His Last Bow

The late Michael Crichton was a colossus among popular novelists, and spun off movies as quick as I make wisecracks:  The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Jurassic Park, etc.  He was also an insightful social commentator, with observations like his Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.

Turns out he left a literary lagniappe in his papers, the historical western novel Dragon Teeth.  (Read the review for a skeptical take on posthumous novels.)

DragonTeeth

The Introduction:

As he appears in an early photograph, William Johnson is a handsome young man with a crooked smile and a naive grin.  A study in slouching indifference, he lounges against a Gothic building.  He is a tall fellow, but his height appears irrelevant to his presentation of himself.  The photograph is dated “New Haven, 1875,” and was apparently taken after he had left home to begin studies as an undergraduate at Yale College.

A later photograph, marked “Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1876,” shows Johnson quite differently.  His mouth is framed by a full mustache; his body is harder and enlarged by use; his jaw is set; he stands confidently with shoulders squared and feet wide–and ankle-deep in mud.  Clearly visible is a peculiar scar on his upper lip, which in later years he claimed was the result of an Indian attack.

It only gets better, as our hero gets embroiled in the famous Cope-Marsh dinosaur rivalry in a truly Wild West.   I found this one on the Barnes and Noble discount table, hardback cheaper than paperback.  Read it!

 

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Mrs Sherlock Holmes

Was the nickname given lawyer-detective Grace Humiston when she became prominent in New York’s 1917 Ruth Cruger murder case.  The fascinating story is told in Brad Ricca’s biography Mrs Sherlock Holmes, which is as gripping and surprising as any great detective novel.

MrsSherlockHolmes

In an interesting episode, the wife of  suspected murderer Alfredo Cocchi is being questioned

Wallstein kept his questions focused on the police activities in the case. … She [Maria Cocchi] silently stuck out her hand and produced a white card.  Wallstein took it and turned it over.  It read:

Take care of Alfredo Cocchi.  He’s O. K.  BILLY EYNON

When Wallstein read the tiny card out loud, the crowd nodded and the reporters wrote. Everyone knew that Billy Eynon was an active motorcycle cop.  Wallstein was very familiar with these types of cards, though he wished that he were not.  The holder of the card could show it to any motorcycle squad member who had pulled him over for speeding and walk away without a ticket.   (p. 221)

Sketchy stuff.  What’s more, 103 years later, the NYPD Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is still handing out cards like this.  Better yet, you, too, can get one on EBay!

Seven Pillars

Wisdom hath built her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.  –Proverbs 9:1

I just finished Stephen Stigler’s The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom, and I’m daunted–and embarrassed that I waited so long to read it.  Stigler gives us a structure and taxonomy to statistical thinking* that gives us the “big picture” of statistics.

StiglerSevenPillars

Quite a difference from the descriptives-to-inference-to-models approach that most textbook authors follow.  This is making me rethink how I approach my introductory courses, especially those for statistics majors.  I’m starting with a baby step: adding the (inexpensive, paperbound) book as a required reading in my statistical research methods class.

*the 7 pillars: aggregation, information, likelihood, intercomparison, regression, design, and residual (and that’s just the table of contents!)

Deus ex Machina, on steroids

…is the tagline I’d use to describe Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds’ The Medusa Chronicles, the startling sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “A Meeting with Medusa.”

TheMedusaChronicles

Baxter and Reynolds are up to their usual tricks of piling wonder atop wonder in their usual over-the-top scenarios, while cleverly maintaining Clarke’s style and tone, AND sneaking in episodes strongly reminiscent of 2001, A Space Odyssey.  An added bonus is the introduction of a “new physics” based on the Mach Principle, which is still puzzling serious researchers today.

…local physical laws must be shaped by the large-scale structures of the universe.  And it is meaningless to talk of the behaviour of an object in isolation, without relation to the rest of the universe.  This was 90’s insight.  From that beginning, 90, and a group of others, developed a new kind of physics–from first principles, based only on observation and philosophy.  (The Medusa Chronicles, p. 99)

The Vinyl Detective

If you’re a fan of British TV sci-fi, you’ve probably seen several episodes of Dr Who written by Andrew Cartmel.  Now he’s gone full geek at right angles with a new mystery series, The Vinyl Detective.  Our unlikely hero is a jazz aficionado who ekes out a living buying and selling rare vinyl recordings, and lives in that peculiar subculture of collectors and traders who haunt thrift shops, estate auctions, and jumble sales.  Having dwelt there for a few years myself, Cartmel’s characters and places ring pitch perfect, with plenty of arcane background knowledge–both real and fictional–to back up the stories.

First outing is Written in Dead Wax,  which establishes the major characters

WrittenInDeadWax

and the sequel, The Run-Out Groove proves that the first novel wasn’t a fluke.

TheRun-OutGroove

The third effort, Victory Disk, is expected in May 2018.  Don’t miss it.

Time for some Doubleplus Ungood Badthink

The Brat Pack of science fiction has concocted a cynical ploy to disturb the genre’s Purity of Essence; they’re giving away e-books.

Wrongthink

I wasn’t too sure about this until I read John Scalzi’s pithy recommendation. “This is bullshit” exactly sums up my opinion of his latest strawman social-justice snoozer Locked In.  So he’s become my anti-oracle.