Friday, July 6, 2018

Review and Highlights: London Falling, Paul Cornell

London Falling (Shadow Police, #1)London Falling by Paul Cornell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm not sure if it's my recent mood or the books that I've been reading that have led me to begin several recent reviews with, this book was not as good as I had hoped it would be. A book about a London police squad that suddenly becomes able to see the things that go bump in the dark and have to use that sudden ability to hunt down a supernatural enemy? Right up my alley. But the overarching story of this book left me disappointed. I kept reading, thinking that the focus on football was weirdly specific, but I hoped that some background information would give it a deeper meaning.

Unfortunately, the background info provided for the villain didn't really help. In fact, the thought that came to mind when I read it was how when a person learns about "past lives", they find that they were always Cleopatra or Napoleon or at least closely associated with a famous person or royalty of some variety. The author tried to establish a back story that in some way explained the heinous acts in the present, but the punch I think he was trying to throw just didn't land.

I also came across quite a few lines that I had to read several times, some of which still didn't make any sense. I read a good bit of British literature, so I don't think it's about a difference in language. In fact, it was so bad that I had to underline a couple of lines to come back to later. For instance, in describing the search for some missing children, there's this line: "They had so many alerts for missing children in place it wasn't true..." Now, you might think the previous line must include something that provides context: "Quill had been in conference with Lofthouse a great deal, trying to find some resource or clue in the evidence coming out of any of the searched houses, Tochack's included, but so far there had been nothing." If that sentence helps explain the following one, please leave me a comment and explain it to me, because I just don't get it. There were several moments like that through the book.

Another thing that bothered me was the graphic violence at the end. Which, for a book that includes depictions of a person's blood exploding out of them, is saying something. It just seemed overly graphic and didn't fit in with the way the violence was described in the rest of the book. Finally, I didn't appreciate the blatant set-up for the sequel novel. Not that this book ended with a cliff-hanger, exactly, but it reminded me of the old Halloween movies, where you think the villain is dead, then the final scene shows the empty spot where his body should be. It's a blatant set-up, and I find it extremely annoying. In fact, because of the weaknesses in this book and the way it ended, I don't plan on reading the follow-up. Your mileage may vary.

Because I read the paper edition, I will include my highlights here:

That had been the knife that had severed something she had herself stretched very tight. p. 85

It felt as if they hated her mistress, yet loved her at the same time. They lover her for being something they could hate. They might love her entirely if she became a victim..." p. 280

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Review and Highlights: Witness for the Defense, Katherine Loftus & Katherine Ketcham

Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on TrialWitness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial by Elizabeth F. Loftus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A really good, but deeply depressing book on how memory and eyewitness testimony can ruin lives. Less a treatise on memory, this book is more an autobiography focusing on Dr. Loftus' work as an expert witness for defendants in criminal trials. I particularly appreciated the insight into why she did the work she did, how she chose the clients to testify for, and even her troubling refusal to participate in the Demjanjuk trial.

The depressing parts of this book are the descriptions of the absolute destruction of people's lives. And this damage isn't only inflicted on those who were falsely accused and/or convicted, but the victims themselves. In one case, children's mothers essentially convinced their children that they were sexually abused by a camp counselor. Now these children have to live their whole lives not only convinced that this horrible abuse happened, but the person they are sure committed the abuse got away with it. Another victim, this time of rape, was so convinced that her identification of her assailant was correct that when another man actually confessed to the crime she refused to believe him. This long-lasting victimization of those who were already victims is heart-breaking.

The other depressing part of this book is that, despite being written in 1991, it doesn't seem like much has changed. People are still falsely accused and convicted based solely on eyewitness accounts. Luckily, we now have DNA evidence that can help exonerate the falsely convicted, but the process is still insanely expensive both in dollars spent and lives ruined. Even with no active malfeasance on the part of police and prosecutors, people are sent to prison or, if found not guilty, must live the rest of their lives with that suspicion hanging over them. And the victims of the original crime never get the justice they deserve.

