Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Patrick F. McManus: Avalanche

For a rip-roarin’ good time, read Patrick F. McManus. I first encountered him years ago when I heard someone reading from The Grasshopper Trap on public radio. I bought the book and enjoyed it. But I could not read it out load because I would start laughing too hard. At the time, all his books were collections of outdoorsy stories that were simply hilarious.

Then a couple years ago, I found out that McManus had written a novel, The Blight Way. So I bought it; read it; loved it. Now I’ve finished Avalanche, his second novel. Sheriff Bo Tully of Blight County, Idaho, returns for a new mystery.

Mike Wilson, the owner of a fancy lodge is missing, and his wife asks Sheriff Tully to come investigate. She offers to feed and house him in the lodge during the investigation. He jumps at the case to spend a couple days in luxury. He asks his quirky tracker, Dave Perkins to meet him there. He invites Pap, his father and retired sheriff, to ride out with him. Things initially get complicated when an avalanche closes the highway behind him. No one can get in or out.

As the missing person case turns into a murder case, Tully is facing a deadline. He needs to solve the murder before the road is cleared and suspects can disperse. He gets the National Guard to fly his CSI Unit (a guy named Lurch) out to help.

Lurch seems to be afraid of most things, starting with flying, which gives McManus plenty of fodder for humor. Perkins and Pap are excellent characters to play off of Tully’s straight lines.

We have a murder, but that’s hardly important. Mostly we have outdoors misadventures and Pap, Perkins, Lurch, owner, staff, guests, and folks back at headquarters all irritating Bo Tully. Tully steps through his investigation in a very folksy but competent way. He’s sort of like a back-woods Columbo. As the mystery comes together, all the pieces fit, and the conclusions work.

Avalanche can be a bad book to read on a plane or other public place. People look at you funny when you start laughing out loud by yourself. I have no doubt that I’ll grab the next Sheriff Bo Tully mystery that I see.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mark T. Sullivan: Triple Cross

I have signed up for several “Early Reviewer” books through my LibraryThing account. I finally got one from St. Martin’s Press that is due to be published soon – April, 2009. I don’t feel obligated to give it a good review, but I do feel obligated to give it a prompt review. So I have jumped it ahead of my unconsciously long backlog of completed books.

Triple Cross by Mark T. Sullivan is a fast paced thriller – my kind of book. Although Sullivan has written six other books, this is the first I’ve read. I will not avoid his books in the future, but neither will I go out of my way to find more.

Mickey Hennessey is head of security at the Jefferson Club, a private resort in Montana for super-rich and super-celebrity clients. Conveniently for the bad guys, the seven richest men in the world, as well as the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, have gathered at the Jefferson Club for a New Year’s Party. Hennessey’s three fourteen year old triplets (two boys and a girl) are also visiting while their mother is off on a honeymoon with a new husband.

A paramilitary force of about 50, led by “General Anarchy” attacks the resort, killing all the guards except Hennessey. They call themselves the Third Position Army, opposed to extremes on both the left and right. They embrace the message of the “anti-globalists” who are opposed to large international corporations and their political supporters.

In the early part of the book, I found myself thinking about a chapter from Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. In that chapter, a group of terrorists wanted the secret codes that let the rich make more money than anyone else. When the hostage could not produce the codes, the terrorists got angry. Clancy’s point was that the situation was dangerous, because there are no such codes. But I found myself thinking that maybe Sullivan does believe in the secret codes for the rich.

The bad guys proceed to put the Senator and super-rich on trial one at a time. “Judge New Truth” presided, “General Anarchy” served as prosecutor, and “Citizen’s Defender Emilia” provided entirely inadequate defense. The trials were broadcast over the web, with millions of viewers casting “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” votes. “General Anarchy” had incredibly detailed dirt on each defendant, although the explanation for how he got the information was not very satisfying. Needless to say, the defendants are not sympathetic characters.

Beyond the initial attack, the action centers on the hostage rescue efforts. Hennessey is injured and watching helplessly with the FBI outside the compound, while his triplets are trapped inside. The triplets put their vast experience as teenage troublemakers to use causing problems for “General Anarchy” and his troops.

