Monthly Archives: February 2018

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

Fierce KingdomFierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I thought was a pure thriller was only partially so. Most of the book is spent on exploring the relationship between the main character, Joan, and her little boy, Lincoln (my son’s name, too). The two of them, along with other zoo visitors, become trapped inside the zoo after closing hours when some gunmen bent on a Columbine-type mass killing begin their shooting rampage. Joan’s resourcefulness and fierce love for her son drive the plot. Her thought process is detailed minute by minute as she tries to stay alive and she contemplates what a mother should do, must do, in such circumstances. Hide or run? Feed Lincoln (which means moving in the open and making noise) or not (which means him crying and complaining while the gunmen are near)? She second guesses herself often and other characters she interacts with have their own ideas. What is her responsibility toward them?

These are interesting philosophical questions but heavily fact-dependent, so I’m not sure how useful it would be to the reader to consider them, since no one is ever likely to encounter these exact facts. I thought the author could have spent less time on Joan’s thought processes and added a little more action, a little more decision-making. Exploring a mother’s love may be heartwarming for some but I found myself thinking “Get on with it” too often. The author writes well and I was fortunate to have the audiobook, because the reader Cassandra Campbell, did an excellent job. There is some carnage, but it’s not excessive, and book is free of sex and cursing for those who prefer that.

View all my reviews

The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker

The Planet Factory: Exoplanets and the Search for a Second EarthThe Planet Factory: Exoplanets and the Search for a Second Earth by Elizabeth Tasker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author has attempted to make a captivating but very technical subject accessible to the general reading public, with mixed success. I found it fascinating, but I have a math degree and was an A student in physics and astronomy; I suspect that others might find it too dense. The author makes a valiant attempt to make basic concepts understandable, including use of a great many metaphors and similes from everyday life, especially in the early chapters. Some of these could be helpful, I suppose, but I found them at times condescending (do we need to spin in an office chair with arms outstretched to understand you spin faster if you bring them in?), at times amusing, and occasionally confusing. The author often uses British colloquialisms for these, leaving a poor American like me to discern from context that a roundabout is not a traffic control device but some sort of merry-go-round. As for throwing a jelly at someone, I have no idea what that means; wouldn’t the jar crack his noggin?

Quickly, though, the author moves into the details of planet formation, fortunately without the equations. Rather, we must take her word, and that of countless other scientists, as to what is possible or impossible. For the 99.999% of us who can’t do the calculations ourselves, Clarke’s Third Law applies: the rules of planet formation are indistinguishable from magic. The problem with this is that what we/they thought was impossible is now being observed in distant star systems. Huge gas giants are orbiting very close to their stars. So are rocky superearth planets where they should not be able to form. There are planets whose density is between those of the rocky planets we know (Earth, Mars) and the gas giants we know (Jupiter, Saturn). So what are they made of? Water? Silicate rock? A rocky core surrounded by gas? What we “knew” about planets isn’t true anymore. The author explains all the theories that the experts have come up with, but she states right up front that we really don’t have good explanations for much of what the observational science is producing. The exciting part is that we are finding more and more exoplanets. New discoveries bring new knowledge.

If you are primarily interested in whether there is life out there or a planet capable of hosting us after we destroy the one we’re on, you’d be advised to skim liberally up to the last few chapters where these questions are addressed more directly. The short answer is that alien life is certainly possible, maybe probable, but it is unlikely to be in a form we could ever communicate with or even observe. A place where we could relocate would have to be closer to home and the only candidates seem to be moons within our own solar system, although none of them look all that promising. Still, it is amazing to consider all the factors that life as we know it require and how lucky we are to be in that Goldilocks zone. Once you do that, then consider those organisms like tube worms and anaerobic bacteria that do not require sunlight or oxygen. Life has a way of adapting to some very inhospitable environments.

The author and publisher have bravely aimed for what seems to me to be a very small slice of the reading public. The book is too simplified for researchers in the field and too technical for most other readers. She writes very well but there are a few errors. On p. 232 she states that the temperate zone in our solar system is conservatively estimated at 0.84au to 0.14au. That second number should be 1.14au. Otherwise we wouldn’t be alive. All in all I really enjoyed the book but I find it hard to recommend to most people. What I can say is that when you see the next headline that reads “Second Earth Found!” don’t believe it.

View all my reviews

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

The Other EinsteinThe Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva is the beleaguered and mistreated protagonist in this novel. [Spoiler alert!] The author has imagined a life for her of neglect and emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her famous physicist husband. In the book she is the one who discovers or founds the theory of Special Relativity while Albert takes the credit. The story line is engaging and based on some credible research, but according to sources such as Wikipedia and the author’s own postscript, there is little or no direct evidence of Albert Einstein being the abusive and selfish person portrayed in the book. Rather the book is more of a metaphor for how women were marginalized by men, especially in science, not only then, but to this day. No doubt that has largely been true in general, but it doesn’t mean it happened in Einstein’s case. Reading it, I felt the author was trying to make a modern-day women’s empowerment statement rather than an accurate historical account. This gave the story a rather creepy “let’s speak ill of the dead” feeling. I would say the story is one-sided, seeing things only from Mileva’s view, except it really is no-sided since there is little or no evidence Mileva felt in any way abused or overlooked in her contribution to science. For all we know she was happy to leave the world of physics and become a devoted mother and hausfrau. The book is well-written enough to have allowed me to keep reading to the end, but it took on more of a feeling of a rant rather than an attempt to entertain. Had it not been a book club selection, I would probably not have finished it.

