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Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
by Sir Max Hastings
Edition: Paperback
30 used & new from $7.22

3.0 out of 5 stars A good summary of the start of the war, covering all the countries involved, June 9, 2014
The author has written a great many books, and is generally considered in the popular historian camp - he wants his books to be interesting to the layman, and to tell a complete story without errors in facts. They are not meant to be "exhaustive" or "definitive". Balancing this line to tricky for World War I because so much of the war was a stalemate of mud and shelling - not very compelling reading! In this book, he sticks with the mobile phase of the war - the initial moves, focussing on the Western Front, through August to December of 1914, which has the potential to be much more interesting. Although he spends much time on the Western Front, there is a certainly more information here than I've seen in a 1-volume work on the Eastern Front, especially regarding Austria-Hungary. Largely forgotten by most texts, at least once the initial trigger for war is pulled, the Austria-Serbia conflict was brutal and existential: Serbia survived at a cost of 50% of its manhood. Austria did not survive, and its military and logistical performance is harshly laid bare by Hastings when he visits the Eastern Front. These chapters are the most interesting in the book because they present the least-common details for books about this era.

The most entertaining chapter for me was undoubtedly the naval chapter, especially the parts chronicling Roger Keyes's mad plan that eventually turned into the (1st) Battle of Heligoland Bight. This chapter breezes along with an exciting narrative and even some biting commentary. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the western front (and those chapters devoted to the Prussia-Russia front) take on much of a sameness - Allied troops retreating + German troops advancing, then the opposite as the Germans outran their supplies and the Allies counterattacked. Having said that, I think Hastings captures the "feel" for this part of the war in a way that most other authors do not: the exhaustion, the fouling of rifles and guns in the mud, the casual atrocities, the fear of the local peasants, the sheer "newness" of the experience for inexperienced troops, etc.

He bars no holds when attacking the generals and politicians who blindly led the way to the titular catastrophe of WWI. He marvels at the sheer incompetence of the British generals, especially Sir John French, but also Haig and the other corps commanders. The French generals fair little better, although he does give much credit to Joffre for the Marne counteroffensive (while acknowledging Joffre's brutal miscalculations in the initial battles). The Germans fare no better - Prince Rupprecht is preening and self-important, Moltke is unimaginative and overwhelmed by the scale of the war he (according to the author) had the biggest role in creating, and even Ludendorff is subjected to a metaphorical lashing, saying "He was nowhere near the military genius he thought himself to be". Naturally, he deals out even harsher criticism for the Autrians and Russians - the former disdained to even think about logistics and the latter were a fractious lot who refused to communicate with each other or St. Petersburg. It's no wonder the ordinary soldier was subjected to 4 more years of hell - except those countries like Russia that disintegrated first.

Thus, Hastings tactical analyses are biting and convincing. I am not sure his strategic analyses stand up quite so well. First there is the common theme of fighting the last war and taking the wrong message from other battles - in this case Waterloo (!) and the Russo-Japanese war. However, he makes scant mention of the American Civil war, which some people (e.g. recently by Keegan in his "The American Civil War") as being the first truly industrialized war, often fought between entrenched defenders and exposed attackers. The Civil War's Peninsular Campaign was especially representative of the stalemate that became the Western Front in WWI, which the Old-World generals ignored and thus made the same mistakes. It surprises me that Hastings does not take the WWI generals to task for this oversight. Perhaps he doesn't agree with the parallel, but if not, an analysis as to why this is the case would be welcome. Even less convincing is his analysis on the "rightness" or "necessity" of WWI - he resurrects the old theme that German militarism needing to be destroyed for the safety of Europe. There is nothing wrong with reinstating an old theory, but his defense thereof is threadbare. He certainly never addresses the fact that if WWI was the right fight, then why did the world go through it all again a mere 20 years later? He also uses a common misdirection technique of asking how the war could have been avoided given the initial boundry conditions - and he has a good point as far as it goes - but it doesn't argue for placing the blame mainly on Germany.

So, I would give this book a "B" grade - it's not the best (Tuchman's "Guns of August", while more limited in scope, is still tops for me), but there are lots of things to recommend it that are simply missing from other books about the era. And, as you would expect, it is a well-written and will keep you interested throughout.