Once the book got going, it became hard to put down. Many of the twists and turns were interesting, although some major twists were predictable. Hennessey, though flawed, and the triplets were likeable characters. The hostages and Third Position Army members were caricatures.

On one level, Triple Cross is an enjoyable, mindless action story. On another, it appears to be a vehicle for espousing the anti-globalist perspective. All powerful and wealthy people are ruthless, greedy, and evil. Otherwise they would not be rich and powerful.

I have to admit that I did enjoy Triple Cross once the action really started moving. But it left me with no feeling of substance. The characters and plot were shallow, and the message left a sour taste in my mouth. The cover of my review copy includes a glowing quote from Douglas Preston. Interestingly, my complaint about Triple Cross is very similar to my complaint about Preston’s Blasphemy.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
March 28, 2009

I like Neal Stephenson’s science fiction books. And I also liked volume one of The Baroque Cycle, a three (or eight, depending on how you buy it) volume narrative of historical/scientific fiction set in the 17th and 18th centuries. A book named Cryptonomicon was mentioned there, so I bought it. Well, this isn’t it, but the book Cryptonomicon is mentioned in this book too.

A little confusing? A lot of the passages in this Cryptonomicon book start off like that, but you just have to keep reading, and all becomes clear. The narrative develops two stories, one that plays out during World War II, and one in “present day.” The major present day characters are children or grandchildren of the World War II characters.

With 918 pages, Stephenson has plenty of time to fill in the background and develop the story. A lot of his narrative goes into very detailed descriptions of the technologies central to what the characters are doing, ranging from cryptography to mining to digital communications. Unfortunately, “present day” is 1999, and the Internet has spawned a lot of interesting technology since then, making Stephenson’s descriptions feel a little dated. Also, the reader needs to have a nerdish streak to find the detailed descriptions interesting. I loved it, and I would have been happy if the book was half again longer!

The story jumps around between the two time frames and between multiple characters, making Cryptonomicon a little challenging to read, but fun so long as you stay alert. The characters are mostly men, engaging in various physical or intellectual adventures, often missing female companionship, which leads to a few R-rated passages. There were just enough women in the story to produce the characters for the present day story.

And what is this story about? It seems to me that it’s about the characters and the extensive quirkiness each one expresses. Bobby Shaftoe is a very gung-ho Marine who endures without complaint a wide range of adventures during the big war. Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe is Bobby’s son, a Vietnam vet, and runs a sort of marine salvage company in the Philippines. Lawrence Waterhouse is a math whiz who meets Alan Turing before the war and gets involved in cryptography then and during the war. And Randy Waterhouse is Lawrence’s grandson, a computer geek who is helping set up a data haven in the Philippines. And then there’s the puzzling Enoch Root, who shows up when needed—both during the war and in the present day, and also in The Baroque Cycle.

Oh yes, the story is about hiding treasures (World War II) and finding treasures (present day). And inventing cryptographic codes and cracking them. It was fun to read. I’m looking forward to reading my next Stephenson book.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

David Liss: The Whiskey Rebels

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is the best historic novel I’ve read in a long time. I wasn’t expecting that. I expected it to be interesting, and informative, but not this much. On the other hand, it was not quite as much about the Whiskey Rebellion as I expected.

The 1790s were an important time in the establishment of the United States. The Constitution was still new, and Washington was still serving as the first President. Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, was trying to establish a firm financial base for the new country, specifically through strong banking. Thomas Jefferson, as a perpetual debtor farmer, hated banks. He thought banks, and a requirement to repay loans to wealthy people, represented everything the Revolution fought against. He and Hamilton were bitter enemies.

Hamilton wanted to fund his financial reforms with a tax on whiskey. That was fine in most of the country, but devastating on the western frontier. With bad roads between East and West, and the rivers still blocked by the Spanish at New Orleans, the western settlers had no way of moving bulk produce to market. Their only solution was to distill their crops into whiskey, which could be shipped east and converted to cash. Ultimately Washington had to dispatch troops to Western Pennsylvania to put down a small revolt – The Whiskey Rebellion.

The Whiskey Rebels is about this situation, but stops short of the actual rebellion. We have two main characters whose paths cross, and stories intertwine.

