Profile for Aaron C. Brown > Reviews


Aaron C. Brown's Profile

Customer Reviews: 532
Top Reviewer Ranking: 872
Helpful Votes: 7858

Community Features
Review Discussion Boards
Top Reviewers

Guidelines: Learn more about the ins and outs of Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
Aaron C. Brown RSS Feed (New York, New York United States)

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20
The Santa Klaus Murder (British Library Crime Classics)
The Santa Klaus Murder (British Library Crime Classics)
Price: $6.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Weak whodunit, June 28, 2015
This is a classic English whodunit that fails on pretty much every level. These are not mysteries in the usual modern sense, novels concerned with unraveling a crime in a manner that is satisfying on psychological, empirical, logical and dramatic grounds. These are pure logic problems, the inspiration for the game Clue. The author constructs a fixed location, often a manor house as in this case, that artificially limits the pool of suspects. There is no consideration of plausibility of either suspect or plot, the game is to figure out the murderer via a series of clues that eliminate all but one character. No positive evidence is required, only to rule out other suspects. The clues tend to be things like gloves, locked or unlocked windows, secret doors, cigarettes, who arrived and left when, whether the jilted fiancée of the Duke's illegitimate half-brother who disappeared to India was left-handed and so forth. The books often come with floor plans, genealogical trees and other aids to recording clues. The plots tend to be either campy melodramas or pretentious soap operas, and can be humorously exaggerated.

There are a few excellent examples of this convention-heavy genre, it is possible for a great mystery writer to deliver an absorbing and satisfying novel within the straitjacket rules (or sometimes by subverting those rules). But average examples are at best an acquired taste for modern readers, and bad examples--like this one--are unreadable.

The biggest problem here is the author has ignored logic. She plants ten clues (she numbers them), then claims that they eliminate all but one suspect. Unfortunately they don't. One problem is she makes unjustified assumptions about how the murder was done, plus when and how it was planned, why it was committed and what the subsequent plan was. Any of the other characters could have done the murder if it had been done differently and for different reasons. Moreover, six of the clues are only tangential to the murder and could point to nearly any of the other characters. The other four clearly point to one suspect but they are all restatements of one thing, and there are many potential explanations of that thing that leave the suspect innocent of murder.

Beyond the official clues, the author does not play fair. She rules out suspects not by logic, but by simply dismissing them. For example, the reader is told the two children's nurses are, "in every way unlikely suspects" (other servants are simply invisible, but other servants are included as suspects without explanation). The point of the setting is to restrict the suspects to a known pool, but later we find other people are coming and going unmentioned. Major obvious clues turn up in places that were thoroughly searched by the police, an open window next to the victim is unnoticed for a day (in mid-winter in England, before central heating); a search of the victim's study does not include looking into the typewriter case. The author can't keep the weather straight at the time of the murder, it changes from fair to light rain to storm as the plot demands.

One example within the official clues is the glove. When first discovered, we are told the investigators are disappointed, "after examining the glove very carefully." The magistrate tells his detective, "Yes; one gent's glove is very like another gent's glove. Unless the owner has been so incredibly foolish as to keep the fellow, you'll have some difficulty." Later on, we learn that the glove had the, "initials O. W. neatly marked inside." Only one suspect has those initials.

The flawed logic puzzle is set in a tedious accounts of flat characters enduring an unpleasant Christmas party. They pair off constantly for petty intrigues and whining sessions, which helps the author create tangled alibis, but does not amuse the reader. I'm pretty sure the author had never attended a party of this sort, and I'm even more confident she has no idea of how murder investigations are conducted.

The author makes an unfortunate attempt to render lower-class accents in all the servant dialog, it's both hard to understand and unnatural. Non-aristocratic attractive women annoy her, she can't seem to leave them out of the book, and she can't say anything good about them.

Only the most dedicated fans of this genre will enjoy this book.

DII Bone Dry Stripe Embroidered Paw Print Pet Mat for Food, Water, Treats in Microfiber for Maximum Absorbency, Gray
DII Bone Dry Stripe Embroidered Paw Print Pet Mat for Food, Water, Treats in Microfiber for Maximum Absorbency, Gray
Price: $7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars It works okay, but it's not a great product, June 28, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
As other reviewers have noted, this mat is pretty small. It fits under the food and water bowls, and catches most of the spills, but not all of them and stuff still gets tracked off the mat. It has a crease in the middle that doesn't come out, it doesn't hurt the functionality, but it looks bad. It also will not lie flat.

