Monday, December 22, 2003

Merry Christmas!

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DONDER and BLITZEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!"

'Twas the Night Before Christmas or Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Holiday Picks!

As the holiday season is now lurching towards us inexorably like some drunken store Santa searching for a bathroom, I wanted to take this opportunity to present you with BookLinker's Top Ten Holiday Book Picks.

I hope that this makes your holiday shopping burden a trifle easier and please remember that if you click through to Amazon on this site and buy your books, I will receive a very small stipend...regretably very, very small....(sigh). In case anyone thinks I plan to retire to Monte Carlo on this - please be assured that the $1.67 in funds I expect to receive will be spent entirely frivously on chocolate...

On to BookLinkers Top Ten Holiday Books!

10). The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson - What can I say that anyone who has read even a single Far Side cartoon doesn't already know? Pricelessly off-kilter and fun!

9). The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl - Engrossing, literate, involving historical thriller! Damn fine!

8). The Devil in the White City : Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson - Desperately need to post the review for this one so in two words: just excellent!

7). Jarhead : A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles by Anthony Swofford - Another pending reviews: Jarring, uncomfortable, profane and starkly unsettling but one of the best works in many a year...

6). Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis - Yet another pending review (Damn, I need to post more often don't I?). Perfect for the baseball junkie on your gift list, well-written and throughly enjoyable.

5). By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and OlympicChampions by Richard A. Cohen - Swashbuckling through the ages, an unbeatable history book that's great fun to boot!

4). Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History by George Crile - A must for the spy thriller and history junkie, it tells a story that you just plain won't believe until you read it...

3). The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks - Pirates. Need I say more?

2). Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand - The best sportsbook of the year...(and another outstanding pending review. Boy do I have a lot to answer for...)

and the Number One Pick for 2003 is....

1). Life of Pi by Yann Martel - Excellent, engrossing, thoughtful and provocative! A real winner!

As an added addition to my Top Ten Books, here is my 7 Worst, Most Overratted, Avoid-at-all-Costs books for 2003....Dan't even think about buying these books...yes, I'm talking to you. Don't do it...well, okay maybe for your mother-in-law...

7). A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson - I love Bill Bryson but this one is unfortunately lengthy, somewhat dull and not nearly as enjoyable as previous works...not bad but probably not a great holiday gift.

6). Prey by Michael Crichton - Why even bother?

5). Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! by Michael Moore - Nice to see that America still has professional gadflies and people challenging the system but am I the only one who wishes that he would just go away for awhile?

4). Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken - I have nothing against Al Franken. He is funny...sometimes... but am I alone is just finding this more of the same?

3). Who's Looking Out for You? by Bill O'Reilly - If these guys spent half as much energy thinking as they do yelling at each other, the world would be a much nicer place...quieter too...

2). The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss by Arthur Agatston - In all honesty: didn't read it. Eat less. Exercise more. Balanced diet. There, you're done! Save your money.

1). The Teeth of the Tiger by Tom Clancy - Bad. Really bad. Well, actually unfortunately worse then really bad. Extremely lame effort by the king of the techno-thrillers. Lengthy. Boring. It is also obviously a larger work deliberately truncated into two books. We can probably expect the next one next year. On the positive side it weighs less then some of his recent work...

Enjoy your holiday shopping!

Monday, December 01, 2003

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

It was the bookjacket that caught my eye.

I've never been much of a "literary" reader. I think it had to do with too much D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf in school. The net impact of that particular school of great literature was to drive me irrevocably away from anything remotely literary for years, if not decades...

Oh I like classic literature but my taste runs more towards the ancients and the swashbucklers- The Odyssey remains a prime favorite, Beowulf, Shakespeare and Scharazade all grace my library shelves and as for literature from the last century or so, give me Dumas, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, ER Burroughs, Twain and H.G. Wells and keep the rest...

Life of Pi might be literary according to the critics, but I'll warrant it has more in common with the Odyssey then it does any other literary tome. Yann Martel has crafted an evocative travelers tale, an odyssey story of sorts that weaves almost magically into your head and leaves you, in the end, puzzling over the journey, your own as well as the book's.

Life of Pi is the lyical and imaginative story of Piscine Patel (the Pi of the title), a 16-year old boy on a spiritual journey of faith that takes an abrupt left turn when he is cast adrift in a lifeboat by a shipwreck, alone on the high seas - except for the one unique passenger on his boat - a full-grown 450 lb. adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker.

Pi's odyssey is a parable of faith, imagination and, oddly enough, zoology, giving you a quick,vivid and surprisingly effective lessons in animal pyschology and lion-taming. Martel's fable is at times harrowing, uplifting and intense, drawing you into the shared plight of both Pi Patel and Richard Parker. Life of Pi is one of those stories that you find yourself mulling over long after the book is closed. It is, on many levels, one of the most mesmerizing stories I have read and Martel's prose gifts readers with a real treasure.

How long can you survive adrift at sea? The record very probably belongs to some poor unknown sailor whose story never came to anyone else's ears but for a true survivors' tale check out Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan.

Here's some more castaways for you....

And some more Pi...

Interested in tigers? Here's a little proverb:

"Trouble rather the tyger in his lair,
than the sage among his books,
for to you
Kingdom's and their Armies
are things mighty and enduring,
but to him
they are but
toys of the moment,
to be swept away
with the flick of a finger."


For more on tigers, check out 5Tigers Tiger Information Centre, Tigers in Crisis, and the Tiger Foundation.

You might also like these guys...Magnum P.I. did.


Thursday, November 20, 2003

Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History
- George Crile


"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."
- Rudyard Kipling, 'The Young British Soldier'


When you study history in school, everything seems very structured and comprehensive, very coherent when viewed through the lense of economics and cause-and-effect. History is all about treaties and laws, trade, economic theory, statesmen and the hard realism of power....but then, time and time again, as you flip through the pages of history, they come at you - rollicking out of the mist with some grand wild-eyed vision, a chaotic elemental force that just seems to skew everything sideways...and at the end of the day you are left surveying an empire in ruins, millions of people freed from oppression and a blowback that is today, still only barely understood or acknowledged.

At the end of the day, Zia ul Haq's observation "Charlie did it." rings utterly true.