Because I read the paper edition of this book, I will include my highlights here:

That's the frightening part - the truly horrifying idea that our memories can be changed, inextricably altered, and that what we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth. p. 13

Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but subjective, interpretative realities. p. 20

When the police have a suspect, they often show the witness a photo array and produce the actual lineup only if an identification is made. Almost invariable, only the person identified from the photo lineup also appears in the in-person lineup, and almost invariably the witness identifies the person he saw in the photos. This is called a "phot0-biased lineup," and the chances of a mistaken identification rise dramatically in such a situation. p. 26

"We are a society that, every fifty years or so, is afflicted by some paroxysm of virtue - an orgy of self-cleansing through which evil of one kind or another is cast out. From the witch-hunts of Salem to the communist hunts of the McCarthy era to the current shrill fixation on child abuse, there runs a common thread of moral hysteria." quote by Dorothy Rabinowitz p. 127

"Justice would less often miscarry if all who are to weigh evidence were more conscious of the treachery of human memory. Yes, it can be said that, while the court makes the fullest use of all the modern scientific methods when, for instance, a drop of dried blood is to be examined in a murder case, the same court is completely satisfied with the most unscientific and haphazard methods of common prejudice and ignorance when a mental product, especially the memory report of a witness, is to be examined." quote by Hugo Musterberg p. 156

Most people are unaware that new information can influence their original recollection of an event. They don't know that as we take new information in, it is gradually incorporated into our original memory. Believing that this metamorphosed memory is and always has been the real memory, the true, unalterable, indivisible copy of our primary experience all those months or years ago, we become fiercely committed to it. p. 168

What happened in those two months to change [the witness'] mind? He'd seen pictures of Mr. Haupt, he'd read descriptions of the suspect, and he knew that he was looking for a man with a pronounced bald spot. His original memory of a full head of hair was wiped out, erased, by this new information, and the bald spot nestled comfortably into his memory, becoming in his mind the real and original memory. p. 168

Like most people, jurors tend to believe there is a strong relationship between how confident a witness is and how accurate he or she is. p. 170

Fear turns inward; it eats your soul. Anger can be directed outward, toward others. p. 204

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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Review and Highlights: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and RecoveryThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery by Sam Kean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A really interesting, easy to read popular science look at neuroscience and the brain. Long before modern imaging, brain function was determined through dissection and the observation of what went wrong when the brain is damaged. Starting with the titular neurosurgeons who observed and treated King Henri II of France when he was injured in a joust, the author examines famous and not-so-famous cases of brain injury. The function revealed by a damaged brain is sometimes more interesting than a dry explanation of the different brain regions and how they function, and the author takes full advantage. Even the treatment of one of the most famous damaged-brain cases out there, the story of Phineas Gage, was interesting and more in-depth than many I've read. If you have an interest in neurology and want something entertaining and easy to understand, definitely give this book a try. (I will say that some of the images and descriptions are pretty graphic, so reader beware.)

Because I read the paper copy of this book, I'll include my highlights here:

"Are there any who imagine," Holman asked, "that my loss of eyesight must necessarily deny me the enjoyment of such contemplations? How much more do I pity the mental darkness which could give rise to such and error." p. 97

[On Capras' syndrome] Faces, though, cannot conjure up the proper feelings, and it's the chasm between what they once felt upon seeing a loved one and the deadness they now feel that inflicts the agony. p. 254

...while we joke about a poor memory as a sieve, that's actually the wrong way around. Sieves let water leak through, but they catch substantial things 0 they catch what we want to preserve. In the same way, a mind functions best when we let some things, like traumatic memories, go. All normal brains are sieves, and thank goodness for that. p. 295

Memories are memoirs, not autobiographies. And the memories we cherish most may make honest liars of us all. p. 297

"Consciousness isn't a think in a place; it's a process in a population." p. 337

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Review and Highlights: Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Robert Park

Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness To FraudVoodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness To Fraud by Robert L. Park
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally, a popular science book that was interesting, informative, and well-written. As someone who enjoys science, but doesn't have much of a scientific education, I found the explanations in this book perfectly easy to understand. I especially appreciated the discussions on physics and why certain pseudo-scientific ideas can't be right unless all of understood physics are wrong. I thought the sections on homeopathic "medicine" and EMF radiation were especially effectively written.

