Monthly Archives: September 2017

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied VictoryOperation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For fans of classic WWII derring-do or the early James Bond novels, this book is not to be missed, not only for its complicated and nail-biting plot, but because it is the real deal that inspired that sort of fiction. It is the non-fiction account of the wartime disinformation operation already well-known from the book and movie The Man Who Never Was. The British floated a dead body ashore in Spain costumed to appear as a Royal Marines officer, carrying (actually chained to his wrist) a satchel with counterfeit top secret war plans intended to fall into the hands of the Germans, who had great influence in Franco’s Spain at the time. The plans were intended to persuade the Germans that the invasion of southern Europe would come in Sardinia or Greece rather than its true target, Sicily.

That much we learn early on, but all the planning, politics, and operational problems that stood as obstacles to the plan were so vast, it is astonishing that the plan was eventually carried out. As Robert Burns, the Scottish poet wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain.” And agley they did gang, indeed.

I was initially reluctant to read this because I had read the original book and remembered much of the story. It is well-known among intelligence and counterintelligence personnel, of which I was once one. It was, however, the book chosen by my book club, so I dug in. The beginning was, as I expected, somewhat of a rehash of what I already knew. But the latter half of the book especially filled in details I’d never heard or at least didn’t remember. I believe this is a much fuller and more credible account that what has been told before. I found it hard to put down after the midpoint. I’m not a huge fan of the writing style as the author tended to exaggerate mercilessly. Every person was the most brilliant, most gullible, most devious, most corrupt, or most eccentric man to have ever walked the earth. The flourishes and color – make that colour since it was all too, too British – were a bit too much, but the story was riveting enough that it didn’t distract. It was a cracking good read.

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Unisex baby names

The names we give our children can tell us something about the society we live in. I’ve posted about this a few months ago. This data is from the U.S. Census Bureau. Take a look at the following chart.

The name Leslie can be male or female. It seems that in the 1940’s and 1950’s it became popular for baby girls. About that same time, it became less popular for boys. I speculate that in those days it was important that boys not be saddled with a “girl’s name.” Now compare it to this one:

Drew is another unisex name. However, it became popular with both sexes at about the same time, mostly in the 1990’s. I suspect that issue is not so important now since the whole LGBT wave hit. It’s not hard finding other unisex names in the last twenty to thirty years to support this latter conjecture, e.g., Jamie, Shawn, Cameron. It’s not as easy to see other examples to support my earlier speculation about boys not wanting girls’ names. Jackie did decline as a boy’s name in the 1960’s as it became popular during Jackie Kennedy’s tenure as First Lady, but it had already begun a slide for boys.

In my previous posts I showed how pop culture made some names more popular. It was easy to spot when certain singing or movie stars began their rise by looking at baby charts. It was true even back in the 40’s and 50’s, too, although to a lesser extent. Dwight became popular when Eisenhower was winning the war or in the oval office. Stan became briefly popular during Musial’s reign at the ballpark.  Jamie’s rise for both boys and girls matched very closely with the popularity of The Bionic Woman TV show (main character Jamie) and M*A*S*H (Jamie Farr played Radar). It’s a bit harder to pinpoint why some names made their surge. Drew, for example, got popular for girls mostly in the early to mid 1990’s. It started earlier for boys. It’s tapered off for both, but stayed fairly popular for boys. The girl’s part might be attributable to Drew Barrymore’s brief time in the spotlight, but she wasn’t that major a media star that I recall. Drew Carey had a successful long-running comedy show, but his character was nerdy, hardly the kind of star power to inspire naming your child after him, and in any event, the rise for boys’ names began before that show.

Consider the next chart:

Pamela is a made-up name from the famous novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson (1740) but I haven’t been able to find any reason for its resurgence in the middle of last century. Similarly, I don’t know why Beau is suddenly popular for boys. Fashion may explain a lot of this of course, but I find it odd that Beau’s newfound popularity seems to be centered in Montana, Idaho, and Utah when state records are examined. Is there a popular white supremacist named Beau that I haven’t heard about? I always thought Beau was short for Beauregard, a name I associated with the South, but that is the region where Beau is the least popular. Penny had a similar surge almost identical to Pamela’s, but unlike poor Pam, Penny has come back into popularity a bit in the last few years.

The charts can be compared to each other time-wise, but not on the height of the popularity bars because they are at different scales. To judge absolute popularity, look at the notation in the lower left giving the maximum popularity. That tells you the scale. Just find the tallest bar and the number tells you what percent of babies that year of that sex were given that name. Other bars on the same chart are to the same scale.