Charlie Wilson was a womanizing, alcoholic wastrel, an East Texas congressman best known for his booming voice, drinking, congressional junkets and proclivity for showgirls and Playboy bunnies. He was also the hinge and the catalyst for the largest covert operation in history - the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Charlie Wilson's War is, quite frankly, an extraordinary piece of work. George Crile, a producer for the television news show 60 Minutes, has put together a vivid and fascinating book that tellingly examines how a U.S. congressman essentially hijacked U.S. foreign policy into supporting the Afghan mudjahideen to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This quixotic politician became obsessed with the plight of Afghanistan, the Afghan people,and with taking the fight to the Soviets directly. This passionate ambition (or obsession depending on your perspective) brought Wilson into play initially as the primary critic of the CIA's early efforts in Afghanistan, and through his political machinations, almost single-handedly pushed the CIA into a far more active covert role than they had planned. The operation evolved into one of the most critical centerpieces of the Cold War and a major contributing factor in the collapse of the USSR.

Crile's ability to draw vivid and motivated portrayals of the many people working with Charlie Wilson is one of the defining characteristics of this compulsively readable book. Charlie Wilson was aided in is endeavors by an unlikely and diverse cast of characters including Gust Avrokotos, a street-smart, "working-class" CIA agent of Greek-American descent, adrift in a sea of bureaucratic Ivy League "cake-eaters"; code-breakers, eccentric politicians trading favors and committee funding votes, suicidal mujahidden, Israeli weapons dealers, the President of Pakistan Zia ul Haq (who seemed to find a kindred spirit in Charlie Wilson), a Dallas housewife turned belly-dancer and an ex-Green Beret who helped turn the muj into an effective and deadly army of peasant techno-guerillas. Maybe too effective...

The result of Charlie Wilson's obsession was eventually 25,000 dead Russian soldiers...and a profoundly changed world.

I have just three words to emphasis: Read. The. Book. It is simply terrific.

For some historical perspective on Afghanistan and its role as a crossroads of empire (and a relentless eater of foreign armies) , I highly recommend Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, and that timeless classic Kim by Rudyard Kipling. You may also want to consult this chap...

For a slightly different, very moving and evocative take on Afghanistan check out An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, a first-rate travel book that was published just after 9-11.

For more on Afghanistan check out Afghanistan Online , the CIA World Factbook , Afghanistan News Net and Afghanistan's Website .

Interested in what Afghanistan looks like? Be sure to check out National Geographic's Afghanistan in Crisis site. Also check out the University of Texas's Afghanistan Map Collection and get a look at life in Afghanistan here, here and here.

As a crossroads between Islam and Buddhism, Afghanistan and Central Asia are a priceless archaeological treasure trove, albeit one that has been difficult, if not impossible to study in recent years. Find out more at Central Asia Archaeology or if you are feeling ambitious, read another solid work by Peter Hopkirk called Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia.

Thank you for reading BookLinker! Feel free to post comments or book suggestions below. And be sure to buy all your books through BookLinker - Christmas is coming, so get your shopping done early!


Friday, November 14, 2003

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

The Internet has been a fantastic boon for conspiracy theorists. Let's face it, everybody has suspicions that the world you see, the history that you inhabit, is not what it seems to be on the surface at first glance. The world is often a strange place...and you start to see things that may or may not be connected...the unspoken truth that you can glimpse only in those moments where the ice is thin or the veneer is flawed...and the raw, naked reality is suddenly staring you coldly in the face...or you may just be a raving lunatic...

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is one of those books. Brown has concocted a gripping and strongly paced thriller that weaves together The Holy Grail, pagan symbolism, secret Templar societies, biblical studies, the history of the Church, and the work of Leonardo Da Vinci into a melange that, weirdly enough, melds into a very readable and fairly taut story.

Following the symbolic code left by a murdered curator of the Louvre Museum, Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, must unravel a 2,000 year old mystery that cuts to the heart of the Christian faith, following the clues hidden in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. Aided by the curator's (naturally enough) beautiful cryptographer daughter, the trail leads them to the Priory of Sion, a clandestine Templar society that is protecting a deadly secret, now being hunted by another group that will stop at nothing to protect the faith.

Although I've heard some mixed reviews regarding the historical accuracy of the information that Brown bases his trhiller on, his rich interpretation of symbolism provides the heart of the story and the clues to the mystery are endlessly fascinating.

In the end the book will probably be regarded as sensationalist and trashy by some, and truthful, thought-provoking and challenging by others. For myself, I found it to be a throughly agreeable thriller, easy to delve into and hard to put down, although I noted that Brown, when discussing Da Vinci's Mona Lisa in copious detail in the story, failed to note the first thing that struck me while gazing at the painting - that she has no eyebrows.

Interested in some of the alternative versions of the Bible (which, of course is online - you can find it here)? Check out The Dead Sea Scrolls which contain fragments of early testaments, some of which suggest new interpretations of what are considered the biblical facts. Here's some more moldy original documentation for you...

If Grail lore floats your boat, check out Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh, a work cited by Dan Brown as a major source for The Da Vinci Code. Interested in the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar?

Want to know more about Renaissance genuis of Leonardo Da Vinci? There are innumerable sites dedicated to this artist, inventor, scientest and engineer. I recommend The Artcyclopedia for a good overview of links and sites, and Boston's Museum of Science site Leonardo. Also available is an online collection of Da Vinci's sketches and a site covering his famous Leichester Codex, now owned by none other than ....Bill Gates.

Talk about your conspiracies...

Thank you for reading BookLinker! Feel free to post comments or book suggestions below. And be sure to buy all your books through BookLinker's Amazon links - Christmas is coming, so get your shopping done early right here!


Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions - Ben Mezrich

"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit." - R. E. Shay

Once upon a time I made a little stop on a business trip and found myself sitting at a green baize-covered table flipping the pasteboards in a blaringly loud casino. The game was blackjack and, quite astonishingly, I found myself up $300 by the end of the evening. I was always quite pleased with myself for winning...and more importantly for walking away with my winnings in my pocket instead of fruitlessly pursuing more.

I was never foolish enough to attribute it to anything but dumb luck.

Bringing Down the House is the highly readable, if not mesmerizing, tale of MIT's underground blackjack club. The book tells the story of Kevin Lewis, a math-science "whiz kid" from Exeter, MIT student and card-counter extraordinaire, outlining his recruitment into the world of professional card-counting. Lewis joined a small, secretive, MIT-based card-counting team that would, eventually, take the major casinos of Las Vegas for more than $3-million, before fate and the casino security operatives eventually caught up with them.

Ben Mezrich brings a vivid cast of characters and settings to life, outstripping what you find in most fictional thrillers, opening up the hidden world of blackjack, professional gamblers, card counters, and casino backrooms to scrutiny. Interestingly enough, the card-counters of MIT weren't breaking the law (card-counting is perfectly legal as long as no artificial means are being used to count and the integrity of the game is not being violated)...just emptying the casino's pockets by cutting out their statistical edge.

