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

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The Last Ship
The Last Ship
by William Brinkley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.82

4.0 out of 5 stars It's a Small World, 26 May 2015
This review is from: The Last Ship (Paperback)
"We finally really did it," as Charlton Heston says at the end of The Planet Of The Apes (1968). There has been a nuclear exchange--it isn't clear who started it--and the Earth has become a radioactive nightmare. The continental land masses have, that is. The ocean is vast and can absorb the worst humanity has cast into it. If the ocean is free of contamination, surely there must be one small, overlooked island somewhere in it that has been passed by. The real miracle is that there are one hundred and fifty-two men and twenty-six women left to search for it.

The U.S.S. Nathan James is their ship. The James played its part in the war, launching missiles when ordered and then waiting in silence for further orders. No orders came. Nor will come ever again. The Captain consults with his senior officers and decides to begin the search for a new home. Their journey gives readers a tour of the devastation. At first they encounter survivors along the shores. But the crew's eyes and instruments quickly establish that these shocked and wounded few will not survive long. Soon the Captain stops sending landing parties ashore.

Written from the Captain's perspective, the narrative reviews the evidence that convinces most of the crew that they cannot return to their homes. The Captain must decide who among those they meet at sea they can trust. There are tensions and divisions to deal with among the crew as well. Chief among them are growing concerns about what the different numbers of men and women may mean for the future.

This book has many elements common to post-apocalypse tales: contamination is everywhere, food is in short supply, other groups are hostile, and important and irreplaceable technology is slowly failing. It stands apart in its treatment of gender and reproductive issues. The first-person narrative structure sharpens the reader's appreciation of the ship's tensions as we are repeatedly exposed to the Captain's private indecision and his need to maintain the public face of firm command.

It's a good read.

Gray Mountain
Gray Mountain
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Over the Mountain, 27 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Gray Mountain (Kindle Edition)
Samantha has a well-paying job with a New York City firm practicing architectural law. Suddenly the economy plunges and the bottom drops out of the firm's business. Sam is summoned to her supervisor's office and given the bad news--the firm can no longer afford to pay her salary. She is offered a deal. They firm will continue her insurance benefits for one year while she volunteers her time at one of a selected number of legal aid organizations. After a year, she will be invited to return to her job. If she doesn't take the deal, or fails to fulfill its conditions, her benefits and employment will end.

After some indecision, Sam finds herself in very rural Brady, Virginia, working in a legal aid clinic and living in a room over her boss's garage. She quickly learns about the realities of domestic disputes, the evils of coal mining, and the quirks of small-town clients. Sam also begins spending time with Donovan, a fellow attorney, pilot, and angry crusader against the region's coal companies. Sam is slowly drawn into his world.

This is another satisfying John Grisham story. Like all of his books, it has a number of interesting and unrelated subplots (well, mostly unrelated). Like some of his books (The Rainmaker, for instance) it brings too few of them to closure. I still can't settle on whether this is just annoying or a clever way to maintain the tension of uncertainty to the last page. "Always leave them wanting more" is a good strategy, I suppose. Some of my itch for closure might still get scratched if Grisham writes a sequel that follows Sam's life a bit further. I've put this on my wish list.

10 Easy Ways To Spot A Liar: The best techniques of Statement Analysis, Nonverbal Communication and Handwriting Analysis
10 Easy Ways To Spot A Liar: The best techniques of Statement Analysis, Nonverbal Communication and Handwriting Analysis
Price: £2.40

3.0 out of 5 stars Top Ten Ways to Detect Deception, 26 Jan. 2015
The author reviews research and best practice literature across the disciplines of statement analysis. nonverbal communication, and handwriting analysis to identify techniques that can determine whether someone is lying. The focus is on techniques that can be used by a single person conducting an interview with no assistance or special equipment. Complex techniques, such as voice stress analysis, receive only passing attention.

