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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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Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite

Suki Kim is a Korean-American writer from New York City. She went undercover as an English teacher in a college-level all-boys-institution in North Korea where the sons of the North Korean elite were educated. She tells the story of how she got into her position and how dangerous it was for her to be there.

Through her narrative we get an amazing glimpse into the society of North Korea and its people, its culture and its political system that we can’t get looking in from the outside simply from what the media tell us, or what the occasional tourist reports after visiting.

Being in North Korea was profoundly depressing. There was no other way of putting it. The sealed border was not just at the 38th parallel, but everywhere, in each person’s heart, blocking the past and choking off the future. As much as I loved those boys, or because of it, I was becoming convinced that the wall between us was impossible to break down, and not only that, it was permanent. This so saddened me that some frozen dawns, when I woke up to the sound of the boys doing their group exercises, I had to fight not to shut my eyes and go back to sleep.

— Kim, Suki. Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite (p. 257). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Today North Korea is a vilified nation, a nuclear proliferator, and a world-aggressor. All we know about North Korea, for the most part, is the iconic image of the boy-dictator Kim Jong-un, and the lackeys in uniform who surround him. We think about parades of tanks, masses of soldiers in goose step, and missiles hauled on trucks through wide boulevards lined with trees. We think about nuclear missile tests. We don’t know much about this country that gets so much bad press around the world.

Reading Suki Kim’s book Without You, There is No Us opens up a wide window into this elusive and closed society. North Korea is an example of an entire nation of 25 million people completely and totally brainwashed for generations. The country’s elite does not get Internet access or modern computers. They cannot research because most topics are taboo. They have been told, for 75 years, that they are one of the most powerful and prosperous nations on earth. And they have no idea that they are actually one of the most isolated nations, resembling a concentration camp of 25 million occupants, who live under 19th century conditions, with shoddy power, terrible infrastructure, malnutrition even for the elite, complete suppression of the media, no access to modern music, art, literature or cinema.

Even family members are kept apart. The boys in the college are not allowed to communicate, even by letter, with their families or friends. When they are in the military, for years at a time, they don’t get to come home – in a country the size of Pennsylvania!

North Korea is a threat to world peace, particularly now, where the president of the United States is widely viewed as the most serious threat to world stability.

Every American should read Suki Kim’s book to better understand the tragic and failed experiment that is called North Korea. One man, with the aid of his father and grandfather, has managed to subjugate 25 million people, by keeping them underfed, uneducated and in constant fear – just so he can aggrandize himself – and eat well.

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The full title of the book is:

Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Aliens are little grey humanoids with big heads, large black eyes, slit mouths, and sometimes they speak English. Or are they?

I have always been of the opinion that we are in no way prepared for a meeting with actual aliens, if they exist.

Homo sapiens has been on the planet for about 200,000 years. Recent discoveries have moved it up to about 300,000 years, yet to be confirmed. Bottlenose dolphins have been around for about 15 million years, and I actually believe they are just as smart was we are, they just haven’t become toolmakers, because they evolved in an environment that does not require shelter, and where food floats by them so they didn’t need to develop agriculture to survive. But I digress.

Dolphins are alien intelligences, and they have lived next to us for the duration of our entire existence. The ancient Romans talked about dolphins and interactions with them. Yet, with advanced computer technologies, translation software, and decades of research into dolphin language, we still haven’t communicated yet.

Because communication with aliens is very hard.

If real aliens landed on earth, we earthlings couldn’t do a thing with them other than look at them. And they would look at us, marvel at our “intelligence” like we marvel about the intelligence of octopuses (or dolphins) and that’s where it would end.

Aliens is a collection of scientific essays about aliens and an excellent reference work. It analyzes the origin of life on earth, how life could have developed (or not developed) on other worlds, the likelihood of that having occurred, and the odds of us ever meeting another civilization.

If you have ever wondered if we are alone, read Aliens and you will marvel and be inspired.

