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It was about 2011. Ross Ulbricht was a brilliant young American college student in Austin, Texas. His main area of interest and study was physics. He wanted to change the world. He tried to get accepted to the reality show Amazing Race with his sister but they didn’t make it onto the show. If they had been accepted, his life might have been completely different.

Ross was also a libertarian. One of his fundamental believes was that the government has no right to dictate what a person does with their body or what they put into it. For instance drugs, including illegal drugs.

That belief eventually gave him the idea to create a website called the Silk Road which turned into a highly successful bazar for buyers and sellers of drugs. Within a couple of years the site grew to serve the sale of over $1.2 billion in drugs, weapons, and even body parts and organs. Ross made tens of millions of dollars in commissions for himself.

In American Kingpin, the writer tells the story of how Ross got the idea, how the started the site modestly by selling magic mushrooms he grew in his own apartment, and how it eventually grew into a formidable criminal empire. The story is reminiscent of the rise of Walter White in Breaking Bad. The only difference is, Walter White is a fictional character. Ross Ulbricht is a real person, an all-American young man.

Does this person look like one of the most successful drug dealers of all time? Does this person look like someone who ordered people killed, Walter White-style?

While the reader observes his rise, he is also following the various branches of law enforcement that start closing in on him, one minor step at a time, until they eventually close the trap.

American Kingpin is a very readable book. Once I started I just kept turning the pages, almost like a thriller. I learned much about the dark web and how it works, and while I was following the hapless journey of Ross Ulbricht from innocent college student to drug dealer, I had to remind myself that this was a true story.

Of course, there is a website to Free Ross Ulbricht where you can learn much more about the Kingpin. People argue that his sentence was not fair. There are drug dealers in prison for life for having sold heroin and cocaine on the street. The “dirty” kind of drug dealing. Ross did it from behind a keyboard. Hmmm. People still died from his product.

You get to judge for your own as you read the book.

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Scotty, a nine-year-old boy, and his dog, can’t wait to run down to the beach upon arriving at their parents’ summer house on Nantucket. They are never seen again, until they mysteriously reappear 16 years later.

As we learn later, Scotty was abducted by a UFO. The aliens have a noble mission to save humanity from complete destruction due to a massive cosmic calamity, and abducting human children is part of that mission.

I was looking forward to a nice alien story, but I was disappointed. The aliens are called the Vallic and they are 97 percent energy. Viewed by a human they are simply faint blue outlines – of humanoid structure. I was disappointed because, like in so many science fiction books, here are aliens that are humans in costumes.  Not only are they humanoid, they have males and females, and the voices of the females are softer and they have – breasts. To top it off, they speak English. McGinnis is a creative author, with great ideas. Why couldn’t he have been a little more creative with the aliens?

The story employs some interesting concepts, but it was just too crude and simple for me. The author is actually a pretty good story teller, he moves the plot along, but there are too many of these “oh seriously?” moments sprinkled throughout, I never got fully immersed in the story. He kept reminding me that this was not real, with unbelievable fabrications (like aliens in human form who speak English), cardboard characters, caricatures of government officials, crazy magic-like science, and flat and boring protagonists. I was never immersed in the world he created.

I was going to blast the author for using the cutesy word “ginormous” a number of times. I really thought that was a made-up word. Before I complained, though, I looked it up, and sure enough, it’s in the dictionary, with its synonym humongous.

I stayed with it to the end, only to be disappointed that there was no resolution, no end. The book ended from one paragraph to the next, where the author tells us to wait for the next book in the series. I hate books with no ends, especially when I read one where I don’t know there won’t be an end because the author is planning a series all along. My bad.

Sorry, I won’t be reading the next one. After reading this whole book I am just not interested enough in finding out what happens next.

But I did learn that ginormous is an English word, not just slang.

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A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies, and Leadership

James Comey is probably the last person who ever thought he’d write an autobiography. But he did.

The book starts in his early childhood, when he was an outsider and a target of bullies. He tells his story eloquently and with very simple language. We follow him through his life and career in law enforcement. The name Trump doesn’t even come up until 75% through the book.

We come to understand that Comey is a man of strong principle and little ego, somebody who does what his conscience tells him, not what his ego demands. He is a person who is obsessed with always “doing the right thing.”

I learned that Comey first started out as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, under U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, who had a reputation as a brilliant and aggressive young prosecutor who was set on eradicating the mafia in New York City. He eventually did just that, and Comey learned a lot from Giuliani.

Here is an excerpt:

There was something of an unwritten code about working in the office of Rudy Giuliani, as I suppose there is in most organizations. In his case, the message was that Rudy was the star at the top and the successes of the office flowed in his direction. You violated this code at your peril. Giuliani had extraordinary confidence, and as a young prosecutor I found his brash style exciting, which was part of what drew me to his office. I loved it that my boss was on magazine covers standing on the courthouse steps with his hands on his hips, as if he ruled the world. It fired me up.

Prosecutors almost never saw the great man in person, so I was especially pumped when he stopped by my office early in my career, shortly after I had been assigned to an investigation that touched a prominent New York figure who dressed in shiny tracksuits and sported a Nobel-sized medallion around his neck. The state of New York was investigating Al Sharpton for alleged embezzlement from his charity, and I was assigned to see if there was a federal angle to the case. I had never even seen Rudy on my floor, and now he was at my very door. He wanted me to know he was personally following the investigation and knew I would do a good job. My heart thumped with anxiety and excitement as he gave me this pep talk standing in the doorway. He was counting on me. He turned to leave, then stopped. “Oh, and I want the fucking medal,” he said, then walked away.

