Review: Bolivar

October 27th, 2018

I’m getting interested in South and Central American history because I don’t remember much about it, nor did I learn a lot of it in school.  As I learn more about US history, the echos of its past become clearer.  Because I live in Southern California, I hear those echoes from the south of me as well.  And some of those echoes ring with eccentricity.  I’ve got to dig in and find more.

Símon Bolívar is a big enough name that even I have heard of him.  That’s like saying a few people have heard of George Washington, of course.  As with Washington, the real story is more complex and enlightening.  Bolívar is liberating Gran Columbia and Venezuela from a different enemy in the shadows of the American and French Revolutions.  He also comes from a different, more aristocratic stock and culture.   His path is littered with politics great and small and stronger urges for personal glory.  It is utterly fascinating to see how these differences play out in terms of Bolívar’s historical placement and the history of the nations he liberated.

Robert Harvey makes a good guide in that journey.  His prose is clean and his research seems sound.  The figures and cultures sparkle under his descriptions.  As with Conquistador, the text seems to be combining known texts rather than pushing new agendas.  Perfect for me.


Review: The Perfect Weapon

October 14th, 2018

David Sanger has produced a deep look at how the political and policy world sees computer and network espionage and sabotage.  People inside and outside that world call that “cyber” but that makes me and other tech weenies of my cohort a little queasy.  My queasiness aside, these technologies are commanding people’s attention.

Sanger does some remarkable research and journalism in tracking publicly revealed and discovered uses of computer and network espionage tech. His work shows how this stuff is live and in use.  On one hand, people use whatever tools they have or can make when they want to spy; on the other the level of technical sophistication is surprising.  Weapon is worth reading to get that intuition.

I do think that there are a couple angles from which readers – like me – should be skeptical.  One is the aura of secrecy and awe that reporters and managers of these technologies wrap them in.  Some of that is because the mindset of using technology outside of its specification is unnatural to a lot of people.  In Zen and the Art, Robert Persig explained how beer cans are also essential repair elements.  That mentality pervades the thinking of people who make “cyber” work and it feels like magic until you develop the technique.  It’s the difference between watching a magic show and watching a magic show as Penn or Teller.  Easier to say than do.

Holding the secrets as secrets and wrapping the technology in some awe helps with getting funding, so there’s a significant incentive to do so.  I do think that research and development funding inside and outside the government can use the funding, so I agree with that tactic to some extent.  I worry when it’s not a tactic.  People who don’t understand the ideas tend to underestimate it; extra awe is a useful corrective.  Readers who want to really understand the underlying technology should adjust filters accordingly.

Sanger’s invaluable contribution is framing the human elements.  Who funded what and when.  Who wound up in the papers and who didn’t.  How the people who move armies and conventional espionage resources view them.  For me, that’s an extremely illuminating view of the world.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Conquistador

October 13th, 2018

Buddy Levy has put together a very readable history of Hernan Cortes and his battles and maneuvers with Montezuma, the Aztec Empire, and other Central American tribes.  It was a great beginning as I begin looking at Central and South America’s history.

Levy’s not the most inspirational writer, nor the deepest and most insightful researcher.  But he does know a great story when he hears it and tells it with clarity and alacrity.  He gets out of the way of history and sprays his spotlights on it in a remarkably even-handed way.

And it’s a crazy story from a modern perspective.  Tribal leaders bring a fantastic mix of motivations.  Sometimes they are modern and conventionally tactical.  Sometimes they make decisions that seem unfathomable because they have very different values.  For example, those shiny yellow rocks are interesting and fun to make jewelry out of, but so are tropical bird feathers.  Watching one side wheedle gold locations from the other who’s happy to point out feathers at the same level is fun.  There are more interesting ideological collisions, too.  The story doesn’t need much help.

A great introduction to the region and politics.  Strongly recommended.

Review: From Beirut to Jerusalem

October 13th, 2018

Thomas Friedman spent years in the Middle East as a New York Times reporter who deeply absorbed the lay of that land in the 80’s.  Beirut is part reporting, part memoir from that time.  My impression was that it presents the facts from his solid reporting alongside his opinions, impressions, and feelings about those times.  I think there’s considerable value in all of these, but of course, proper calibration is key.

I found his description of the Assad regime’s destruction of Hama and subsequent massacre in 1981 eye-opening.  I was alive when it happened, but don’t recall the kind of outcry such events would deserve.  For me the massacre is in a crack between history and lived experience, and I completely failed to see it.  Beirut was worth it for Friedman’s harrowing chapter on that massacre. I cannot imagine how many Syrian rebels this created and how dedicated they are.  When you’ve seen a city’s population literally decimated in retaliation, surrender is very unattractive.