It does an excellent job of absorbing water and wet food without letting anything get through to the floor. It's easy to clean superficially, just wipe it off, but it will quickly pick up a smell. I tried a more thorough hand washing, it didn't get out the smell and it took a very long time to dry.

Before getting the mat, I used a couple of sheets of newspaper under the bowls, and threw them away every time I changed the litter. That's less attractive, I guess, but it actually works somewhat better. I'll keep the mat now that I have it, but my guess it will start looking no better than the newspaper in a few months, and that it will smell worse. So I doubt I'll buy a replacement for it.

Fatal Harbor: A Lewis Cole Mystery (Lewis Cole series Book 8)
Fatal Harbor: A Lewis Cole Mystery (Lewis Cole series Book 8)
Price: $12.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Some great elements, but not a good thriller novel, June 28, 2015
There is a good minimalist short story in this book, an exotic revenge quest set in what would normally be placid New England locales. Overlaying that satisfying plot are repetitious and awkward intrusions. The protagonist's troubled past and his confused feelings about it are described over and over; moreover he feels the need to explain his motivation in exactly the same terms to every character he meets; and despite all these explanations, no depth of feeling is uncovered, the need for revenge is intense, specific and violent, but unsubtle and unexamined. The specific events triggering his revenge thirst, which apparently occurred in an earlier book in the series, and rehashed every few pages. There are more words devoted to everyday actions like taking a bus to Washington, DC or meeting a friend in a restaurant than to events that advance the plot. In fact, for much of the story, the protagonist seems to be wandering aimlessly, waiting for the bad guys to strike and give him an opportunity to learn more.

Stripped of the extraneous material, there is a lot to like. The writing is skillful and the characters are interesting. Original and striking elements are juxtaposed in interesting ways. Dialog is crisp and place descriptions are trenchant. Pacing is deliberate but compelling, which is impressive given the dithering and backtracking in the plot. The protagonist keeps his focus clearly on his need for homicidal revenge, but his actions are slow and indirect.

However, the superfluous material is not only annoying in itself, but it lengthens the story to a novel; and the story cannot support that many pages. The reader gets interested in secondary characters, and none of them make sense. The mysterious government entities battling around in the background become nonsensical rather than murky. Essential plot elements that appear and disappear without plausibility can be used sparingly for dramatic effect in a short story, but when an author relies on them for a novel, it degenerates into randomness. In particular, the fondness of the bad guys for burning down houses in order to keep their activities quiet and defuse the anger of the homeowners seems perverse; you'd think they'd either kill their enemies or leave them alone. The clues that lead to the climax are entirely unrelated to the protagonist's efforts, he's wandering in the desert relying on manna from heaven.

The experience of reading these books as part of a series may be better than picking up just one. So if you are interested in this book, my suggestion would be to start at the series beginning and go in order. Just reading this book is likely to result in disappointment, despite its many good qualities.

Figures for Fun: Stories, Puzzles and Conundrums
Figures for Fun: Stories, Puzzles and Conundrums
Price: $6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Ranges from fair to great, June 27, 2015
The author's Physics for Entertainment is one of the great puzzle books and one of the great physics books of the 20th century. The best puzzles in Figures for Fun live up to that standard, but most of them are weaker. Some of them are well-known, and others are dull demonstrations of elementary facts. Some are poorly worded (or perhaps poorly translated, I do not know Russian).

For one example, a problem states that four school clubs meet on January 1, one meets every other day thereafter, one every third day, one every fourth day and one every fifth day. Over the next 90 days, on how many did no club meet? The problem is okay, although not very imaginative, but the solution is just to mark off the days in Eratosthenes' sieve and count. This is tedious and teaches no number theory. A better answer for a puzzle book is to point out that no clubs will meet on prime days (starting with 0 for January 1 and going up to 89, counting 1 as a prime) except for 2, 3 and 5; but also no clubs will meet on days that are products of primes larger than 5 (49 and 77 are the only ones less than 90).

A number of simple problems, such as the sum of a doubling geometric series are repeated in a number of unimaginative ways. Another good number of problems are simple computations or trivial equations. Many of the best problems are taken from physics or engineering.

The Communist ideology and Russian nationalism in the problems is amusing at the distance of history, "millionaires" are greedy and stupid, but then, so are "peasants"; workers are smart, honest and wise. Foolishness and social problems of capitalist democracies are described reasonably accurately, for example misunderstanding genetics or making short-sighted environmental decisions, but there is no mention of the far more devastating errors the Soviet Union made in these areas.