— Comey, James. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (pp. 19-20). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

I found it strange to hear from Comey how impressive Giuliani’s skills were early in his career. What happened to the man? Now, when I see him speak, I can’t think of anything but a senile, goofy, confused fool. Impressive once, but not anymore.

Comey tells his story of how he served under Bush and then Obama, and how, to his dismay, he was drawn into the controversial events just before the election of 2016, when Anthony Weiner’s laptop  turned up in the hands of the FBI, and they inexplicably stumbled upon more than a hundred thousand Clinton emails they could not possibly read in the ten days remaining before the election.

And then came Trump, and one strange encounter after the other more and more convinced Comey that Trump was unethical.

One day Trump was schmoozing up to Comey, and the next day, without even facing him in person, fired him remotely via television.

In A Higher Loyalty, Comey tells his story in sober language without fanfare. When Trump tweets about the book as a collection of lies, he proves to me that he hasn’t even read it.

I know when I trust somebody, when somebody is sincere with me. Trump is not sincere. His words don’t ring true. He body language is that of a liar. And his words are so easily disproven, I don’t even need to observe body language to know that he lies. Five seconds of googling usually brings the lies into the light of day.

With Comey, it’s the opposite. Go read his book and then tell me to my face that he “made it all up.” That will seem like nonsense to you. Comey is sincere, dedicated, and committed to this country and to the institutions of law enforcement he has dedicated his life to.

No wonder Trump attacks Comey.

The bully is terrified!

 

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Hearts in Atlantis is highly praised by the critics, some even called it King’s masterpiece. But I had a difficult time reading this 672 page tome.

Don’t get me wrong, King is a master storyteller, and his characters come alive very quickly. You can’t ever blame King for presenting cardboard characters.

As a matter of fact, in this book the characters are very Kingsean. It’s the structure of the book that just didn’t work for me.

Part 1 is titled 1960: Low Men in Yellow Coats and it’s the best part of the book. If Low Men in Yellow Coats had not been the first part, I would have stopped reading pretty quickly. It’s King through and through. The protagonist is Bobby Garfield, an 11 year old boy in a small town in Connecticut. He has two friends his age, Sully and Carol, and the three of them experience the mysteries of the adult world through their points of view, in true King spirit full of “monsters” and supernatural events.

Here is a sample of true King writing:

What if there were no grownups? Suppose the whole idea of grownups was an illusion? What if their money was really just playground marbles, their business deals no more than baseball-card trades, their wars only games of guns in the park? What if they were all still snotty-nosed kids inside their suits and dresses? Christ, that couldn’t be, could it? It was too horrible to think about.

—  (page 196)

I must admit, I have often thought about this. Inside I am still a snotty-nosed kid of age 11, going to Latin classes with Professor Illauer in Regensburg, trying to figure out what the world is about. My suit is fake, my money is only play money. The world is not real, and Stephen King has it figured out.

The story captivated me and kept me reading, until I got to Part 2, Hearts in Atlantis.

Part 2 shifts to a bunch of college kids who squander away their time in school playing, yes, Hearts. That’s all they do. King spends a tremendous amount of time describing the players and their lives, loves and passions, pretty much without any connection to Part 1, except Carol, Bobby’s girl friend from 1960, is there in college in 1966 and befriends one of the Hearts players.

Then comes Part 3, Blind Willie, where we follow a fake blind panhandler in New York City through a day of his life. The only connection to Part 1 is that Willie is one of the bullies that harmed Bobby and Carol in Part 1, and it shows what happened to him later in life.

Part 4 is about Vietnam and finally Part 5 is the wrap-up, if you can call it that.

The parts didn’t fit together for me, neither content-wise, nor in structure. For instance, Part 1 is narrated in the third person, past tense, where the story-teller describes Bobby and his friends, but focuses on the world from Bobby’s point of view. Third person, past tense, is the most basic and widely used approach in novels.

In Part 2, however, Pete, one of the Hearts players, tells the story in the first person.

In Part 3, King then switches to third person, present tense, only to switch back to third person, past tense in Part 4.

In Part 5, Bobby comes back as a late middle-aged man and visits his home town, third person, past tense.

If King weren’t such a good writer, this book would be a disastrous jumble of disconnected stories with no common thread.

Even after reading the whole book, I can’t quite tell you what it was actually about. I think it’s about Vietnam, the senseless war, and all senseless wars after that, but why did King bother with the elaborate setup and description of the Low Men in Yellow Coats and the enigmatic Ted Brautigan, who lived in the third floor apartment above Bobby and his mom? He could have left out the entire Part 1, and not lost a thing in the story. But then again, if it hadn’t been for Part 1, I would never have been able to work my way through the other parts. I kept wondering when Ted would come back.

Hearts in Atlantis is a challenging read, not one of Stephen King’s better ones, but still a truly great example of vivid story telling by a master.

This would be half a star, but King is so good, I give him an extra one.

 

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We have all heard about Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. He is a prominent philanthropist and American business icon. Today, in 2018, if you look him up, his net worth is listed at $30 billion. Phil Knight is one of the richest people in the country, even the world.

I just wrote a post about billionaires, and how I feel about them. This is very timely, and I suggest you read it before you move on here. Referenced within that post is yet another post about Vilifying Billionaires, which also has meaning in the context of this book review.

We have our preconceived ideas about billionaires and business icons. In this memoir of his life and the creation of Nike, Phil Knight tells his story in such a captivating manner that I felt like I was there with him in the early days. Shoe Dog is not about a shoe company, or a man creating a shoe company from scratch.

It’s about starting and growing a business, building the American dream. Everyone dreams of not working for “the man,” but being “the man.” Everyone dreams about starting a business, being one’s own boss, being independent, and of course, becoming wealthy in the process.