2312
2312
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $10.00
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The main character is just too unpleasant to enjoy, May 5, 2014
This review is from: 2312 (Mass Market Paperback)
Fans of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (the only other works by the author I have read) will recognize the general pattern of this book. It is really two intertwined narratives: a travelogue of the Solar System, as envisioned by Robinson in the 2312. It is also the story of a set of characters within that framework. As a vision of the future, Robinson's populated Solar System is a thing of beauty - he has hollowed-out asteroids (essentially each a biodome), a fully-colonized and independent Mars (thankfully not a main location since we've seen his Mars in the aforementioned trilogy), Venus and Titan in the process of being terraformed, etc. We also see the different systems of government that arise - Venus is a frontier society with big-bosses competing with each other for dominance, Saturn's moons form a commonwealth, Mercury contains one big city-state, etc. As with any skilled writer, all of this exposition is interwoven through the main story (there are a few "explanatory" chapters, but they are blessedly short and far between). Robinson also presents an Earth still coping with the ecological disaster of general climate change - desertification, a rise of several metres in sea level (NYC has no streets, only canals.... no word on what happens to Venice!). The main characters travel to and fro throughout this system.

Thus to the plot: Mercury suffers a catastrophic terrorist attack, the nature of which requires significant manpower and enormous computing power. Combined with some earlier events, a group of people have organized to investigate the possibility that there are self-aware quantum computers behind the attack, perhaps building humanoid robots to enable them to carry out the required physical work. This allows Robinson to bring together people from throughout the Solar System (and to allow the characters to travel around in their investigations). I will not further reveal any more plot details, but instead will focus on the characters, because Robinson spends a lot of time with only a few characters (probably because his locations are each characters themselves!). We also get a wide variety of societal systems - the Saturnian creche, a long list of pseudo-gender identities, and so on, all of which makes Robinson's vision of 2312 very rich and detailed.

After reading about 100 pages, I started flipping through the chapter headings, which are named after the characters featured in that chapter. When I saw that the majority of them contained the character Swan, I almost put the book down. It's the closest I've come to doing that in many a long year. She was simply so unpleasant - narcissistic, untrustworthy, vain, moody - that I couldn't bear the thought of spending another 350 pages with her. It's not that I expect to like every main character - but she was only unpleasant, there was nothing interesting about her. One example of her behaviour, and bear in mind that Swan is 137 years old: when she is not told a security secret, she threatens to start screaming until she's told the secret. Really? This is a 137-year-old woman, with grown children, supposedly sane, and this is how she deals with the world? To make matters worse, she gets away with it! The parts of the book focussing on Swan - and she is the main character - consists of her betraying others' trust, blithely ignoring prudence and good sense, verbally (and physically) abusing her friends and relatives, and sulking. And every time, she ends up being forgiven, getting her way, or having her bad behaviour rewarded. Again, I'll reiterate: I have enjoyed books containing a main character I don't like, even books only containing characters I don't like.

Perhaps I am missing the point - the characters are supposed to be secondary to the locations, perhaps. If so, Robinson should have delved into the political theory of his governments, or detailed much more of the science behind the terraforming, or whatever. Although the locations and societies are imaginative and interesting, there is much more content relating to specific characters and the plot, and therefore not enough interesting "science fiction" to cover over the unpleasantness of the main character. I really did want to like this book, but I just can't.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 14, 2014 8:03 AM PDT


A Memory of Light (The Wheel of Time)
A Memory of Light (The Wheel of Time)
by Robert Jordan
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $6.27
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4.0 out of 5 stars The end ... after all these years, March 26, 2014
Is Tarmon Gaidon (the last battle) as epic as the series deserves after thousands of pages in 14 volumes over 23 years? Well, it's long - the chapter titled "the Last Battle" is itself 250 pages, but that is not the whole battle. It certainly comes to a resolution - the 3rd Age ends, which it must by the terms of the mythology of the series. And all the characters that are still alive have their parts to play. And, naturally, not all of them are still alive by the time the Epilogue arrives.