The one thing that stood out as kind of odd to me is the chapter on space and space exploration. It doesn't seem to fit into the flow of the rest of the book, and reads like it was jammed in as an afterthought. It's a good chapter, explaining why the billions of dollars that have been spent on various space programs have not returned enough scientific results to be worth it. However, a better fit with the topic of the book, in my opinion, would have been an examination of something like the moon hoax theories and why they're wrong. I hadn't thought about the lack of results from the money spent on manned missions to space, so I appreciated that, but the chapter lacked coherence with the rest of the book.

Overall, a great popular science book, especially for people interested in physics and crank and pseudo-scientists involved with "cold fusion" and perpetual motion machines.

Because I read the paper edition of this book, I am including my highlights here:

I came to realize that many people choose scientific beliefs the same way they choose to be Methodists, or Democrats, or Chicago Cubs fans. They judge science by how well it agrees with the way they want the world to be. p. ix

"The most common of all follies," wrote H.L. Mencken, "is to believe passionately in the palpably untrue." p. 31

People will work every bit as hard to fool themselves as they will to fool others - which makes it very difficult to tell just where the line between foolishness and rad is located. p. 31

It is not so much knowledge of science that the public needs as a scientific worldview - an understanding that we live in an orderly universe, governed by physical laws that cannot be circumvented. p. 40

Simplistic arguments and homespun humor are more effective in such a debate than citing the laws of thermodynamics. Debate has a way of seeming to elevate a controversy into an argument between scientific equals. It is an arena made for voodoo science. p. 42-3

[Re: homeopathic "medicine"] To be precise, at a dilution of 30X you would have to drink 7,574 gallons of the solution to expect to get just one molecule of the medicine. p. 53

Few scientists or inventors set out to commit fraud. In the beginning, most believe they have made a great discovery. But what happens when they finally realize that things are not behaving as they believed? p. 104

It is ingrained in the American character to believe that a simple, virtuous man can accomplish things that are beyond the reach of closed-minded, so-called experts. p. 108 never pays to underestimate the human capacity for self-deception.... p. 122

The officials at the utility companies who were responsible for venture capital investments ... mistrusted the authority of science. That's not the same as mistrusting scientists. You should mistrust scientists; all sorts of outrageous claims are made by people who represent themselves as scientists. p. 135

Whether electromagnetic radiation is ionizing is independent of the intensity, or number, of photons; it depends only on the energy of the individual photons.
Breaking a chemical bond with a photon is like throwing stones at something on the other side of a river. If you can't throw that far, it won't matter how many stones you throw. p. 147

It is a general rule in epidemiology that if a better measure of a suspected agent results in a lower risk, there is almost certainly an unidentified "confounding factor." p. 156

That depends, of course, on what you mean by "possible". Richard Wilson, a Harvard physicist who had researched the problem, illustrated "possible" this way: Suppose someone tells you a dog is running down the center of Fifth Avenue. You might think it unusual, but it's certainly possible, and you would have no reason to doubt the story. If the claim is that it's a lion running down Fifth Avenue, it's still possible, but you would probably want some sort of supporting evidence - perhaps a report of a lion escaping from the Bronx Zoo. But if someone tells you a stegosaurus is running down Fifth Avenue, you would assume that he's mistaken. In some sense it might be "possible" the he's seen a stegosaurus, but it's far more likely that he saw a fog and thought it was a stegosaurus. Indeed, most reasonable people would agree that the possibility that there could really be a stegosaurus running down Fifth Avenue is too small to even bother checking out. p. 160-161

In the long run, however, episodes like Roswell leave the government almost powerless to reassure its citizens in the face of far-fetched conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific hogwash. p. 181

Galaxies collided, stars exploded, worlds were obliterated. Humans were powerless before such forces. But terror mingled with wonder. Wonder that fragile, self-replicating specks of matter, trapped on a tiny planet for a few dozen orbits about an undistinguished star among countless other stars in one of billions of galaxies, have managed to figure all this out. That is perhaps the strangest thing about the universe. Strange and very wonderful. p. 213