The bleak, frightening, brutal reality, however, is that 90% of all startups fail. Here are the main reasons why:

Fortune.com [click here for source]

I started a business over 25 years ago, and that business is still here, creating jobs, valuable services, and a livelihood for me. So I understood what Phil Knight went through when he started his shoe company in 1964.

There is something universal about a business: you have a payroll. It does not seem like a big thing when you start a business, but it hits you very, very quickly. Every two weeks you have to write paychecks for your employees, and then another set of checks for payroll taxes for the federal and state governments. In the 25 years I have been in business, there have been 650 payroll days. Every. Other. Friday. Payroll day comes, relentlessly. It comes even when your sales are down and you’re not making a profit. It comes when your biggest customer holds up a major payment. It comes after you had a major equipment breakdown and you needed additional cash to get it fixed. Payroll day comes, whether you have money in the bank, or not. And when you don’t have money in the bank, you have no choice but put some there. You first take all the money you have personally and put it there. You take cash advances on your credit cards. You borrow. And you have major, major stress. Every. Two. Weeks.

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who are responsible for payroll, and those who are not. Phil Knight was responsible for payroll, and he did what he had to do to keep his company moving forward. Every step of the way, he knew that he was just one financial mishap away from total, catastrophic failure. When you run out of cash, you go out of business. See the chart above: 29% of businesses run out of cash.

And then there are problems. Problems with suppliers. Problems with the government and regulations. Problems with employees. Problems with product quality. Problems with market demand. The problems don’t care that you are stressing out over cash for payroll. Problems keep haunting you on Christmas Day or during Thanksgiving dinner. Problems keep you up at night.

Shoe Dog guides the reader through Phil Knight’s journey of creating Nike from scratch and growing it to a world-wide leader in athletic shoes. Anyone who ever even remotely thought about starting a business needs to read Shoe Dog.

After that, you come and tell me why Phil Knight didn’t “deserve” to be a billionaire.

Hey, go ahead! Start a shoe company. It’s easy, right?

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In the not too distant future, when there are still countries like China, Russia, Finland and the United States on Earth, humans have figured out how to build faster than light ships. The ships use the “bubble drive” which basically creates a bubble of hyperspace around the ship that moves forward taking with it all inside. Using the bubble drive, a ship can travel 30 light years in perhaps eight or nine months. With this technology, humans have started sending expeditions to other stars. There are outposts on planets with names like Xanadu, Mu and Atlantis.

In those places, people discovered artifacts of an ancient and very highly developed intelligent race, called the Nelf. The artifacts are estimated to be three to five million years old, are completely indestructible and resistant to human exploration by any means, including high energy weapons. By sheer coincidence, one mummy corpse of a Nelf is found, so humanity can form a picture. Nelf are about the size of a small elephant, with twelve legs. Eight legs are used for walking, spider-like, and four “in the front” are used like arms, each with four fingers.

By accident, humans found Nelf rings, which fit over a human arm above the elbow, and once there, cannot be removed. They eventually figure out that the rings are brain interfaces which open up immense powers through access to Nelf technology.

Nelf Rings is a long book, 750 pages, way too long. Typical for many science fiction novels, it jumps around to different locales and viewpoints, and it does that so much that I found it very hard to keep track of who is who, and what is happening where. There are many different smaller subplots with different characters that seem to have no connection with each other. Each subplot if fully of petty human intrigue that simply gets boring after a while.

The author repeats exposition, sometimes a number of times. For example, Nelf “doors” are activated by touching three points on a surface at the same time. Remember they have four arms. Humans can only do this by using two arms and one knee at the same time. Then a solid surface becomes “liquid” and actually pulls the user through to the other side. For an observer, this looks like the person is stepping into a solid wall. This process of discovery and going through such doors must be described in detail ten different times as the story shifts to different people. I understand that they are different people every time, but I am the reader, I already know how the doors work, so let’s get on with the story.

My estimate is that this book is twice as long as it would need to be to convey the same story. There are even entire subplots that get much attention, but in the end do not contribute to the story at all, other than be entertaining. One such story follows a ship on a mystery planet when somehow the women in the crews get distracted by an aroma they follow, which is so compelling that they actually lick the walls where a certain fungus or lichen grows. This makes them pass out, and when they come to, they are extremely horny. The author describes this as a form of testosterone saturation similar to what happens to adolescent human males, only worse. The subplot gets a surprising amount of coverage in the book, and eventually it fizzles out and we never hear from the all these horny women again. If a reader can figure out why this entire section was even there, I stand to be corrected. It went way over my head.

Another fixation this author seems to have is with female physical beauty. There are surgically enhanced females in this story, who are so perfect, that somehow every male that even comes near them goes stupid, loses his train of thought, or speech, and can’t keep his eyes of them. The author keeps describing them as stunning even in military fatigues or baggy clothes. This is recurring dozens of times in the story. It feels almost like the author is a teenage boy who just discovered girls.

There are numerous subplots that vaguely contribute to the “universe” the writer wanted to create, but overall they were not strong enough to convince me. Many faded out.

I found other structural problems with the book. There is no clear protagonist, no one person to follow and get used to. People come, become important figures for a few pages, and eventually they disappear. I never could identify with anyone, which makes for a dry and text-book-like read.

There was also no end I could discern. Nothing came together in the end, no conflict was resolved, no happily ever after characters rode off into the sunset. The major conflict, namely what would the powers that be on Earth do with the immense capabilities of Nelf technology, never really gets resolved.

It feels like the writer, after pounding out 750 pages, got tired of the book and wrapped it up in a few paragraphs deus-ex-machine style.