There is really very little plot. Generally, the nations of the world are divided into five battlefields, centred on one or more of the "main characters" (the original 7 characters that set out from Emond's Fields in the first book): Egwene fights with the White Tower in one major battle; Mat leads the Seanchan, Whitecloaks, and Elayne's armies in another battle; Lan is in the Borderlands in a third major battle. Rand takes Nynaeve and Morraine to attack the Bore where the Dark One's prison is most easily accessed. Finally, Perrin patrols the Wolf Dream to protect Rand from assaults from Tel'aran'rhiod and to hunt Slayer. The story shifts through the various storylines, keeping all the fronts and characters in play throughout. Naturally there are some twists, and even some surprise returns (e.g. Padan Fain has had very little exposure for the last 5 books or so, but even he has a part to play in the last battle). Variety is also shown by switching from large cavalry charges to 1-on-1 personal duels to a non-battle interlude where people are talking around a campfire while dinner cooks.

So, after this many pages, is the last battle satisfying? I think yes. The book ends when the battle ends, which is perhaps more fitting than dragging out an epilogue that says what happens to everyone who survives. Perhaps if Robert Jordan had survived his illness, he would eventually have written a book set in the 4th Age. As it is, the series chronicles the end of the 3rd Age and nothing else, and I think that's as it should be.

So, a satisfying ending to an epic series. If this was a TV show, the finale would be akin to M*A*S*H, rather than to Seinfeld or the Sopranos, and that's the best we could ask for anyway.


The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't
by Nate Silver
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.72
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4.0 out of 5 stars More fun than a stats book has any right to be, March 11, 2014
Nate Silver has been many things: political pundit, professional poker player, sports analyst, etc. What links his various occupations is his love of numbers and how to use them in forcasting the future. Note that I use the term "forcast" not "predict", which may seem like a minor distinction, but it is the fundamental basis of the thinking in this excellent book. For clarity, Silver (and most others) use the term "prediction" for single events that WILL happen, e.g. "Hilary Clinton will be the next president" or "10cm of snow will fall in NYC tomorrow". The term "forcast" is used as a probability range, e.g. "Hilary Clinton has a 55% chance of winning the next presidential election" or "There is a 90% chance of precipitation tomorrow". Put another way, a predition is a forecast with 100% certainty. What Nate Silver then goes on to argue is that the latter (predicting with 100% accuracy) is a fool's errand, and forcasting is a much more useful endeavour. It is also less well understood, which is why Silver can write an entire book on the subject.

I've titled my review "More fun than a stats book has any right to be", and I think that's the pithiest way to describe it. A knowledge of statistics is not necessary: in fact, I only give this book 4/5 stars because there is virtually no description of the statistical methods he uses that are so central to his thesis. However, I have a strong mathematical background including one university course on probability, so I would naturally prefer a more rigorous mathematical defense (especially if it was written anywhere near as clear as the rest of the book). Having said that, I can see the reasons for the editorial decision to be math-free, as it might make the book intimidating for some, and perhaps break up the flow of the narrative. Also, Silver is a professional forecaster, and perhaps he doesn't want to (or can't due to non-disclosure agreements) reveal his statistical models.

So, what is the book about? Well, forecasting, and how it can/should be used. He covers a vast amount of territory, spanning from the very successful (weather, hurricane tracking) to the outright random (financial markets). He explains in detail what it means when the Weather Channel predicts a 40% chance of rain (literally, when they make that statement, 40% of the time it rains, and 60% of the time it doesn't). He also explains how human interference can change the outcome of a forecast (e.g. if the Democrats are forecast to narrowly win a particular House race, the Republicans may divert additional resources to that District). Thus, there is a fundamental difference between those activities primarily driven by humans (politics, financial markets, poker) and purely natural phenomena (weather, earthquakes, blackjack).

Silver bars no holds when pointing fingers at poor performers: earthquake scientists really have no idea how to forecast earthquakes, which is explained by lack of data and the geological timescale (saying there is a 10% chance of a magnitude 7+ earthquake sometime in the next 300 years is not of any practical use). He saves his sharpest criticism for political pundits who confidently make the most outrageous predictions with absolute certainty, then show no remorse (blaming the electorate or other external factors) when their predictions are wrong. For example, he shows that the regulars on the McLaughlin Group (both left- and right-leaning) perform no better than someone randomly picking names. On the other hand, he is happy to distribute praise where it's due: the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service in general have very high correlations between their forecasts and reality. Similarly, when a rival political model outperformed his own over a certain period, he praises the creator of the model and is willing to modify his own parameters to try and make his model better. That is basically the theme of the book: good forecasting relies on information and how to use it, and especially to keep an objective eye open to flaws in your model so that you can logically improve it to incrementally improve its forecasting ability.


Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)
Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)
by Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.63
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4.0 out of 5 stars Poo-tee-weet?, January 31, 2014
The philosophy of the protagonist in the story is summarized early on (which Vonnegut himself points to by bringing the birds back for the last line in the book): "And what did the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like 'Poo-tee-weet?'" Or, as the Tralfamadorans would teach Billy Pilgrim to say: "So it goes".

Kurt Vonnegut was famously a PoW in Dresden at the time of its incineration by the Allies in February 1945. He and his fellow prisoners were housed in an abattoir, Vonnegut himself bunking in Schlachthof-fünf, or "Slaughterhouse No. 5". Although the firebombing serves as a central setpiece of the novel, very few pages are devoted specifically to it. Similarly, although Vonnegut does place himself in the action, he is a very minor character. The book instead focusses on Billy Pilgrim, Chaplain's Assistant, tall and skinny, poorly trained and poorly equipped both physically and mentally for the abuses he suffers following his capture at the Battle of the Bulge. Fortunately for him, he has an out: he becomes "unstuck in time" and randomly travels to-and-fro through the events of his life. The book also travels to-and-fro with Billy Pilgrim, which gives it a Quentin Tarantino-esque chronology (or, perhaps more accurately, Pulp Fiction has a Slaughterhouse 5-esque chronology). The science fiction "explanation" for Billy Pilgrim's predicament is that he'd been abducted by aliens, who live life in 4 dimensions (3 geometric plus time). Thus there is no such thing as free will, because each creature's entire life is accessible from any point of his life, and it is unchanging.

The aliens are a gimmick, of course, to allow Vonnegut to have his protagonist (and we, the readers) be able to move throughout time. If the universe does not move linearly through time, but rather if all moments exist at all times, there is an inevitability to all life, expressed by the alien Tralfamadorans as "so it goes". In this sense, it is a depressing thought, but I don't think it's Vonnegut's point - certainly I don't think he's defending the Dresden Raid as an inevitable event in a war between highly industrialized nations. Instead, he is pointing out the basics of human nature - we are cruel and kind, we are selfish and selfless, etc. and unfortunately, sometimes we will do terrible things to each other. However, I think Vonnegut is challenging us to reject the Tralfamadorans' philosophy that it's pointless to try because your future is already pre-ordained. Instead, I think he's encouraging us to "rage against the dying of the light".

Such an impression will not tell the reader anything about the actual experience of reading the book. It is irreverant, violent, and pessimistic, but it is mostly deeply, ironically, and absurdly funny. It is not laugh-out-loud funny like Catch-22. You might not even crack a smile while reading it. Others have compared it to "All Quiet on the Western Front", which, in spite of its ironic title (and ending), is completely unlike Slaughterhouse-5 in style. Rather, Vonnegut is absurd and satirical and true without being very factual at all, and the book it will stay with you.


Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $11.84

4.0 out of 5 stars a defense of freedom of speech, January 29, 2014
When the Supreme Leader of Iran declared Salman Rushdie a blasphemer and called for his assassination, Rushdie was told he needed to take a pseudonym in order to hide his identity when travelling, paying bills, etc. Thus was Joseph Anton born - named for two of Rushdie's literary heros Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. This memoir mostly covers the time of greatest danger to Rushdie, when he was receiving anti-terrorist protection from the "Special Branch". As such, the book is aptly termed a "memoir" rather than an autobiography. Rushdie is not so much interested in exactly what happened and when, but rather in a reflective and critical commentary on his life including his moods, philosophy, and the progression of his thinking about freedom of speech and how to politically take control of his fate.

Perhaps to my embarrassment, I have I have never read a Rushdie novel, including the Satanic Verses, the novel that triggered the fatwa. I mention this merely because readers might be interested in knowing how self-referential the book is. Basically, the book is about his life, and in that sense he talks a lot about writing, and presumably someone familiar with his writing will find a lot of interesting material. However, overt references to how his experiences shaped the development of particular characters or situations in subsequent novels, or discussions on specifics of the Satanic Verses and how they are misrepresented by his critics, are usually mentioned in passing. There are certainly no point-by-point refutations referring directly to his novels. Thus, someone interested in the story of Rushdie (as opposed to Rushdie's stories), as I am, will be able to easily follow the narrative. Not being a literary scholar, I must admit to being somewhat buried by the sea of names he brings forward, not just of English novelists by also those from other European and American countries and, of course, from the Indian subcontinent as well. Thus, he talks as much about Borges's, Pinter's, or Vonnegut's works as he does about his own.