Ethan Saunders is a former spy in George Washington’s service. Just before the end of the war, he was falsely accused of treason. Alexander Hamilton made him resign from the Army and disappear rather than face charges. Now, in 1792, Saunders is a drunken womanizer with a ruined reputation, and a strong grudge – no hatred – for Hamilton. He lurks in the darker corners of the nation’s capital, Philadelphia. As the story unfolds, he becomes a more likeable character. He cuts back on the drink, and we start to see the quick thinking that kept him alive behind British lines. But he is still better at taking a beating than at fighting his way out of a problem.

After a chapter with Saunders, we flash back to 1781 to meet Joan Maycott. She is a very strong minded, decisive woman. She really is a powerful and inspiring character. Just before Hamilton’s Treasury Department starts redeeming old war debt, her husband trades his presumably worthless paper pay for land in Western Pennsylvania. Once the Maycotts get out there they learn that they’ve been cheated on both ends. They only have a lease, not title to the western lands. And the land is not the civilized Garden of Eden that they were promised. But they persevere through a variety of hardships.

Saunders is dragged into current political struggles, and reluctantly, is helping Hamilton defend his new Bank of the United States. Maycott ultimately is drawn back to Philadelphia looking for revenge against the speculators who cheated her and her husband, including, in her mind, Hamilton and his Bank of the United States.

The use of flash back between the Saunders and Maycott chapters is very effective, but also quite unusual. We are following along with Saunders in 1792 “real time”, while following Maycott in flashback through 1791 and into 1792. Ultimately the Maycott strand and the Saunders strand unite in “real time”. But the unusual twist is that the stories don’t join until well after the two have met. So we see Saunders interacting with Maycott from his perspective. Then several chapters later we see the same interactions from Maycott’s perspective as the flash backs approach “real time”. I just loved it.

The Whiskey Rebels gives us a very good look at an interesting, but little explored part of US history. Based on other reading, I believe the history is accurate. The characters are exceptional. The story of the country going through financial crisis is more relevant than the author could have expected. Obviously I need to read more books by David Liss.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gerald Rottman: The Geometry of Light: Galileo’s Telescope, Kepler’s Optics

Guest Review by Kit Bradley

The United Nations and the International Astronomical Union have declared 2009 to be the International Year of Astronomy, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of a telescope to study the skies, and Kepler’s publication of Astronomia Nova. Through my membership in the Eugene Astronomical Society, I learned of a book self-published by Gerald Rottman, The Geometry of Light: Galileo’s Telescope, Kepler’s Optics, and I ordered a copy. This is a good year to learn about optics as Galileo and Kepler understood it in 1609.

Kepler published his work on optics in a short book titled Dioptrice. Rottman’s book presents the ideas in Dioptrice in a form accessable to us today. He explains refraction, convex lenses, concave lenses, what happens as we look through a lens, and how to put it together to make a telescope that magnifies objects.

Early on, Rottman recommends we read the Appendices first if we’re rusty on high school geometry. I am, and I did. I appreciate his including the math refresher.

It is interesting tracing rays of light through a lens and understanding the refraction that occurs. This all made sense to me until I got to the section that explains what happens when your eye is in the picture. Now you have to deal with the aperture of the eye (pupil), an internal lens, and focusing on the retina. I read one paragraph three or four times, gave up, and read the rest of the chapter. At the end of the chapter Rottman tells us to pick up any lens we have lying around (huh? oh yes, a magnifying glass), and he has us prove to ourselves that things work as he described. I went back to that paragraph, and this time it made sense!

We’re now ready to learn how to put two lenses together to make a telescope. It’s straightforward to understand how to magnify objects, but keeping the objects in focus requires more thought (at least for me). Galileo used a convex lens for the objective (the star end of the telescope) and a concave lens for the ocular (the eye end of the telescope). This works pretty well, but it has a very narrow field of view, that is, you see only a tiny section of the sky through the telescope. Kepler came up with a better design that uses convex lenses at both ends and has a much wider field of view. But it turns the images upside down (which is not much of a problem when looking at things up in space).

I went to a local star party last night, right after I finished reading this book, and coincidentally someone brought his homemade Galilean telescope. It was not much more than a cardboard tube and two lenses he had lying around. And indeed, the field of view was tiny – we could see only about half of the moon at a time through the telescope. And the edges were sometimes colorful (more on that in a moment).

