Sunday, November 27, 2005

Y'know that wandering generation?..still wandering.

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essay collections

When we were young, many of my generation—the '60s kids, the ME generation, the Boomers—embarked on a journey, one by one, to "find myself." What did we find? Most of us found something, and settled down. Now, we're the Establishment, the un-trustable over-30s, mainly the grand, moderate majority that both political wings claim as their turf. The ones that didn't really find much make up those wings.

Marion Winik is a writer, essayist, commentator on NPR since 1991, and, one might say, a pretty successful person. Her most recent essay collection, Above Us Only Sky, reveals the journey, still in progress, of a lost soul finding itself.

The book is sectioned as History ("Back"), Family ("Underfoot"), Introspection ("In the Mirror"), a special, formative Historical Vignette ("Back Again", comprised of the title essay), and Surroundings/Relationships ("Around").

Ms Winik shows us herself, warts and all. She doesn't flinch from showing us her self-contradictions. Atheistic to the point of anti-theism (the book's title expresses it: there's nothing up there but sky), she revels in remnants of her Jewish upbringing and her first husband's love of Christmas. Clinging tightly to her youngest daughter, trying to raise her well, yet she made this baby with a definitely risky man. She writes with her head (a very good brain in there, and excellent writing indeed) about a lifetime of following her heart (a very fickle heart at that, much of the time...but when she loves, she loves hard, long, and well).

She can be lyrical, and she can be crude, almost vulgar (it takes more than a couple f-words to make be stop a book early...I came close); she covers quite a spectrum of experience and reverie. As I am a right-leaning moderate, I found it interesting to read and try to get into the head of someone who actively campaigned that Reagan be impeached, who lives in a world in which "my kind of thinking" is considered akin to the average Martian.

Marion Winik hasn't really found herself yet. Her continued journey makes interesting reading.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Sing like a nightingale, sting like a scorpion

kw: book reviews, criminals, killers, psychopaths

Two young men of my acquaintance went wrong. One might be restored, the's quite unlikely. The latter is a psychopath, the former, a seemingly normal fellow who snapped one day. They are about the same age, but I knew them at different stages of their lives, and mine.

Just after finishing college, I lived for two years with a family in California. I was a roomer; I shared a bedroom with another single guy. We were all in the same church. The family had two boys, and the younger one was as heartless as the elder was generous. The younger one, who I know now is a psychopath, cared only for the thrill of shaking others up. From the ages of six to eight, while I lived there, I found him to be a thief, a vandal, and a pathological liar (you know, one who lies just to keep in practice). He could be as charming as anything, but only when it suited his purpose, to put something over on you. He was incorrigible. His parents, us roomers, church leaders, psychologists...nobody made a dent in him.

I got married and moved a few blocks away. The next year, we moved out of state. Shortly after that, so did that family. I didn't hear about them for more than twenty years. A few years ago, I met the father again, through a mutual friend, who knew we were both in the same town for a conference. A joyous reunion, except for the news about his younger son. He'd spent all but one of the past twenty years in jail or prison. Offenses of all kinds; the DA just tried him for those they could get a conviction, and so far, it had been enough. What conclusion? I have to conclude he was born that way. There was no difference in how the two boys were raised.

A number of years after leaving California, we were in yet a different state, and we knew one family with several kids; the oldest was a boy. They were also 'church friends' of ours. Ten years had passed. This oldest boy was a pre-teen then, so he is younger than the aforementioned psychopath.

At some time during our friendship with this family, things went sour. The mother developed a paranoid personality, and in the time it took us to realize she needed medical help, a lot of psychological damage was done. She didn't get so flagrant that she could be forced into a psychiatric hospital, but she really began to put unusual burdens on the rest of her family (I guess that's the best way to put it). We were all relieved when the oldest boy graduated from high school and went into the Navy. About that time, the parents' marriage broke up.

The young man was a good seaman, and kept a good relationship with his father. That caused him a lot of grief from his mother, who by this time hated her former husband. He was OK while in the Navy. Then, as I was told it, one day after one of her tirades, he took the car keys, drove off, and went several states away, to where an aunt lived. However, when he got there, he robbed a bank, was caught, and wound up in prison. I haven't heard the end of this story, because we haven't kept up contact. But I know the nature of this young man, now in his thirties. He has probably been released, and I expect he'll stay out of future legal trouble. I am certain, from my experience with him, that he is no psychopath, though he certainly has mental or emotional damage from his mother's behavior.