Rushdie's style (as I understand it from interviews and literary criticisms) is that of a man-of-the-world, but without being pompous. Thus, he will quote from Shakespeare in one paragraph, Tolkien in the next, and Quentin Tarantino and the Simpsons in the next. He drops in a Monty Python joke at the same time he explains a Latin pun made by Ovid. It makes for an eclectic read, but it's never dull.

Unfortunately there is such a thing as "too much information", and this memoir feels like it crosses that line in places. He certainly points fingers, though to be fair the finger often points at himself. He has nothing good to say about a variety of his British countrymen, who he accuses of "throwing him under the bus" - his targets include Roald Dahl, Prince Charles, British Airways, and so many British MPs and ministers you'd think he was a politician himself! The finger he points at himself is his weakness of needing everyone to love him; ironically, it makes the narrative smack of narcissism in places. Finally, it just goes on a too long and feels too repetitive - perhaps this is by design, to give the reader the sense that he had with the fatwa/protection dragging on and on with many false dawns - but it doesn't make the story a more enjoyable read.

On the plus side, he does not make the Bill Maher mistake of blaming all the world's ills on religion - he is observant enough to conclude that humans will find ways to be cruel to "the other" in order to protect their own "tribe" (however that's defined, be it religion, ethnicity, gender, or hair colour). Thus, Rushdie's struggle is not against Islam (or, more accurately, Islamists) but rather for equality, through the right of free speech. As someone who has suffered greatly for his art, he makes a very potent and poignant argument for free speech by his very existence. This book adds the details to his argument that are very convincing.


Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
by Antony Beevor
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.60
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I feel cold just reading this book, January 8, 2014
It is perhaps appropriate that I recently finished Antony Beevor's book on the siege of Stalingrad during a particularly long-lasting and brutal cold wave (which set record lows on several days). Thus I couldn't help but feel sympathy for the soldiers of both sides as they succumbed to frostbite and hypothermia. Fought over the turning of the new year 1942-43, the extended Battle of Stalingrad consisted of several phases: the German advance and siege of the Stalingrad Soviet garrison, the mobile battle that resulted in cutting off and encircling the former Axis besiegers, and finally the siege by the Soviets on the now-trapped Axis troops in Stalingrad. Beevor takes us through the battle(s) step-by-step, giving both the story of the commanders (including the supreme leaders Hitler and Stalin) and the story of the fighting private soldiers. He charts the progress of the armies but also the progress of troop morale, fighting spirit, and within the Soviet army, the re-emergence of the professional military generals at the expense of the political commisars.

The battle was brutal. Both sides had to resort to terror to keep their own sides fighting, to say nothing of the terror inflicted on the enemy and any trapped civilians. It is well-known that the Soviet side used the NKVD (secret police) as enforcers, setting up machine guns behind the Soviet lines to shoot down any soldiers who tried to retreat. Nazis and Soviets alike showed no concern over civilian casualties and little concern for the welfare of PoWs. The Russian steppe was a mire of mud in the spring thaw and the fall rainy season (the rasputitsa, the "time without roads"), a baking oven in the summer, and a frozen wasteland in the winter. Stalingrad itself became a skeletal caricature of a city, full of mines, improvised strongpoints, and snipers.

Beevor uses the (at the time) latest archival material made available in Russia and Germany to piece together a narrative more complete and authoritative than the earlier (by 25 years) "Enemy at the Gates" by William Craig, presumably because Beevor had greater access to Soviet materials. Overall, the balance of the narrative is pretty even, looking at the shortcomings of both sides. Beevor also takes issue with certain historical consensuses, such as the desire (and fighting ability) of the 6th Army leaders to fight their way out of the kessel, only staying because they were ordered to do so by Hitler. Instead, Beevor finds plenty of evidence to support the fact that many officers felt that leaving their prepared positions within Stalingrad would lead to a frozen disaster in the open elements, even knowing that General Hoth's relief columns had been defeated.