The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives by Theresa Brown

The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients' LivesThe Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives by Theresa Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brown captures the drama and tension of high-stakes medicine in this non-fiction description of a single 12-hour shift as a nurse on a cancer ward. It is very reminiscent of the Boston Med or New York Med TV series. It is a short read and fast not only because of its shortness but also because it is riveting. Brown is a Ph.D. in English who taught at Tufts University before giving up teaching for nursing. As one might expect, her writing is polished and clear, mixing the human interest elements with clinical detail. If the grim reality of cancer is not something you can stomach, then pass on this one, but I found it fascinating.

As a word maven, or grammar Nazi if you prefer, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of errors. On page 170 she says “I … peak under the bed.” I smiled when I read that, thinking most women would brag about peaking in the bed, but whatever floats your boat. She also got the punch line to a joke wrong. The correct line is “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” These peccadillos notwithstanding, I highly recommend this book.

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Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James

Picture Perfect Murder (Ryli Sinclair Mystery #1)Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ryli is a photographer working part time for both the local newspaper and the police, or so she is described. I don’t think she did any photographing – or work, for that matter – throughout the story. When the town’s school superintendent is brutally murdered, Ryli goes around with her friend and her aunt asking everyone where they were when it happened. Meanwhile she lusts after the hunky police chief. There is no explanation for why she chooses to do this “investigating” and she fails miserably at it, putting herself in danger not once but twice in quick succession by failing to see the obvious attempts the murderer is making on her life. The cover bills it as a “daring and hilarious cozy mystery.” It was nowhere close to daring or hilarious, although I think I smiled once or twice while reading it. It was, however, a cozy mystery with the usual elements: female non-professional protagonist, lots of talk about the women’s outfits (and I mean lots), cooking, and interior decorating, a cute pet, and zero knowledge of police procedure. The one difference from the usual cozy, however, is that here Ryli does not turn out to be the strong, confident woman who solves the mystery; she turns out to be a blubbering incompetent who has to be rescued by the hunky chief.

The best I can say about this is that it was inoffensive and worth the 99 cents I paid for it. It got me through a dull day when my electric service was off for maintenance. Lovers of good writing are warned to stay away. The writing is ham-handed, cliche-ridden, and in need of a good proofreading.

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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 419-page tome (318 if you skip the Acknowledgements and Footnotes) is an academic’s look at morals and how people determine or judge right and wrong. Its overarching goal seems to be to make people understand that those with opposing views are not evil or stupid but think the way they do because there are valuable principles on the “other” side that have served communities and individuals well throughout human evolution. As he says in the final sentence of the text: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

That sounds like little more than Rodney King’s famous line, but the book is really quite intellectual and academic in tone and backed by solid research. I hated the social science classes in college and this reads very much like a textbook in a Psych or even Poli Sci class. It does have descriptions of a lot of academic research in this field, however, including many cleverly designed experiments. Most of them proved the same principle which put simply is that people believe what they want to believe. When people argue they don’t use logic to try to understand who is right but instead use it to try to develop counterarguments to rebut their opponent. This may seem unsurprising, but it was rather startling to me how researchers have proven that people will absolutely ignore compelling evidence that proves their view about something wrong even very simple demonstrable things. In short, people are not persuaded by facts.

Some insights were surprising, however. Until reading the book I did not realize how large a role genetics played in forming an individual’s position on the basic conservative-liberal scale. Conservative in Haidt’s sense is the desire to preserve the status quo and resist change, while liberal is the opposite – the desire to change, to experience new things. Experiments have proven that this dynamic is largely fixed and observable in toddlers. That doesn’t always translate into political conservatism or liberalism, but they appear to be somewhat related.

I can’t say the book was enjoyable reading per se; rather, it was informative and valuable, which makes it enjoyable in a different way.

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North Korea

I try not to get too political here, but this North Korea thing is getting to me. Why all the fuss? How many nuclear (i.e. weapons) countries are there now – a dozen? US, UK, France, Israel, S. Africa, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, N. Korea, probably Iran. OK, not quite. Keeping new weapon technology from adversaries has always been impossible from the slingshot to the longbow, to the catapult, to the rifle, to the nuclear bomb. Kim has had the technology for years now and could have used it on the US at any time. He doesn’t need an ICBM to nuke the US. He could have slipped an atomic bomb, a dirty one at that, onto a tramp freighter or a whole fleet of them and chugged into every major harbor in the US and shot them up one or two hundred feet and detonated them if he’d wanted to long before now. But he doesn’t want to. He has no reason to. Even if he did want to, he is deterred by the simple fact that he knows the US would retaliate massively and obliterate him and his entire country from the face of the earth, just as every other country is.

So why all the hype? It’s a battle of egos by two insane egomaniacs. Kim feels disrespected by the world in general and the US in particular. The same with Trump. It’s a couple of schoolboys yelling “Yo mama” at each other. I wish everyone would just shut up before one of these two idiots gets angry enough to nuke the other. That could lead to some horrible consequences. Just ignore each other, guys, and go back to running your countries.