Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Watching The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

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I've been a huge fan of the "Daily Show" since I discovered it in about 2004 and greatly regret not finding it sooner.  It hit the right tone of information, satire, sarcasm and indignation.  Jon Stewart became my hero.
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I was not happy for Jon to retire from the Daily Show, and with the Colbert Report ending as well, it seemed the end of an era.

I have watched the first two Trevor Noah shows and like them.  I think Trevor will get better as he gains his legs and has more of his personality infused into the show - right now it seems a little like he's still trying to guest-host for Jon.  I'm more than willing to give him a chance because his is the hand-picked successor to Jon Stewart, and Jon's record of identification of talent is well documented (Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, John Oliver all have their own similar shows, Steve Carell had "The Office" and "40 Year Old Virgin" to his credit, Samantha Bee and Jason Jones are going to land somewhere, you can find Rob Corddry and Rob Riggle poping up in movies).

Good luck Trevor.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Devil in the White City" - Erik Larson

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson might be the best book I've read in a while.

The book is non-fiction, but reads like a good novel.  The book is based in Chicago at the turn of the last century (end of the 1890's).  Paris has just had a successful World's Fair (where the Eiffel Tower was created) - Chicago picked up the ball and planned an even bigger event for the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovery of America, the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The book follows two storylines - the architects getting the fair ready, in a relatively unsophisticated Chicago (home of hog butchering and a good place to be killed), and a sociopathic doctor who plans to kill a lot of women.
The stories intersect basically because Chicago is such an aggressively growing city - lots of folks move to the city for the first time, many are victims and are not heard of again.  The Exposition of 1892 is seen as a way to catapult Chicago into the big times, make a name for the city as a place where more happens than a highway to hog heaven.

The chosen fairgrounds are a wasteland, mostly marsh.  Chicago has learned to grow skyscrapers in very wet ground, and makes some astounding leaps in construction (even downtown was sandy and wet ground).  In only a few years, this marsh must be transformed into parkland - one architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York, was hired to do the grounds - he had very ambitious plans for canals, islands and plants designed to create very specific views and areas within the grounds.   Daniel Burnham had the role of chief architect - his name still resounds in Chicago - it adorns the park with the Field Museum and Soldier Field.

The timing to build the Exposition was very short, and Chicago weather is not necessarily the best.  A tornado actually hit the Exposition when it was operating, heavy, non-stop rains required an opening ceremony on a mostly unfinished park.

The parallel story was of a doctor, who planned to take advantage of the Exposition - he built a hotel for the event with hidden passageways, a soundproof, airtight vault linked to a gas line in his personal office, a personal crematorium in the basement.  His planning indicates the degree of his sociopathy - he designed the building himself, and operated as the chief foreman - he would have workers work on one of the "secrets" only to be fired the next day - he did this frequently such that nobody ever really understood what was being constructed.  He also ran very sophisticated scams - forgery, fake IDs, hidden ownerships - all to keep himself above suspicion.

For the doctor, the Exposition was an event of great convenience - I suspect his story would have continued, fair or not.  However, the book is an excellent read as both the criminal, sociopathic storyline and the race to create the perfect city are interesting in their own rights - juxtaposition makes both stories a breath of fresh air from the other.

Not to spoil, but the "big reveal" at the Exposition was an object to rival the Eiffel Tower.  The buildings of the Exposition were all white, huge and all columns and neo-classical design.  Over the six month fair period, an estimated 27 million people attended, including almost 800,000 on a single day (Chicago day).  Explorers were dispatched across the globe (e.g. to track down entire tribes from Africa to live at the Exposition for a year or so).

I can't say I had heard of the Exposition, though it should still resonate through North America by nature of it's scope, so the educational aspects of the book were much appreciated.

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Billion Dollar Spy" - David E. Hoffman

I wonder if the current, or future generations will understand the Cold War - it sounds so "clean" and "odd" - the world divided into "good" and "bad", "us" and "them", paranoia and propaganda on both sides.

"The Billion Dollar Spy" brings some of that back.  I remember tidbits - I recall a MIG landing in Japan during the '70s, which is a background event in the book.