Blackjack, more than any other casino game is predictable at a mathmatical level. It has a history - you know what cards have been played and can therefore guess what cards remain in the dealers' hand. You can't know the exact outcome, but you can know the statistical probability of the remaining unplayed cards. With a team tracking the cards, you can bet accordingly and ... bring down the house.

Mezrich's book is rich with compulsion, greed and adreneline, and filled with...well everything you need to know to count cards at blackjack, including Spotters, Gorillas, Big Players, the Eye-in-the-Sky, code signals, "back-rooming" and shuffle-tracking. Highly entertaining, tense and difficult to put down, Bringing Down the House is no gamble, it is a terrific read.

Did you know that playing cards have been traced back in popular culture to 1377? Check out more on the history of playing cards here or here.

Try out this magic virtual card trick. Did you figure out how he did it?

Want to find out what's happening right now in Vegas? Check out Las Vegas LiveCams for a look at where the gamblers like to roam.

Think you have a system that can beat the casinos? Have I got a card game for you!

Thank you for reading BookLinker! Feel free to post comments or book suggestions. I'd love to see some feedback and some discussion on these reads, so dive right in!




Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain

It winds its way, serpentine, through song and story, history and culture. 4,300 crooked and bent miles, a watery artery that cuts through the heart of a continent - directly into American life. "Too thick to drink, too thin to plow" is how Mark Twain describes the Mississipi River.

I'm not sure why the Mississippi seems to capture something in me. I've only seen it once, peering at it through an 12-year old's eyes out the windows of our station wagon as we sped south to an orange-scented Florida. To a twelve-year old, it was just another river crossing, albeit a bit wider then most, notable only in that it set my father humming CCR tunes for the next hundred miles (that's Creedance Clearwater Revival for the ignorant). Yet...it intrigues.

Mark Twain is possibly the most "American" of novelists, catching with his journalist's eye, the culture and life along "The Big Muddy", evoking in a way, the spirit of the place, better then any other writer. Though countless generations of students have waded through Huckleberry Finn, comparatively few crack open Life on the Mississipi, Twains' non-fiction "history" of the Mississippi and his evocation of the lost era of the steamboat and the untamed river, with its ever changing banks and shoals.

Life on the Mississippi is an intensely personal account, as Twain was a steamboat pilot and knew the river, snags,sand-bars, channels and river life as only a steamboat pilot can - intimately and minutely.

"Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling features that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!....All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease?...doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?"

Twain sketches the history of the river generally, but lightly, from LaSalle's initial foreys, touching on the physical vageries of the river, to the steamboat pilot's life and training, steamboat racing (S.S. Sultana, New Orleans to Natchez, 268 miles in 19 hours, 45 minutes in 1844), the impact of the Civil War, folktales, stories and legendary incidents,and the everyday life of the river community. Twain captures the cadance and rhythm of the river and the people and personalities who populated the Mississippi valley - those who worked it, cursed it, dreamed on it...

Now the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has lassoed the river, tamed it with dikes and dredges...but Twain will tell you that the river is patient and one day it will, despite all we do to contain it, loose its shackles. They don't call it the Father of Waters for nothing.

There are any number of terrific sites on Twain, his legacy and his writings online. Check out this one for a good collection of background info and links, or this one for online versions of his works (I recommend his cuttingly sarcastic and funny assault on James Fenimore Cooper found here). PBS offers a great "interactive" scrapbook for Mark Twain here. Yes, Life on the Mississippi is also available online - you can find it here.

Check out the Father of Waters itself here, here and here. For some sense of the vital cultural impact that the river has, check out PBS's River of Song site. or cruise the river yourself in an old-fashioned paddle-wheeler.

Thanks for reading BookLinker! Comments and feedback are always welcome! (As are purchases - so buy a book today!)



Thursday, September 11, 2003

Ignorant Armies: Sliding into War in Iraq - Gwynne Dyer

"If historical ingratitude were a crime, the chattering classes of the West would be facing life sentences at hard labour. The luckiest generation in history, the people who got their future back because the Third World War was cancelled, think that the world has changed forever just because a few terrorists have chosen them as targets."

Watching the post 9-11 events play out over the last two years have left me with an astonishing contempt for a significant portion of the news media, particularly CNN and some of the other cable news channels (notably Fox, which, frankly, isn't news, just sensationalism repackaged with pretty graphics, attitude and aseriously skewed agenda). It is significant that you won't find Gwynne Dyer on any U.S. network. It may be because he is intelligent, incisive, plain-spoken, thoughtful, not given to simplistic soundbites and - uncharacteristically for a journalist - well-grounded on his subject of expertise.

His area of expertise is war. Dyer is a Canadian journalist and filmmaker. He has a PhD in Miilitary and Middle Eastern History from the University of London, has served in the Canadian, British and American navies, taught military history at the Canadian Forces College and the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst before beginning a career as a freelance journalist and filmmaker. Co-producer of a seven-part documentary television series "War" (nominated for an Oscar for one episode), his print column on international affairs now appears in more than 200 newspapers and more than 40 countries around the world.

The reason I delve so deep into his bio is that Ignorant Armies, written and published just prior to the start of the Iraq War, offers up, with astonishing clarity and insight, the single best examination of the motives, circumstances and driving forces behind the war with Iraq that I have yet found. This is no Noam Chomsky, anti-war peacenik or partisan conspiracy nut. Dyer is articulate, intelligent and thought-provoking, cutting through much of the agenda-laden drivel that the majority of the news media has been substituting for analysis recently. As Dyer himself memorably put it in one interview ""If you like being treated like an idiot child by your leaders and your media, you are living at the right time".

Ignorant Armies offers up a solid strategic analysis of the international political situation, examining the motivations of al Quada, Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden, George W. Bush and the current administration, looking sharply at the reasoning behind the scene. It is a refreshingly candid and non-partisan tome, well-written and accessible even for people with no prior background on the subject area. Of particular note is Dyer's scathing analysis of the administration's "Weapons of Mass Destruction" excuse for the war, an excuse he readily demolishes.

If 9-11 and Iraq have you baffled, or even if you are sure you know all the answers, Ignorant Armies is a must-read.

Interested in finding out more about what's going on in Iraq? Check out Dear Raed, an anonomous Iraqi blogger whose been posting since before the war.

For a look from "our side of the fence" (so to speak), check out LT. Smash's blog, Back to Iraq 2.0, and Warblogs.

