Savage Love

Savage Love, Douglas Glover

This book was not, in fact, written by Danny Glover, Hollywood actor and star of the Lethal Weapon film franchise. I say this because my husband doesn’t find it amusing when I refer to him as “Danny”, despite (or because of) my insistence in doing so.

Douglas-not-Danny actually grew up in Southwestern Ontario, not far from the north shore of Lake Erie, which may explain why many of the stories are also set in Lake Erie’s north shore. Savage Love is a collection of short stories divided into 4 sections; the Prelude, Fugues, Intermezzo Microstories, and The Comedies. The microstories are particularly fantastic. In some cases, he tells a better story in two sentences than most authors do in a full novel. Here is a quote from my personal favourite:

The second night, when it was clear that something was starting between them, Xo began to lie to Annabel, tiny lies at first, minuscule evasions, shy reticences.  It was not only that he wanted to impress Annabel but that he yearned to be in love with the sort of woman who would fall for the kind of man he pretended to be.

(Interesting side note and full disclosure: this quote comprises the entire microstory entitled “Xo & Annabel, A Psychological Romance”. Interesting side note part II: the title of this story is 15% the length of the story itself.

It’s actually embarrassing to even write a blog about a book that contains writing of this calibre. The only conceivable strategy for me at this point is to simply write down some words and hope they form coherent sentences. Or maybe random words would be a better (and easier) approach. Luck chair was walk tree up fork. Definitely easier. My husband has been trying to tell me for years now what a brilliant writer Douglas Glover is, and it turns out he was right (and now I’ll have to tell him so, which is just annoying). Actually, I’ll probably just raid the basement bookshelves for any other Glover books and let him figure it out for himself.

Rating: Buy it! The stories are disturbing, to varying degrees, as you might expect from a book titled “Savage Love” but the writing is worth it, and you’ll probably want to revisit this one.

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Moon over Soho (… bring my love to me tonight …)

Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch

I have been noticing that book clubs are ironically counterproductive to my reading and so I’m electing to give them up – I’m currently in two, and I’ll be formally dropping out of at least one of them as part of an upcoming new year’s resolution, but honestly I’ve been sort of ghosting the soon-to-be-dropped club for a few months now. As a happy side effect, for the first time in a long time, I made time to actually read the second book in an on-going series.

In Moon Over Soho, the second in the Rivers Of London series, our intrepid Harry-Potteresque metropolitan Police Officer Peter Grant chases down another supernatural serial killer. In one lovely scene, continuing with his theme of blending rational scientific thinking with magical events, Aaronovitch has Officer Grant ruminating about the advances made by science for measuring different effects such as magnetic fields, radiation and distant stars in the context of complaining that nobody has come up with an objective way to measure vestigia, the residue left behind after magic has been performed. You know, because vestigia is the poor stepsister of the other forces of nature.

I also find Aaronovitch’s style of humour extremely entertaining. In describing what he calls London’s poor response to planning project, he writes:

That they eliminated the notorious Newport Market slums in the process, and thus reduced the number of unsightly poor people one might espy while perambulating about town, was I’m sure purely serendipitous.

Hahaha! Love it!

Reading book 2 did not disappoint. As it happens, I read several book 1’s from my “year of reading excessively” and in each case I decided to “save” the rest of the series for some unknown future date. I think that’s going to be my book challenge for 2019 – to finish the series that I’ve started.

Rating: Borrow it, unless you are a series collector, in which case this one would make a nice addition to your shelf.

 

 

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WMDs: HBDIIATD

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil

You know that feeling when you know something, but then you realize you didn’t really “know” it? Like you know Donald Trump is an idiot, but then he says you just need to rake the forest in order to prevent catastrophic wildfires? That feeling.

Well, I knew I didn’t like it when I scouted a pair of shoes on the Hudson’s Bay website, and the next day, while I was Googling to find a nearby coffee shop I saw, not just an ad for the same shoes, but the exact same picture I’d been looking at. It occurred to me then that being stalked by a gigantic, morally-questionable search engine was a new kind of creepy. (Even creepier … Google knows where you live, which means some data weirdo at Google knows it, too.)