View all my reviews

Our Ignorant Newsies – Winter Olympics Edition

Watch any local newscast and you’ll hear or read at least a dozen errors in English, but usually the national news is more professional. Usually. Tonight, however, I had the displeasure of listening to Alpine skiing commentator Bode Miller and some other NBC sports guy.

Sports guy: “This is his first time at the Olympics. He’s in unchartered territory.” (should be uncharted).

Miller: “He’s being really laxadaisical.” (should be lackadaisical or lax, but not both combined)

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

The Woman in Cabin 10The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This superb thriller has been called a “twisty mystery.” That is perhaps a pretty good description, but it’s not really a murder mystery … or is it? The main character, Lo, a travel magazine writer, is on a promotional cruise to see the northern lights off the Norway coast. She hears a splash in the middle of the night, what she thinks is a body being thrown overboard from the cabin next door, Cabin 10. But is it a murder or an artifact of her drunken state? There was a young woman in that cabin but she seems to have disappeared.

I think of this as more of a thriller than a mystery, although the plot is mysterious enough. There are no police and there is no body. The suspense comes from trying to determine whether Lo is delusional, whom she can trust, and what dark doings are going on aboard, if any. Is this a psychological thriller about a disturbed woman’s mental state or a tale of avarice and killing? I’m not telling.

View all my reviews

Nextdoor and Sex Discrimination

I am a victim of sex discrimination. I participate in my neighborhood group. For the most part it has been useful. Recently they introduced a feature known as interest groups. One such group was called Book Lovers, which sounded like a rather conventional category of people interested in participating in a book club. One woman posted that she was holding an organizing meeting to form such a book club and asked people to sign up if they were interested. I read a lot and enjoy the one book club I’m in so I emailed her. I got a response from her that she had received a lot more interest than she had anticipated and they would be forming four separate clubs. She said she’d be back in touch with me.

A week later she emailed me and said that I was the only man who had expressed interest and the women had voted to exclude me. I found this disturbing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not outraged or going to sue or anything like that. The organizer said no one wanted to discuss the same kinds of books I read (fiction and non-fiction). I read a wide variety of books and I had sent her a link to my Goodreads reviews which show that variety. I find it hard to believe that not one of these groups would be reading any of the books I enjoy. I asked her what kinds of books the groups would be reading. She never replied. I’ve been in a mixed male/female book club in the past and everyone got along just fine. I actually don’t want to belong to a book club that reads nothing but romances or women’s empowerment issues, so perhaps one or two of those newly formed clubs would not be suitable for me, but all four? In the end, the inverse of the Groucho Marx rule applies: I wouldn’t belong to any club that wouldn’t have someone like me for a member, so it’s probably all for the best. If I’m not wanted for any reason, I don’t want to force my way in. It’s not a glass ceiling I feel compelled to break. It’s supposed to be for fun and that doesn’t sound fun.

But the really disturbing thing about this is that my exclusion was based simply on my sex, without a single one of the anonymous voters knowing me. This is indicative of what’s happening in politics and all aspects of modern life in America, it sees – people don’t want to associate with anyone who doesn’t share their own beliefs and preferences. It may not be as bad as the slavery in the deep south of yesteryear, but the general attitude more and more now is if that person is different from me, they’re bad. It’s called bigotry.

Edit: after I posted a link to this blog post on my post was reported for violating Nextdoor’s guidelines. Although it’s not spelled out, I can only presume one of the women who voted to exclude me didn’t like the implication she was a bigot. Here’s a quote from the email I received from the group organizer:

I need to let you know that you are the only male that responded to this book club start-up; … With 30+ women responding, there was a vote at the first meeting to have it be ladies only.

Now imagine  the following:

I need to let you know that you are the only black that responded to this book club start-up; … With 30+ whites responding, there was a vote at the first meeting to have it be whites only.


I need to let you know that you are the only Jew …


I need to let you know that you are the only gay …

Judge for yourself.

Running Again!

Today I ran at Rancho San Antonio from the horse trailer lot through the farm up the creek side of the Wildcat Loop to the fork for the lower Wildcat Loop and back, a total of about 4.5 miles. This is something of a milestone for me. It’s the longest run I’ve done since the Rock n Roll 10k I shouldn’t have done (but did) and since my surgery. I feel like I’m finally getting back to normal. It was a beautiful 70 degree day there, by the way.