A fair number of Gywnn Dyer's various articles and columns are available online, just pop by Google and take a look.

Comments are always welcome.

Remember BookLinker depends on your support so...buy a book! Please?



Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation has that greasy, delicious taste of muckraker ambience, but it is just too well written, too comprehensive, and too well researched to be tarred lightly with that label.

Eric Schlosser delves deep into the history, practices and culture of America's love-affair with fast food, and the lasting impact (both economic and otherwise) that the obsession creates. Schlosser's pen is wide ranging, from the cattle farms, feedlots and agribusiness of yesterday, today and tomorrow to fast-food's impact on labor practices and the meat-packing industry (guaranteed to make you view vegetarianism with a more sympathetic eye). His comprehensive tome examines the history and development of fast-food, including such varied and little known subtopics such as the taste-enhancing chemists (housed quietly in the New Jersey industrial strip) that add the final filip to the industry's special sauces. Very little escapes his gaze, including elegant factoids such as the profit margins on soft drinks (very, very high, particularly when you "supersize" your drink) to internal McDonalds' discussions on the brand merit of keeping the golden arches (The gist is that they resemble female breasts (there is a serious brand Oedipal thing going on there, trust me..)).

Like so many other people, I spent my time in the fast food industry - both as a customer and as a teenage burger flipper, so reading Fast Food Nation, I found I could identify and recognize quite readily many of the labor practices and processes that Schlosser examines. I still recall with a bit of a shudder the time one of the fry handlers pulled a full basket out of the boiling shortening without allowing the excess oil to run off. I just happened to be cleaning the small freezer below when he lifted the dripping, steaming basket over my head and bare arms, liberally pouring hot oil on me. I ended up with only painful but light burns on my arms but it was the manager's callous disregard for the accident that stuck in my mind. He wanted me to finish my shift...

Schlosser's horrifying and telling examination of the meat-packing industry culminates Fast Food Nation, looking at the industrialization of the meat industry, the severe economic and health impacts on society, and the labor practices and the ever-increasing pace of work on "the Killing Floor". This is great investigative journalism, well-written and uniformly fascinating.

Fast Food Nation is a book that, very probably, the MacDonald's and Taco Bell's of the world, do not want you to read. It makes you think too much about the real social cost of your Happy Meal. You will never eat a burger again without wondering, so if you really, really love your Big Mac, maybe you should skip this book.

Schlosser is also the author of the recently published Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. I liked Fast Food Nation so much, I immediately went out and grabbed Reefer Madness but it was, by comparison, disappointing. Reefer Madness examines, much more lightly, aspects of the U.S. underground economy, namely the current war on marijuana, the pornography industry and the illegal migrant worker industry in the strawberry fields. None of these topics are examined in the same comprehensive detail as Schlosser exhibited in Fast Food Nation. Although Reefer Madness is well-written and offers some of the same tantalizing facts and information snippets, the effort falls short, mainly as each of the topics deserve a much more in-depth and wider look - in short a book of their own.

Here's some more fast food facts on the healthiness of that burger and fries you just tucked away...

Want to know more about McDonalds? You can check out their corporate site here, or for a look at the Anti-McDonalds forces (McDonalds has become a prime target of the worldwide anti-globalization movement), check out this site. Of particular interst is the infamous "McLibal" case in the United Kingdom which is written up on the site.

My particular favorite McDonalds story (courtesy of the 60 Minutes news show), was when McDonald's in the UK sent a letter to small fine dining establishment in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, demanding that the restaurant stop using the name McDonalds. The owner and operator happened to be the Laird of the McDonald Clan...who evoked Clan privilage and demanded in turn that McDonalds' cease using the name without the express permission of the Clan. Pu' tha in yer sporran, ye bluddy wee haggis!

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Thursday, August 07, 2003

Diplomatic Immunity - Lois Bujold

Good science fiction comes in many different forms and genres. You have hard science fiction (bouyed by speculation and imagination, but grounded in hard-core science), fantesy, cyberpunk and more...and you have Space Opera. Space opera is not concerned overly with building its worlds or concepts on scientific fact (or if it does, it clothes itself rather loosely in the robes of scientific fact) but with ideas, characters, and grand situations. For example, Star Wars is the classic space opera movie.

Diplomatic Immunity by Lois Bujold is space opera at its best, but in good conscience I cannot recommend you read it...without reading at least some of the prior books in the series. They are all damn fine reads.

Diplomatic Immunity is the latest in the Miles Vorkosigan saga. The plotline drags newly married, honeymooning Bayarran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan ("The Emperor's Voice"), now retired from active service due to (repeated) injury, headlong into yet another fray, negotiating a diplomatic dispute at an isolated space station that rapidly escalates into attempted assassination, consipiracy and murder.

Filled with Bujold's usual combination of intricate plot, action, humor social commentary, Diplomatic Immunity is, like the other books in the series, hugely, entirely character-driven. The science in this science fiction is just the window-dressing for a terrific character. Miles Vorkosigan is one of the best characters that any author could hope to create - namely one that springs fullblown out of the page right at you. Miles, crippled at birth by an "invitro" assassination attempt, is physically constrained by both brittle bones and a dwarvish stature, but compensates by being brilliant, energetic (almost maniacal at points), duty-driven and almost psychotically determined. As one character aptly describes: "He's not short. He's...concentrated." For sheer personality, Miles is fabulous. Throw in a well-plotted set of devious foes (both foreign and domestic) into the universe, stir well...and you have one great space opera.

The next time your quest for good reading takes you into the giant mega-book superstore, walk right by the row upon row of Star Trek and Star Wars junk that pollutes the store shelves and dive into some good space opera for a change with Lois Bujold. I'm not saying this to slight the Star Wars and Star Trek books, but let's face it: they churn out new one's each month like Harlequin romances and few, if any are particularly good (J. Ford's The Final Reflection is excepted, along with one or two other authors). Don't read Diplomatic Immunity first. Grab a couple of her earlier works (some of the Miles Vorkosigan stories are now available in collections) to get yourself well and hooked on the character. Now go forth and read...

For more on Miles and Lois Bujold, visit the author's site (and home of the The Dendarii Free Mercenaries) here.

Here's another old space opera hero- Flash Gordon himself! Interested in old pulp fiction, Astounding stories etc? Check out this site and this one. To keep up with the sci-fi news, visit Sci-Fi Weekly. You can also get Analog online.

Interested in getting into space? You can do it...and make money to boot. Check out the X-Prize today.