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Review and Highlights: Gibbons' Decline and Fall, Sheri S. Tepper

Gibbon's Decline and FallGibbon's Decline and Fall by Sheri S. Tepper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Guh. Okay. First, if I was rating this book based on the first three or four hundred pages I probably would have rated it at least four stars. The writing is really good, the characters are believable (if not always likeable), and Tepper spends the first part of the book building a real sense of dread and tension. It's a real page-turner for the majority of the book, and you really want to know how the characters are going to extricate themselves, and the women of the world, from the situation that is brewing. Tepper builds a real sense of menace there, and the situation is all too plausible, which makes it even more frightening.

Then . . . the end happens. I'm not going to spoil it here, but if a literature teacher wanted to teach about the weaknesses of deus ex machina, the end of the this book would be an outstanding example. It just . . . ugh. Without spoiling the plot, I will point out that all of the tension and menace introduced in the first nearly four hundred pages is resolved in about fifty pages. If that many. The real "resolution", if you want to call it that, happens in one short, disappointing scene. I was just terribly, terribly disappointed in how the story was resolved and how flat all of the emotion fell at the end. I think my main complaint is that all of the horrible things that are happening to women around the world, all of the oppression and mistreatment that men are inflicting on women, is because of . . . evil, basically. Bad guy makes men do bad things. That's all. Unfortunately, I don't think the great writing in the beginning of the book makes up for the dreadfully trite ending. I might try another Tepper book from the library, but I doubt I'll purchase another one. Your mileage may vary.

Because I read this as a paper edition, I'll include my highlights here (SOME HIGHLIGHTS MIGHT INCLUDE SPOILERS):

She laughed her bubble laugh, as if she were all full of something sticky, with slow bubbles rising up. p. 43

Her voice rose to a mechanical whine, a vocal nail drawn down the chalkboard of her life. p. 66

...Society for the Perpetually Unaware and Only Dimly Cognizant. p. 66

"...Mankind is a good word." She set down her glass with a thump. "Or humankind. I'm afraid we've spent a lot of feminist energy on meaningless symbols rather than essential functions..." p. 170

"...She quoted what she called the first law of the supernatural: No God can be bigger than the gate that lets people into the presence. If the only way to that God is through a narrow little gate with picky little gatekeepers, then that God is no bigger than that gate nor wiser that the keepers..." p. 221

"...Doin' sex is all some men have to brag about, you know. Got no brains, got no ambition, got no skills, but they can fuck like a bunny. ..." p. 238

For millennia religious power and prestige had been built on a foundation of sexual proscription. Now the sudden absence of sex came like the surgeon's knife, abbreviating both doctrine and doctrinaire. What were sin fighters to do without the favorite sin? p. 259

Seemingly, even if the world died tomorrow, Jagger intended to stand with one foot atop the corpse declaring himself victorious. p. 261

It was no more that she'd expected, but it still hurt, in the way a sudden blow hurts, as much from surprise as from trauma. p. 263

"What's coming is reality. Politics has nothing to do with reality!" p. 269

"Happy? Sometimes. But, then, happy is a sometime thing. When Younger Sister broke the happiness jug, bits of it scattered everywhere, so Sophy always told us. She said not to worry about happy, just get on the way because we'll find bits of happy everywhere we go." p. 323

"...'Track by your star, but keep an eye on your feet, for some stones are set in the road to make you stumble.'..." p. 323

"...'...a mouth that gives kisses like wounds. ...'..." p.327

"...What profiteth a race to be numerous and stupid, la?..." p. 392

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Books and Book Reviews

Along with knitting, reading is a great passion of mine. I've been tracking my read books on Goodreads for a while, but I've recently started writing reviews of the books I've read. I put a lot of thought into those reviews, and I've started including highlights from paper editions by hand, since Goodreads doesn't have a feature for that. With all of that work, I'd like to have my work somewhere other than Goodreads, so I thought I'd start posting those reviews here as well. I hope anyone who happens to read these enjoys them, and feel free to let me know what you think about any of the books you've also read!