influence how you view the current one. Whew.

McGinty comes through once again with an excellent addition to the Sean Duffy series, this one #5 read by a favorite reader Gerard Doyle. Lily Bigelow’s death seemed to be a suicide; no other solution appeared possible and yet the forensic evidence pointed in a different direction. But who would want to kill her? And why?

Duffy’s tenacity pays off in his usual sardonic and winsome manner even as he has to inspect underneath his car for an IRA bomb. It’s 1987 and there are the usual tensions between the police and everyone else although they aren’t as prominent as in others of the series. Several of the books have darkly hinted to being the last of Sean Duffy and this one is no exception (fortunately there is a #6).

Excellent read, but four stars instead of five because I felt it wasn’t quite as compelling as the previous books in the series, but I eagerly await diving into the sixth (Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.) Note that this one stands alone better than the first three of the series.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Review: Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare by Stephen Budiansky

Outstanding read. Patrick Blackett’s career is used as a metaphor for an examination of the role played by scientists in defeating the Nazis during WW II. Budiansky begins by discussing the profound effect WW I had on scientists, many of whom had served in the war and returned with deep-seated antipathy to war in general. Many turned to pacifism and Marxism as a perceived alternative, but the ill-considered racist actions of the Hitler regime against Jewish intellectuals and scientists, many of whom fled the country and were instrumental in the Allied war effort, coupled with Nazi militarism pushed them in the opposite direction.

Budiansky argues successfully that it wasn’t just new weapons and countermeasures developed by the scientists, it was also a new way of doing business for the military. They questioned the traditional ways of doing things in favor of a reliance on quantitative analysis. Focus on operational aspects often produced startling results. By looking at the statistical results of aircraft operations against U-boats depth settings were changed on depth charges and bombers were repainted white instead of black to make them less visible from the sea. These small changes resulted in the likelihood of air attack success from less than one percent to over ten percent.

In another very prosaic example, a scientist noted that long lines formed at the sinks after eating as soldiers washed their kits. Ana analysis showed it took much more time to wash the plates in the first sink than to rinse them in the second sink. Instead of having an equal number of sinks for both rinsing and washing, two thirds of the sinks were devoted to washing and that totally eliminated the lines.

Some of the conclusions reminded me of James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds ( see my review at who postulated that the best decisions were made by groups made up of differing experiences and points of view, especially naysayers. I tried to utilize this concept as head of IT at the college. When we were doing strategic planning I always tried to include faculty from the anti-tech crowd and they often made very significant contributions that we, as IT types would never have thought of. Blackett insisted similarly in his operational activities, trying to include scientists who had no obvious experience in the area under discussion.

Mathematicians were obviously extremely important in dealing with ciphers, but their experience with probability was crucial to many important operational changes in the conduct of the war. But sailors had their own operational experience to share. Generally the word among convoy sailors was that if you were on a ship with a heavy cargo, like iron ore, you slept in your clothes on deck because, if torpedoed, it would sink like a stone. In a ship lightly cargoed, you slept in your clothes below decks, and slept lightly so you could rush on deck if hit. The only sailors getting a good night’s sleep unclothed were those in tankers. If they got torpedoed you went up in a flaming cloud so it didn't matter where you slept. Similarly, it was rapidly learned ships in convoy never stopped to retrieve survivors. Any ship that stopped became a perfect target for the U-boat and it was better not to lose another ship.

Sometimes the results of the analysis was not welcome. Blackett’s group discovered that only an estimated 400 Germans were being killed in bombing raids per month while 400 airmen were killed during the same period, hardly a fortuitous ratio. (After the war when more accurate data was available, it was learned the number of Germans killed was only about 200 per month.) They also discovered that production was more influenced by holidays rather than bombing. They recommended putting more resources into the naval battle and protecting ships that were in convoys delivering much needed goods and military supplies, i.e., the war against U-boats. That was not a message the RAF wanted to hear. They were basically told to back off and the RAF changed the justification for their bombing to the importance of “dehousing” the population. Note that the fire bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Pforzheim and Tokyo produced substantially different results. (

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: The Killing of Reinhard Heydrich: The SS 'Butcher of Prague' by Callum MacDonald

Buried to the strains of Siegfried's Death March, more than a few people were quite relieved at the death of this hated man. Heydrich was a man feared by just about everyone, including his fellow Nazis. Much like J. Edgar Hoover, he was known to keep a dossier on everyone, and as head of SS intelligence and the secret police was well-placed to use it to his advantage. Killed by a couple of Czechs, the author documents the murder had less to do with British intelligence than Czech resistance and rooted in the political needs of the Czech president in exile.