Wednesday, July 23, 2003

"It was a dark and stormy night" - Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

The results of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for 2003 are now out and, in the interest of preserving the best of purple prose everywhere, here are several of the winning entries:

Grand Prize:
"They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined
string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . .
Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn't taste distinctly dissimilar
from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently
" - Ms. Mariann Simms, Wetumpka, AL

Runner-up:
"The flock of geese flew overhead in a "V" formation - not in an old-fashioned-looking Times New Roman kind of a "V", branched out slightly at the two opposite arms at the top of the "V", nor in a more modern-looking, straight and crisp, linear Arial sort of "V" (although since they were flying, Arial might have been appropriate), but in a slightly asymmetric, tilting off-to-one-side sort of italicized Courier New-like "V" - and LaFonte knew that he was just the type of man to know the difference. " -John Dotson (U.S. Naval Officer), Arlington, VA

My personal favorite:
"They say she carried her own warmth around with her, like one of those thermoregulating arctic mammals, say, a polar bear, or a baby harp seal (though not a penguin, which is antarctic, anyway, and not a mammal, but a bird), but she wasn't fat or blubbery, which makes it all the more unbelievable why anyone would have wanted to club her to death for her fur coat, which wasn't even white, I'm told, but black."- Harry H. Buerkett, Urbana, IL

Bravo, bravo! For more check out the full contest results at the Bulwer-Lytton site.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex - Nathaniel Philbrick

"From the ship's bows, nearly all the seamen now hung inactive; hammers, bits of plank, lances, and harpoons, mechanically retained in their hands, just as they had darted from their various employments; all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship's starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell flat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads of the harpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume. " - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

As sea tales go, In the Heart of the Sea covers the gamut.

Written by Nathanial Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea tells the true tale of the whaleship Essex, which provided the grist for Melville's famous salty yarn quoted above. The Essex was a 238-ton Nantucket whaler that set sail in 1819 to hunt sperm whales in the South Pacific in a newly discovered whaling region called the Offshore Ground. In an extraordinary turn of events, the Essex was rammed and sunk by an eighty-five foot sperm whale, sending the ship to the bottom and its 20 crew members on a 3,000-mile dark and epic battle for survival across the empty expanse of the Pacific. Only eight eventually made it back to civilization, and their passage was one marked by terrible tribulation, death and cannibalism.

Philbrick has put together a wrenchingly vivid story that brings to life both the participants and the whaling culture of Nantucket. Loaded with sharp gems of information and observation on topics from whale behavior, the hunting process, the whaling economy, Quakerism, Nantucket culture, the racial make-up of the Essex's crew (7 were African-American, 1/3 of the crew), the history and usage of the infamous "custom of the sea" (or cannibalism as you or I would have it) and many other topics. One of the facts that stuck in my mind was the description of the "trying out" process, of cooking the blubber to extract the whale oil, and how often, when the fetid and noxious process was well underway, the only safe way to move across the oily, slippery deck was to slide on the seat of your pants.

In the Heart of the Sea is an extraordinary and horrific sea tale, but Philbrick's careful research and excellent prose raise it well above the average in both the telling and in the content. Highly recommended.

Here's a Nantucket toast quoted from In the Heart of the Sea which I thought weirdly captured the strange dicotomy between Nantucket's highly religious Quaker roots, and the bloody labor on the waves that kept it's people employed...

" Death to the living
Long Life to the killers,
Success to sailors wives
And greasy luck to whalers."


For more on the Essex, check out the first-hand accounts of The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase (who was the First Mate on the Essex) and The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale by Thomas Nickerson (the Essex's then 15-year old cabin boy). Another read recommended by the author is Stove by a Whale by Thomas Farel Heffernan (the author of Mutiny on the Globe , also reviewed on this site).

If you are interested. Herman Melville's epic (if lengthy) story of obsession, death and the White Whale is available free on-line here. Melville based his tale upon the story of the Essex but politely ended his story with the sinking of the ship rather then dwelling on the darker tale of survival at sea...

For more information on Nantucket and its history of whaling, check out the Nantucket Historical Association. Also good is the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

For more on whale conservation check out The Ocean Alliance and the American Cetacean Society.

Not a believer in whale conservation? - here's some whale recipes for your gastronomical enjoyment (although on the whole I'd rather eat broccali...and I really hate broccali.).

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Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw - Mark Bowden

Somewhere, probably in some dusty back-alley private house in Pesawar or Quetta or some country farmhouse, is a quiet team of Delta Force operatives, patiently and relentlessly running the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin.

You see, they've done it before...

Killing Pablo is not about Bin Ladin, but outlines a very similar hunt for another of world's greatest outlaws. The target was Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel and in Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden offers a chilling, gripping and fascinating glimpse into the long and difficult hunt to eliminate Escobar.

Killing Pablo outlines Escobar's rise from a petty car thief in the slums of Medellin to his absolute control over the Colombian cocaine trade, and consequently his eventual rise to becoming an active threat to the fragile stability of Colombia. Bowden paints a disquieting (if fascinating) potrait of Pablo Escobar: By turns Escobar is vicious, charming, cunning, delusional, pedophiliac, a habitual marijuana-user and an indifferent businessman at best who made up for his entreprenuerial shortcomings by being utterly ruthless and coldly practical in the application of violence.

Bowden has penned a well-written, highly readable book, if somewhat disturbing, as it is essentially the tale of the efforts to find and kill one man, albeit one man who had destablized and crippled the government of Colombia and the Colombian justice system (Colombian jurists, police and prosecutors were generally offered one choice: gold or lead - referring to accepting a bribe or a shot in the head. One hell of a lot of them ended up dead....).

The book outlines the extensive involvement of the U.S. government and its most secret assets that were used to help track and hunt down Escobar. It also touches on the highly secretative involvement of the U.S. anti-terrorism unit Delta Force. Bowden, who previously won the Pulitzer (very deservedly, I might add) for his excellent book Black Hawk Down, hints at Delta Force's involvement in the killing of Pablo Escobar and in their involvement in the extra-legal vigilante groups that targeted Escobar's associates, partners and family. Think what you will about the relative paucity of hard evidence supporting the author's theory, but as a result of Black Hawk Down Bowden knows the Special Forces community quite well. Read the book and judge for yourself.

Overall, an excellent read. The only quibble I had was with the cover, which was a photograph of the dead Pablo Escobar flanked by his hunters (Colombian police and, interestingly enough, a CIA guy). I was never able to leave the book lying around anywhere in my house where my five-year wouldn't get a look at that disturbing image, so as a result the book has been shovelled into a storage box instead of gracing my bookshelf....