But this is only the beginning of the bad stuff. Just as I was thinking that extrapolations of semi-anonymized data was less horrible than the way Facebook tracks my every move, Cathy O’Neil paints a compelling picture of how this data can reinforce societal biases and prejudices if it is used by people who don’t understand the basic principles of mathematical modelling and corrective feedback loops. And  it turns  out these mathematically ignorant entities are actually extremely influential organizations that decide things like who gets lighter prison sentences, who is accepted into college, who lands a good job, who is awarded credit to purchase a home, and who can get insurance.  What happens, in poorly designed models, is that proxies are selected to act as stand-ins for actual information. For example, a popular proxy for predicting good behaviour is a good credit rating. Even in situations where a credit rating makes no proxy sense at all, such as influencing the rate you might have to pay for auto insurance, it is used because it’s easy to obtain as a data point, which makes it perfect for a lazy data modeler. What this means, for one, is that people who are more likely to be poor are targeted with higher insurance rates, impacting their financial viability even more.

Poorly constructed models that detrimentally affect the most vulnerable members of society are bad, but what’s ultimately disturbing is how much data is collected and where it’s collected from. Cell phones, website searches, online ordering, social media, and on and on and on. Here’s a thing. I was taking a quiz on Facebook the other day (yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking … but it wasn’t one of the sites that forces you to “log on” through Facebook, which I 100% refuse to do!). This particular quiz offered to guess the name of my cat, which sounded fun. So I answered a bunch of questions about my cat’s behaviour. And suddenly it was asking me where I like to go on vacation and what kinds of books I like to read. Whaaat? So they don’t even feel the need to be subtle about it anymore! (Jeff is looking forward to when the vacation ads start showing up.) And don’t even get me started on those “use your birthday month and the first letter of your last name to figure out your stripper name” games. Good god, it might just as well say “give me all your personal data  now and save us both a lot of time”.

So what’s to be done? I’m certainly not going to become a Luddite – I love my technology (when it works). I’m happy to let Google direct me “home” when I’ve been out driving somewhere new, and I’ll still answer FB questions about my pet (but maybe not about my personal habits). I seriously doubt we can ever fix the corporate collection of insane amounts of personal data, but we can start lobbying for to laws that set limits on how that data can be used. For example, there are already laws on the book that companies cannot discriminate against potential job candidates, and perhaps those laws need to be extended to the data models that pre-select the resumes for your short list. There are several more useful ideas in the book, and it’s worth reading just for that.

Rating: Borrow it. Although data nerds might like to buy their own copy.

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Canada 150 Women

Conversations with Leaders, Champions, and Luminaries; Canada 150 Women, Pauline Cameron

No matter what, when you curate a book of some kind of list, you will inevitably disappoint someone, and in this respect, this particular list book does not … er … disappoint. It seems, from the cover, that it’ll be a sure winner; a book of 150 prominent Canadian women, to remind or enlighten us that there are successful and engaging women across Canada that we can all celebrate and that young women can look up to a guides and mentors. And the team of curators do a decent job of trying to achieve diversity (although my very rough count still lands somewhere in the neighbourhood of 110-120 white women).

What’s lacking, however, is diversity in their definition of success. A great deal of the women in the book seem to have been chosen because they have achieved business success of some kind. There are LOTS of CEOs, business founders and motivational speakers. The few athletes (such as Silken Lauman and Hayley Wickenheiser) are self-employed life coaches or CEOs of their own business and seem to have been chosen for this reason rather than their (rather amazing) athletic achievements. What stands out is who’s missing. For example, Clara Hughes is notable for her absence from the book, despite being the only athlete to ever win multiple medals in both the winter and summer Olympics, and an activist for mental health awareness.

Even more surprising is the lack of artists. Oh, there are a couple of authors and at least one dancer, but again it’s their business acumen that seem to have won them a place in the 150 list. Missing are potential role models such as Eden Robinson (award-winning First Nations author), Margaret Atwood (kind of a very famous author!), and Anita Sarkeesian (feminist activist, media critic and target of Gamergate misogynists, who probably has a thing or two to say about courage and fortitude). And there are zero(!) actors, singers or musicians. I think if someone is trying to curate a book to identify successful Canadian women who could potential inspire young women to aspire to greatness, they could try a little harder to broaden their reach.