Thus, Beevor's book is both academically analytical and visceral. Perhaps because it covers a shorter time and a historically focussed event, it is much simpler to read than, for example, the same author's "Battle for Spain"; it also ends up being easier to follow because the geography remains localized, so the reader can refer to the same maps if they wish. It's also more engrossing than his book on the battle of Crete, another localized battle, but one that ultimately did not have the same impact as Stalingrad. This last point - the importance of the battle as the turning point of WWII - is subtly lurking in the background throughout the narrative. Even so it is still shocking how strongly and quickly the Soviet Union is able to mount an unstoppable counter-attack to cut off and annihilate the Wehrmacht's 6th Army.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.04
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4.0 out of 5 stars medical ethics, cells, and race relations, December 4, 2013
There is an irony, largely unacknowledged in this book, that the cells of a black woman advanced the cause of medicine that was historically far more readily available for white and male people. Thus, the story of Henrietta Lacks could easily be seen as a parable for race relations (and to a lesser extent, female empowerment) in the United States over the last 75 years. If this thought occurred to author Rebecca Skloot, she chose not to pursue it and instead presents us with a more straightforward and personal history of cellular medicine. "Personal" is the key term here, as Skloot is very much a character in the story she presents. As she traces the the spread and use of the HeLa cells, as they became known, she writes in parallel with her own personal journey to discover who Henrietta Lacks was. As it turns out, this is as much a buddy story of Skloot and Deborah Lacks, daughter of Henrietta, as they work together to track down information.

As is well-known to any researcher in cell biology, the HeLa cell line is a gold standard. It is immortal, it is cancerous (cervical), but most importantly, it is easy to grow and keep alive. This last point was not the case for any other cell line before HeLa, and this fact led to an explosion of research in cell biology, eventually leading to a cure for polio, several types of cancer, etc. That is the good news. The bad news is that Henrietta herself succumbed to the cancer at the age of 31 without ever knowing that her cells would revolutionize medicine.

Notwithstanding the family tragedy, this book is really about the evolution of the practice of medicine, and how regulations and law are sometimes unable to cope with the speed of scientific advancement. In an almost unbelievable breach of privacy, Henrietta's family members had their names and genetic information published in the journal Nature. Similarly, much is made of the fact that tissue is still legally the ownership of the collecting doctor, not the person who donated the tissue, and that "informed consent" is satisfied by a 1-liner at the bottom of most hospital permission forms that might read "I agree that xxx Hospital may dispose of any tissue they gather in any way they see fit". It is hardly clear from this kind of statement that the hospital might end up commercializing for profit cells from that discarded tissue. Thus, it is an important book if it helps shed light on a legislative and legal issue that most are unaware of. Unfortunately, this book was written before the Supreme Court struck down the BRCA gene patent. The legal ramifications of this decision (as I write this review only 6 months old!) have not yet played out, and may start to swing the pendulum back towards patient rights.

So scientifically, ethically, and historically, this is an interesting and even an important book. What this analysis does not express is the readability of the book. Some might object at the personal style of the author, but really what could be more personal than someone's biological material? So it is the right way to tell the story and the method does not diminish from its import. Further, it is very accessible and entertaining. One quibble I do have is the lack of an index, which this book should have because if the amount of original research included. For my money, it doesn't quite reach the gold standard of "Emperor of all Maladies" - another scientific/historical book written in a personal voice - but it comes pretty close.


Bellwether
Bellwether
by Connie Willis
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.19
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5.0 out of 5 stars Connie Willis: meet Dilbert, November 25, 2013
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This review is from: Bellwether (Mass Market Paperback)
Connie Willis's suite of literary talents runs the gamut from heart-rending to slapstick. This book is firmly planted in the latter type, existing in an almost-alternate world where everyone except the main characters seem to exist in a Kardashianesque reality show. The setting is a research institute's campus in Colorado. The goals and product of the institute are vague (except that they want to win a mysterious but prestigious "Niebnitz Grant"). The management (represented, apparently, by one person) is obsessed with acronyms and creating successively longer simplified funding forms. The most spin-savvy researcher always uses the same 5 buzzword terms (including such nonsense as "augment core structures" and "facilitate empowerment"), then goes back to planning her daughter's birthday party, which is apparently a full-time job for 2 weeks.