If you are interested, the Philidelphia Inquirer (the paper that Bowden writes for) has available online copies of the series of articles by Bowden that eventually became the book (they did something similar for Black Hawk Down). Check it out here.

For more about international drug trafficking, check out the DEA. For more on the war on drugs, check out Frontline's Drugwars.

Remember these guys?

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Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Pattern Recognition - William Gibson

Life is all about patterns. Think about it: you live your life on a linear frame, a demographic progression, with your likes and dislikes, your life stages and steps all patterned out, in sync with others of your generation. Each life is similar, but different when regarded up close. Life, like a city in the distance, is clear, well-ordered and structured - patterned - but up close, that's where the chaos and pattern becomes more intricate, more fractual...harder to see.

Pattern Recognition is William Gibson's latest book, and in my opinion, one of his best. It still doesn't come close to the impact of Neuromancer (which was both a literary and genre-defining work), but, it is, as was once said, a near run thing.

Pattern Recognition's main character, Cayce Pollard, is a "cool-hunter", a natural marketer, someone who has developed an inate sense of pattern recognition for what "works" and what doesn't in the ever-changing, chaotic and permeable world of consumer brand marketing. Pollard is also chasing after an underground Internet "sub-culture" that is piecing together clips of a unique and unknown film clips called "the footage" that is being uploaded onto the Net by person or persons unknown. Unknown to her, others are chasing the footage and view her and her unique brand sense as a tool to finding the creator of the footage...

One of Gibson's descriptive riffs from an earlier work still floats around in my head regularly - for no particular reason that I can discern: "The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.."

I've yet to find an author who can weave the modern and the descriptive quite so well as William Gibson. Gibson's prose is so evocative and effective, so laced with meaning and sub-text. It is, as with his book Neuromancer, as though something is lurking just under the surface, some meaning, some presence...The message you receive when you parse through one of his intricate and elegant paragraphs is eeriely reminscent of the stripping away of layers of chaos within society, technology, and the modern world; to discover the underlying codes that permeate today's world....Pattern Recognition is both a title and what he does as a writer.

Don't read Pattern Recognition expecting cyberpunk. This is not cyberpunk. Do read it however, it is worth your time.

Check out Gibson's own weblog here. Nice to see an author blogging...I highly recommend some of his online articles, in particular the one he wrote on Japan, a country with which I have had a long history and involvement with. I know no one who can capture the essence of modern Tokyo like Gibson can. It is indeed a writer's gift...

Interested in cyberpunk culture? Check out Project Cyberpunk for some interesting links, or read Neal Stephenson's excellent book Snow Crash.

Interesting in marketing and "cool-hunters"? First read Naomi Klein's No Logo, then check out Frontline's take on cool-hunting. Personally I prefer Toffler...he's not cool, but he's got pattern recognition down cold.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Kingdom of Fear : Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century - Hunter Thompson

"We are few, but we speak with the power of many. We are strong like lonely bulls, but we are legion. Our code is gentle, but our justice is Certain - seeming Slow on some days, but slashing Fast on others, eating the necks of the Guilty like a gang of Dwarf Crocodiles in some lonely stretch of the Maputo River in the Transvaal, where the Guilty are free to run, but they can never Hide." Hunter S, Thompson, on the difficulties of maintaining an equitable lawyer - client relationship.

He is one of the most unique post-modern authors in America today and his words race like rabid dogs through the rancid backalleys of your forebrain, rendering you incapable of speech, foaming like some pundit on cable, salivating at the thought of driving THOSE DAMNED WORDS out of your head and ending this hallucinatory haze of despair and triumph....

Okay, okay. I can't write HST. No one but the Hunter himself seems to channel the weird, chaotic content that confuses, twists and writhes into your head, leaving you, at the end of the day, recognizing his supreme talent for making sense out of what, so far, has been a relatively senseless century. Kingdom of Fear is his latest work and a strange, but throughly enjoyable journey. Mainly focused on post 9-11 America, the vageries of the justice system and the climate of fear and reactionary response that now seems pervasive across much of the US, Thompson's somewhat autobiographical work is a surreal blend of musings, tempered political and sociological insight, name-dropping and dementia - which now that I think about it, probably sums up most of his work.

Best known for such works as Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Generation of Swine, Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (interestingly enough, now considered an example of studying social anthropology through "direct observation" and is used in a number of Anthropology courses), The Great Shark Hunt, and as Rolling Stone Magazines "Gonzo" political reporter, Thompson is a true child of the Sixties, a worldly anachronism that, perhaps, is more politically relevant now then ever before.... Thompson's self-proclaimed beat is "The Death of the American Dream" and he has been covering that journalistic beat for more than 35 years (This is a man who once interviewed Richard M. Nixon while standing at a urinal). Kingdom of Fear is a fascinating (and dark and twisted and chaotic and...well, read it and you'll find out) book, well-written (in it's own hallucinatory way) but probably not for all tastes.

For more on The Hunter, check out this link page.

If you've ever read Gary Trudeau's (Note: not the former Canadian Prime Minster) comic strip Doonesbury, you will probably recall Duke - the Luger-wielding, Wild Turkey swilling, drug-using, vaguely psychotic former Ambassador to China...you guessed it - he's based on HST.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2003

The Dante Club - Matthew Pearl

"Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear."


Finding a work that combines Dante Alighieri, 19th Century Boston, Harvard University politics, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and a serial killer is...well, it's a rare find, and a rippin' good mystery novel it makes...

The Civil War is over. The troops are returning, The Confederacy is crushed beneath the Union's heel and Boston, the "Athens" of the North, is the epicenter of American intellectual life. In this rarified atmosphere, the Dante Club is formed. The Dante Club is a group of Boston's finest literari: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and publisher J.T. Fields; dedicated to bringing the first American translation of Dante Aligheri's Divine Comedy to publication. Opposed by an insular Harvard and scholars that view Dante as dangerous and foreign, The Dante Club must also face a terrifying new threat: finding a vicious serial killer that seems to be copying the punishments in The Inferno and metting them out onto some of Boston's most prominent citizens.

Somewhat reminiscent of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (another mystery with hidden depths in a unique setting ) The Dante Club is one of those books that may be off-putting to some readers due to the "literary" nature of its subject matter but Pearl does an excellent job weaving the mystery through the prose (and the somewhat pompous and self-important posturing of some of the main characters. I've never met a "literary giant" in person but these guys...yeeesh.). The author presents a well-written and fascinating glimpse into some of the premier literary figures of the age, outlining the historic details of their personal struggles, ambitions and petty rivalries (E.A. Poe's spiteful resentment of and rivalry with the Boston intellectuals of the Dante Club for instance). Into this worthy mix, Pearl skillfully threads a very believable and well-plotted mystery that does a very good job of catching and keeping your interest high throughout the book while dragging the literary greats on a intricate journey into their own private Hell in pursuit of the killer.