I have a lifelong interest, almost a fascination, with abnormal and near-normal psychology. In particular, I have read several books about or by psychotics and psychopaths. Most recently, I read Blood Relation by Eric Konigsberg. The author's great-uncle is Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg, a contract killer who has been imprisoned since 1963, first for an extortion conviction, then for murder. I'll use the given name and the nickname, respectively, to distinguish them.

Bottom line: Kayo is a classic psychopath. He can charm or intimidate almost anyone into almost anything. Where these don't work, he figures the person has lived long enough. In the 1960s, he tried (successfully) to get certain preferences and privileges while in prison by informing for the FBI, and he confessed to at least twenty murders (This is one meaning of "sing" in my title). Because of the agreement, the FBI kept the confession files secret. But one of these murders was solved by the police without FBI help, so he was tried and convicted just before his extortion sentence was about to end.

Most of the time, Kayo lived (from age 13 on) by a number of criminal rackets. He did little killing on his own behalf, reserving that "business" for his Mob clients. As a freelancer (He was Jewish, so the Italian Mafia wouldn't "make" him), he even "worked" at times for both sides in a power struggle. Though he was a very tough guy, he was also canny. So far as Eric has related, Kayo always did a killing with the help of two or three others. He wasn't the kind to kill from a distance, preferring strangulation or a lead pipe followed by a close-range bullet.

Eric didn't know he had a famous criminal in the family until he was in early middle age, on his own, living in the midwest. He got a phone call from his "uncle Harold", calling from Auburn penitentiary, and eventually conducted nine interviews with him over two years. He was, of course, drawn at least partway into Kayo's web. He said he was preparing material to write the story, and Kayo seemed to go along. Eric was at first fascinated, then repulsed, eventually reluctant to see Kayo any more. He could see clearly that Kayo was a real monster. Even as a 73-year-old fatso, he could be terrifying.

The tenth visit, which was in no way an interview, was the corker. Having some premonition, Eric chose to sit nearest the guards' table, rather than at the far end of the room as before. He told Kayo he was about to publish his article. In short order, he was threatened with at least six kinds of gruesome death. He was terrified, and when he realized he really might get attacked, right there, he left. However, he did publish the article, and updated it into Blood Relation.

How to explain a puzzle like Kayo? He was born into a closeknit Jewish family, devout and conservative. From a young child, he was different. If the stories he told on himself are right (or even sorta close), he was running a numbers game, and had chased off one extortioner at gunpoint, before he was fourteen.

In the nature-nurture debate, most of us probably are 50-50 cases. Here is a case where nurture made hardly a dent in an evil-born personality. Such a case adds credence to 'strong Calvinism,' with its doctrine of 'double predestination': those who are saved were pre-chosen to do so, and those who are not were pre-chosen to be lost. As one preacher puts it, "Some folks were created to be the fuel for the Lake of Fire." I find that rather harsh, but in a case like Kayo's I cannot rule it out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

No room for any gods in the legal dictionary

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, law, sacred practices, tombstones, memorials

I picked up The Impossibility of Religious Freedom by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, thinking it might be a discourse on conflicting religious traditions, or on the increasing persecution many religions are experiencing around the world. I found instead a narrowly-focused history of the civic and legal conflict between the city of Boca Raton, FL, and a number of citizens who had erected various memorials on their relatives' graves in the city cemetery. The memorials followed various traditions, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish among them.

Though the practice was variously tolerated, overlooked, and even abetted at times, over decades, the cemetery rules clearly stated that memorials were to be confined to brass plates set into the ground, that could be mowed over. The city officials eventually decided to enforce the regulations, and ordered that the "nonconforming" displays be removed; they set a deadline, announcing that the displays would be removed by the city thereafter.

The ACLU and about a dozen of the citizens brought suit. It is nearly the only case in which the ACLU has brought a suit that is favorable to religious practice. Their nickname around here is "Anti-Christian Legal Union". Dr. Sullivan was an expert witness in the case, hired by the plaintiff's attorneys. The plaintiffs lost the initial case in 1999, it has been appealed, and to date, the matter is not resolved.

I confess I skimmed much of the material. Ms Sullivan has both JD and PhD, is an academic, and writes too drily for my taste, though her style is among the more facile...which means most academics write abysmally. Sad, but true.