There’s plenty more in here that’s illuminating to understanding the current cauldron boiling there.  From the impressions of Arafat to the machinations and political gamesmanship of keeping them relevant to street level-impressions of Jerusalem that form the titular contrast with Beirut bring the area to life.  Of course, those are personal impressions, driven by Friedman.  He has – and admits – his own biases.  To the extent he understands them, of course.

The blend of reporting and impression is essential in understanding the state of play here.  Don’t trust all of it.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Visiting Tom

September 23rd, 2018

Michael Perry is one of my favorite writers. He consistently charms and challenges me by writing about small town life.  He does a fine job telling how people live together and how that lights up American life.

Not news.  If you like his other work, you’ll like this.  If you don’t know, have a look at Mr. Perry’s tale-spinning neighbor and tribulations with traffic laws.


Review: Sourdough

September 10th, 2018

I hadn’t noticed that Robin Sloan also wrote Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store as well.  Sourdough feels very much of the same world.  Like Penumbra, it’s steeped in Silicon Valley culture and somewhat more enamored of it than I am.  Sloan also puts an almost magical realism patina over it as well.  The story is as much a fable or fairy tale about fitting in and finding yourself as anything else.

The crotchety part of me wants to dismiss Sourdough as half-baked and unbelievable, but honestly Sloan’s writing is so charming that my crotchety self just gave up fighting about it. I’ll resist any bread and baking metaphors and leave you to enjoy.


Review: Founding Mothers

August 17th, 2018

I would be curious how a reader would react to Cokie Roberts’s  Founding Mothers without knowing the title or author.  The focus of Mothers is, well, mothers of course, but she keeps her beam wide enough to illuminate the key features of the Revolutionary period that makes these folks interesting.

One could easily read Mothers as a general history of the Revolution and only come away with two odd aspects.  First, few tactical details of the battles are in here.  There’s a time and a place for tactics, but so many people have written about those ideas and so little of it is relevant to anyone but military scholars (without a connection to something else that the tactics drive or influence), that I don’t miss them.  The other aspect a reader would certainly notice is that Roberts gives women their due.

What I find most remarkable about Mothers is that Roberts explores the contributions and viewpoints of the distaff side while keeping the overall context of a world of men and women firmly in view.  Other works that push women into the spotlight do so by making the acts that men have deleted from history or ascribed to men as bigger than they are.  That upsets men, but Roberts doesn’t have to pick that fight.  She tells the story of these women and their diverse positions and contributions without preaching about it.  These folks speak well for themselves when Roberts voices them; they don’t need any additional cheering from the sidelines of a modern agenda.

It’s a powerful approach, well executed.

Strongly Recommended.

Histograms in grap

July 28th, 2018

I know everyone loves it when I talk about arcane typesetting languages, so here’s a response to a fellow who wanted to replicate the histograms at in grap.


Attached is a commented grap/groff file that draws something like both
histograms.  I commented the grap to explain what I was up to (comments
start with .\"), but feel free to ask about anything that's confusing.

I didn't see immediately how he set the widths of his histogram
bars/buckets, so I used 10-pound-wide buckets centered on 105,110,115...
for all crew (blue) and 5-pound-wide buckets centered on
105,110,115,120... for the rowers (green).  (The bucket width is both
the clustering range and the width of the histogram bars.)

I've attached the grap/groff (called, the data file I used
called data, and the postscript it generates when I call

$ groff -Gp hist >

on my ubuntu box with groff and grap installed.

I used grap 1.45 from a stock ubuntu .deb.

If I wanted to do this same task as flexibly as possible, I'd probably
preprocess the data using a scripting language and then generate grap
output that I'd run through groff as above.  I'm slowly writing a pic to
svg program in my spare time that would make that more portable to use.

Hope that helps some.