Don't read this book expecting the usual "serial killer thriller", it is more thoughtful, more evocative and the themes more mythic then expected. As an added bonus, the background on Dante, his life and times, and the literary structure of the Inferno is well worth a look. I hadn't read Dante since high school but I found myself reading and re-reading the Dante quotes very attentively. Time changes all literary works for a reader and now, approaching the mid-point of my own life, it may be that Dante says new things to me that warrent a second look.

Interested in learning more? Check out the World of Dante here, and be sure to visit the DigitalDante site (which includes the complete version of the Divine Comedy online).

You can see what the real-world Dante Club eventually evolved into here or visit the book's own website here for a sneak peek (not to be confused with this Dante Club)..

Learn about historic Boston here, or check out Harvard here.

For a Sci-fi writers take on Hell, check out Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's book Inferno.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Krakatoa : The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 - Simon Winchester

My younger brother is a professional astronomer. Several years ago, on a research trip to Hawaii, he unfortunately had his observation time on Mauna Kea cut short by a telescope malfunction (Note: Only an astronomer would call two days off work in Hawaii an unfortunate occurence). This breakdown left him with two days to roam about the Big Island in daylight, something that astronomers, with their vampiric lifestyle, rarely get the opportunity to do. He headed off to Volcanoes National Park and upon his return, described to me in exceptional vivid detail what it was like to hike on ground that was too hot to stand still on for lengthy periods of time...

Such is the hidden geothermal power of the earth. Melted sneakers are the least of your worries...

Krakatoa: The Day the Earth Exploded is a fascinating, complex journey into the heart of one of the most infamous volcanic eruptions of all time, and, thanks to the advent of the undersea telegraph cable, the first truly "modern" disaster of history. Krakatoa exploded on August 27, 1883, claiming more than 40,000 lives and the shock wave traveled the globe a total of seven times, being measured clearly in England in both tidal records and barometer measurements.

Winchester does an excellent job outlining the background of the disaster, including both the geologic significance of Krakatoa's location, the significance of Alfred Russell Wallace's evolutionary "Wallace Line", the background of plate tectonics and continental drift, with the history of vulcanism and the Dutch colonial empire of the East. He knows his geology and is gifted with an excellent ability to explain the details in clear and refreshingly non-technical prose. At the end of the day you have a clear view of the significance of the disaster, the horrifying eyewitness accounts of huge and cataclysmic explosion (heard more than 3600 km away), the 100-foot tsunamis that devastated the coastal regions, the long-term impact the eruption had on the burgeoning Dutch empire, and the glorious sunsets that Krakatoa's globe-encircling dust and ash gifted the world.

Winchester does a good job demosntrating the unimaginable scale and horror of the event. One particularly chilling passage recounts ships sighting literal rafts of pumice clogging the seas, floating across the Indian Ocean, complete with hundreds of skeletal human remains and household debris strewn across their surfaces.

The book falls short unfortunately in two key areas. First, though the disaster is well-described and documented, it also left me strangely unmoved and untouched. I found it difficult, if not impossible, to find myself involved or interested in any of the key figures of the age, partially because Winchester generally doesn't focus in on specific individuals or themes for lengthy periods of time and possibly because the geology lessons do tend to interrupt the flow of the narrative at times. Second, Winchester's attempt to link the eventual fall of the Dutch from power in Java and Indonesia with the devastation following the volcanic eruption seems...well, to be a bit of a reach. He notes the rise in radical Islamic activities in the years following Krakatoa and makes a basic case for cause-and-effect, it does not seem to be a particularly strong one and I for one, remain fairly unconvinced.

Overall, a strong and fascinating read.

For a look at Krakatoa today, check out these pictures, these ones and this site.

For more on volcanoes, check out Volcano World at the University of North Dakota, learn how they work here, and check out Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius here.

Learn more about plate tectonics here (courtesy of the US Geological Survey) and Alfred Russell Wallace (and his famous Wallace Line) here.

Learn how to make a Golden Volcano here...believe me, you will regret it. I did.




Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Prey - Michael Crichton

After reading ten of Michael Crichton's books over the years, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that his reach exceeds his grasp.

Prey is no exception.

Set in the new scientific frontier of nano-technology, Crichton cautionary tale mixes his usual blend of amoral scientests, venture capital and new technology run amuck to craft a marginally interesting story set (mostly) in a Mojave research lab. The scientests have combined artificial intelligence, nano-technology and emergent behavior to create a new type of life form - a swarm of miniscule, molecule-sized machines that rapidly evolve their own purpose and direction, potentially threatening not only the scientests (and the intrepid "good guy" who must work with them to shut it down) within the lab, but the future of life on Earth.

The problem with the book doesn't come from the ideas - Crichton is great with ideas - and not from the science - again, an area that Crichton manages to pull together reasonably well (albeit somewhat dull to read for page after page) - but from the simple fact that his books almost all tend to be shallow, relatively characterless and, quite bluntly, not that original in their take on the ideas and concepts he spins out. Indeed several of his books (most notably Jurassic Park, Timeline, Rising Sun...Congo,... well okay, almost all of them...) seem to more concept treatments then real novels, written as Hollywood screenplay pitches rather then as fully evolved stories. When I think about what the ideas he has developed could be in the hands of a pure science fiction writer, I get chills, I get excited....but not over what Crichton has written.

Prey is particularly disapointing in this vein. The characters are mostly lacking any clear motivation or distinguishing features (beyond such attributes as race, gender, age or general appearance), the dialogue is light (and mostly clunky) and the plot situation is such that I found myself predicting (with a fair amount of exactitude) the ending. In truth, I didn't really care by the time the book ended what happened to the characters. It wasn't so bad that I was cheering on the vicious and destructive nano-particles (well, okay...maybe I was...a little...) but it certainly wasn't good...

For a better (and far more fascinating) read on nano-technology set far in the future, check out Walter Jon Williams' book Aristoi.

Read physicist Richard Feynman's 1959 talk that kick-started the nanotechnology concept here and some additional background info on nanotechnology here and here.

Here's an article on the potential dangers of nanotechnology that makes Crichton's book look like a gentle walk in the park....be afraid, be very afraid.

