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Reviews Written by
John M. Ford "johnDC" (near DC, MD USA)

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The Law & the Heart: Speculative Stories to Bend the Mind and Soul
The Law & the Heart: Speculative Stories to Bend the Mind and Soul
Price: 2.05

4.0 out of 5 stars Form and Fancy*, 18 Aug 2014
These thirteen science fiction stories by Kenneth Schneyer are about the law, the human heart and how the two are entwined. The title is well chosen. The stories are divided into three sections: The Law, The Heart, and The Law & the Heart.

The stories in The Law section didn't capture my interest. The author is an attorney and writes from experience. He obviously knows the law and has found a few odd corners to look around. He also seems to think like a lawyer, in a structured and ordered way. Some of these stories even take the form of legal documents, which describe by implication a state of affairs in the world. This is skillfully done. I think my problem stems from the fact that I work in a building full of lawyers and don't enjoy being reminded of their presence. A group of these stories together has a similar effect. I believe I would enjoy them more if they were spaced across several anthologies along with stories from other authors. (I have a similar reaction to Robert Reed's Greatship stories--best taken in moderation.)

The stories in the last two sections had a different effect. They convinced me that the author writes with greater sensitivity and nuance than evidenced by The Law stories. My three favorites are from these sections. I'll say a little about each:

"The Orpheus Fountain" is a moving exploration of what it means to be close to someone. It is hard to believe the author's claim that it began as a response to a writing exercise. If you have ever lost someone you love, or lost the love of someone, it will touch you. It belongs in one of the Best of the Year collections.

In "Hear the Enemy, My Daughter" the main character strives to understand an alien race which is at war with humans. Key to understanding the alien Sheshash is puzzling out the relationship between their two-member fighting pairs. One is a three-meter giant and the other is a half-meter dwarf. They fight with incredible coordination and recklessness. Understanding is possible, but comes at a cost.

"Tenure Track" is another story constructed out of documents. Although I grew a little weary of this format while reading The Law stories, it really works here. A set of letters and receipts traces the lives of a husband and wife. One receives a medical treatment to greatly prolong life. The other is unable to benefit from the effects of the treatment. And their lives go on.

I enjoyed this collection, in spite of my original impression. I suspect that attorneys or attorney aficionados will enjoy it more. The later stories should be accessible to and appreciated by a wider audience. And, of course, "The Orpheus Fountain" is a gem.
*Disclosure: The publisher offered me a free Kindle version of the book with the understanding that I would write a review after reading it. There was no attempt to sway my opinion or request that my review be favorable. I have no other connection with the publisher or the author. My opinion is my own.

Learn XML
Learn XML
Price: 0.77

3.0 out of 5 stars Rock Bottom XML, 16 Aug 2014
This review is from: Learn XML (Kindle Edition)
This brief guide to XML is part of WAGmob's series of Simple `n Easy guides on technology-related topics. They offer "on-the-go references that enable our customers to refer, learn and remember." They also promise to respond to all customer emails within 48 hours and use feedback to update their books within 60 days. Ambitious.

This guide taught me the basics of XML, confirming a lot that I already knew and clearing up a couple of misconceptions. So it was worth the low price and the short read time. The book was reasonably organized, unevenly written, and overused a small set of examples of XML code. It is suitable as a quick overview of XML for someone who already knows HTML. It would not work for someone who did not have this background.

If you need a solid introduction, I'd still recommend XML For Dummies or a similar introductory book that helps the reader with more explanation.

Red November: Inside the Secret U.S.-Soviet Submarine War
Red November: Inside the Secret U.S.-Soviet Submarine War
by W. Craig Reed
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.79

4.0 out of 5 stars The Submerged Past, 13 Aug 2014
W. Craig Reed presents a series of linked stories from the experiences of submariners (including himself and his father) who served in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Some of these accounts are told for the first time because participants have been released from their long-term commitments to keep them secret. Others are made possible because of declassified records made available by security personnel from the former Soviet Union.

The book's stories include:

- How American technicians invented new technology to locate Soviet subs after their adversaries switched to "burst" radio transmissions.
- How close some sub commanders came to launching torpedoes at enemy ships during the Cuban missile crisis--and starting a war between the superpowers.
- The role that a military family's pet bear played in advancing submarine detection technology.
- How a U.S. sub installed and maintained a tap on an underwater Soviet military communications cable.
- The Soviet espionage that allowed decryption of U.S. communication codes.