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We are mired in wars that seem to never end. When our children think of war, they think of Iraq and Afghanistan. For the majority of our population, Vietnam is ancient history. Vietnam veterans are now all in their mid to late sixties or seventies. They know their combat stories, and their politics, and they remember the days of their young selves, when they were asked to give up their youths to fight in a brutal and bloody war far away from the American reality. They all have friends they lost, whose names are now on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. And they all still grieve for their comrades, their friends, every day of their lives.

Every soldier of the 58,220 who lost their lives in Vietnam had loved ones at home, girlfriends, wives, children, parents, neighbors, buddies. Thousands of those lives of those loved ones were changed forever the moment two or three soldiers in uniform walked up to the front doors of their houses to bring the impossible and unbearable news.

In Backtracking in Brown Water, the author, Rolland E. Kidder, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the U.S. Navy, tells his own story of his tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969. He saw many soldiers die, but three of them were close friends. Chief Eldon Tozer, Captain Bob Olson and Lieutenant Jim Rost all lost their lives while serving alongside the author.

While he tells his own story of how he ended up in Vietnam in the war, he recounts the lives of his three fallen friends. Then, forty years later, between 2010 and 2014, he visits their families back home, interviews them, shares stories with them, and goes to see their graves. While it does not bring closure – nothing ever seems to do that – it honors the men who gave their lives for their country, even now, 40 years later.

He also went back to the brown waters in the Mekong Delta and visited the places where he had served, and where his friends had fallen, so many decades ago.

When I read Backtracking in Brown Water, I was first with the author right there in Vietnam, in 1969, and experienced the horrors of that war. Then I was there again with him when he returned to Vietnam. I saw the country through his eyes by reading his words. And I got to know the fallen heroes almost like they were my own friends.

And above all, I came to abhor war even more than I already do, this vicious thing our so-called “leaders” initiate to make themselves large, by sending other people’s children into foreign lands to suffer and to die – for illegitimate causes.

When will we ever learn that war does not work, that war never works?

Ask Eldon Tozer, Bob Olson and Jim Rost. You can’t. Because they lost it all so abruptly in 1969, while the rest of us got to live on. Every one of us should read Backtracking in Brown Water to remind us of the horror of war.

Check out the author’s website and blog.

He now lives in Stow, New York, in the heart of Chautauqua County.

***

But wait, there is more. It turns out I know author. Here he is on the left, in a picture taken in March 1975 in Albany, New York.

left to right: Assemblyman Rolland Kidder, unknown student of Jamestown High School, myself, Senator Jess Present

I was a foreign exchange student with AFS at Southwestern Central High School in Lakewood, New York, in the year 1974/75. My history teacher, Mrs. Tarbrake, chose me (of all the students in her classes) to go on a visit to the New York State government. There was just one student per high school. It was such an honor.

Senator Present picked me up at my house in Lakewood, New York and I rode with him the seven hours to Albany, while we chatted about the life of an exchange student and world politics. When we arrived in Albany, he passed me on to Assemblyman Kidder, who, with the help of his staff, hosted my visit and allowed me to sit with him in the chamber while legislative votes were taking place. I saw state government in action with his personal commentary.

In the picture above, I am the one that looks the least like the other three. Nobody had told this poor foreign exchange student that there was a dress code in the New York Assembly Chamber. You needed coat and tie to enter. I had not brought any. For me to get in, Assemblyman Kidder let me use one of his jackets, and one of his staffers gave me a white shirt and a tie. Along with my blue corduroy pants, I am sure I was not much of a fashion statement in the assembly chamber, but I was honored to be there wearing the Assemblyman’s jacket.

At that time, I didn’t have much of a perspective on Assemblyman Kidder’s role there. I just found out when I read this book that he had only been in office for a few months at that time, in his first term. To me, he looked like a seasoned and distinguished politician.

The picture above was published in the Jamestown Post Journal, the local paper in Chautauqua County, during the following week, telling the story of two local students from the two local high schools in the Jamestown area, visiting the State Legislature. I was famous.

And of course, I had no idea that Assemblyman Kidder was a Vietnam veteran, and that I would stumble upon his book 42 years later.