Overall, this is still a pretty good puzzle book, with some great puzzles and writing, but also a lot of filler.

The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy: A Privacy Guide for the Rest of Us
The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy: A Privacy Guide for the Rest of Us
Price: $6.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More of a manifesto than a privacy guide, June 27, 2015
There are several excellent books available on how to protect your privacy in this digital age, my personal favorite is Matthew Bailey's Complete Guide to Internet Privacy (oddly enough, that author reviewed this book and loved it, which may mean my entire review is off-base). The Smart Girl's Guide does not contain the basic technical information necessary for effective self-defense, nor does it analyze the issues in useful ways to organize action. Instead it has lists of generic suggestions like "get a password manager" or "interview three lawyers." The trouble is without some basic understanding of the technology and the law, these things can be worthless or harmful.

For one example, the book lists "red," "yellow" and "green" information; the first that you should never give out on-line, the second that you should give only rarely and carefully, the third that you can share without much concern. But your address in on all three lists (twice on the red alert list). Your name is on both red and yellow. Your email address is on both yellow and green. There's no hint about how to deal with overlap items. Also items on the red list are necessary for on-line shopping (credit card numbers, mailing address) or accessing sites (passwords) or doing business with the government (drivers license number). The whole section is confused and basically worthless. It frames the problem incorrectly. It's not that there's dangerous and safe data, it's that the information you give should be appropriate to what you want to accomplish.

For another example, the most consistent recommendation in the book is to use cut-outs: multiple email accounts, PO boxes, Google voice telephone numbers as well as services like VPNs and Tor. These things can be set up to forward and link to each other (although the book does not contain instructions for this kind of thing) so they are almost as convenient as having single instances of each. This is an excellent security technique, but it requires careful forethought to design. Otherwise you're doing things like putting a $500 lock on your front door while your patio door can be opened with a screwdriver, or locking your $10 earrings in the wall safe and leaving your credit card on the bedroom table. You have to approach privacy and security from a consistent, disciplined top-down strategy; without one, spending hours changing your security settings on dozens of websites is unlikely to help much.

A major gap is not discussing the downsides of security. The author tells you to encrypt your hard drive and back up drive. That's great for security, but I know a lot more instances of data lost to forgotten passwords (or defective backup drives that fail to recognize the password) than instances of data being stolen or trashed maliciously. For most people, it probably makes sense to encrypt only sensitive information, and keep paper backups in a safe and electronic copies on a memory stick not connected to anything. Anyway, it's a choice you should make for yourself, not take unqualified advice to always encrypt. The book recommends downloading privacy tools and automatically installing patches, without discussing that sometimes these are scams. Filing complaints with websites and the police and government can lead to additional leaks of information.

However, these criticisms may be beside the point. The author's main interest seems to be changing attitudes rather than teaching boring security practices. Her biggest concern, by far, is that women will be physically assaulted by ex-lovers or people who wish they had been lovers. Obviously physical abuse of women is far too common, but I'm not sure it's often accomplished with the aid of computer hacking. Most assailants know their victims and where they live, in fact they often live together, and tend to cluster in different personality and IQ regions than hackers usually inhabit. The book spends a lot of time describing how vulnerable women are, and how different their security needs are from men's. I was not convinced by this, but either way, anyone seriously afraid that computer security breaches will lead to physical assault needs far better advice than the superficial gloss in this book. The author is an entertaining writer and her heart is in the right place, but she should leave the matters of life and death to the professionals.

The best part of the book is on the author's second focus, cyberbullying, cyberstalking and revenge porn. Here the author is on firm ground that these are more serious threats for women (not that they can't be devastating to some men, and homosexuals and transexuals are at particular risk). The author is scathing in her criticism of people who blame victims or trivialize problems. While I agree with that, I think the book goes a little too far. Yes, everyone should be able to take naked selfies and control the distribution, but it's also true that anything put in digital form may get disseminated broadly (even pre-digital photographs were hard to control) however strict the security precautions. That in no way makes the victim responsible for the crimes of people who appropriate her private images, but it does mean people have a choice to (a) not take naked selfies, (b) resign themselves to naked selfies going viral or (c) take naked selfies and try really hard to keep them private. I would prefer a book that explained that choice along with the effort and possibility of failure entailed by option (c). Then it can give all the moral support it wants to people who choose (c), we're not blaming them, and we should help them defend their rights with all energy. It's good that there are people who don't let the jerks stop them from doing what they want. But we should let them know the choice.