The ten techniques are:

1. Listen for the word `never'--it is often part of a phony denial.
2. Pay attention to the pronouns--when `I' is not used this shows a lack of commitment to the statement being made.
3. Examine people's "personal dictionary"--not times when they begin to use different terms for the same things. This may indicate a transition between the truthful and untruthful parts of a statement.
4. Observe when the person being questioned does not answer the question being asked but a related one instead. This may indicate deception.
5. Did the person being questioned answer a question with another question? This may also indicate deception.
6. Watch for fingers touching the mouth, a common "tell" for lying.
7. When a person looks to the right while answering, it may be an indication that they are fabricating an answer.
8. Notice if the person being questioned crosses their arms or legs. This is another common "tell."
9. Observe the form of the letter `o' in the person's handwriting. Extra loops inside of the `o' indicate a more secretive person.
10. Watch for the "felon's claw" in the person's handwriting. This is a downward `hook' that appears in the lower case g, y, and z. Also the capitol letters A, G, H, and J.

The book presents a brief and readable discussion of the essentials of the three areas of deception detection it addresses. The discussion of nonverbal cues is consistent with more in-depth treatments such as Phil Houston, Mike Floyd, and Susan Carnicero's Spy the Lie and Paul Ekman's Telling Lies. I am less familiar with statement analysis and handwriting analysis and so cannot comment on how these subjects are treated. The book would be improved if it pointed to research findings in all three of these disciplines.

Nature Futures: Science Fiction from the Leading Science Journal
Nature Futures: Science Fiction from the Leading Science Journal
Price: £4.46

4.0 out of 5 stars Natural Flash, 4 Jan. 2015
Nature is a well-known and well-respected science magazine. As editor Henry Gee notes, "...many, perhaps most, of the scientific discoveries that have shaped the world (and the minds of science fiction authors) first appeared as research papers in Nature's pages." Beginning in 1999 and for several years after, Nature also included short works of science fiction. This well-received feature hosted a range of authors, from `names' in the genre to an eleven-year-old first-time author.

This book collects ninety-seven of these short science fiction stories. Ten of my favorites:

Brenda Cooper's "My Grandfather's River" is about a home-made present from a granddaughter to her grandfather. It's a piece of the past.

Paul Di Filippo's "The Perfect Lover" is another take on that scene where two lovers run toward each other in slow motion across an open field, arms spread wide.

David Eagleman's "A Brief History of Death Switches" describes what Earth will be like after humankind has departed. It explains the culture that will carry on without us.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood's "Take Over" shows how future society reworks the crime of identity theft.

Joe Haldeman's "Heartwired" is an enhanced love story that does not take place in a supermarket.

Peter Hamilton's "The Forever Kitten" is a story about teenagers and growing up. Or not.

Ian R. MacLeod's "Taking Good Care of Myself" is like one of those stories where someone travels back in time and kills his grandfather. Except everything is reversed.

Joan Slonczewski's "Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN" explores one way that future politics can become more complex.

In Igor Teper's "Golden Year" we see how much Will misses his wife, Alice, who died from a lingering illness. Each anniversary he visits her recreation of the forest grove where he proposed to her years ago.

Vernor Vinge's "Win a Nobel Prize!" is about the role that concentration plays in professional success. It features an appearance of the kind of "focus" that plays a central role in the author's novel, A Deepness in the Sky.

This is a readable collection of stories with a few that are a cut above. It is a good mix of well-known and unknown authors, although the story introductions reveal that a significant subset was written by Nature staff under pen names. The length requirements, though certainly dictated by page real estate, have a positive effect. The hundred word constraints of flash fiction are loosened sufficiently to allow plot and character development and complexity while maintaining single-sitting readability.

Satisfied readers should follow this collection with the second volume of Nature science fiction, Nature Futures 2: Science Fiction from the Leading Science Journal.

English as a Second fCking Language (St. Martin's Press) (Paperback) - Common
English as a Second fCking Language (St. Martin's Press) (Paperback) - Common
by By (author) Sterling Johnson
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars George Carlin for ESL Students, 3 Jan. 2015
Sterling Johnson's tongue-in-cheek book aims to teach the art of American English profanity to non-native speakers of the language. It meets what the author claims is a pressing need for them to understand and produce colloquial profanity. Without these language skills one cannot master the full range of English expression and will miss subtle but important nuances of conversation. Worse, an untrained nonnative speaker will be unable to deliver well-targeted invective in situations where it is not only appropriate, but necessary to do so.