Short version: the five experts on religion, three for the plaintiffs and two for the defendants, have impressive credentials and experience. The conflict in the courtroom resolved to a decision based on "organized" versus "personal" or "folk" religion. It was made clear that "personal" religion is really where the rubber hits the road. Our faith is what we do in our daily life, not the local edifice we happen to visit weekly.

Yet, the author made it clear that the judge disregarded all the experts' testimony and based his decision on his own understanding of religion. That made the appeal a slam-dunk decision. The author's thesis then is that this kind of treatment is typical: only "organized" religion has legal standing.

However, in these days of "sensitivity" and "respect", it is possible to attain at least tolerance, even legal tolerance, of one's personal religious practice. In the 1980s, I was one of several that set up a nonprofit corporation on behalf of our church. We then went through the application process for nonprofit—section 503(c)(3)—status, formally recognized by the IRS.

The crux of the matter was a statement in our bylaws (you gotta have 'em to file), that the church would meet in a location or locations as decided by the officers. I spent an hour on the phone with an IRS official who wanted us to state the church's address in the bylaws. I said I couldn't do that, that the church was the people, and wherever they happened to gather, that was a meeting of the church. At one point, I said, "This is a matter of our religious freedom. It is very important to us. To us, the real church cannot have an address." At that point, the gentleman thanked me, hung up, and shortly our registration was approved.

Just an aside to those who are bent out of shape, on either side, about the "prayer in school" issue. While we practice vocal, group prayer, we also learn to "pray at all times," which is solitary, silent or nearly so, and carried out in the midst of our daily activities. We train our children so.

Prayer has nothing to do with whether you stand, sit, kneel, walk, lie down, or are swimming. It has to do with Someone with whom you are communicating all the time. Groups of our young people do sometimes gather together, usually just before school starts, for a quick prayer group session. They are rather quiet. (And if several of us work in one location, we pray together on occasion) But, whenever the issue arises, our attitude (stated by parents; we don't burden kids with adult burdens) is, "There is exactly one way to stop me or my child from praying at any time, in any place. Kill us. If you are unwilling to go to such lengths, you'd do best to ignore us."

Some other time I'll get around to how one can "pray at every time in spirit."

Monday, November 21, 2005

Their English may be funny, but it's better than my Japanese

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, tour guides, parodies

I made some attempt to learn Japanese after marrying a woman from Japan, I really did. But I was already almost thirty, and the ol' memory was just harder to train by then. Two events convinced me I'd always need an interpreter.

Once, in a Japanese restaurant with my parents, I signaled the waitress and asked for water: mizu-o kudasai. She replied, yombai ma. I looked up in confusion, and she held up four fingers. As I struggled to catch my mental breath, my wife said quietly, "She's asking if she should bring water for all four of us" (yon is 4). I blurted, Hai, domo (Yes, thanks), and stayed pretty quiet for the rest of the evening.

On our first visit to Japan to meet my in-laws, I just listened, or spoke through my wife's interpretation, for a few days. Then one day, standing up, I hit my head on the doorway. I don't recall exactly what I said to my mother-in-law, but my intention was to say, "I am too big." Instead, I said something like, "I'm way too much." She fell to the floor, laughing until she cried. If you've never seen a woman of nearly seventy years, in a kimono, rolling on the floor, you're fortunate.

With those experiences (and a few other groaners) in mind, I picked up Here Speeching American: a very strange guide to English as it is garbled around the world by Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras, with some trepidation, I might add. The cover proudly proclaims, "Bestselling authors of The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said.'' I almost have to look that one up...

A book like this almost writes itself. The work is in quote-gathering. With friends and correspondents around the world, one saves a lot of travel. The breadth of coverage is impressive.We're all aware of things like the L/R confusion the Chinese and Japanese experience...they have no L or R in their languages, but a kind of rolled D that sounds like both. So things like "Lental Video", "Rens Creaner" and "Burgel with Flies" are to be expected. Word mixups are more interesting, such as the title quote, found in Mallorca, Spain. The quotes that are genuinely fun are the mixups between noun, verb, and adjective forms: "Pork with Spicy" (a restaurant in Taipei) or "Foot Wearing Prohibited" (a Buddhist temple in Burma...they meant "footwear").