It’s been an honor – twice.

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Other Minds – The Octopus, the Sea,

and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

When we think of intelligent animals, we think of whales, specifically dolphins, apes, elephants, dogs, crows and parrots. I have written much about this subject, and you can find the posts by selecting Animal Intelligence from the categories dropdown on the right.

We generally do not think of octopuses as intelligent. However, octopuses, as well at cuttlefish and squid, commonly classified as cephalopods, are highly intelligent animals.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of Other Minds, is a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, who started studying octopuses in the process of thinking about consciousness in humans and in animals.

Other Minds tells the story of how animal life first started on earth, and how the invertebrates started splitting off from the vertebrates some 500 to 600 million years ago. As it turns out, cephalopods are invertebrates, and all other intelligent animals are vertebrates, including humans. The common ancestor of both humans and octopuses are small flat wormlike creatures that lived over 500 million years ago. As a result, an octopus is about as different from a human as you can get, and still have two eyes – and a mind.

Godfrey-Smith illustrates many astonishing examples of octopus intelligence and it becomes quite clear that, yes, they are really bright, and yes, they are very alien, very different from us. He says that the closest we are likely ever to come to meeting an alien intelligent being is going to the aquarium and watching an octopus.

I searched and found a few astonishing videos. The first one is of an octopus escaping from a ship’s deck. Since an octopus has no hard parts, no bones, no shells, he can squeeze himself through a hole as small as his eyeball, his hardest part. The video below demonstrates that.

Octopuses can also learn to use tools and solve complex problems. Here is an example of an octopus opening a jar into which it has been placed.

There are other examples that show how an octopus can open a jar from the outside to get to the prey locked inside.

I am highly interested in animal intelligence and alien intelligence, so this book turned out to be a treasure trove of information and great anecdotes and stories. I learned much about the evolution of life on earth, and the development of intelligence and consciousness. If you have similar interests, this is a book you must read.

The author is trying to be factual, and the book is therefore more of a text book than an entertainment book, which makes it somewhat challenging to read.

But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am sure I’ll refer to it in the future.

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When a nuclear submarine in the Caribbean encounters anomalies with its GPS system, John Clay, a naval investigator is called in to figure out what happened.

At the same time, Alison Shaw, a marine biologist and her small team of dedicated scientists achieve a breakthrough in their attempt to communicate with dolphins.

Eventually the U.S. Navy discovers an artifact on the bottom of the ocean that seems to destabilize the geological balance of the entire planet. That’s when the U.S. government gets involved, and things go sideways very quickly.

Breakthrough is Grumley’s debut novel and the first of a “series” of novels. It’s a science fiction techno-thriller, where the science fiction is very light and superficial, and the thriller part is pretty standard and fairly bland U.S. government intrigue stuff.

There are two areas that interested me specifically, and I want to discuss them.

Spoiler Warning: the following contains minor spoilers which will not impact your enjoyment of the novel, but it is my policy to warn about spoilers.

Dolphin Intelligence and Language

The first area has to do with dolphin intelligence and language. This subject has always been one of deep interest to me, and I have literally read dozens of books on the subject. Search for the keyword “dolphin” on this blog and find some of my thoughts on it. Also, select “cetaceans” in the Select a Category dropdown to the right, and you’ll find a lot of related posts.

In this story, a team of researchers has used an IBM artificial intelligence engine to decode a dolphin vocabulary, and after the initial Hello, Yes and No words are discovered, it starts building very quickly. Humans type into the computer, or speak to a voice recognition system, and the system translates the word to a set of dolphin clicks and whistles. When dolphins whistle, the computer detects the words, looks them up in the vocabulary, and speaks them. Voilà, you have a conversation with a dolphin.

This concept is quite well developed in this story, except for the strange beginning, where the supposed breakthrough occurs, and I could not figure out what exactly it was. Supposedly the team had recorded dolphin sounds for years, and they were finally starting to interpret them. There was this huge press conference announcing that they were starting that. I just could not figure out what the breakthrough was, other than they had decided that they would stop collecting sounds and start interpreting them.