Either you already know the words and phrases the book covers or you don't. I won't review them specifically. In either case, look forward to an entertaining and accurate guide to angry English. The author has fun with example sentences, names of speakers, and pointed advice about soft-ball swearing to avoid like the [...] plague. (He's had an effect on me.) There is also some discussion of whether Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is an actual name or a sophomoric pseudonym. You will need to make up your own mind.

It's light reading with just the right irreverence for its topic. If you are not the Church Lady, give it a look.

by Stephen King
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Something... Happened", 6 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Revival (Hardcover)
Jamie Morton first meets Reverend Charles Jacobs when he arrives to become the pastor pastor of the church Jamie's family attends. He witnesses the Reverend's first use of "secret electricity" to cure a medical condition. And he witnesses the tragedy that drove faith from Jacobs, and Jacobs from their small New England town. He will encounter Jacobs several more times in his life, each time understanding him a little better. Each time the course of Jamie's life is shifted in a new direction. Then there is the last time.

As I read each of Stephen King's books I appreciate something new about his storytelling. This time I was impressed with how he used so much of the main character's life span--from childhood to mid-sixties--to tell this story. It could easily have been set in the space of a few months with a manageable number of flashbacks to fill in necessary background. By drawing it out, King accomplishes several things the more compressed treatment would not. We are more invested in the character, having taken a lifelong journey with him. Jamie Morton's progression through the stages of child, teenager, young musician/addict, and recovered adult has the right balance of connectedness and change. The infrequent appearances of Reverend Jacobs, while significant, do not overwhelm other threads of Jaime's story. The time devoted to these other threads allows readers to ponder the implications of Jacobs' activities at a slow pace seemingly similar to Jamie's. Nicely done.

King fans will need little persuasion to read this book. It offers a new vision of what may be beyond this life and the power that we might be able to harness from it. These insights are insufficiently comforting. Surely we cannot be surprised at this.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
by Colin Woodard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Different Roots, Different Trees, 2 Dec. 2014
"There isn't and never has been one America, but rather several Americas... America's most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular. Rather, our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another."

Colin Woodward traces the roots of contemporary American culture to the country's early history and the groups that first settled each region. "These eleven nations have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history. You see them outlined on linguists' dialect maps, cultural anthropologists' maps of material culture regions, cultural geographers' maps of religious regions, campaign strategists' maps of political geography, and historians' maps of the pattern of settlement across the continent." These eleven cultures are:

Yankeedom - "From the outset it was a culture that put great emphasis on education, local political control, and the pursuit of the `greater good' of the community, even if it required individual self -denial." This culture took root in New England, and then spread westward.

New Netherland - Centered in New York City, this culture "...was from the start a global commercial trading society: multi-ethnic, multi-religious, speculative, materialistic, mercantile, and free trading, a raucous, not entirely democratic city-state where no one ethnic or religious group has ever truly been in charge. New Netherland also nurtured... a profound tolerance of diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry."

Midlands - "Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate, even apathetic."

Tidewater - Centered in Virginia and its immediate neighbors, this region "...has always been a fundamentally conservative region, with a high value placed on respect for authority and tradition and very little on equality or public participation in politics." Its expansion westward was blocked by a very different culture in the Appalachian Mountains.

Greater Appalachia - This region was populated by "...wave after wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands. Lampooned by writers, journalists, filmmakers, and television producers as `rednecks,' `hillbillies,' `crackers,' and `white trash', [the inhabitants possess] ...a warrior ethic and a deep commitment to individual liberty and personal sovereignty... [They are] intensely suspicious of aristocrats and social reformers alike."

The Deep South - "[It] has been the bastion of white supremacy, aristocratic privilege, and a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was a privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many. It remains the least democratic of the nations, a one-party entity where race remains the primary determinant of one's political affiliations."