There are malaprops and other misplaced words: "Before going to work, have a few lapses in our pool" (a Bangkok hotel), or "Compulsory Buffet Breakfast" (Vietnam). And the inevitable Spoonerism: "Traffic may be conges to subjection" (Hong Kong).

However, for the most part, I found it a bit unsettling, making fun of others' ignorance. I've made it a practice, when I see something that is clearly a bad translation, to rewrite it (if it is short) and send the copy, with my compliments, to the company, if they want the chance to republish correctly. I figure, most of the time, they don't; many such items are one-off runs and won't be repeated. But I sometimes wonder what kind of business I could build on quick, low-cost proofreading via Email.

Ignoring Walt

kw: poets, poetry, imposters

It has been brought to my attention that in my Nov 16 posting, I ignored a major thread in the book, the quotes from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Just FYI, I did so purposely. I don't consider "free verse" to be poetry, except in very rare cases. More so, while Whitman could be eloquent, his text is so ingrown that any meaning a reader might infer, is the reader's own and likely has little to do with ol' Walt. Finally, the book is frankly homoerotic and pederastic. Definitely not of interest to me. If he were alive today, Whitman would be a registered sex offender. I find it sadly hilarious that Philadelphia has seen fit to name a bridge for him.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Dinosaur Construction 101

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dinosaurs, DNA, genetic engineering

About twelve years ago, shortly after Jurassic Park hit the big screen, a colleague told me he was briefly famous for the first recovery of proteins from a fossil. In the '70s, when he got his PhD, he discovered a relationship between the normal body temperature of a mammal and the ratios of certain "structural" amino acids in their proteins.

Brief aside: The structure of a protein shifts with temperature. It won't work outside a certain range. About half the 20 amino acids (AAs) are mainly structural, forming the helices and sheets that form the shape of a protein. Biochemistry is mainly geometry. For a protein to work best at a different temperature, a shift in the proportions of certain AAs is required.

When my colleague published his results, a friend asked him if his method would work on the proteins from an extinct animal. He said, "Why not. But how would you get some?" The friend brought him some bones of Smilodon, the best-known sabre-tooth cat, from the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. When the animals died there, they were quickly dried by the tar, and the proteins in bone cavities were often preserved.

They were able to extract sufficient protein to work the method, and published a letter stating their findings. My colleague was at a conference in England when the letter was published. Suddenly, he got many calls from reporters, and a British paper published a cartoon of him, sneaking up on a huge Smilodon, and carrying a spear-sized rectal thermometer!

Now, the tar pits contain bones aged between 40,000 and 10,000 years. Hardly dinosaur-age stuff, which is between 65 million and 200 million years old. But impressive for 1970 or thereabouts.

It is a long way from body temperature to a dinosaur clone. A small measure of the difficulty is presented in Jurassic Park, both the movie and the book by Michael Crichton. A recent book makes it clear how much harder it actually is. Rob DeSalle and David Lindley, a working scientist and a highly expert science writer, in 1997 published The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, subtitled, Or, How to Build a Dinosaur.

Dr. DeSalle isolated the first dinosaur-age bit of DNA in 1992, from an insect in amber. It was insect DNA, though, not dinosaur DNA. Older bits have been found since, as old as 135 million years. So when he outlines how one might (just barely, maybe) retrieve dinosaur DNA and eventually produce a living dinosaur, he has it right.

He agrees that amber is a good place to begin looking, but he prefers amber from New Jersey, which is the right age, to Dominican amber, which is only 30 million years old. But what guarantee do we have, if we find a biting critter with a belly full of blood, that it was a dinosaur's blood?

I have recently read of the recovery of soft tissue from deep inside a Tyrannosaur hip bone. Perhaps we ought to be looking there, instead. Otherwise, you're more likely to find the blood of a proto-possum than a dinosaur, which is quite a bit harder to bite...we do have samples of dinosaur skin, so we know.

The authors go through, step by step, what is needed to do the task. They make clear the uncertainties at every step. For example, the DNA sequencing method called "shotgun sequencing" is probably most amenable to this, but it cannot tell you how many chromosomes there were. We only learn this when we sequence, say, a chicken, because we can look at living chicken cells and sequence them one chromosome at a time. If you have a DNA soup with the entire genome in little bits (say from 200 to 1000 bases per chunk, each broken out of a 2- to 3-billion base sequence), you can't really tell where the chromosomes ended. Telomeres (repeated sequences at the ends) are too variable from one animal to the next to prove anything; one critter's telomere might be another's internal repeat sequence.