Today I came across an International Year of Astronomy project that is producing an educational and very low cost “Galileoscope,” which can be configured for either the Galileo design or the Kepler design. Only $15 plus shipping! I ordered one (www.galileoscope.org).

I had to read The Geometry of Light very carefully to learn what was there for me to learn, and I’m glad I did. Rottman achieved his goal of explaining Kepler’s understanding of optics. Perhaps beyond the scope of this goal, however, there are three additional areas I would have liked to see discussed.

First, I wondered the whole time I was reading how things have changed since Kepler’s time. Is the information in the book still relevant today? Rottman partially answers this in the last section of the last chapter, where he shows the difference between Kepler’s approximation and the math used today to calculate the angle of refraction. They’re close.

Second, I wondered if Kepler had any understanding of chromatic aberration, in which a simple lens acts like a prism and refracts the different colors contained in white light by different amounts, which results in extraneous colors around the edges of objects. This wasn’t discussed in the book.

Third, I wondered if Galileo and Kepler understood the importance of the size of the objective lens for gathering light—the bigger the lens, the more light gathered, and the better the image. This wasn’t discussed in the book.

Given the limited mathematics of the day and the limited technologies for forming clear glass and grinding it smoothly, these three topics might have been beyond Kepler’s capabilities to address.

I had fun mastering this little book, and it will lead me into more explorations. It’s available from Gerald Rottman at his web site, www.thegeometryoflight.com.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Professor S. James Gates, Jr: Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
March 2, 2009

I recently finished an astronomy course that re-ignited my interest in physics, and so I decided to learn about something that wasn’t taught in physics way back when I was in college – string theory. I went to The Teaching Company and ordered their course Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality, by Professor James Gates. The course contains 24 half hour lectures on DVDs.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity does a pretty good job of explaining what we see on a macro astronomical scale. And quantum physics explains what we see and deduce in the smallest micro scales. But apparently these two theories are incompatible, at least mathematically. The proponents of string theory claim it unifies these two theories, finally achieving what Einstein spent the second half of his life trying to do.

One of the first things Professor Gates tells us is that string theory is a very complex mathematical construction, and that nothing in string theory has been proven in experimental physics. It’s just math and theory! He then makes the commitment to teach this course about string theory without resorting to complex math and equations. But if it’s all mathematics, what’s left to teach? Professor Gates intends that his various graphics and animations will make things clear to us non-mathematicians and non-physicists.

The course starts with an overview of the quantum world and the “denizens” that inhabit it. We learn about a lot of subatomic particles that are smaller than the more familiar electrons, neutrons, and protons in atoms – like quarks and leptons and photons and gravitons and many more. All the particles have corresponding anti-particles. And later in the course all the particles are paired with superpartners.

Until the superpartners came up, I enjoyed getting to know all these particles, most of which can be seen or deduced in lab experiments, so they seem real, even if rather small – around 10-16 meters. But then we learn that the strings that underlie these particles (visualized as little vibrating loops or wiggly strings) are only 10-33 or so meters. I would be okay with strings that are a few orders of magnitude smaller than quarks, but not 17 orders of magnitude. Surely there must be something in between!

The course now proceeds through a detailed history of the development of the initial string theory in 1968, and on to the first, second, and third string revolutions, where the older theories are updated with newer mathematics that solve various problems, which ultimately leads us to M-theory. (M could well stand for Magic.) And we learn many new names along the way – superstrings, supersymmetry, supergravity, and much, much more.

One of the unsettling facts about this sequence of string theories is that the mathematics only works well when it describes many more than the four dimensions in our universe (three in space and one time). Eventually we get down to ten dimensions. That was in 2005. I suspect string theory has evolved since then.

My major learning from this course is that string theory is extremely complicated. Professor Gates describes a few dozen particles, the contributions of a few dozen physicists with their few dozen theories, accompanied with zero lab-proven results. As he says repeatedly, this is mathematics, not physics. Physics requires both theory and experimental validation.

I now know a few more terms and a little about a few particles, but I’m a long way from understanding string theory. I believe that a lot more of this material will stick if I listen to the lectures a second time. But first I’m going to read a book that both Professor Gates and my daughter (a physics major) recommend to me, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene. But it doesn’t look like an easy read either.