"The Billion Dollar Spy" covers a few key intelligence successes the CIA had during the Cold War.  The main spy was a high ranking Soviet scientist, with access to key Cold War secrets (primarily the radar capabilities of the Air Force and the Air Defense System), but willing to pull secrets from other domains as well.
The spy ran a long-term intelligence operation - photographing documents in the thousands over a number of years.  The "Billion" refers to a very conservative estimate of the amount of money saved by U.S. defence planners by being able to avoid divergent pathways when planning offensive and defensive tactics against the U.S.S.R.

Knowing the weakness of downward facing radar meant the U.S. could work hard on the development of the cruise missile, which skimmed low to the ground and was invisible to the Soviet air defense, with little concern that it could be stopped.  Knowing the radar on the high-end fighters kept the U.S. out front with technology, and the confidence that they would win war battles (which they did easily in the Gulf against former Soviet satellites armed with MIGs).

The book does a good job of understanding what it felt like to be in Russia at that time - the disillusionment over the promises made when the Communist state was taking over, the secondary status of U.S.S.R. citizens compared to U.S., the loss of dissidents simply for speaking against the current regime (even though they would have been loyal to the country, they betrayed the party).

This betrayal led to the leaking of secrets, fully knowing that these were hurting the military might of the country, and would likely end badly for the spy himself.

Spycraft (e.g. overcoming and discovering surveillance, dead drops, hand-offs etc.) feature prominently.  I was amused that the CIA set up dummies in cars, so they could race around a corner, the passenger jumps (falls) out of the car and the dummy is put in the passenger seat, just a few yards ahead of a following KGB patrol.  The technology of the time is shown through the use of cameras - some take good pictures, but are too big to haul around, smaller cameras, easier to hide, took poor pictures unless the lighting was precisely correct.

This is a good book to read - recommended.

Finished (E-Reader) - "The Martian" - Andy Weir

"The Martian" by Andy Weir was a very quick read, lots of action.  I didn't find it particularly suspenseful, as you got a pretty good idea early on that everything was going to turn out OK, which kinda' makes the "superheroics" seem a little forced.

The book does rekindle some of the awe that was felt towards the Apollo astronauts (Mercury and Gemini for older folks than me), and reminded me of the Apollo 13 story (should have died, managed to scavenge enough to survive, had to re-purpose existing equipment).  As the timeline was longer, there were more engineering challenges that Apollo 13 (which suffered from the handicap of being non-fiction).
The book did seem to rely on science - ideas of growing enough food to survive, working to keep the atmosphere breathable, making ramps and levers to overload vehicles, doing the math to figure out how long a trip would take, how much food/water would be required, how much time per day travel could be done using exisiting batteries, given the higher loads and re-charging times.

The "wind storm" is likely not reasonable - a NASA expert discussed how weak the atmosphere on Mars is, so even a very high wind storm would not carry much force, and would be noticeable much more by instruments than by damage or noise.

I have recommended it to my 13 year old son - nice pace and storyline to (maybe) kindle the dreams I had at his age.

Movie should be good.

Finished (E-Reader) - "Go Set a Watchman" - Harper Lee

Unlike the heroic portrayal in the earlier book, the lawyer was now older, and was not taking a strong stance for civil rights - instead supporting a much slower, separation of races approach.  All in all, the newer book was a much more nuanced exploration of the difficulties in society during such a big transition than the earlier and more "defensible" storyline of Mockingbird.Image result for free watchman

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I was only recently introduced to "To Kill a Mockingbird", primarily through the press surrounding the "sequel" - "Go Set a Watchman", both by Harper Lee.

Mockingbird was a much more "positive" story, a white lawyer defending an innocent, but eventually "guilty" black defendant.  "Go set a Watchman" was based 20 years later, during the '60s and was based on the civil rights struggle in the south.

Of the two, I liked Mockingbird better, but would not classify myself as a huge fan of either work.  I can certainly understand the feeling of loss someone who really loved Mockingbird would have felt after "Watchman", but as my experience with both was recent, it certainly wasn't that strong or moving an experience.