Suffice it to say, the undertaking is too expensive for an ordinary billionaire. Given the rate that DNA work's price is dropping, however, I expect it might be possible in another decade or two, making initially one assumption: that we can actually recover large enough bits of 80-million-year-old DNA, in sufficient quantity, in the first place. That may be the biggest hurdle of all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Three apocalypses

kw: book reviews, speculative fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction

It took me a while to warm up to Michael Cunningham's writing. His new book Specimen Days is really three related novellas. One takes place about 1900, one about 2020, one about 2150. Each has as its main characters a woman (broadly speaking), a youngish man (sort of...), and a pre-teen boy. The woman's name in each case is a variant of Catherine. The man's is Simon, though in 21-whatever, he is more of an android. The boy's name varies. The novellas are titled "In the Machine," "The Children's Crusade," and "Like Beauty." The stories are linked also by being in, or beginning in, New York City, and by the presence of a rare ceramic bowl.

In the first, Simon is unfaithful, but dies before marrying the woman. The boy, his brother, carries on his job, finds himself hexed by Simon's voice in a stamping machine, and is himself injured by the machine. The woman's life is saved as a result, for when she leaves her workplace to tend to the boy, she isn't present when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911 takes the lives of 147 seamstresses.

The woman is a forensic pathologist in the second, and Simon her lover. She works a police terrorist hotline (I suspect the job hardly exists at present), taking calls from those who wish to report mayhem before the fact. Two boys in succession call in, then go out to blow someone up. A third boy targets her. Though she talks him out of his pipe bomb, the life she knew ends, nonetheless, though in this case it could be a beginning.

Nobody is really "human" in "Like Beauty". Simon is an android. The woman is an alien refugee, a lizard-shaped mammal from a nearby stellar system. The boy, who appears halfway through, is a precocious survivor who leads them to their destiny with the man who created Simon. This Simon is faithful to the woman, though he finds she is a century older than he.

Cutting away the fluff, they are the same post-apocalyptic story. The Industrial Revolution was an apocalypse for rural families, though it took a few generations to work itself out. The near- and farther-future stories occur during drawn-out apocalypses of their own.

I confess I did not read all of "In the Machine." It is rougher, edgier, with a bit more vulgarity (we're talking more than dirty language here) than I care for. This is ugliness with a purpose, however, just as the ugliness in the political novels of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck were purposeful: the generation needed a thump in the head. So does ours. We are either active agents, or specimens...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


kw: book reviews, essays

Who showed us that we are the Books, we are Martians, we are the monster under the bed? Who can string together the greatest number of enthusiastic adjectives in one long, hollering breath? Who filled that big golf ball in Florida with sight, sound, acceleration?

The term "most unique" is a redundancy, except when it refers to Ray Bradbury. "Ordinary" uniqueness simple doesn't do him justice. Just when you thought you had a handle on him, via his fiction, his screenplays, his scoring of the Epcot center's narrative, and his TV stories on The Ray Bradbury Theater, he drops a book of essays into the pond.

I think the definition of "essay" has been forever changed by Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon From the Cave, Too Far From the Stars. The sub-subtitle is Essays on the Past, the Future, and Everything in Between. This is, I think, a publisher's hyperbole. We live in the collision of past and future, and the "in between" is too ephemeral to measure...the "Everything" is nothing. We really live in the future, for without anticipation we are not alive.

You either know Bradbury's style or you don't. If you don't, get one of his books, any of them, and read it all at a sitting. Only then will you be in a position to extract any substance from one of these essays. He writes about writing, about fiction, about people and places, but the undercurrent is, he is writing about your very soul. What is your makeup? Where have you come from and where go you now?

I have said before that all writers reveal themselves; some also reveal the real world to us; the best reveal ourselves. A very, very few lead us to become ourselves.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Wrath of Pat

kw: evolutionary debate, false prophets

It's much in the news today that Pat Robertson threatened Dover, PA with God's wrath because they voted out eight school board members who'd been in favor of introducing "intelligent design" into the curriculum.

Just so you know. I am a Christian. I beleve in God's creation. I also believe that my senses and my mind give me somewhat accurate information about the world around. All, and I mean ALL, the physical evidence we have supports the view that living creatures—bacteria, fungi, protozoa, plants, and animals—were produced by evolutionary processes over spans of time measured in billions of years. Concerning what the Bible says, I see that it leaves plenty of room for all that time and process.