New France - A remnant of early French presence in North America, this "...culture blends the folkways of ancient régime northern French peasantry with the traditions and values of the aboriginal people they encountered in northeastern North America. Down-to-earth, egalitarian, and consensus-driven, the New French have recently been demonstrated by pollsters to be far and away the most liberal people on the continent."

El Norte - Located roughly within 100 miles north and 100 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border, this region and its inhabitants "...have a well-earned reputation for being more independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and work-centered than Mexicans from the more densely populated hierarchical society of the Mexican core. Long a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary sentiment, the northern Mexican states have more in common with the Hispanic borderlands of the southwestern United States-- historically, culturally, economically, and gastronomically-- than they do with the rest of Mexico."

The Left Coast - Settled by Yankees, this culture "...retained a strong strain of New England intellectualism and idealism even as it embraced a culture of individual fulfillment. Today it combines the Yankee faith in good government and social reform with a commitment to individual self-exploration and discovery."

The Far West - The desert and mountain wilderness in the North American interior is "...the only [region] where environmental factors truly trumped ethnic ones... This vast region couldn't be effectively colonized without the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams, and irrigation systems... As a result, the colonization of much of the region was facilitated and directed by large corporations headquartered in distant [cities], or by the federal government itself, which controlled much of the land... Even if they didn't work for one of the companies, settlers were dependent on the railroads for transportation of goods, people, and products to and from far-off markets and manufacturing centers. Unfortunately for the settlers, their region was treated as an internal colony, exploited and despoiled for the benefit of the seaboard nations."

First Nation - This culture "...encompasses a vast region with a hostile climate: the boreal forests, tundra, and glaciers of the far north. The difference, however, is that its indigenous inhabitants still occupy the area in force-- most of them having never given up their land by treaty-- and still retain cultural practices and knowledge that allow them to survive in the region on its own terms."

The book discusses the establishment and internal politics of each of these cultures, how interplay between them influenced the formation of the Federal government, which grew or diminished during the era of westward expansion, and how they shape current political discourse. Readers are directed to further reading in related sources, which include Bill Bishop's The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded American is Tearing Us Apart, Paul Taylor's The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, and Dante Chinni and James Gimpel's Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the "Real" America. These books provide a valuable perspective on cultural differences and conflicts in the United States.

Seeing What Others Don't: The remarkable ways we gain INSIGHTS
Seeing What Others Don't: The remarkable ways we gain INSIGHTS
Price: £9.29

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the Trench, 24 Nov. 2014
Inspired by Martin Seligman and other positive psychologists, Gary Klein turned away from studying errors in decision making and focused on how experts like firefighters solve problems successfully. He is most interested in how we have and use insights. "When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we're less likely to gain insights. Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes."

Klein began by observing instances of creative problem solving that did not fit the accepted four-stage model of creativity consisting of preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification (from economist Graham Wallas' 1926 The Art of Thought). He also saw important differences between the lab experiments and unfamiliar problems used to study problem solving and the real-life insights of experienced professionals working in their areas of expertise. Klein started from scratch, collecting his own set of critical incidents and examining them for patterns. He was careful to include instances of failed insight as well as instances of success.

Klein concluded that we achieve insights by reorganizing our thinking into a new story about the problem we are trying to solve. His model highlights the importance of five factors in achieving insights. "Eventually I was able to sort these 120 cases into five different strategies for gaining insights: connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions, and creative desperation. Did the incident rely on a person making a connection? Did the person notice a coincidence as a trigger for the insight? Was the insight triggered by some curiosity-- an odd fact or event? Did it depend on seeing a contradiction? Or was the person stuck, desperately seeking some way out of an impasse?"

The first section of the book describes Klein's research methods and how each of the five factors was identified. It also debunks common beliefs about problem solving. For example, an incubation period is unnecessary for creative insight, reasoning by analogy is productive when it involves an expert applying analogies from previously-solved problems, and computational models of searching a problems space to choose between possible solutions do not match how human experts think.