Spoiler Alert

We never meet Nelf. They appear to be a highly advanced race that left technology all over the galaxy and disappeared without a trace millions of years ago. We don’t find out anything about them, except what some of their technology can do, we don’t find out where they went, and we never meet one – which would have been cool.

Overall, Nelf Rings is an interesting science fiction speculation that never goes anywhere and that I’ll likely soon forget I ever read.

 

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A suicidal eccentric American billionaire industrialist accidentally crosses paths with a disembodied alien intelligence he calls Ell.  The two team up.

Through complex space/time machinations he is able to download his 70-year-old self into his 10-year-old body of his youth. Through a large portion of the book we accompany him reliving his life a second time around, trying to make changes to the way it went the first time.

He ends up inventing a time/space travel machine. Eventually he uploads his own identity into a machine and starts becoming a disembodied intelligence himself. Ah, eternal life!

For my taste, there was too much psychobabble about disembodied intelligence, but in the end, I enjoyed reading the book, it was quite well-written, and I must say that it’s required reading for anyone interested in the time travel genre.

Enjoy!

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About a year ago I read A Time Before Time, and I said it was the worst book I had ever read.

But Mission in Time is definitely worse. Usually I don’t rate books I don’t finish reading, just to be fair, but this one gets a zero, even though I didn’t get past 25% into the book. By that time, I could not stand it anymore.

A Time Before Time was a time travel book where an astronaut, due to an accident, ends up landing in the Wild West. Mission in Time is a time travel book where two astronauts, due to a malfunction, end up landing off the coast of Massachusetts in 1774. Do those two plots sound similar?

Mission in Time is really bad for other reasons than A Time Before Time, so it warrants discussion here.

The author places two 21st century astronauts into a credible setting just before the revolutionary war in Massachusetts. The story is about how a person with knowledge and experience of today would be able to modify the outcome of the historic events of those days. Since I didn’t read past 25%, I actually don’t know how it ends, and whether the two hapless astronauts ever make it back. I don’t really care enough about them to find out and keep reading.

There are actually a number of excellent and very entertaining time travel stories in which the protagonists end up in the 19th century. Examples are John A. Heldt’s books The Mine and The Show. There is also Hollie Van Horne’s Reflections of Toddsville. Another is Seldon Edwards’ The Little Book. And of course the classic Time and Again and From Time to Time by Jack Finney are probably some of the best in this genre. I gave both Finney books four stars. You should read them.

In all these time travel books we experience how the protagonists get along in the past and enjoy their journeys. How they actually get there, and back again, is not all that important. It just happens through some fictional mechanism, and we accept it.

In Mission in Time however, Richard Scott spends the first five chapters of the book coming up with a “scientific” process that gets the astronauts displaced in time. And that’s where the problem lies. The “scientific” way is so flawed, so obviously silly, it’s distracting and insulting to the reader’s intelligence.

The mission is to have the astronauts travel a couple of years into the future. To do that, they are sent on a spaceship away from earth, and the theory is that the closer to the speed of light they travel, the more they are displaced into the future. Any science fiction fan will know that time dilation theoretically makes that possible. As a ship approaches the speed of light, time slows down on the ship, and relative to the earth left behind, the occupants age more slowly. The “twin paradox” is described in many science fiction stories, and the result is that the travelers who come back have aged more slowly, so their counterparts on earth have aged faster and are therefore older. So yes, the concept to traveling some distance into the future is valid and somewhat plausible.

However, in their trip, something goes wrong with the ship, and eventually the ship exceeds the speed of light. They were taught that if that happened, they would travel to the past, but since it had never been done before, they would not know how far into the past. This travel into the past, requiring a spaceship traveling faster than light, is a concept totally unfounded in physics. The author makes that up to explain how the astronauts eventually end up in the past. He could have just come up with a magic wand that transported them Harry Potter-style, the story would have been five chapters shorter, and actually much better. The reader would not have been distracted by the weird physics.

This is how the author describes to outbound trip:

Once free of gravity and the atmosphere, the neutrino accelerator took over. At first the weak propulsion of the neutrinos was negligible, but in outer space there is no atmosphere, which means no resistance. As the neutrino emissions continued, the ship gradually increased speed. Each second it was going faster than the previous second. After awhile we were really moving. When we’d been in space for about four months (Earth time) we were moving at 90 percent of the speed of light. As I’ve already explained, that was supposed to take us approximately two years into the future by the time we had returned to Earth.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 26). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

To accelerate from zero to approximately the speed of light at 1g (one gravity) takes approximately a year. This is pretty simple to calculate. To be at 90 percent of the speed of light after 4 months, they would have to have accelerated at about 3g constantly. He describes the little spacecraft they were in:

Our cabin was about seven feet across and 12 feet from front to back. We could leave our seats, but because we were in space we couldn’t even walk in those 12 feet inside the cabin. We could float and pull ourselves about, which we did a lot, but that relatively confining cabin often felt more like a prison cell than the inside of a vehicle that was taking us somewhere to an unknown destination.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 29). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

It does not sound like there was acceleration going on, just floating. But here it get really interesting:

We were nearing the terminus ad quem and waiting for the side thrusters to go into action. We needed to come to almost a complete stop before the side thrusters were activated. Here’s what blew my mind as we neared that stopping point. At that spot in space we were approximately 1.4 light years from Earth. That’s 8.4 trillion miles. The human mind can’t deal with distances like that. We couldn’t see our Sun from where we were. Not with the naked eye anyway. To put things in perspective, after traveling 1.4 light years from home, we were still in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (pp. 26-27). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

There are so many things wrong here I can hardly list them all.