The book achieves a balance between technical detail and good storytelling. Readers are taught enough about sonar, radar, and other technologies to understand the relative advantages of U.S. and Soviet systems at different stages of the Cold War. Reconstructed dialogue produces a sense of in-the-moment urgency in encounters between ships and subs from opposing navies. The author is careful to distinguish fact from speculation when investigating the final hours of several subs that did not return from their missions.

Reed's book is informative, entertaining, and intriguing. Anyone who enjoys a good military or espionage thriller should find it rewarding. Of course, it will be particularly rewarding to those who like sub stories, such as Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and sub histories, such as Peter Padfield's War Beneath The Sea.

How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them: 11 Rules for Winning the Argument
How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them: 11 Rules for Winning the Argument
Price: 0.77

2.0 out of 5 stars A Hard Right, 3 Aug 2014
Author Ben Shapiro thinks that Liberals fight dirty. "Calling you a racist and sexist, a bigot and a homophobe, gives them a sense of satisfaction with their status in the universe. The left no longer makes arguments about policies' effectiveness. Their only argument is character assassination."

Shapiro suggests that Conservatives fight back using similar tactics. The "eleven rules for debating a leftist" he advocates are:

1. Walk toward the fire.
2. Hit first.
3. Frame your opponent.
4. Frame the debate.
5. Spot inconsistencies in the Left's arguments.
6. Force Leftists to answer questions.
7. Do not get distracted.
8. You don't have to defend people on your side.
9. If you don't know something, admit it.
10. Let the other side have meaningless victories.
11. Body language matters.

Most of Shapiro's suggested tactics match the assumption that "debating the Left" involves battling a hostile and malicious opponent. But not all. Some are also appropriate to sincere debate about the issues.

Readers should repeatedly evaluate the nature of the specific discussion they are engaged in and take the highest road that seems appropriate. The suggested approach may well be appropriate for a public confrontation with an unpleasant and scheming Piers Morgan. It shouldn't be a starting point in a friendly car pool conversation. It's important to remember the difference.

Map Thief, The
Map Thief, The
by Michael Blanding
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 18.24

3.0 out of 5 stars Stealer in Rare Antiquities, 3 Aug 2014
This review is from: Map Thief, The (Hardcover)
This book is a partial biography of Edward Forbes Smiley III, a collector, forger, and thief of rare maps. Smiley originally met with author Michael Blanding and agreed to tell his story. Once interviews began, Smiley backed away from the project. The author warned him that the work had gone too far to be abandoned and that the book would be finished with or without his assistance. Smiley disappeared and refused to meet with the author again.

And the book was finished. It tells a somewhat distanced tale of Smiley's legitimate work building collections of historically significant maps. And it reconstructs his shadier enterprises. Along the way, readers learn about various maps and mapmakers, both famous and obscure. The narrative is a painless combination of modern crime thriller and excerpts from the historical record.

Although pleasant reading, the account suffers noticeably from Smiley's decision to withdraw from collaboration with the author. Speculations about his reasons for doing so and his unconfirmed criminal activities lack the credibility and descriptive detail Smiley would have supplied. Expansion of the historical information is a reasonable filler strategy, but also feels like one. The result feels like the product of an author making the best of a bad situation.

Your mileage may vary.

In the Country of the Blind
In the Country of the Blind
by Michael Flynn
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Braid of History, 2 Aug 2014
Michael Flynn's science fiction novel has three primary subplots. The first is based on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a nineteenth-century design for a mechanical computer which was never built. In this story, the engine was built and allowed development of modern programming methods a century earlier. The second subplot derives from the fact that the developers of this steampunk computer keep its existence secret. This group develops the science of cliology (much like Hari Seldon's psychohistory), which enables them to make accurate predictions about future trends and events. They use this capability to influence social and political developments, and, of course, to make profitable business investments.

The third and primary subplot begins in the present when Sara Beaumont discovers, first a hidden cache of Babbage computers, then a collection and research records written by cliologists. Soon afterward the friends she confided in are killed, a faction of the secret society makes contact with her, and she goes into hiding under a false identity. It becomes apparent that there are several hidden groups observing and manipulating world events, each with competing agendas. Sara must decide who to trust and what to believe.