In this environment toils our hero, Sandra Foster. She is interested in the causes and triggers of fads, e.g., hair bobbing and hula hoops. The potential benefit to a marketing agency are obvious. Less obvious is the ability to control fads, even if their causes could be discovered. When a colleague studying chaos theory risks losing his funding because the "Interdepartmental Communications Facilitator" loses his simplified funding form, Sandra hatches a collaboration to help him keep his job: a study on sheep - herd motion may be described by chaos theory, and triggering movement in a herd may be a simplified form of fad-following behavior. Thus the titular "Bellwether" - the sheep that "leads" the flock not through coercion or dominance, but because it is just a little more brave or a little more individualistic than the rest of the flock, willing to take the first step that the herd consensus has already decided is probably a good idea.

I hope I've imparted a sense of the absurd world that Willis has created in this book. It reminds me mostly of Dilbert or the first season of 30 Rock, wherein Management (it is always capitalized) produces increasingly absurd workplace conditions. Most of Sandra's coworkers are no better, obsessively changing exercise regimens and child-discipline styles to fit the latest fad. It is a testament to Willis's writing that she never goes completely off the rails into sheer farce (although many of the situations are farcical), and yet she manages to maintain a steady stream of humour. On a per-page basis, it's funnier than her similarly farcical "To Say Nothing of the Dog", but is perhaps not as engaging because the main character is a bit dim, occasionally acting at the whim of the plot. A perfect example is how surprised Sandra is to find herself in a relationship triangle and her inability to cope with the consequences. But this is perhaps quibbling unnecessarily - after all, sitcom characters are supposed to be drawn in broader strokes, especially in a book that's only 250 pages.


Red Planet Blues
Red Planet Blues
by Robert J. Sawyer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.90
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5.0 out of 5 stars pity the poor exopaleontologist, November 13, 2013
This review is from: Red Planet Blues (Hardcover)
Red Planet Blues is perhaps the most fun I've had reading a science fiction book in the last 5 years. It goes along at a zippy pace, it's got some neat ideas, and pretty much everything works out as it should for the various characters. Author Robert Sawyer describes it as a "noir mystery" in a science fiction setting, and that's pretty much exactly what you get. Gumshoe PI Alex Lomax is the best (because he's the only) on Mars, which has been colonized as a domed city for a few dozen years. It is in the middle of the "Great Martian Fossil Rush": Two geologists discovered a bed of fossils on Mars and sold a few examples for billions of dollars, then promptly died in an accident without divulging the location of their mother lode. People since then have been trying to get rich quick by finding their fossil bed.

The story starts off in true noir fashion - with a busty blonde woman hiring Lomax to find her missing husband. Over the course of the next few weeks, he has to deal with assorted nefarious characters as a computer hacker, corrupt cops, and the richest man on Mars (who, incidentally, has a small army of toughs on payroll). And these are Lomax's allies! Lined up against him are a variety of claim-seekers (fighting his clients and each other) trying to cash in on the Martian Fossil Rush.

The additional wrinkle, and the detail that makes this book so typically Sawyer, is the inclusion of "transfers". These are people who have had their entire conscience copied from an organic body to a mechanical body (just the neuron information is moved, not the actual brain). This of course raises some interesting ethical issues, that play out in various forms throughout the book: (a) if you make 2 copies (put the scanned material into two bodies), who is the actual person? and (b) is the copied version a person (with a "soul") or just a robot who thinks they are the person they were copied from? Unfortunately, Sawyer doesn't go into much detail about this, but then again, the noir style doesn't really lend itself to theoretical musings, so it's not a fatal flaw.

In another Sawyer flourish, the main "femme fatale" (not withstanding the busty blonde at the beginning) turns out to be the delightfully named Rory Pickover, British recent transfer and paleontologist. He alone is seeking the Martian mother-lode for noble purposes - i.e. to study the fossils and to send them back to museums as a treasure for the whole human race. If such nobility exists in a noir mystery, it is to be taken hostage, kidnapped, tortured, or ridiculed by the other cynical characters in the book, and all these things and more happen to poor Rory.

Naturally, the characters are written in broad strokes. Naturally the characters end up acting in self-desctructive ways because of inherent character flaws. Naturally the body count keeps rising. And naturally Ebert's "Law of Conservation of Characters" makes some of the mysteries self-evident upon reflection, but of course the joy of a noir is not what happens, but how it happens. And so I come back to my original assertion: that this book is likely to be the most fun you'll have reading science fiction this year. And that makes it a 5-star book in my opinion.


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