First, he says they need to come to a complete stop in order to turn around. That spot in space was at 1.4 light years from Earth. If it took them 4 months to accelerate to light speed at 3g, to slow down to a complete stop and turn around and go back to Earth will take another 4 months at 3g acceleration, before they are stopped relative to Earth and can start going back, accelerating again to light speed for 4 months and decelerating again. Reading the author’s explanation sounds like the ship just stopped and the magic side thrusters turned it around to go back.

Then he says they couldn’t see the Sun from where they were? Really? They were 1.4 light years out, that’s about a third of the way to Alpha Centauri. From that point in space, the sun would still be by far the brightest star in the sky. But then, in the section below he states they saw Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth, and it was the biggest of them all – even though then it was still 2.6 light years away.

As we neared the final third of our trip back to Earth of an earlier time, we came closer than humans have ever come to many of the stars that I had seen through telescopes when I was younger. Off in the distance we saw an amazingly bright 61 Cygni, which is 11 light years from Earth, but appeared huge to us from our position in space. Again we saw a huge-looking Sirius, the brightest star in the sky when you’re looking at it from Earth. Then we saw Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth. To us, it was the biggest of them all.

Scott, Richard. Mission in Time: An incredible time-travel journey (p. 29). Winter Island Press. Kindle Edition.

So 61 Cygni, 11 light years from Earth, was suddenly “huge” when they were 1.4 light years closer to it, that’s assuming 61 Cygni is anywhere near the direction of Alpha Centauri.

Enough! You get the idea.

The first five chapters of the book are full of nonsense like this that the author sounds like he is trying to pass off as physics. But it’s just that, nonsense. The author should have had the two men hit by lightning as they walked the streets of Boston on a summer night and transported them to 1774 that way. It would have been a much better story, and the author would have maintained some semblance of credibility.

And I would not have written the longest book review ever about one of the worst books I have ever not finished reading.

Zero Stars

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Long before Trump was a household name due to his reality TV show The Apprentice, I read at least part of his book The Art of the Deal, until I got tired of it. I always thought Trump was a phony. When he announced his run for the presidency a few years ago I thought it was a joke, a vanity project for a man full of himself. When he, against all odds, won the presidency, I was repulsed. I could not imagine that a boor like Trump could actually start acting like a dignified person, like a statesman, like a president. But he can’t be that stupid, I thought. Surely, he can keep his blabbering mouth shut, check his ego at the door, and start acting presidential.

Wrong.

Incompetence in leadership always eventually blows wide open, becomes obvious to everyone around, and destroys an organization from the inside out. Nobody wants to work for a dilettante, as the incompetence wears off, and makes for a very unsatisfying work experience of a daily basis. I expected that unless Trump cleaned up his act, the whole organization would start rotting from the inside out. A foul apple can look just fine on the outside for a long time, until it suddenly implodes, and the stench wafts out.

I expected that this would happen in the Trump White House, and judging from the number of firings and resignations, I think I was right.

If you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall in the White House, just read Fire and Fury. Wolff takes you right there in the middle of the action. There is no hype, no exaggeration. He just tells a story, goes from character to character, and reading it after hearing various anecdotes in the news throughout the last few years it just all makes sense.

Here is an excerpt, an email written by Gary Cohn, who is serving as the Director of the National Economic Council and chief economic advisor to Trump. He was formerly the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs from 2006 to 2017:  

It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family. I hate the work, but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing. The reason so few jobs have been filled is that they only accept people who pass ridiculous purity tests, even for midlevel policy-making jobs where the people will never see the light of day. I am in a constant state of shock and horror.

— Wolff, Michael. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (p. 186). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Trump is an ego-maniac, not a leader. That leaves those around him to constantly quarrel for power and influence, and it feels like a game of Survivor, where we listen to the players talk about how they are going to vote people out of the White House. It’s a reality show that is now running our country. What did we expect when we elected a reality show TV personality for president?

I am not surprised that Trump didn’t want this book to come out. He called it full of lies. Reading it, I do not get that impression at all. Yes, there might be some passages that are questionable, but only because he basically listens to what people tell him and reports it. The book is as accurate and reliable as the Trump White House staffers who were interviewed for it.

It’s a riveting story.

I was not surprised about anything I read. It just made sense.

We elected an unfit president. Tough.

Every American should read Fire and Fury.

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I am an artist, a painter, and you would think I’d have known more about the artist who created the two most famous paintings in history. Sadly, I knew pretty much only his name: Leonardo da Vinci.

The second most famous painting in history is The Last Supper. It is featured every year as the “grand finale” of the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters. And every year it is a new, powerful image.

Of course, the most famous painting in the world is the Mona Lisa. It is also the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, and the most parodied work of art in the world [Wikipedia]. It is also widely believed to be the most valuable painting in the world.

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452. He was not just an artist, but an engineer, a scientist, an inventor, and a relentless researcher. He wrote thousands of pages of note books, filled with ideas, speculations, checklists, drawings, designs and drafts throughout his life. Through his writing, we know a lot about him, but on the other hand, a lot of mystery surrounds the man and his history.

Walter Isaacson, the author of the biographies of Steve Jobs and Einstein, guides us through the life of Leonardo da Vinci from birth to death. We see the artist grow from his humble beginnings as an illegitimate son of a Florence notary, to a true superstar of art who consorted with the most powerful people in the world at the beginning of the 16th century. Leonardo was at the peak of his game around the same time when Columbus first reached the New World. The world was very different then, and reading this biography, I learned a lot about the world in those years, and about the pursuit of art.

Now I feel like I know Leonardo da Vinci. I would like to visit him in his later years with a time machine and bring him back to my house. I’d have him ride in my Prius with some Mozart playing off my iPhone through the sound system. I’d show him how I could make a phone call from a moving car to the other side of the world. We’d go to the airport and I’d buy first class tickets to Washington, DC. I’d let him have the window seat and look out over the world from 36,000 feet. Once in DC, I’d take him to the National Gallery of Art and guide him to the Ginevra de’ Benci, the only original da Vinci located in the Americas and therefore the only da Vinci original I have ever seen with my own eyes. He would recognize his own greatness in the history of the western world.