The final two sections describe how insights are often blocked and what can be done to facilitate insightful problem solving. Most interesting is Chapter 12: How Organizations Obstruct Insights." It discusses how the high value many organizations place on predictability and reduction of errors discourages risk-taking and pursuing new strategies. "Insight is the opposite of predictable. Insights are disruptive. They come without warning, take forms that are unexpected, and open up unimagined opportunities. Insights get in the way of progress reviews because they reshape tasks and even revise goals. They carry risks-- unseen complications and pitfalls that can get you in trouble. So insights make you work harder." Another nugget is Klein's tongue-in-cheek list of methods to block insight. If you have a distaste for arbitrary deadlines and other organizational nonsense, you will find it enjoyable as well as useful.

This is a useful discussion of the nature of insight and how to recognize and foster it. It strikes a good balance between research depth and practical application. Researchers will also find it useful for Klein's candid discussion of this methods and the value of a naturalistic approach to studying decision making. Readers who enjoy Klein's approach might also take a look at Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Working Minds: A Practitioner's Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis, and The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work.

Coming Home (An Alex Benedict Novel)
Coming Home (An Alex Benedict Novel)

4.0 out of 5 stars Turning Up the Past, 21 Nov. 2014
This is the seventh book in Jack McDevitt's series about antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot/assistant Chase Kolpath. Once again they are on the trail of a rumored cache of lost artifacts. This time the valuables are from the ancient NASA space museum and the locations they visit in search of clues include Earth itself. There they encounter interesting natives, exotic animals, and various half-truths about mankind's early history. It is both like and unlike coming home.

The book's second homecoming involves Gabriel Benedict, Alex's long-lost uncle. Along with 2,600 other passengers and crew, Gabe has been trapped on board the passenger ship Capella. An interaction between the Capella's engines and a "damaged" region of space has made it impossible for the ship to surface from transdimensional space for more than a few hours at a time. In between appearances, time on the Capella runs much more slowly than in normal space. Although Gabe and the other passengers have experienced only a few days, eleven years has passed for everyone else--and during most of it everyone thought the Capella had been lost permanently. The pending reemergence of the Capella creates some interesting adjustment problems for the passengers and their families.

This is a rewarding and enjoyable read for fans of the Alex Benedict series. Those not yet familiar with the series will miss some of the connections and enjoy the story a little less. (They should start with the first book, A Talent For War.) The mystery of the missing artifacts unfolds gradually, with clues both helpful and irrelevant. The tension surrounding Gabe Benedict's possible return is the right mix of happy anticipation and challenges to address. And there are a few new nuggets from Alex and Chase's past and present personal lives. It's a good mix.

Natural Language Processing with Python
Natural Language Processing with Python
by Steven Bird
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Questionable Material, 12 Nov. 2014
Edward Loper's book is an introduction to the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) for the Python programming language. Its target audience is a narrow one. It assumes a working familiarity with Python. It's true that an experienced programmer could learn Python along the way, but getting the most from the code examples and walkthrough explanations requires enough familiarity to "think" in Python. The book also assumes sufficient familiarity with Natural Language Processing (NLP) to understand why one would want to build lexicons, grammars, and parsers.

The book has several strengths. It is tightly integrated with Python and NLTK code. There are numerous examples throughout and the author walks through and modifies them to clarify how the NLTK works. The sizeable reference sections at the end of each chapter are also valuable. These sections include both introductory and advanced sources. And a lot of them. There is also useful integration with the NLTK web site which provides and points to additional resources.

Not to be missed are the end-of-chapter questions. Readers have come to expect little from these learning aids; they usually invite us to parrot back a small number of key concepts or try a few calculations or code segments. This book's questions go far beyond the norm. They introduce new concepts, encourage writing and comparing several versions of a program, and otherwise extend each chapter's contents. Even readers who don't plan to complete these exercises should read them closely.

Weaknesses are few. As noted, the book may assume too much Python and NLP background for some users. It does have a narrow focus and is not organized the right way to be used as a reference book. Readers who want something a little more modular and reference-like might prefer Jacob Perkins' Python 3 Text Processing with NLTK 3 Cookbook. David Mertz's Text Processing in Python is an older source, but still useful as well.

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