The grap script looks like this:

.\" Initialize globals
tot105 = tot115 = tot125 = tot135 = tot145 = tot155 = 0
tot165 = tot175 = tot185 = tot195 = tot205 = tot215 = 0

rtot105 = rtot115 = rtot125 = rtot135 = rtot145 = rtot155 = 0
rtot165 = rtot175 = rtot185 = rtot195 = rtot205 = rtot215 = 0
rtot110 = rtot120 = rtot130 = rtot140 = rtot150 = 0
rtot160 = rtot170 = rtot180 = rtot190 = rtot200 = rtot210 = 0

.\" between takes teh following args in order
.\" $1: value to test
.\" $2: center of bucket
.\" $3: bucket width
.\" $4: variable stem
.\" if the test value is in the bucket (between the center +/- width/2) 
.\" the macro increments the variable made from concatenating the stem and
.\" the bucket center.
define between {
  if ($1 >= $2-($3/2) && $1 < $2+($3/2) ) then {
    $4$2 = $4$2 + 1

.\" Copy the test data through between calls to set the globals
copy "data" thru {
  if ($3 == 1) then {

.\" Set up the coordinates and the ticks to match the example
coord x 100, 220 y 0,8
ticks bot in 0.02 down 0.04 from 100 to 220 by 20
ticks top in 0.02 from 100 to 220 by 20 ""
ticks left in 0.02 left 0.08 from 0 to 8
ticks right in 0.02 from 0 to 8 ""
label left "Number of Members"
label bot "Weight in Pounds"
label top "The Boat Race Crew Histograms" size +2

.\" Draw bars for both kinds of crew
bar up 105 ht tot105 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 115 ht tot115 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 125 ht tot125 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 135 ht tot135 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 145 ht tot145 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 155 ht tot155 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 165 ht tot165 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 175 ht tot175 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 185 ht tot185 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 195 ht tot195 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 205 ht tot205 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 215 ht tot215 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"

.\" Draw bars for rowers
bar up 105 ht rtot105 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 110 ht rtot110 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 115 ht rtot115 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 120 ht rtot120 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 125 ht rtot125 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 130 ht rtot130 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 135 ht rtot135 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 140 ht rtot140 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 145 ht rtot145 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 150 ht rtot150 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 155 ht rtot155 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 160 ht rtot160 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 165 ht rtot165 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 170 ht rtot170 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 175 ht rtot175 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 180 ht rtot180 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 185 ht rtot185 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 190 ht rtot190 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 195 ht rtot195 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 200 ht rtot200 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 205 ht rtot205 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 210 ht rtot210 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 215 ht rtot215 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"

.\" Draw a key (Note that the positions here are in the histogram coordinates)
bar 102, 7.8, 155, 6.5
bar 105, 7.6, 120, 7.2 fillcolor "blue"
bar 105, 7.0, 120, 6.6 fillcolor "forestgreen"
"rowers and coxswains" ljust size -4 at 122, 7.4
"rowers and coxswains" ljust size -4 at 122, 6.8


Review: Parable of the Talents

July 21st, 2018

Parable of the Talents continues the tale Octavia Butler began in Parable of the Sower.

All the praise I heaped on the first part continues to be true of the second (and final) part.  Butler takes her dystopia to its crushing extremes in ways that may feel eerily precognitive.  There are obvious parallels to our current politics despite Talents being published in 1993.  To me that speaks more to Butler’s ability to understand and reflect on American society than any intent to predict the future.  She saw the core features of humanity and America that are on display here and on the news pages back then and put them on paper in this immersive story.  All the facts and philosophies that underlie Talents have permeated the literary and historical scene for quite some time.  It Can’t Happen Here and 1984 lay out the strategy, but Butler humanizes it.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Line Becomes a River

July 19th, 2018

Francisco Cantú has written a book that’s part anthropological field work, part journalism, part memoir, part disputation, and part vision quest.  That description sounds like a recipe for a patchwork of artifice, but Cantú has constructed a work that is much more difficult to describe than it is to understand.  It can be difficult to read, of course;  people are risking their lives in this world every day.

His topics, the southern US border, the policies around crossing it, and the Border Patrol that is the first point of enforcing them, are themselves a patchwork of emotion, history, and ideas.  People feel and think strongly about them and often they have no coherent way to express them in toto.  Cantú’s multi-faceted approach both illuminates the topics and articulates his views.  That articulation varies from matter of fact description to dream interpretation.

It doesn’t always work, of course.  There are passages that seemed overwrought to me.  It is clear he’s picking the incidents and anecdotes he relates to hang them on his themes.  Taken as a whole, I do find it moving and thought provoking.

It’s worth pointing out that his experiences all took place before the 2016 presidential election.  However one might think this has all changed since then, Cantú is clear that there was plenty of complexity and emotion here initially.

I want to put in a good word for the author’s mother.  She’s an incidental but powerful character.  I’d devour a biography of her.

Strongly Recommended.