And now I know I need to – as soon as I can manage it – go to the Louvre in Paris and see the Mona Lisa and all the other da Vinci originals there. I know there’ll be crowds of people. I know there’ll be lines. I know I won’t be able to get near the painting. But I know I’ll stand there and I’ll wonder who all has stood in front of that painting over the years, over the centuries and marveled about it. Did Vincent van Gogh ever go and see the Mona Lisa? Did Bob Dylan? Did Pablo Picasso? Did Frieda Kahlo? Did Henry Miller? Did Benjamin Franklin?

Maybe they all did, but someday not so far out, I will have gone – inspired by Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci.


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After I read Two Years Before the Mast I was inspired to learn more about sailing in the mid-nineteenth century.

John Whidden was born in 1832 and lost both of his parents by age five. He lived with his grandparents. When he was fourteen, he felt a calling to go to sea.

In those days, “boys” served on ships along with the crew, mostly performing menial tasks of all types, and “learning the ropes.” Usually families placed the boys with a captain they knew and trusted. Voyages by merchant ships, for instance from Boston to India and back, could easily take more than a year.

A ship had several classes of crew: The captain, the officers, usually a first officer or mate, a second mate, sometimes a third mate, depending on the size of the vessel, a cook, a carpenter, a steward, the sailors, and a few boys.

John Whidden tells his own story. He worked his way from ship’s boy to sailor to officer to captain in less than twelve years. By the time he was 26 years old he sailed the world’s oceans as a ship’s captain.

His stories are simple, easy to read, sometimes funny and entertaining, and, above all, very educational. I learned much about shipping on sailing vessels and the lifestyles of the crews.

Here is a sample:

I have, in a previous chapter, spoken of the large variety of cockroaches on board the ship “Brutus,” Calcutta trader. Across the docks, opposite the “Danube,” lay the ship “Guiding Star,” Captain Small, just out from Boston, where she had discharged a Calcutta cargo. This ship was literally alive with roaches, but at the time I did not know it.

In the evening I went on board to make Captain Small a social call, and when, after passing a very pleasant hour, he invited me to spend the night with him, I accepted, and he gave me his stateroom, taking a spare room for himself.

Retiring about eleven o’clock, and pulling off my boots, I disrobed and turned in, sleeping soundly until morning, when I arose, and proceeding to dress, found nothing left of my boots but the soles and straps. All outside of these resembled a piece of brown tissue paper perforated with tiny holes.

On asking Captain Small about it, he explained that he meant to have told me to put everything, including my boots, in the basket at the head of the bed, but he forgot it! The cockroaches had eaten them in the night, and the captain’s forgetfulness cost me a new pair of boots. However, he was good enough to loan me a pair to put on.

— Whidden, John D.. Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship Days (Kindle Locations 3247-3257). Roquelaure House. Kindle Edition.

Anyone interested in history, sailing, the merchant marines, and life at sea will greatly enjoy this delightful book.

 

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“There’s no time to lose”, I heard her say
Catch your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind
Ain’t life unkind?

— The Rolling Stones, from Ruby Tuesday

When I was a youth in the little land-locked German state of Bavaria I never left a radius of about 150 miles around my home town. I dreamed of getting a sailboat and living on my boat crisscrossing the Mediterranean, visiting all the Greek islands I read so much about in my Latin classes. I bought books about sailing. It was a life-long dream.

It wasn’t until I was in my 40ies, living in San Diego, that I started taking sailing lessons. But I really never ventured out much further than the San Diego Bay, sailing out to the “point” at Point Loma, where the bay opens into the Pacific. My dream of sailing the open ocean has faded over the years. I lost my dream, but I didn’t lose my mind…

The day after our wedding was Trisha’s 60th birthday. She hired the Aolani, a great catamaran, to take out all the out-of-town guests for a cruise on San Diego Bay. Here we are boarding:

Aolani

Picture Credit: Lothar Frosch

While on the cruise, our captain was “Captain Steve” and he told us many a sailing yarn and gave us a lot of history of the San Diego Bay, much of which I had never heard before. Here is Captain Steve. I am sitting on the right side in the middle.

 

Capt Steve

Picture Credit: Lothar Frosch

It turns out, Steve fulfilled the dream I had but never chased after. He has sailed alone around the world several times, once even achieving a speed record. I was in awe.

Then he recommended a book about sailing: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. A few days later I picked up the book on my Kindle, and I had no idea what I was in for.

Melville’s Moby Dick was published in 1851. Two Years Before the Mast was first published in 1840, more than ten years earlier. Melville actually had made some jokes about Two Years Before the Mast, about the section of rounding Cape Horn having been written with an icicle. Two Years Before the Mast is known to be one of the first classics of American literature.

Richard Henry Dana was from the upper class of Boston society and an undergraduate at Harvard College. His father was a poet, his grandfather had been chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and his great-grandfather was one of the original Sons of Liberty in Boston. While at Harvard, Dana became ill with the measles which affected his vision. He could not read without great pain. He felt he needed a change, took a leave from college and hired on as a common sailor on the brig Pilgrim, a merchant ship which was ready to go on a journey to California. In those days, that meant the trip had to go around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. It took many months at sea and was fraught with danger. He eventually returned to Boston two years later on a different ship, the Alert, owned by the same company.