Here's another Crichton for you....







Friday, April 25, 2003

Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana - Ann Louise Bardach

An ajiaco is a spicy Cuban stew. Cuba Confidential is just such a book, filled with myrid tasty insights, bubbling quietly in hidden corners.

Written by the experienced and thoughtful journalist Ann Louise Bardach, Cuba Confidential helps shed some light on what, to an outsider, is one of the most puzzling political stews leftover from the twentieth century.

Taking the recent Elian Gonzalez case as its starting point, the author delves into the intricacies and byzantine political machinations of the both the Cuban exile community and the stolid and enduring dictatorship of Castro, recasting what many see as a Cold War leftover into a bitter family feud that divides Cubans on both sides, sundering relationships and tearing deeply personal scars. The author's expertise and long-relationship with both sides of the Cuban coin reveals the depth of political intrangience that cripples both sides, preventing both true discourse and productive change - trapping both countries in a mutually destructive relationship that neither encourages nor rewards finding common ground.

Bardach is particularly chilling when she digs into the role of Miami's imbittered and politically powerful Exile community of Calle Ocho (the so-called Third Rail of Florida politics (as in the rail that will electrocute you if you touch it)), the control and dominence they have established over South Florida, the strings they pull and power they wield. Filled with vivid glimpses of the inside wheels of power and personal motives (Janet Reno, the Miami-born US Attorney-General under Clinton weeping in her office over the vicious characterizations and personal attacks that exploded in the wake of the Elian affair; the particular callous disregard for the well-being of Elian by his exile relations; the manipulation of the press....and so on. Read the book for a full view.), the book in particular highlights two constrasting characters - the greying Fidel Castro and the Exile leader Mas Canosa and CANF.

One of the particular nuggets of note in the book is the intricate ties between the Exile community and the Bushes; George Sr., George Jr. and Jeb (Governer of Florida); and the infamous "hanging chad" electioneering that in the end, decided the presidency and shaped dramatically the future of the US. Interestingly enough, prior to September 11, 2001, one of the most infamous acts of terrorism in the Western hemisphere was the bombing of Cubana 455 in 1976 which killed 73 people (including almost the entire Cuban National Fencing Team). Carried out by Orlando Bosch (an exile with strong ties to CANF and Mas Canosa), Bosch was later pardoned by - you guessed it - George Bush Sr. This tends to make anyone who follows the current adminstration's pronouncements on terrorism a bit leery...

Cuba Confidential starts a bit slow and I for one found the intricacies of Cuban family ties to be difficult and somewhat tedious to work through, but persistant readers are well-rewarded with a well-written, quality glimpse inside what can only be called the unrivaled family feud of the last century.

For a recipe for ajiaco, check out this site.

Check out the CIA's Cuba page in the CIA's World Fact Book or check out the latest news from Cuba here.

Check out Amnesty International's report on Cuba here, and learn about Cuba's contribution to modern dance with the Mambo, the Rumba and the inevitable Cha-Cha.

For more insight on Cuba check out Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana by Isadora Tattlin, or This is Cuba: An Outlaw Culture Survives by Ben Corbett.







Monday, April 07, 2003

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd - Richard Zacks

Pirates and blue water took hold of me as a kid and never really let go.

I blame those early-morning black-and-white film classics that our local TV station ran where I thrilled to such worthies as Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., as they jaunted their way through the Spanish Main, with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's blaring trumpets offering rich accompaniment...

Those celluloid pirates offered only the barest reflection of the reality of the pirate life.

The Pirate Hunter tells the tale (and a richly detailed, well-researched, highly charged tale it is) of Captain William Kidd, who, together with Blackbeard, is probably the most well-known figure in pirate lore. Interestingly enough, most public knowledge of Kidd, his activities and his piratical life, is entirely wrong. In this well-written work, Zacks sheds new light on the legendary Captain Kidd, who was a prominent and well-respected captain and merchant in early New York, painting an authentic picture of Kidd as a privateer captain, sanctioned and backed by certain individuals high in the British government, to seek out and destroy pirate activities (incidentally enriching his investors/backers and himself in the process). Privateers were, as Zacks points out, legally contracted to prey on enemy shipping, so it may well be treading a fine-line to paint Kidd as an innocent abroad, but the evidence Zacks presents that Kidd was a Pirate Hunter, not a pirate himself, is highly compelling, particularly after Kidd returns to await trial. Interwoven with Kidd's story is the tale of a true pirate, Robert Culliford, whose ongoing piratical career weaves in and out of the narrative (and Kidd's life) like an unrelenting Nemesis.

Zacks work is copiously backed by research, documentation and records, and wonderfully enhanced by period details, pirate lore and backroom political intrigue, including such tidbits as the surprising democratic structure of most pirate crews, their general distaste of battle (they prefered to frighten and bluff unwary ships into submission), the truth about the legendary lost treasure of Captain Kidd, and the inevitable and unenviable fate that the Admiralty reserved for convicted pirates.

Zacks paints a vivid and exciting picture that makes The Pirate Hunter a hugely entertaining read. Highly recommended!

Avast there - seeking new reads to plunder? Look no further, check out Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates by David Cordingly. I also recommend the old classic adventure tale, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (also available here as a free online version). Another classic author who knew pirates well was Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe who wrote one of the first "pirate histories" called A General History of Pyrates in 1724 (unfortunately not available yet free online).

If you are looking to fall out of your chair with laughter, I highly recommend George MacDonald Fraser's The Pyrates. It offers a tongue-firmly-in-cheek look at the Brethern of the Coast that could possibly cause you to rupture something while reading...

For more information (and a terrific link list) on pirates, check out Pirates of the Spanish Main. Find out about the legendary pirate haunts of Port Royal (which sank beneath the waves one cataclysmic morning in 1692), the Island of Tortuga, and Madagascar and the activities of modern-day pirates here.

Looking for lost pirate treasure? Try Gardiner's Island, off Long Island, where Kidd hid some of his disputed treasure; or , if you are feeling very energetic, head for Oak Island, Nova Scotia, another reputed repository of pirate gold...

Lastly, check out the sunken site of Blackbeard's famed pirate ship, The Queen Anne's Revenge! Here's a brief excerpt from Blackbeard's journal (courtesy of Daniel Defoe):

"Such a day, rum all out: — Our company somewhat sober: — A damned confusion amongst us! — Rogues a-plotting: — Great talk of separation — so I looked sharp for a prize: — Such a day found one with a great deal of liquor on board, so kept the company hot, damned hot; then all things went well again."

Hoist the black flag!