I was personally always interested in this field, and I have often had regrets that I didn’t start in this field of research early in my career as a computer programmer. My life might have been very different indeed. Of course, maybe not as successful, since in all those years, unlike in this book, we have NOT yet cracked the code and been successful communicating with the aliens right here on our planet, with our own DNA.

Convergent Evolution

Definition: In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

In this story – and here is the spoiler – there are aliens living on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea in air bubbles. How they got there and what they are doing there is not relevant for my point so I won’t elaborate here.

However, the aliens, although they come from another planet around another star, are human, indistinguishable from us. The author explains that convergent evolution will produce identical results even in wildly different environments, as long as the building blocks of nature are the same. We are all “stardust” and made from the same raw materials that heavy elements resulting from supernovae. So the same amino acids seeded many different worlds around many different stars, and the crowning result would be — humans.

That’s where the story lost me. No only were the aliens that evolved on another planet in a different stellar system light years away human, they spoke American English! This was just so out of the realm of feasibility, the book came apart for me at that time.

Here is a novel,  that is partly built on the concept of the challenges of decoding a language of an alien being (in this case a dolphin) and how it took decades of work to make any measurable progress, and then that same novel brings in alien humans that conveniently speak English and are undetected in our social environment.

Regardless of those flaws, I enjoyed the book, I found the concept of language translation intriguing and entertaining, and I read all the way to the end.

 

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After total destruction of the Earth, all that is left of humanity is on one gigantic spaceship, the Noah, en route to Canaan, a planet at another star, so far away that the journey will take more than 1,000 years. The ship is huge. Under a dome the habitat is comprised of cities, countryside and vertical farms. People live in houses, apartments, even skyscrapers. They drive cars, ride in buses and trains. The sky, the sun, the moon, the stars are all simulations. So is day and night, and the seasons. People live ordinary lives, have jobs, go to school, compete for positions, love, hate, fight, and play. All the while the ship moves at relativistic speed toward a new home.

Hana Dempsey is a city planner. She is high up in the social hierarchy. When the story starts, the ship has been traveling for 340 years, with another 700 or so to go. Imagine living your entire life inside a ship, an enclosed system, without any opportunity to ever get out. For us, 340 years ago was 1677, about 100 years before the American Declaration of Independence. That’s how long they have been traveling.

Through Hana’s eyes, we get a snapshot of a civilization in such a “generation ship.” Hana and her friends become suspicious about strange and violent deaths, and they start investigating. Their findings pull them deeper and deeper into very dark secrets that the very ship itself seems to harbor. Their activities set off a revolution and popular uprising that not only threatens their way of life, but the mission itself, and therefore the existence of humanity. Can the uprising be quelled? Can order be restored? Can the ship continue its mission and keep traveling for many, many more centuries?

The author uses the first person present tense method of narration. I seem to find books like this; just recently I read the trilogy on time travel by Nathan Van Coops, who also uses that writing approach. But Ramirez is clumsy with it, and I don’t think it works well. Some of the people use telepathy, as well as thought and memory exchange through brain implants, giving the humans communications methods that are more difficult to follow. It’s hard for the reader to tell if a person is thinking, or speaking, or sending telepathic messages. Sometimes the author also violates the point of view, and while Hana tells most of the story, sometimes he seems to switch to other viewpoints, confusing the reader even more.

The Forever Watch wants to be a hard science fiction book, but there is too much far-out technology that it is almost distracting from the story, and the hard science starts feeling a little hokey at times.

I don’t know why the title of the book is The Forever Watch. I really think there should have been a better title. While I was reading it, I could never remember what the title was. I just kept thinking of the generation ship book. How about The Noah?

As you can see, I think the book has its flaws, and some reviewers have called it a tedious read. However, if you are into the sub-genre of generation ships, like I am, it is a book you must read, and you will enjoy. It is full of unique ideas and concepts, and while the author completes the story and makes The Forever Watch as standalone novel, there is ample opportunity for a sequel.

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