In the book, Dana tells the story of the two-year journey from the point of view of a sailor. Being a sailor on a ship was as close to slavery as one can get without actually being a slave. Sailors got paid $12 a month. While on ship, the captain was the ultimate authority. There was no law, no protection, no leisure, unless authorized by the captain. The sailors performed backbreaking labor, day and night, holiday and weekend. There was no healthcare, extremely poor nutrition, much brutalization of the men, no justice and no way out. Once you signed up for a journey, you were indentured for the duration of that journey. You didn’t know when you would come back, or, for that matter, if you would come back at all. Many sailors died, from falling overboard, being overworked, getting ill, or from malnutrition.

Dana tells the story of the common sailor, interwoven with elaborate sailing jargon I usually did not understand. Here is a sample:

By and by — bang, bang, bang, on the scuttle — “All ha-a-ands, aho-o-y!” We spring out of our berths, clap on a monkey-jacket and southwester, and tumble up the ladder. Mate up before us, and on the forecastle, singing out like a roaring bull; the captain singing out on the quarter-deck, and the second mate yelling, like a hyena, in the waist. The ship is lying over half upon her beam-ends; lee scuppers under water, and forecastle all in a smother of foam. Rigging all let go, and washing about decks; topsail yards down upon the caps, and sails flapping and beating against the masts; and starboard watch hauling out the reef-tackles of the main topsail. Our watch haul out the fore, and lay aloft and put two reefs into it, and reef the foresail, and race with the starboard watch to see which will mast-head its topsail first. All hands tally-on to the main tack, and while some are furling the jib and hoisting the staysail, we mizzen-top-men double-reef the mizzen topsail and hoist it up. All being made fast — “Go below, the watch!” and we turn-in to sleep out the rest of the time, which is perhaps an hour and a half. During all the middle, and for the first part of the morning watch, it blows as hard as ever, but toward daybreak it moderates considerably, and we shake a reef out of each topsail, and set the top-gallant-sails over them; and when the watch come up, at seven bells, for breakfast, shake the other reefs out, turn all hands to upon the halyards, get the watch-tackle upon the top-gallant sheets and halyards, set the flying-jib, and crack on to her again.

— Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast (Kindle Locations 5843-5855). Houghton Mifflin. Kindle Edition.

However, I must admit that now I am looking for a book on sailing ship diagrams and descriptions of the rigging, so I understand what the various types of sails are. If I were 40 years younger, I’d hire on a sailing ship like the Star of India and “learn the ropes.”

Speaking of the Star of India – this is the oldest still operating steel hull sailing ship in the world, and it is permanently parked in San Diego on the waterfront as a maritime museum.

 

Star of India

Picture Credit: Lothar Frosch

Some of the most fascinating parts about Two Years Before the Mast are Dana’s descriptions of California. In 1935, they visited many places in California that are there today, including San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco. The missions in California had been there for centuries even then, and towns had grown around those missions, but those towns were just a few shacks or adobe buildings with hard dirt floors. San Francisco was two shacks down by the water a few miles in from the bay entrance. San Diego consisted of a little “harbor” where the Navy fuel yards are today. The ships docked there and the sailors came to the shore by boats. Since the California trade with the United States at the time was mostly hides, there were four hide houses there. Those were storage facilities for tens of thousands of hides, which the ships brought to San Diego from all over the California coast for curing, drying and treating before they were loaded on ships to be taken to the east coast. Then, a few miles inland from the harbor, where we now have “Old Town,” were a few homes, some merchant buildings, and that was San Diego. The Presidio was up the hill from there. Dana’s descriptions of the California locations I now know so well, having lived here for more than 30 years, are priceless historical references.

But that’s not a modern phenomenon. Dana’s book, published in 1840, was the unequivocal reference book for California used by the San Francisco 49ers (the visitors to the area due to the Gold Rush). Even then the book was a bestseller.

There was a cliff on the coast of what is Orange County today, where Dana and crew, when they collected hides, just threw them down like Frisbees rather than carrying them down the steep cliffs. They did this for a number of visits. He called this spot one of the most romantic spots in California. Well, there is a town called Dana Point on the California coast today, and it was named after the author. I had no idea! I even know a person named Dana, and I will not disclose his last name here, who once told me that his name was Dana because he was conceived at Dana Point on the beach. I wonder if he knows the book Two Years Before the Mast?

Eventually, Dana became a lawyer and was quite active defending sailors and working on making their lives less brutal.

Dana’s trip from Boston to San Diego, California, picking up a load of 40,000 hides, and then returning to Boston, took over two years. That was his two years before the mast. I have traveled from San Diego to Boston and back in 6-hour one-way airline trips many times. The whole journey would sometimes have me away from home no more than 48 hours.

What a fascinating world we live in!

And what an amazing book Two Years Before the Mast is!

 

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Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign

Clinton just came out with her own book, titled What Happened. After reading Shattered I decided I don’t need to read Hillary’s book.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes are political writers who had deep access to all levels of the Clinton campaign. Through their insight, they have reconstructed the spirit of the campaign from before it actually began, through election night.

The insight is “shattering.” The campaign was never streamlined. Terrible infighting at the top levels caused the strategy to lack cohesiveness and resulted in a poorly defined message. Hillary never quite clarified why the people should elect her, other than she was, well, Hillary Clinton. Power struggles, lack of direction from the top, and poor use of funding based on analytics that was terribly flawed were the main causes of the eventual defeat.

The campaign didn’t know how close Trump was. Bill Clinton waved off the Virginia governor from coming to New York for the victory celebration immediately after Florida, one of the first states, was called for Trump.

Bill Clinton knew then.

I have always said that Trump did not win the election. Clinton lost it.

