Thursday, August 24, 2017

Murder of a Chemistry prof

     Ada Madison (Camille Minichino). The Square Root of Murder (2011) We are in summer school at Henley College, one of the last remaining universities for women, which is facing momentous changes when co-education begins with the Fall semester. The most detested professor on campus, Dr Appleton of the Chemistry Department, is murdered. Dr Sophie Knowles of the Mathematics Department solves the case, mostly by handing useful clues to the cops after sussing out their relevance and thereby figuring out what other clues she needs and perhaps where to find them. The puzzle is quite good, the resolution involves the now-mandatory near-death experience of a last-ditch attack on the sleuth by the perpetrator, and a several of the red herrings lead to resolutions of sub-plots. There is the fey but practical friend of the sleuth, the macho but sensitive boyfriend, the students who should know better, the cop who’s a buddy and the one who isn’t, and so on.
      So, given a pretty good concept for setting and a plot, and the usual cast of genre-characters, how does Madison handle it? Merely average. A beach-book, you can read it with half your attention on something else. The academic setting is merely sketched, the ambience is suggested by scattered brand references, adjectives appear where they aren’t needed, the characters are vague and nebulous. Knowles is a puzzle-setter by avocation, but we don’t see any of them (it would have added a nice layer of diversion). Back when pulp fiction came in magazines, this would have been ruthlessly edited down to novella length. As it is, it’s a lazy read. Not unpleasant, but not exactly an attention grabber. *½

Thursday, August 17, 2017

George Johnston, underrated.

In 1959, George Johnston published a collection of poems titled The Cruising Auk. It went through five impression by 1964, when I bought our copy after hearing Johnston read his poems. He was charming and diffident, and so were his poems. They have been underrated, I think. The last 5 lines of “War on the Periphery” may show why. He’s watching his children grow up:

They eat my heart and grow to men.

I watch their tenderness with fear
While on the battlements I hear
The violent, obedient ones
Guarding my peaceful life with guns.


Wikipedia has a good article about him. The book is out of print. If you find one, buy it, and cherish it. See also my longer rewview posted 2017-10-23.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Murphy's Law: Why we think things go wrong when they don't.

     Richard Robinson. Why the Toast Always Lands Butter Side Down (2005) Or: The Science of Murphy’s Law. The title suggests that we’ll ,learn physics and chemistry and stuff like that. Instead we learn about perception. Murphy’s Law is in the eye of the victim: Our understanding of the way the world works is good enough for dealing with everyday risks such as sabre tooth tigers, but simply wrong when it comes to reality. We overestimate and underestimate odds depending on whether the event is good or bad; we assume cause-effect when there is simple coincidence; the world as we experience it is a roughly computed illusion based on limited and filtered sense data; we see what we expect to see and ignore what we don’t expect; we rely on quick, mostly sub-conscious calculations; we extrapolate patterns in time and space from the flimsiest data. In fact, it’s surprising that we manage as well as we do.
     Well-done. Robinson has the knack of making abstruse concepts clear, of seeing the example in daily experience that makes his point. He’s also careful to reference sources: all the counter-intuitive claims sport a footnote number. Come to think of it, the book implies a better definition of intuitive: it just means “matching the illusions our sense present to us.”
     Recommended. ***