There are innovative ideas in this book, particularly considering how long ago it was written. While the narrative is fast-paced and entertaining, the story falls short of its full potential. I understand that there is not real science behind most of the invented technologies of science fiction. But part of the genre's appeal is a certain amount of well-executed hand-waving about how it all works that stays just within the bounds of plausibility. This story would have been better with more invented information about Babbage computers and about the strengths and limitations of cliological prediction. It seems almost wasteful to introduce both ideas, and then devote most of the attention to the efforts of various secret groups to exterminate each other.

That said, the book was enjoyable and worth reading. However, it will be more to those who enjoy action thrillers than it will to fans of hard science fiction.

Wordcrime: Solving Crime Through Forensic Linguistics
Wordcrime: Solving Crime Through Forensic Linguistics
by John Olsson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.19

5.0 out of 5 stars The Court of Language, 13 July 2014
John Olsson is one of the world's top forensic linguists. He has testified in more than 500 court cases, published numerous research studies, and co-authored (with June Luchjenbroers) one of the field's leading textbooks, Forensic Linguistics. In this book he teaches readers about forensic linguistics using the case study method.

Each of the twenty-three chapters describes a case the author has contributed to as a forensic linguist. He has selected each one to illustrate particular aspects of his work. "My aim is not primarily to tell a good story, but to illustrate how interesting and complex language is, and how powerful a resource it can be when it enters the arena of the law." All of the cases are worth reading. These three are reasonably representative:

Chapter 4, "Is The Da Vinci Code a Plagiarism?" examines an accusation that Dan Brown "borrowed without permission" major plot elements of his bestseller from another writer's book. Olsson addresses this question by examining the order in which the plot elements occur in each book. He also looks at instances where both authors made the same unusual or erroneous word choices. Olsson reports the legal outcome and invites readers to form their own conclusions.

In Chapter 8, "Murder or Suicide," Olsson is hired by the family of a young man who has apparently committed suicide and left a suicide note for his family. Suspicious circumstances lead his family suspect the man was murdered and the note forged by the killer. In reaching his conclusions, Olsson considers both characteristic features of the young man's writing and the tone and content typical of authentic suicide notes.

Chapter 20, "Return to Sender," occurs in the context of a woman's claim that she was sexually assaulted by her psychotherapist. As this trial approached the city's Social Welfare Division received an anonymous letter asserting that the woman suffered from several specific psychological disorders and was unfit to care for her children. Olsson's analysis addressed the scarcity of psychology terminology in everyday language and included a word choice comparison between the letter and the therapist's patient notes.

Each chapter tells an engaging story and showcases at least one linguistic analysis technique. Good reading, a good introduction to the forensic linguistics specialty, and a well-crafted invitation to learn more from the author's weighty text. Nicely done, Dr. Olsson!

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture
Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture
by Erez Aiden
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.15

4.0 out of 5 stars All the King's Words, 10 July 2014
Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel are interested in word and phrase frequency and what it can reveal about history and culture. They illustrate their approach with a timeline graph of the phrases "The United States are" and "the United States is." We are unsurprised to see the "is" phrase increase in frequency after the Civil War, as the "are" phrase fades from view. This example supports our intuitions about allegiance to the Union supplanting allegiance to one's home state. It also builds our confidence in their historical profiling method for those other times when it finds a counterintuitive result.

The authors are confident in the value of historical word frequency analysis. "Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower." They begin searching for larger and larger collections of text to analyze. They eventually wind up in the office of Peter Norvig, Google's Director of Research. They convince him to grant them access to Google Books, a tremendous digital library containing more books than have ever before been collected online. Not only do Aiden and Michel spend several years conducting historical-linguistic research, but they also author a tool (available at books dot google dot com forward-slash ngrams) that allows everyone else to do the same kind of studies.

Their book outlines how word and phrase frequency can be used to learn about cultural and historical change. It tells the story of Google Books and how the authors began to use this collection of digitized documents in their research. And it provides examples of interesting trends they have brought to light. Examples include:

- Tracing the relative "fame" of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin following the 1969 moon landing.
- Illustrating the effect of official persecution by tracing references to banned European authors before, during, and after World War II.
- The same approach is used to illustrate the effect of Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy era.
- The effects of "flashbulb" events such the sinking of the Lusitania in 1925, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the 1972 Watergate scandal.
- Graphs of the relative popularity of various world population centers (cities).
- The explosive increase in use of George Carlin's "seven words you can't say on television."