Random last thought. A weirdly large number of the women in the book listed their favourite drink as “water”. Call me judge-y but I find that answer uber-boring, although it may just be a reflection of my alcohol addiction hahaha.

Rating: I don’t want to dismiss the very legitimate achievements of the women included in the 150, so I have to rate this a buy. But there’s an opportunity here to do a better job, and the book club members are seriously considering taking it on.

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Midnight Riot

Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch

Well, it’s just been *forever* since I read this book. However, since finishing it, I’ve been practicing my procrastination skills to great effect and so here I am, months later, trying to turn back time (… if I could find a waayyy … that’s right, you might as well be singing it along with me).

Midnight Riot is, I imagine, what you get when you mix Harry Potter with Twilight (not the sappy love story crap, but the werewolves and vampires. Ok, maybe not Twilight, per se. Actually, more like The Night Stalker! Okay, let’s start over.) Midnight Riot is a what you get when you mix The Night Stalker with Harry Potter. Constable Peter Grant, of all the boring names, gets pulled into a police murder investigation, where he discovers  that ghosts, werewolves, and transmogrification are real and that magic is a teachable skill.

While the story is fantastical (and fantastic), the author is delightfully grounded in scientific method which, not surprisingly, makes me extremely happy. It’s also fun, funny, dark, and satisfying, as murder mysteries often are. This was one of several books lent to my by an employee, and it’s by far my favourite. Even better, it’s a series, so there’s even more to enjoy.

Rating: If you like mysteries and fantasy, then borrow a copy! (I recommend it to my friend Erin!)

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Come From Away, the book

Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 by Kevin Tuerff

Not enough people know the story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland and their generosity of spirit in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when 38 international airplanes were diverted to land at Gander Airport. For 5 days, the 6,000 people of Gander housed and cared for the 6,000 stranded passengers, rallying to find food, shelter and medicine. I find it so moving that just talking about it can make me tear up.

If you want to experience the story through warmth, humour and music, then go and see the musical Come From Away. If you are American, go see it. If you are Canadian, go see it RIGHT NOW. And take some Kleenex. Just saying.

On the other hand, if you want to read a surprisingly less interesting first-hand account of events, then go ahead and read Channel of Peace. I’m not sure if Kevin Tuerff is a bad writer, or just a bad auto-biographical writer, but either way you lose. Don’t get me wrong, he’s the philanthropic founder of the Pay It Forward Foundation that encourages people to perform small, random acts of kindness on the anniversary of 9/11, inspired by the generosity of Newfoundlanders. A nice guy for sure. Although, while his character in the play shares his duty-free bottle of Grey Goose with fellow plane passengers while they wait for permission to deplane, in real life he and his partner squirrel away two bottles of grey goose which they share just between the two of them once they are safely ensconced in their shelter room.

Kevin spends a fair amount of this very short book talking about the musical (and how he’s in it), the 10-year reunion of the “plane people” in Gander, and his foundation. He also spends a fair amount of time pointing out places where the musical took some artistic license with the facts and how he “doesn’t mind” (all of the key characters, who are based on real people, were relocated onto a single American Airlines place when in fact they were all on different flights). In actual fact, I would have enjoyed it better if more detail and care had gone into the Gander story itself, a story that makes me so proud to be Canadian.

Rating: Buy it, because proceeds are donated to non-profit organizations helping refugees. And then go see the musical instead.

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Fermium, fermions and the Fermi Paradox

The Pope of Physics; Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age, by Gino Segre and Bettina Hoerlin

The title of this book pretty much sums it up. It is the story of the life of famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi by two people who obviously admired him greatly, and also about the discovery of fission and subsequent development of the Atomic Bomb. It even throws in a bit about the Hydrogen fusion “Super” bomb for good measure (it’s worth mentioning that, while Fermi was instrumental in the creation of the A-bomb, it was actually Edward Teller who was the force behind the H-bomb. Teller was, IMO, a semi-maniacal physicist with little regard for the potential human consequences of his actions. He was also alleged to be the inspiration for the Dr. Strangelove character in the movie of the same name. Frankly, for me it adds up.)