Born into a family that suffered during the depression following World War I, Heydrich began his rise through the Navy where he excelled in languages and seemed to fit right in although he was bullied for his high voice and introverted ways. He was kicked out of the Navy thanks to an incident with a well-connected woman (he was a notorious womaniser), so he joined the ranks of Himmler's SicherheitsDienst (SD) the intelligence section of the SS. It was a perfect match and his rise was meteoric.

Heydrich had been sent to Prague to boost armaments production by the Czechs. The previous Reichs Protector, Neurath, was relieved of his duties in late 1941. Heydrich was assassinated barely 8 months later. The resistance had originally intended to use assault weapons, but they jammed so they threw a grenade which wounded Heydrich severely and he died of sepsis..

Considered exceptionally intelligent, hard-working, ambitious and totally amoral, Heydrich had achieved his rise to the top of the SS by mercilessly crushing his enemies and by creating the “Final Solution” for Hitler’s plan to destroy all Jews. By putting him in charge of Bohemia and Moravia the Czechs would soon learn what it meant to live under a master of suppression. Heydrich’s plan was to use the “carrot and stick” approach, increasing food supplies to reduce the power of the resistance on the one hand, and on the other dealing ruthlessly with any opposition.

Both sides, as is so common, were driven by political needs. Heydrich wanted to combat the rising power of Martin Bormann, and to do so he needed to successfully convert the Protectorate into an SS state thus accruing more power to the SS. Benes needed to prove that the Czech people opposed the Nazis, who, he suspected were still seen by many in Britain as a bulwark against Russian imperialism and power. That many ordinary people got caught in the political crossfire bothered few except perhaps the families of those killed.

Those on the ground in Czechoslovakia in the resistance, when they heard about the proposed assassination were horrified and argued with London that it would have disastrous consequences for the resistance and thousands of innocent people who would be swept up and killed as reprisal with little to show for it. Anton Heidrich (more irony), a high ranking resistance officer, sent a message to London requesting the operation be called off, although the message they received did include a note at the end saying if the assassination was deemed absolutely necessary to the national interest they were willing to make the sacrifice (other people’s lives are always easy to sacrifice.)

It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Heydrich died following an almost bungled assassination. The reprisals that followed killed many innocent people. The book does a terrific job at portraying the multiple agendas of all those involved and the details of the assorted plots.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

I know this is dated, but...

In my assorted reading I run across all sorts of interesting stuff and this article was a response to a remark Scalia made during the Texas affirmative action case. The article itself is worth reading. My comments were made in response to someone critical of the author.

I'm not sure you read the article which had less to do with racism than was a stinging criticism of higher education's failure to teach. Paul Thomas was using the media criticism of Scalia's remarks to suggest that higher education is not addressing the needs of individual students.

A couple of quotes: "A significant number of students are admitted to colleges and universities for the benefit of the institution (full-pay students and athletes, as the most prominent examples). Often, these populations fall into the deficit category of “remedial,” or would be the exact type of student Scalia has now further marginalized with the damning blanket of racism." and "vulnerable populations of students admitted to colleges and universities (often black, brown, poor, and English language learners)—those who need higher education the most, in fact—are being neglected by the very institutions who admit them, often after actively recruiting them (again, the athletes)."

As the parent of six black children, I have learned the expectations of teachers are a real problem. Over and over I saw how my kids were assumed to be deficient even though they were often smarter than the rest of the class. As a society I fear we will never be race-blind so what we need to do is focus on strong educational support at the lower levels, especially high school and then let all students compete for college entrance, but colleges (especially the elite ones where students can educate themselves with little help from professors who most often delegate that teaching to grad students anyway

Affirmative action has outlived its usefulness and I fear liberals, in particular have been much too paternalistic toward the disadvantaged and make the *false* assumption that black students aren’t as smart as white ones and therefore should be admitted even though their qualifications (their words not mine) may not be as high. The whole qualifications/merit debate is silly anyway since universities have given preference to all sorts of groups from children of faculty to athletes to some with special abilities, many of whom would never meet the supposed minimum standards which usually just measure ability to take tests anyway. Not to mention than any black, Hispanic, woman student who is now on a major university campus is immediately labeled as an affirmative action admission even though he/she may be far better prepared than his/her white colleagues.

We also have to get beyond this idea that you have to go to Harvard or Yale to get a good education. I’m an Ivy League grad who has worked in community colleges and if you want superior teaching go to a community college. At elite four-year schools you get lots of bright kids who can basically teach themselves and are led by grad students who often have less preparation and graduate credits than are the minimums required to teach in community colleges. Universities have got to do a better job at teaching its students. That’s the point of the article I cited.

The News Media has Lost its Way

The news media has lost its way. The current paradigm is that reporters need to hold interviewees accountable for what they say, and that their job is to “push back” against what they perceive to be disingenuous statements. I think that’s wrong and counter-productive.