I’ll back up. On 8/27/17 I signed up for the San Jose Rock n Roll 10K scheduled for Oct. 7. My son was running the half marathon and I saw it as a great father-son event. I’d been running well and thought I was in good shape for it. 10K was a distance I could handle. On Sept. 5 I was running at a nice slow jog and felt a sudden stab like a knife in my left upper Achilles tendon/lower calf. In any event, I couldn’t run. I limped back to my car. I couldn’t run for the next month. Two days after the injury I had a biopsy for something unrelated. It came back positive. The doctor prescribed Cipro (an antibiotic) for the biopsy, apparently unaware that a black box warning for that drug warned that Cipro can cause increased risk for Achilles tendinitis or rupture, especially in men over 65 who are physically active and have blood type O. I am all of the above. Sure enough, I got excruciating tendinitis in the right tendon two days later despite no physical activity. That lasted about 10 days, until the drug left my system. My left tendon, meanwhile, still hurt badly from the injury. Needless to say, I couldn’t run. I couldn’t even walk farther than from my easy chair to the bathroom. My doctor ordered me not to run the 10K. My entry fees were non-refundable, but the race was a month away, so I thought maybe I could walk it by then. The day before the race I picked up my race packet and had no trouble walking two miles, the longest I’d walked since the biopsy.

I did the race. I tried to walk it at first, but the crowd was so dense around me that I had to jog lightly to avoid collisions with people around me. I felt good and both tendons weren’t hurting so I couldn’t resist the urge to keep jogging. After about a third of the race I realized I’d made a mistake. My injured left tendon began to hurt pretty bad, so I started walking. It continued to get worse. After another third or so I was limping badly. I broke into a halting limp/jog just so I could get back to my car sooner. Somehow I finished first in my age group (70+). Everyone else must have crawled it. Anyway, my injury was exacerbated and I could barely walk for a month, much less run. By mid November I was just getting able to jog short distances again, although my tendon still hurt and I was out of shape. I did maybe two or three short runs.

On November 21 I had “minor” cancer surgery which turned out to be not so minor. Don’t worry, I’m not dying or anything. If you really want the grisly details you can search this blog and find them. It did require me not to run for a month. So my conditioning got even worse. When I did resume running weeks later, I couldn’t run more than a mile without becoming completely winded. There were other unpleasant side effects from my treatment, too, which limited my ability to run. Slowly over the last six weeks or so I have resumed running. It hasn’t been fun, but I knew that if I didn’t force myself to get back in shape, it never would be. I’m still a long way from where I want to be, and my left Achilles still hurts some, but today was the first day since Sept. 5 that I actually enjoyed running like I used to. I swear I’m not going to do any more races and not going to try to run fast. My goal now is just to avoid injury so I can continue to run regularly and appreciate the beautiful country and gorgeous weather we have here.

Delphi – In vs. array vs. Pos

I have a hobby of solving ciphers. I also solve and create crosswords. I have several tools I’ve written using the Delphi programming language to assist me in these hobbies. It recently occurred to me that there may be faster ways of doing certain functions I need, such as character counts. So I decided to test three methods of determining whether a given character is contained in a word, phrase, or collection of text characters. For purposes of my test, I decided to test whether a given character is a lower case letter in the English alphabet (a through z). I tested a loop containing five characters a,z,m,n, and 7 which I designated as ch1 through ch5;

The first method is to use Delphi’s reserved word ‘in’. This is a set function. To use this you must first create the comparison set. So define alph as the set [a]+[b]+[c], etc. Note that these elements are not ordered. “In” is a boolean function, so the statement ch1 in alph  will return a true or false.

The second method is to use an array. Define the array as an array of characters with an  index from 1 to 26 (or 0 to 25 if you prefer). Use the statement for i2 := 1 to 26 do if alph2[i2]>ch1 then break else if alph2[i2]=ch1 then …; You don’t want the loop to keep searching after it has found the character, so that is the reason for the first if clause. I tested the method both ways, using that if clause and not using it.

The last method is the string function Pos. This returns the position of a character or substring in another string, or, if it is not there, a 0. To use it define the comparison string S1 as ‘abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz’ and the statement Pos(ch1,S1)>0 will return a true or false.

I ran a loop of 100,000 iterations testing each of the five characters using each of the methods. The first method was the fastest at 15 microseconds. The array with the first if clause was next at 16 microseconds. Third was the array method without the first if clause at 31 microseconds, and last was the Pos method at 78 seconds. Although the set method is the fastest, it has a big drawback. It doesn’t tell you where in the set the character appears. Sets in general are also limited to types byte or character meaning only 255 elements. The array method is almost as fast and has neither of these limitations. It is not as powerful, however, as the Pos method because that method can test not just characters but substrings of any length, such as whole words and it identifies where it occurs if it’s there. This is probably the most often needed of the three. All three methods can be useful, but they are best suited to different purposes.