If you want to know all about Fermi the man, this is definitely the book for you. In that respect, I had a few criticisms, beyond wishing there was more detail about the physics and less about his family vacations in the Dolomites. Most significantly, the group of young physics students that studied together in Rome were called The Boys of Via Panisperna, or just The Boys. There was nothing really wrong with mentioning this in the book, since it was true, but by the time the author had referred to this group as The Boys for the 25th or 30th time, it started to get a little irritating. FYI, if any girls are out there reading this book, remember you, too, can be a physicist! Just this year, Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in physics and she is not “A Boy”. I’m sorry, but this is important.

As I said, I would have preferred a book that focused more on the science of what Fermi did during his career. He built something called Critical Pile 1 (CP-1) in the squash courts at the University of Chicago in order to prove he could cause a nuclear chain reaction, which he controlled using neutron-absorbing rods – basically, in basic English, he built a nuclear reactor in the center of Chicago.

Also worth writing about in more detail was conducting some fascinating early work on radioactivity that won him the Nobel Prize, theorizing the existence of the neutrino, and describing what became known as the weak interaction (one of the 4 fundamental forces of nature). After Fermi wrote a paper explaining their behaviour, particles that obey the “Pauli exclusion principle” came to be called Fermions. (If you’re interested, the exclusion principle states that two or more particles with half-integer spin cannot occupy the same quantum state. Clear as mud, right?) His name is also given to Fermium (Fm), element 100 on the periodic table of elements.

Perhaps my favourite namesake of his is the Fermi Paradox, which attempts to understand a surprising lack of evidence of alien life. After estimating the number of stars in the universe, the number of planets around them with liquid water, and the number of those planets that would have evolved life similar to our own, Fermi asked his fellow physicists “Where is everybody”? Given the massive number of stars in the universe, even if the probabilities of planets and life are small, you would still be left with an extremely large number of civilizations, which does raise the question of why we haven’t detected any.

<Nerdy math digression> There are 70 sextillion (7×1022) stars in the universe (yes, “sextillion”. That’s a thing. So is a planet named Uranus. Now just shush up about it.) If you very conservatively assume that 1 in a million star systems contains an earth-like planet and another 1 in a million have evolved intelligent life, you are still left with an impressive 70 billion civilizations across the universe. It’s a fair question to wonder where the heck everybody is!

For a fantastically entertaining and informative explanation of the Fermi Paradox, check out this blog post: https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html.

Rating: If you have a collection of books that touch on the lives of famous physicists, as I do, then buy it. If you are a proud Italian who wants to know about your country’s contributions to quantum physics, then borrow it. If you’re someone who thinks astrology is the study of planets, maybe give this one a pass.

 

 

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Ask More, Do Less. Live the Dream.

The Coaching Habit; Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, by Michael Bungay Stanier

The Coaching Habit is a business book which is superior over its contemporaries in that it is marginally less repetitive. I have an intense dislike of the North American powerpoint presentation format of “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them”. One of those is plenty, thanks all the same. Way too many business books follow this same “strategy”, I assume to fill up the requisite 200+ pages necessary for a book deal. The Coaching Habit is less repetitive than others and therefore, as an added benefit, is also very short. Short is my favourite kind of business book.

The one area that does repeat is a pattern of self-talk that the author wants you to use as a habit-forming meditation after each new coaching technique is introduced. The pattern is this:

When this happens: _____

Instead of: _____

I will: _____

Let’s give it a try with a few of the 7 strategic power questions designed to turn you into a coaching phenom.

What’s on you mind?

When my husband tries to make small talk while I’m in the middle of watching The Good Place, instead of pretending he doesn’t exist, I will ask him “What’s on your mind?”

And what else?

When he answers the question, instead of immediately tuning him out, I will ask “And what else?” until there are no more answers and I can get back to my show.