In this area the author gives equal attention to sympathizing with the victims, discussing strategies to deal with the emotional fallout of these attacks, and rallying readers to struggle for a better world. There's no actual nonobvious advice, but there can be a lot of comfort in reading a strongly worded rant telling you what you already know. However, I must point out that this has virtually nothing to do with privacy or computer security, in fact it's often on the other side. A central story in this account is the author's fight against two people who posted things about the author on-line and edited her Wikipedia page. In this case, the author was trying to get personal information about her critics, and use the legal system to punish them. She does not say the material she objected to was a violation of her privacy, or threatening, or libelous; just that it wasn't true (it may have been some of those other bad things, she doesn't mention it either way). But the point is whether you are a victim defending yourself against slander or a thin-skinned person trying to suppress opinions you don't like, the tools you use are ones that strip away other people's anonymity and visit harm on others, exactly the kinds of things people to buy this book to learn how to prevent. I'm not saying that's bad, just that it's the other side of the coin from the book's topic. In addition, the book spends a lot of time complaining about double standards, such as women who get fired for circulating provocative pictures of themselves on-line, while men are applauded for posing for sexy shots in charity calendar; or women who are excoriated for being sexually active while men are proud of their conquests. All true, but not much to do with computer security.

If you want to improve your Internet security, you will not find much helpful in this book. If you want a pep talk to attack the Internet with confidence and gusto, and some support and validation not to blame yourself if bad things happen, this book is perfect.

Dinosaurs: Amazing Pictures & Facts Children Book About Dinosaurs (Discover Animals Series)
Dinosaurs: Amazing Pictures & Facts Children Book About Dinosaurs (Discover Animals Series)
Price: $2.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Nice pictures but weak text, June 22, 2015
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
The pictures in this book are attractive and scientifically accurate, although they include many speculative elements such as skin texture and color, stance and behavior. On the negative side, they are drawn in many different styles with different palettes and resolutions and there is no indication of scale.

Unfortunately, the text has significant errors. The fourth page tells us dinosaurs lived 165 - 250 million years ago. The earliest dinosaurs actually appeared 231 million years ago the clade lasted until 66 million years ago. There are constant usage errors, the author is clearly not a native English speaker and didn't have anyone edit the text. Tense confusion is the rule, not the exception, many sentences begin in one tense and end in another, such as, "Scientists estimate that they are around 10 feet long and weighed 2-3 tons." Singular and plural are similarly mixed. Some sentences are completely garbled, like, "The flow of water was altered resulting into different habitats," or "There are large dinosaurs who can step into your house in a snap."

The language level is uneven. The book is listed for grades 2-7, but even the oldest readers will struggle with many of the words (and the author didn't trouble to add custom words to the dictionary so the reader can look them up). The level of scientific explanation is also at the upper edge of the age range or beyond; and the recitation of basic facts about dinosaurs in alphabetical order will bore all but the most studious older children. Unfortunately, the simple sentence structure and condescending tone are going to alienate most children older than six or seven. Science lovers want more science, not just lists of facts (and no index or charts). Adventure lovers want more adventure.

I think the best audience for this book is a seven year old who loves dinosaurs but has not begun to think in scientific terms, who loves to read a book along with an adult to explain the hard words.

A Brief History of Science with Levity
A Brief History of Science with Levity
Price: $5.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Well. . .it's unique, June 21, 2015
One way to describe this book is a series of wide-ranging essays by a scientist, engineer and businessman who has distilled some unconventional wisdom from his career. Another is to say it may be the nut-job conspiracy crank science book with the best scientific grounding since Sam Cohen championed red mercury.

As you will suspect when an author promises "levity" in his presentation, this is as nerdy as Sheldon Cooper's vexillology podcasts. It's not just the wooden jokes and anecdotes, the entire style is that of a pedantic middle-school science teacher who really knows and loves his material, and spices it up with genuinely interesting personal anecdotes, but has such a dry and uninflected style that you're more likely to cringe than smile. Chapters begin with some form of "today I'm going to talk about," and anecdotes are introduced similarly, "here's a story from my oilfield days that illustrates religious misunderstandings." A teacher can get away with that, of course, students are forced to stay in their seats and pay attention for the exam. The author seems unaware that book readers have the option to discard the book for another, and therefore must be motivated with hints of why the material is being presented and how different parts relate. Another weird choice is to include some unsigned prefatory and epilogical material written in the third person, but that is obviously from the author (the style is a dead giveaway).