Furthermore, a few verses in Isaiah explicitly state that the condition of the earth in Gen 1:2 was not a result of the initial creation, and this prophet calls God "The One who hideth himself." Isaiah, like many of us, would have preferred God to intervene in a more direct way, rather than "one word then another, a line here and another there, here a little, there a little." God left it to Bill Cosby to tell us the essence of it: when his comic Noah tells God, about an extra male hippo, "You change one of 'em!", God replies, "You know I don't work like that." Indeed.

Jesus said, "God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust." And when Jonah got angry when God changed his mind and didn't destroy Nineveh, God chided him for his lack of mercy, and indeed lack of logic.

I sadly charge my brother with two errors. Firstly, he denies that God left room in the universe for evolution to do its work. Secondly, he misunderstands the work of a prophet, who knows what God plans (because God told him) and reports it; Robertson presumes that God cannot glorify himself without bringing cataclysm on a rural town, mostly composed of Christians.

I guess he'd rather have God kill a bunch of Christians who disagree with his narrow (and I claim, incorrect) view of Creation, than show mercy as the God who says, "Let us reason together." None of the ardent "scientific creationists" or advocates of "intelligent design" that I have met is capable of reason.

They're following Winnie's advice

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, crime, police work, homicide

Winston Churchill is noted for saying (I must paraphrase), "Never give up. Never, never, give up." For New York Police Department's Cold Case Squad, just ten years old, this could be the motto. Stacy Horn, in The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad, has opened at least a keyhole into the (mostly) men whose job it is to crack the hardest cases.

Test pilots are famous for the saying, that their job is long periods of boredom spiced with brief moments of sheer terror. I suppose you could say this about detective work too, except that the terror is (fortunately) even more rare...but the boredom is, if anything, more mind-numbing.

In a typical TV show or film about police work, the ratio of "routine" detection—tracking down leads, talking to people who don't want to talk to you and mostly don't care if you drop dead, making endless phone calls, choking back your bile while negotiating with yet another even-more-bored bureaucrat—takes up no more than 40% of the screen time. The action has to be at least 60% or nobody will watch it, or recommend it to a friend.

Popular cop shows are full of lab "AHA" moments, DNA testing, forensic tricks, thrilling chases, and sensational arrests. Most of the fancy stuff isn't worth the time, most of the time. Today's sexy topic, DNA fingerprinting, is mostly too expensive.

In reality, action worth telling your grandkids is at most a percent, maybe 0.1%, of time spent. It takes a special kind of mind to survive a job like that. Stacy Horn introduces us to a big handful of such men—and no women, for good reason—and profiles four or five in some detail, while weaving into the narrative glimpses of the mini-worlds surrounding the Squad's realm: the case files and their endless stacks of DD5 forms; the evidence warehouses, where some small fraction of the evidence related to tens of thousands of murders (and maybe a couple million other crimes) is kept...and often lost; the labs they do use when they have evidence worth a professional look; and particularly, the neighborhoods they canvass over and over again, gleaning the tiniest of clues and fast-fading memories.

Why no women? Women and men think differently. I've had a couple of friends over the years who were policewomen; one was a detective. They bring different skills, and valuable ways of looking at evidence and personalities to police work. Both freely admitted they couldn't do the "street work" of homicide investigation. There are likely other reasons. If there are any women working Cold Case homicides, Horn doesn't mention any.

I got into a rant a few postings back, about crudity in public culture. While I have a few quibbles with the author's language when he is speaking for himself, I have none when he is quoting his subjects. Nor when he describes the crime scenes and mostly seedy settings where the great majority of murders take place. The subject doesn't lend itself to reading while eating, and I think the author uses no more ugliness than is warranted by the material.

For me, reading about some of the things done by the murderers mentioned in the book confirmed my support for capital 'punishment.' I use quotes, because putting a murderer to death is not really punishment. It is our only way to be totally sure he or she will not murder again.

There is little comfort in Cold Case work. It is an ugly necessity, if only to mitigate, at least a little, the proportion of evil persons. Horn makes it clear that few of these detectives are 'nice guys.' They are hard, tough, and aggressive. They have to be. If some of them are jerks, it's the price to be paid for bringing, if not quite justice, at least finality, to old crimes.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Turning nightmares into daymares: Trolls on patrol

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, police stories, mysteries

I enjoy reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld series for straight escape with a thoughtful aroma, and plenty of smooth mystery writing. Thud! fills the bill.