What’s the real challenge here for you?

When a coworker leaves a pile of crap in the kitchen sink instead of in the dishwasher, instead of making snarky comments behind his back, I will point to the pile of crap and ask “What’s the real challenge here for you?”

Well, this is working like a freaking charm!!!

Rating: Borrow it, there are some good tips around how trick other people into doing their own work.

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The Devil in the White City, or why we don’t have World’s Fairs anymore

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson

This is the second time I have found my way to purchasing a book thinking I had stumbled onto a wonderful find, only to discover that, not only had Jeff already read it, we had a copy in our basement library. I’m typically not that interested in his books – for example, he read the entire Winston Churchill Second World War 6 volume set (we actually own the original publication, inherited from one of his relatives). And he’s not that interested in mine – for example, I read the entire (to date) Game of Thrones 5 volume set (purchased, not inherited). Seemingly very different but actually, they are probably more similar than you might think. Really, Tyrion Lannister as Churchill – it works! Maybe we DO like the same books after all …

This fascinating book weaves together three stories from the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition The Fair was ostensibly intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World but in actual fact was an effort to outdo the French Exposition Universelle of 1889, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French revolution. Americans were irritated because the fair broke size and attendance records, and introduced the Eiffel Tower, which became the tallest structure in the world at that time.

The first and preeminent story is that of building the actual fair against ridiculous odds. Despite setbacks like bad weather, building collapses, fire, unionizing workers, financial difficulties, a major stock market crash, and a very short schedule, somehow the architects and builders of the day managed to make bring it all together. Their topper – to compete with the Eiffel Tower – was none other than the first ever Ferris Wheel. This massive “ride” stood 264 feet high with 36 cars designed to carry about 50 people each. The Fair itself was nicknamed The White City because of a decision, either to save time or money, to simply whitewash all of the building instead of painting them. This story alone would have made a compelling book.

The second and more disturbing story follows the actions of serial killer going by the pseudonym HH Holmes. Holmes moved to Chicago, where he hid in plain sight in a city-block-sized hotel that he custom-built for the express purpose of preying on and murdering the young women who flocked to the city to find employment and start a new life. During his stay throughout the construction and running of the Fair, he killed 9 people for certain (he was later arrested for killing his former right-hand man), and while he later confessed to killing 27 people, some estimates have ranged as high as 200.

The third and final story describes the descent into depression and insanity of an Irish immigrant named Patrick Prendergast. In parallel with the construction of the Fair, Prendergast tries and fails to be recognized by the mayor of Chicago as having been an important contributor to his election campaign. When he realizes no accolades are coming, he buys a revolver, makes his way to the mayor’s home and shoots him at his door. The murder took place 2 days before the closing ceremonies of the Fair, which kind of put a damper on things.

A crazy time! And yet, as you read, you can easily imagine these same events all taking place today. The more things change, and all that.

Rating: Borrow it for sure, might be worth adding to your personal library. Be sure to let your spouse know it’s there!

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THAT’S where you went??

Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

“Where’d you go…” is a well written, funny book with lots of promise. A teenage daughter, Bee, tries to locate her missing, agoraphobic mother, Bernadette, by piecing together scraps of communications that she’s somehow managed to uncover. The story is told through the various communications – emails, hospital bills, school flyers and so on. It’s a cute idea, albeit not original (Dracula is told in the same fashion, except, of course, for the school flyers.) Ultimately, the story is a bit silly, and where her mother ends up being found is even sillier. But it’s absolutely enjoyable, probably best as a summer beach read. Keep your expectations low and you’ll be fine.

I stumbled upon the news that there’s also a movie coming out. I can’t stress enough how bad I expect this movie to be. It would take some very sophisticated script writing to land on genuine humour rather than ridiculous and awkward nonsense, and Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record in this respect (I’m looking at you, Ant Man). It also hits on item #3 in the “eight signs of a flop” warning list below.

https://www.thewrap.com/eight-signs-flop-97966/

Rating: Borrow it from one of your girlfriends. Someone you know has a copy.

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