To be clear, if you had this guy for a middle-school science teacher, he would be wonderful. His knowledge, enthusiasm, experience and honesty would put him well above the ordinary, and the nerdy dryness would inspire amused affection rather than frustrated boredom. But as a popular science author, this guy needs an editor.

Style aside, there are three themes to this book. Most of the pages are devoted to what the author calls "a brief history of science," but is more precisely an engineer's opinionated sketch of technological progress since the Renaissance. It's an accurate and breezy account, but necessarily selective, concentrating on experimental results rather than philosophic understanding or social effects. This leads the author to spend more time on engineers like Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla than a conventional history, and to cover physics, astronomy and physical chemistry to the exclusion of other fields (biology is represented only by Darwin, which is merely an excuse to talk about the The Darwin Awards).

This is a perfectly respectable thing to do, but there are any number of better-written and more authoritative accounts of this history. The chief virtue of this one is the author's refreshing straightforwardness. He does not embellish or condescend. There's no suggestion of mysterious subtleties or grand theories, no meaning beyond the experimental results. This is a history of science for people who like to think for themselves, and who instinctively distrust specialists.

The second theme of the book is Nazi wunderwaffe work during WWII, and the US and Soviet military research that built on it. Like the history of science, this is an opinionated and sketchy account, but straightforward and accurate. However, it gives far more credence to certain fringe theories than conventional accounts. This doesn't make the author crazy, the Nazis certainly did develop some amazing weapons, and there were mountains of official lies about both the research itself and its co-opting by the US and Soviet governments. This book does not countenance occult or ancient conspiracy nonsense, it actively debunks some like pyramidology. Its speculation is grounded in scientific and political realism.

However, the treatment is unskeptical. The known successful and near-successful weapons--cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and jet engines--were in areas in which Germany had known pre-war expertise; both research and industrial. Many of the leading scientists and engineers were prominent international figures. With the exception of nuclear weapons, and possibly electromagnetic pulse, this is not true of any of the more shadowy weapons the author champions, like anti-gravity or time travel. Moreover, these kinds of devices have been commonly claimed by cranks both long before and long after the war. It seems far more likely that the rumored Nazi superweapons are based on failed projects, misunderstandings, frauds and cranks; then that unknown Nazi workers stumbled on valid versions of popular hoaxes and that their breakthroughs were appropriated by Allied governments and kept totally secret for 70 years. It would take far more careful and detailed research to make me take the latter claim seriously. Nevertheless, this book's account stands out from the insane versions in that it does not contradict known principles of science or credible history.

An example of the unskeptical treatment is an account of the Belgian UFO wave. The vast majority of evidence cited for this event is worthless. Once the original event made the papers, thousands of corroborating accounts flooded in over the next few months, along with a hoax photograph. This always happens, and much of the evidence comes from repeaters (people who see a lot of UFOs) or impaired observers. You have to sift carefully to get evidence untainted by media suggestion, from experienced observers (amateur astronomers, for example). Even among the credible accounts and recordings, there is little consistency, and many can be easily explained as routine errors. You also have to factor in that there are a lot of radars on at any given time in the world, and a lot of reliable observers looking at the sky, so there will be some pretty unlikely malfunctions and coincidences that don't mean anything.

I think it's good that there are people in the world who do that sifting. Even if most of the time it's pointless, discovering one genuine anomaly is worth a lot of wasted time. Too many people, and virtually all authorities, are far too quick to dismiss unexpected or inconvenient evidence. But if you do establish a genuine anomaly, that's no reason to jump to one specific, highly implausible interpretation. Anomalies should open your mind to new possibilities, not be enlisted to support pre-existing biases. In this case, the author's jump from some possibly unusual events to a theory that Nazi-inspired anti-gravity disks were being tested by NATO over Belgium is laughably overspecific. In fact, that explanation is virtually contradicted by the fact that the disks stuck around for a few months while reports were flooding in. You can't keep a secret for 70 years if you do stuff like that.

The author believes that he has personally built devices that modify gravity using paired, rapidly rotating superconductors; and that the devices were seized by mysterious government entities. This kind of thing would normally lead you to think the guy is a kook, but I find his account credible as far as it goes. Devices of this sort have been built many times, and people have claimed marginal effects. None have been demonstrated in controlled conditions to the satisfaction of professional scientists. I put anti-gravity in the category with cold fusion and room temperature superconductors--things that may or may not be possible, and that could be discovered by a high-IQ tinkerer looking for an effect rather than through the rational progression of professional science investigation. And while I don't believe in all-knowing government agencies that monopolize technologies, that is the myth of the efficient government, I see evidence all the time that secret government organizations evade accountability and ignore legality to grab what they want. Personally, I suspect the author developed electrohydrodynamic devices that were seized by clueless busybodies, but he's entitled to air his own views.