Sam Vimes, a recently-minted Duke and Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (in the current few books) gets a conundrum dropped into his lap that goes back two millenia. While Vimes has integrated the City Watch, deputizing nearly all allegedly sentient species—even, reluctantly, a vampire—the City's trolls ("our esteemed Siliconic citizens") and dwarfs (Pratchett's spelling; heavily-bearded and -armed folk, male or female) are ready to rumble. It's almost like West Side Story (or Romeo and Juliet), but with Rock vs Iron. Or perhaps a Civil War battle re-enactment among the rednecks (both Northern and Southern) who don't like how it turned out.

When some "deep dwarfs" called Grags show up and begin preaching dwarf puritanism, and young trolls begin club training, all leading up to Koom Valley Day, which commemorates an ill-remembered battle at which each side thinks it became the victim. There is action aplenty for all the members of the Watch, not just humans, trolls, and dwarfs, but the newly recruited vampire, a werewolf, and a human who was raised as a dwarf, plus the imp in Vimes's GooseberryTM PDA.

But what really happened, 2,000 years ago? That would be telling.

Pratchett excels in semi-magical fantasy, mystery, and semi-hard SF. The Discword books are his forum for combining them all.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Out of the sidewalk jungle, into the maw of the behemoth

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sharks, islands, natural history

What do you get when you keep a true-born thrill seeker cooped up in an Editor's job too long? You get a woman who gives a few years of her life, and a small fortune, to obtain short-term residence and proximity for a few months at the South Farallon Island.

Just twenty-seven miles west of the Golden Gate bridge, the Farallon Islands are uninhabited at present, except by a literal handful of researchers. A couple of these study the population of great white sharks that spend about half of their year in the surrounding waters, feeding mainly on the elephant seals, and other seals, that breed there. The islands are called the Devil's Teeth, for good reason, once you see the photos.

Were you ever told that a human in a wet suit looks a lot like a seal, and moves like one that is sick? That probably explains why very few knowledgeable SCUBA divers are willing to dive anywhere west of San Francisco. Even in the off season, there are great whites that pass by.

Susan Casey spent a couple of very short visits (a day trip and a few day-long "internship") on South Farallon. She managed to wangle the loan of a yacht to live on, anchored nearby, for a few months in 2003...until the ship broke its anchor chain and drifted off during a storm. She'd snuck onto the island to have one night in a stable bed, or she'd not be around to write the story. That story, Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks, is exactly as the title bills it.

The researchers she relied on, Scot and Peter, studied the white sharks for nearly twenty years. A few appeared every year of two throughout those years (Great whites seem to live upwards of thirty years). One group of males, called the Rat Pack, stay mostly to the south of the island. A group of females, called the Sisters, stay mostly to the northeast. I found the natural history fascinating. Mature females are bigger, mostly about 18 feet, up to 21 feet long. White sharks are bulky, and the larger ones are over eight feet wide and six feet deep. Mature males are in the 14-16 foot range. In either case, they are big, powerful predators. However, when a pod of Orcas show up—up to 30 feet long and 12 feet wide—the sharks vanish.

I am a quiet sort. I don't live for excitement and risk like Ms Casey does. In her narrative she pulls no punches about the privations she and others experienced. I am indebted to her for opening a window for me, onto a place, and a life, that I would certainly not experience voluntarily.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Lady in Red...Hat!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, women's society, human relations

I find it interesting on occasion to read a woman-oriented book. I grew up in a house full of boys. Mom complained that even the cats and goldfish were male. I had little chance to learn anything about women.

Sue Ellen Cooper, with the poem "Warning" (When I am old, I shall wear purple/And a red hat that doesn't go...) ringing in her memory, saw a red hat in a thrift store some seven years ago, and bought it. Later she got red hats for a few close friends, gave them the hats when they met for tea, and, somewhat whimsically, declared themselves the Red Hat Society, with Sue Ellen as the Queen. Mostly, they declare, "No Rules!", other than wearing red hats and purple clothes when they are least. The RHS is a way for women over 50 (and younger Pink Hatters) to get together, drop all seriousness, and have fun together, especially if it is a bit silly.