After reading Shattered, I am more convinced than ever that this was the case. The Democratic Party elevated an entitled, ego-driven politician, with a muddled message, with terrible baggage, who made very poor decisions along with way, and pegged her against the greatest wild card in American history, Donald Trump. The Democratic Party lost, Hillary will never be president, and the country is being damaged and looted by a self-serving populist con man.

Shattered is a hard book to read. If you are really into politics, if you want to work in a campaign, if that’s your career, this is a good book to internalize. It shows how politics works. I am more interested in the cliff notes, so from time to time the reading was too detailed and dry.

But  then, if you’re going to read one book about “what happened,” this is the book you should read.

 

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Revenger is a science fiction space opera that you can’t take too seriously.

There are swaggering captains on ships with sails, raucous crews of misfits who chase treasures. The world is full of islands with treasures, and if a captain has the right maps, or secret information, he can sail to those islands and get the loot. But there are others that will be on his tail and try to take the prize from him. And there are pirates, who board ships, kill everyone and steal the goods. And that is the story. It could have taken place in the Caribbean in the 1600s, but this story takes place millions, or possibly billions of years in the future.

The Congregation is a swarm of “worlds” circling the Old Sun. Worlds are little planetoids, just a few leagues across. It’s not clear what a league is, but I am guessing it’s around a mile. Inside of the planetoids are “swallowers” which I assume to be miniature black holes that generate just enough gravity for the surfaces to be around one gee. There are also spindle worlds, tube worlds and various other exotic ones. Out of 50 million objects in the Congregation, there are about 20,000 inhabited worlds.

And there are “baubles” which are uninhabited worlds with treasure hidden on them, by whom is not clear. And there are space ships driven by ion drives near objects and light sails in open space. The ion drives are like the outboard motors on our sail ships.

Adrana and Fura Ness are two young girls who run away from home and their overbearing father, sign on with a ship, and very soon realize they are in way over their heads. And so the swashbuckling adventure starts.

I realized pretty soon that this is not a science fiction novel, but a pirate novel, masquerading as a science fiction novel. But I did enjoy it sufficiently to keep reading.

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Stephen King is a master of what-if books.

For instance, his novel Under the Dome is based on this premise: What if a bubble-like, transparent, but completely impenetrable dome a few miles across suddenly was placed over a New England town? Nobody gets in, nobody gets out. What would happen? Then King builds an entire novel around this unlikely, impossible and ridiculous assumption.

In King’s novel The Stand, he speculates that a human-made deadly virus accidentally gets out and kills 99.9999 percent of the population. Only a handful individuals survive. That’s the what-if scenario. Then a novel of well over a thousand pages follows, building an entire world based on that premise.

Stephenson also likes to write what-if novels. Seveneves starts: THE MOON BLEW UP WITHOUT WARNING AND FOR NO APPARENT reason. What would happen if that actually occurred?

DODO is such a what-if book. What if magic existed? Yes, magic like witches that can cast spells, like turning a man into a frog, or changing the order of playing cards in a deck, Harry Potter kind of magic. It’s a preposterous assumption, and it was enough to turn me off before I even picked up the book. But then, a friend and frequent commenter on this blog (MB) told me to get over the magic part and read DODO anyway. So I did. I did not regret it.

Besides being a book that speculates about magic, DODO is also a time travel book. Time travel is one of my favorite science fiction genres, and it even has its own category in the selector on this blog. If you are ever interested in finding books about time travel, I have a wealth of them reviewed right here.

To expand: What if magic existed and what if witches could send people back and forward in time by casting spells? What would happen in a world of 2017, with iPhones, Google, the Internet, and black-budget arms of the United States government, like D.O.D.O, the Department of Diachronic Operations? Imagine the United States military, with its ridiculous bureaucracy, its totally confusing acronyms and endless procedures manuals getting mixed up in magic!

Tristan Lyons is a major in the United States military. Melisande Stokes is a post-doctoral linguistics expert and renowned polyglot, primarily of ancient languages, like Greek, Latin, Hebrew and many others. Lyons recruits Stokes to help him translate ancient texts that reference magic. Magic seems to have been prevalent in early human history, but has abruptly stopped in the mid 19th century. As the two research, they eventually find that a single event in July of 1851 finally stopped magic worldwide. With the help of a renowned physicist and research of the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, they build a machine inside which magic is possible in the 21st century. Now they just have to find a witch, and they can travel in time.

And travel they do, and problems they create.

DODO is a delightful book in so many aspects. For instance, one of the main protagonist organizations is the Fugger family, one of the wealthiest medieval European banking families. This was fun for me, because I had just read The Richest Man Who Ever Lived a couple of years ago, which chronicles the life of Jakob Fugger, a Bavarian banker from Augsburg who was, in his day, the richest and one of the most powerful men in the world. He told kings what to do, because he had the money to fund the kings. The Fugger family is central in the plot of DODO.

The most remarkable thing about DODO is the completely unconventional and, shall I call it experimental, structure of the book. If a lesser author had tried to pull this off, it would have been a dismal failure. But Stephenson made it work: The format and framework of the book is nothing like I have ever read before. It’s not narrated in the first person or the third person. It is a largely chronological assortment of diaries, emails, internal blog posts, government memos – sometimes heavily redacted, handwritten notes, narratives, translations, Wikipedia entries, and historic references. No one person tells the story. The author does not tell the story, and there is no major protagonist who tells the story. The various documents and excerpts, just posted one after the other, eventually tell the story.

It’s a brilliant, new format that I have never seen done before, and it won’t be applied again.

I would normally have given this book three stars, but the completely refreshing and innovative format, and the fact that Stephenson pulled it off successfully, made me bump this book to four stars. It’s a must-read, not because you like time travel (or magic), but because it’s something that has never been done before and therefore is unique.

Is there an award for unique?

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