The third theme of this book is honesty in business and government. Again the virtue here is the straightforward engineer's approach to the subject. He's not interested in theories of macroeconomics or political spin or greasing the wheels of commerce; there's truth and there's lies; there's honest work and there's theft. He's a bit off the deep end sometimes. He attacks the phrase "quantitative easing" (which he inexplicably calls "fiscal easing") with "it didn't work for the Nazis (just look at what happened to the Reich's Mark)". But he is thinking of the papiermark, the currency that hyperinflated a decade before the Nazis came to power. The reichsmark did quite well as a currency, lasting three years after Germany lost the war. Moreover, national socialism is almost the opposite of quantitative easing, and it avoids inflation and unemployment, at the cost of enduring shortages and misallocations. Another puzzling malapropism is the author's use "redempt" for "redact" in his attack on that unholy practice.

Overall this book mixes an idiosyncratic account of some conventional truths with some borderline nonsense. If you prize individualism, experience, IQ and honesty above literary style or common sense; you might like this book. If you're looking for reliable information or an easy read, look elsewhere.

Who Gets What — and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design
Who Gets What — and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design
Offered by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: $12.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A very good professional autobiography, but a weak popular economics book, June 19, 2015
The great virtue of this book is its account of the career of an economist. The author came into economics from a sideways direction and tried a variety of career approaches before settling on an area that seemed obscure at the time, but propelled him to some fascinating practical applications and eventually a Nobel Prize. His low-key and stylish description of these events will be useful to anyone considering a career in quantitative social sciences or related areas, and should inspire young people to look beyond rigid preset career paths. It’s possible to do things that seem interesting at the time without worrying about what other people think, and end up with all the career rewards available. You don’t need to uncover the secret to world peace or perpetual effortless prosperity to do some tangible good. Saving a few hundred lives by improving organ transplant matching efficiency, while at the same time increasing our knowledge about how people can cooperate in positive ways, is a pretty wonderful thing; even if it will never inspire the rhetoric of a Karl Marx or the intellectual snobbery of a general equilibrium proof.

Unfortunately, the author lacks the faith in his readers necessary to be precise about his actual work. He does sketch one proof of deferred acceptance matching, but all the other technical points are merely asserted. There is an entire chapter on signaling that omits the crucial detail that signals must be costly for everyone but less costly when honest (a couple of sentences make clear that the author knows this, and will be intelligible to people who already understand signaling, but won’t communicate the fact to anyone else). This makes signaling seem like the everyday concept of guessing whether other people are truthful or not, not the elegant game theory explanation for why people do apparently pointless costly things like undertake tedious and expensive courses of education that teach nothing useful.

A bigger problem is the author’s claims of “dramatic success” for his methods without any empirical evidence, or even serious discussion of what success means. The language he uses to justify the interventions he designs is all about neatness and efficiency. When he considers the perspective of an individual involved in one of these systems, it is always someone who wants a fair result achieved simply and easily, rather than someone who willing to expend effort and take risk to grab a personally desired result.

This is a crucial aspect of the author’s field. For some things, we want people to line up quietly, wait their turns, and take according to some top-down rational algorithm (such as equal shares or “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”). But for most of the really important things in life, we want people to strategize and struggle in elections, trials, courtships, debates, financial trading, job hunts; even personal confrontations and wars on occasion. The contests are expensive and often unfair, but they have important advantages, such as that people are willing (or forced) to accept them when no agreement on a rational distribution can be reached, and that the contest incents creative effort and selects useful innovation.

The author’s fondness for queueing everyone up should be defended on a better basis than that it’s neat and fair, and saves the costs of a contest. One example is in the discussion of assigning federal judge clerkships; a judge is quoted saying we want our top lawyers to prove they can handle tough negotiations. The author seems to dismiss this view without refuting it. Personally, I want my lawyer to be the gal who thrives under exploding offers and hardball tactics. The author is welcome to the timid lawyers who would rather wait in line for their fair shares. Another example is the author’s endorsement of a financial trading scheme that batches orders up to one second intervals. Now there is a large variety of matching schemes out there, including variants of the author’s favored one, and a much larger variety of schemes that failed in the market, but the author doesn’t want to prove his scheme in open competition, he wants to outlaw all other schemes. Tellingly, he doesn’t offer endorsements from anyone who actually trades or runs exchanges, only from the New York State Attorney General. “Dramatic success” to the author seems to mean that top regulators are happy, and that everything runs smoothly without hard choices for anyone, and that participants should be happy according to the author’s model. He doesn’t feel the need to attempt to measure the actual feelings of participants.