It has grown to become a phenomenon. There are 18 Red Hat chapters in Rapid City, SD, and 23 in one Philadelphia suburb. Sue Ellen's book The Red Hat Society: Fun and Friendship After Fifty, is warm and welcoming (like a good tea party), and very well written. Its contents confirmed my understanding that women relate to one another in a way men simply cannot, and shouldn't try. Girl thing - Guy thing: we really do think differently.

So, I enjoyed the book, very much the outsider. Beyond that, I think it the better part of valor to avoid further comment.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Snicker Factor

kw: entertainment, audience factors, vulgarity, rejections

I read portions of a book for which I decline to provide more information. It looked like it could be a fun book, billed as a humorous look at parenthood. I found it near-pornographic.

I have been an entertainer, sporadically and amateur, for more than forty years. Some time about 1970 I made a strategic decision: I will appeal to my audience's nobility. That is related to output. Then, approaching 1990, after we had our son, I decided that, to help him have a genuine childhood, not a pressure-filled 'miniature adulthood', we needed to strictly regulate his exposure to 'popular culture'. Furthermore, for the sake of consistency, and my own peace of mind, that if something was not appropriate for him, neither was it appropriate for me. That took care of input. No garbage in, no garbage out.

There was a recent newspaper article (it came off AP, so many papers carried it) that noted the recent 'G-Rated' movie "Chicken Little" is mis-rated. It has more violence than one would expect. We're in the middle of a ratings shift. In fact, based on what I've been told about some recent movies, the material in many R-Rated films would have earned them an X rating in the 1980s.

We know that kids need to learn what real life is like. However, most parents I know agree that they need to learn it SLOWLY. And there are many facets of "real life" that nobody really needs to learn in any subjective way; at most they need to be warned that certain things may be done by some people, but one hopes he or she never becomes acquainted with such a person.

Everyone who seeks to entertain others, whether by 1-on-1 wit to a friend or stand-up comedy; whether by performing, writing, creating artwork, or whatever; all must decide to what audience they wish to appeal. I am a singer and songwriter. I like some Country music. There are two basic streams to it: more common is the cry-in-your-beer about lost love, lost dogs, lost trucks, lost memory...the less common is about loving families, good friends, happy experiences, and successful relationships. I have chosen the latter path.

Of my more recent songs, one is about how similar I am to my father when he was this age, another about a formative experience my mother had as a pre-teen, another about raising a son young enough to be my grandson. People love them.

I perform for people who want something good in their lives. When I write humor, I aim for an honest belly laugh, not for an embarrased snicker. So when I read a book by a popular young woman that is filled with vulgarity and callous jests, it makes me sad that she finds an audience who wishes to be so debased and degraded. Of course I didn't finish the book! I don't need that kind of input.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

If you gave a mouse the equipment to speak, could he use it?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, quests

Fourth World by Kate Thompson is billed as science fiction, but the element of fantasy is rather strong in her writing. This is the first novel in a trilogy called "Missing Link". Danny, a seemingly handicapped boy, helped by his stepbrother Christy and some decidedly odd companions travel from Ireland to Scotland across a near-future Britain in the grip of energy-crisis rationing (forget £2-per-liter petrol; there is nearly none to be had at any price), in search of Danny's mother. Two of the companions are a dog and starling that can speak.

More than half the novel is taken up with their journey. When they arrive, they find a lot more speaking animals, including a pink, hairless mouse that befriends Christy. Now, with the starling I already drew the line. The mouse is a step way to far. Unless we have greatly misunderstood how brains work, there simply isn't enough gray matter in the brain of any small creature to manage the thinking that underlies speech. Perhaps the mouse looks like "The Brain" in the cartoon...

A second scientific quibble I have is with the notion that the Missing Link between humans and apes is defined by exactly one gene, that supposedly endows humans with the power of self-reflective thought and speech. The current understanding in Anthropology circles is that there are at least twenty known links between humans and the proto-hominid that is ancestral to both humans and chimpanzees. The genetic difference between people and chimps is a bit over two percent, meaning major differences in about five hundred of the 22,000 or so "genes" that define each species. Even in 2000, when this book was released, we knew that it takes a few hundred genes at least to differentiate humans from apes.

Oh, well. Thompson is a skilled writer. With a bit of struggle, I could at least set aside disbelief and enjoy the yarn. The twist at the end, revealing why Danny can hold his breath so long, is satisfying. I guess I'll hunt up the other two novels.