The book introduces some of the techniques of text analysis and "big data" in an accessible way. However, it is lighter on methodological detail than I would have liked. Having stimulated my interest, the authors might have done more to teach me how to do their kind of trend analysis. I have to forgive them because of the extensive and readable Notes section at the end of the book. There is a lot of information here that I am still digesting. Slowly, I am learning more about their methods.

This book is worth reading, particularly if you are interested in history, culture, and language. Be sure to check out the authors' online ngram tool, too. It's worth spending some time with.

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America
The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America
by Amy Chua
Edition: Audio CD

4.0 out of 5 stars Hat Trick Values, 24 Jun 2014
This book begins with the question of who is successful in America. The answer is not a list of individuals who have accumulated wealth, achievements, or fame. Instead the authors focus on groups whose members measure above average in business and other forms of "...material, conventional, prestige-oriented success." These cultural groups are defined similarly: "...their members tend to be raised with, identify themselves by, and pass down certain culturally specific values and beliefs, habits and practices." America's most successful groups include Mormons; immigrants from Cuba, Nigeria, India, China, Iran, and Lebanon; and Jews.

These groups are not genetically superior or recipients of unfair advantages, argue authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. They share three cultural characteristics the authors call "The Triple Package." Members of each group have a Superiority Complex, "...a deeply internalized belief in your group's specialness, exceptionality, or superiority." Members of successful groups are characterized by Insecurity, "...a species of discontent--an anxious uncertainty about your worth or place in society, a feeling or worry that you or what you've done or what you have is in some fundamental way not good enough." Finally, these cultural subgroups value Impulse Control, "...the ability to resist temptation, especially the temptation to give up in the face of hardship or quit instead of persevering at a difficult task."

Triple Package values run counter to three strong currents in contemporary American culture. Rather than regarding any person or culture as Superior to any other, Americans shy away from comparative judgments. Insecurity is seen as a threat to self-esteem, which has become a core value in public education where the competition which can lead to achievement is softened to reduce disappointment and negative self-esteem. Impulse Control is incompatible with the immediate gratification and unrestrained freedom valued in our indulgent, youth-oriented culture. Triple Package subcultures are successful in part because they contrast so sharply with the mainstream culture around them.

The book explores how these values are manifest differently in the eight successful subcultures. There are analyses of how successive generations can lose their subcultural heritage, becoming simultaneously more mainstream and less successful. Contrasts with the values of poverty-stricken subcultures, such as those found in Appalachia and inner-city neighborhoods highlight the advantages of Triple Package values as a path to individual as well as group success.

This is a well-researched and thoughtfully written book. The arguments and supporting evidence are clearly communicated. An extensive and usable chapter notes section allows readers to engage with the authors' main points in depth. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in subgroup differences in contemporary American culture.

Mr Mercedes
Mr Mercedes
by Stephen King
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Like Old Times, 24 Jun 2014
This review is from: Mr Mercedes (Hardcover)
Stephen King's latest book is a pathological thriller. It's good, of course.

There's this guy they call Mr. Mercedes because nobody knows his name. A few years ago he stole an old woman's car and drove it into the crowd outside of a city job fair. He killed eight--he calls it his "score"--maimed dozens, and walked away into the crowd. He went back to his day-to-day life where nobody much noticed him. Except, perhaps, his mother. Lately he's been getting restless.

There's this other guy that recently retired from the cops. He sits on his easy chair all afternoon and watches daytime TV. While he watches he plays with the gun his father carried while he was on the job. Sometimes he puts it into his mouth, just to see what it feels like. Sometimes he thinks about the cases he and his partner couldn't solve. Mostly he doesn't think at all.

One day the first guy mails the second guy a letter. So it begins.

It's good, like I said. One of King's gifts is to faithfully capture pieces of ordinary life and show them to us, temporarily convincing us we are reading an ordinary story. Then he surprises us. It's usually not a pleasant surprise. We wonder why we were surprised. And so it goes.

There something new for me in each Stephen King book. In this one he finds a new thing to make us uncomfortable about. It doesn't seem directly related to the plot. It festers there below the surface. He explores it for us, finding new depths and reaching new levels of understanding. The understanding, stopping just short of sympathy, is the most uncomfortable of all.

Nicely done, Mr. King.

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