The flip side of the author’s passion for neatness is repugnance, which comes up repeatedly in the book and also has a dedicated chapter. The author defends letting repugnance drive policy because it can have a rational basis. But this misses the point. Feeling repugnance gives you no right to dictate to others about things that do not affect you, and are none of your business. It’s your responsibility to examine and articulate the rational basis for your feelings. Then you can engage in discussion and compromise. Most important, you can elucidate general principles that you are willing to adhere to yourself. If your policy debate consists solely of “eww, that’s gross,” you should be ignored by all adults.

At another level, repugnance basically never enters policy debates honestly. Most people have a genuine repugnance for poverty, it bothers them that anyone, anywhere is suffering from hunger, exposure, lack of medical care or other needs. Therefore good people volunteer to work in homeless shelters, hand a few dollars to a street beggar, donate goods to the Salvation Army or do other things to help the poor and alleviate poverty. Bad people use repugnance of poverty to sell policies to hurt the poor, sterilizing unemployed people, dynamiting neighborhoods to construct neat public housing, blocking routes out of poverty through minimum wage, immigration and business licensing laws, outlawing vagrancy, poll taxes, mass incarceration and dozens of other schemes. These policies are never defended on the grounds of morals or rights, or with convincing evidence that they make things better, only with direct appeals to repugnance like, “no hard working parent should have to raise children in poverty,” or “dirty foreigners carry disease and subversive ideas,” or “we need to keep killer drugs and prostitution from polluting our streets.” While a feeling of strong repugnance is a useful signal for an individual to think hard about an issue, a political appeal to repugnance is a reliable sign of an evil policy being pushed by cynical manipulators who need to evade hard thought.

Overall, this is a well-written and insightful book about a stellar career in economics, that is disappointingly superficial about the author’s field of study—even compared to popular accounts written by journalists, much less compared to great popularizations by expert practitioners. Not only are technical details that could be explained to general readers either ignored or distorted, but the entire basis for the author’s efforts is not defended. This is a four-star professional autobiography, but a one or two star popular account of matching.

D.E.M.: Deus Ex Machina
D.E.M.: Deus Ex Machina
Price: $5.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Some good sequences but does not stand up as a story, June 17, 2015
This book has a lot going for it. It alternates slam-bang action scenes with slow, brooding mystery. The action scenes are great, fast moving, exciting, clear, well written, plausible (within the elastic conventions of thrillers) and leavened with more than a dash of humor. In particular, the description of social engineering and computer hacking is accurate without overloading the reader with technical jargon. The book begins in the middle of one such scene, and never lets the quiet stuff drag on too long.

The mystery scenes are less satisfactory. For one thing, they're much too random. People act in inexplicable ways, over-reacting to minor stuff and ignoring essential stuff. A great book of this type needs constant menace just below the surface, these characters act as if they think they're playing a video game. The mystery needs to build to a climax, this plot just twists and turns aimlessly; whenever it bogs down, the author tosses in a new revelation. Looking back on the plot, it could have taken opposite turns at any number of points, there is no satisfying consistency to the story. The plot itself is quite good, both original and intriguing, but the author neglected it shamefully. He seems to have sketched it out and hung his story on it, without ever giving it coherency or support.

Like the plot, the characters are well conceived, but underdeveloped. Far too much stress is placed on the protagonist, who knows the least about what's going on. This lets the author dole out regular surprises, but it destroys the interactions. The book is driven by multiple characters, including several with more influence than the protagonist, but we only learn about things filtered from a single perspective. I think the book would be improved considerably if the author allowed at least a little opposing perspective, and if he built up the protagonist to be able to handle more of the story.

I give the author points for trying to use effective dialog rather than putting words in the characters' mouths that are really directed at the reader. Unfortunately the dialog, especially the sexual banter, is sophomoric and annoying. This is not Nick and Nora Charles, or even Maddie Hayes and David Addison, it's more like Tommy and Sally. On top of that the (female) protagonist is constantly hitting, punching and kicking her hapless male companion. These cease to be playful or affectionate after the first few pages and start to seem like either barely-controlled abuse or some repressed neurosis. The behavior would earn a three-year-old a trip to a psychologist, and an adult a restraining order.