The role of the reporter is never to argue with the interviewee. To do so, especially with a personality like that of Trump, who is basically a child, devolves the interview into a power struggle that no one can win (except Trump in this case who thrives on the perception that he is attacking the press.)

This was particularly apparent in the debates when moderators were castigated for not arguing with the candidates about their statements. Those who did were celebrated as being “good” moderators. Aside from the fact they weren’t moderators at all, the debates often became mere pissing contests between the candidates and the panelists. Unfortunately, the competition among reporters has forced them to compete with others to stand out among the crowd and they seem to think only by creating a lot of noise can they do so.

Much better to ask the question and let the answer stand, however unsatisfactory. Let the audience decide and the reporters can write about the validity of the response later when they have had time to research and reflect on the proper response, collecting the facts. For example, ask Trump why he has not released his tax forms. He can answer, next question. To argue about whether he should or not reduces the amount of time available for other questions and places the reporter in the stance of adversary (a role for the editorial pages) rather than reporter. A press conference is not a debate nor power struggle. It should be a time for reporters to ask intelligent and probing questions and let their editors and readers decide the veracity of the answers.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Review: Quarry (aka The Broker) by Max Allan Collins

According to Max Allan Collins' afterward, This book was the first to be written of the Quarry series. It was re-released a few years later by his publisher with a different title: The Broker, a change he was unaware of, so when the opportunity to bring it out once again came around, he changed the title back to its original.

I like the Quarry series, but you can tell this was an early, unpolished work. Quarry's character is unsettled, and you get the feeling that Collins was struggling a little to make him into a bad guy with few redeeming traits. Collins admits he was "ripping off" Westlake's Parker, but in this book (not so much in the later Quarrys) the protagonist lacks Parker's sense of irony, as brutal as he may be.(See the author's correction below.)

Quarry is sent by the Broker to kill an apparently innocuous man in a small town along the Mississippi (patterned after Muscatine, Iowa but we don't get a good sense of place). He's also charged with taking out a man at the airport who is carrying a load of heroin. Quarry abhors having anything to do with drugs so he sets up the Broker who ordered the hit by hiding half of the load which he later uses to his advantage. When things start to go wrong, contrary to all good sense, he decides to find out who the original purchaser of the hit was.

It's a fun read, but not up to the level of the later books in the series. For a truly memorable "hitman" series read Lawrence Block's Keller books which set the standard.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Review: The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets

audiobook that tells the story of a disgruntled U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst who used his cipher skills to almost pull off an incredible intelligence theft and attempted sale of classified documents. The author discusses the spy’s background and details the tedious work of the FBI in tracking him down. It was an intelligence agency’s nightmare: having a mole in your own agency.

The FBI received a package containing several letters in a sophisticated cipher but when deciphered were marked by numerous misspellings. Those errors proved to be Brian Regan’s undoing. The FBI agent who doggedly pursued him was Steven Carr, and the methods used to track him are straight out of the best espionage/police procedural novels. Regan was a retired Air Force Master Sergeant whose dyslexia and ineptitude with social skills made him an almost perfect spy and he was viewed as the least likely person to be involved in such a scheme. One of eight children, he had been bullied and mistreated most of his childhood, considered stupid by most of his teachers because of his dyslexia. Steven Carr, his FBI antagonist, was a devout Catholic who considered his mission to track down Regan as a spiritual assignment.

Once they had identified their suspect, the FBI had to build a case, and here another of the ironies appeared. The agent who broke Regan’s ciphers had a disability himself, one that prevented him from doing arithmetic functions and math, a form of dyscalculia. He was really good at word problems but doing straight arithmetic and polynomial functions was very difficult. He was superb, however at pattern recognition and was discovered while taking a class from a postal inspector who told the clasExcellents to ignore some codes because they are insoluble. He took it as a challenge and deciphered the codes during class. First, though, to get into the FBI he had to get a college degree and it was only with the help of a very understanding math instructor (probably at a community college) that he managed to pass the math requirement.

Something I have emphasized over and over to my friends is to never, ever, ever, put anything into a digital document or email you don’t want the world to see. In spite of Regan’s having formatted his HD and deleted documents, they were, of course, all recoverable, including multiple versions of letters he had written. (The only way to truly protect yourself -- short of using a hammer to smash and fire to melt -- is to use a program that writes over your HD with multiple passes using gibberish.)

I love books about codes and ciphers so I liked the sections where Bhattacharjee discusses Regan’s system in some detail. Others may prefer the human aspects of the characters. For me it was a perfect mix and a very enjoyable book, difficult to put down. What was astonishing was how easy it was for Regan to steal highly classified material. Then again government has a tendency to over-classify material which perhaps leads people to be careless with the stuff. That he was discovered at all was a fluke, and the letters deciphered only because the letters happened to be delivered at the same time.