Overall I give this book a mild recommendation, but I think the author has considerable potential. With some more attention to plot and character, and maybe a little medication for the heroine, he could produce a top-notch thriller.

German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past during the Civil Rights Era
German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past during the Civil Rights Era
Price: $16.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating raw historical data, no clear answers, June 9, 2015
On the plus side, this book is an in-depth investigation of a tremendously interesting historical juxtaposition that weaves together some of the most important threads in mid-20th century history. On the negative side, while the author is able to compile some fascinating observations, she is not able to build any sort of larger meaning from the account. The other good news/bad news is the author is a careful researcher and fine writer, with dual qualifications (German and Alabamian) to investigate and understand this story; but she adapted it from her PhD dissertation and left in some turgid theoretical stuff that will not endear her to general readers.

There are three knocks on the German rocket scientists who followed Wernher von Braun from building anti-civilian missiles for the Nazis, to building anti-civilian missiles for the US, to building the rockets that took us to the moon. I merely list these without comment, I have no idea what kind of choices I would have made under the conditions they faced in life. First is that some seem to have been early and enthusiastic Nazis. Second is that some seem to have personal involvement with horrors, primarily mistreatment of slave laborers but also denouncing and persecuting of Jewish colleagues and other crimes. Finally, it's morally dubious enough to use extreme professional skills to kill innocent civilians for one regime, if when that regime falls you do the same for the victors, people have a right to suspect you'll kill for anyone willing to pay you (as Tom Lehrer put it, "'In German oder English I know how to count down, und I'm learning Chinese,' says Wernher von Braun.")

The author probes the attitudes of both the rocketeers and local Alabamians to these issues, a little on the first, a lot on the second and only briefly on the third. Unfortunately, she is only able to get superficial reactions. This is interesting in itself, even fifty years and more later, it's hard to have deep conversations with survivors of the era about such issues. A philosopher or lawyer would probe more deeply. If someone claims to have been forced into an evil action, that means the person doing the forcing was doubly evil: both causing evil and forcing another to participate. So the person using this argument should point to some greater sinner, either individual or systemic. After all, some really, really bad stuff happened, and it's impossible that no one and nothing is to blame. Without these kinds of hard follow-up questions, we don't learn much about either the history or morality, only that almost everyone prefers not to insist on clear answers.

Nevertheless, this material is very interesting. We have plenty of intense interrogations over issues like these, but far less material of people voluntarily discussing them at a distance in time such that there seem to be few likely consequences of admissions. The author made attempts to get opinions from black and Jewish Alabamians, but they seem to have little interest either way (younger Jewish people who were not adults during the period have clearer positions, but they don't seem to be much different from similar people in other places). It's hard to know if this is genuine uninterest, or if the author failed to gain their trust.

Another issue is the complicity of US authorities in covering up some Nazi crimes in order to exploit scientific talent; and arguably reversing course in the 1980s and using pressure tactics and dubious evidence to harass the same people in retirement. Again, I merely list the charges, I'm not taking sides in these complex issues (okay, I guess I am, I'm against government lying, and two wrongs don't make a right, but some of the scientists involved were pretty unsavory, even by their own accounts). Here the author goes a bit off the deep end, comparing letting someone into the US to work and then expelling them when they were no longer useful to working innocent people to death in slave labor camps. She does not suggest that these are morally equivalent, merely that they have parallel elements, but I think is a false and offensive analogy.

Another misdirected analogy that is more central to the book is Nazi war crimes to both black slavery and Jim Crow laws in the South. Slavery is not comparable, because virtually no one living in Alabama at the time had ever participated in it, you can't compare some historical cultural guilt with personal war crimes. Jim Crow laws were fading at the time the rocketeers moved in (racism, of course, was still alive and well), but for the vast majority of the population these crimes were simply not comparable to Nazi horrors. There were certainly people in Alabama who had participated in lynchings, or blew up churches with people inside, or acquitted people who lynched or blew up churches, but throughout history there were about 3,500 black people lynched in the US, versus 11 million murdered by the Nazis (not counting war deaths or indirect deaths), mostly in two years. Without defending lynchings, there is a difference between choosing to live in a society where some people get lynched, versus building WMDs to defend a regime with a massive network of death camps.

These excursions into extreme moral equivalence do not detract from the interest of the book. Despite the author's writing skill, the book is not a lot of fun to read, partly due to occasionally intrusive theory and partly due to the amorphous material. But it contains a wealth of interesting data about a fascinating cast of characters in a unique time and place. It will enrich your thinking, without pushing it in any particular direction.

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20