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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter

Snapshot Book Reviews

Updated 6/01/2010

1. Bouldering with Bobbi Bensman  JUMP   2. Catastrophe Theory for Scientists and Engineers  JUMP
3. The History of Geographic Information Systems  JUMP   4. This Business of Television  JUMP
5. Quotations of Chairman Jesse  JUMP   6. All About Vitamins  JUMP
7. Cryptozoology A to Z  JUMP   8. Introduction to Mathematical Fluid Mechanics  JUMP
9. Gemstones of the World  JUMP   10. The Ground Is Our Table  JUMP
11. Photoshop 5 Artistry  JUMP   12. Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity  JUMP
13. Capitalism at the Crossroads  JUMP   14. Outnumbering the Dead  JUMP

Some books there are that I don't read as thoroughly as I'd wish to. Still, I learn enough to give a capsule review. Those reviews are collected here. It seemed the most expedient way to preserve and display them.

1. Bouldering with Bobbi Bensman

Bouldering with Bobbi Bensman
Bobbi Bensman
Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 0-8117-2677-0 86pp. SC/FCI $14.95

This is a very honest book. Growing up in Houston, Bobbi Bensman had a fairly normal childhood. (As a baby-boomer, I have to qualify that because to me drug addiction is not a part of any normal upbringing. Nor of an abnormal one, for that matter. Nowadays, I expect things are different. Not that any more than a small percentage of children have drug problems; but most children — and most parents — are exposed to this problem, just as today most parents have to face the fact that their children might die in a random shooting at school. These problems were not even on the radar screen during my school days.)

In any case, Ms. Bensman tells us right up front (literally on page 1) that she struggled with drug addiction in junior high school and overcame it, thanks to a twelve-step program. She did well in her studies, competed with about a hundred other girls and won one of the five cheerleader spots. Her Jewish family moved to Phoenix, disrupting her schooling and making her an outsider. To fit in, she campaigned hard for student body secretary in her senior year but lost the election, encountering anti-Semitism for the first time.

That same year, she found some friends who were into rock climbing and went out with them one weekend. The experience, she says, changed her life. In her own words, "from that day on all I wanted to do was eat, sleep and breathe climbing."

And climbing is what this book is all about. In the too-brief biography that begins it, Ms. Bensman recalls her first climb ("The first route I did was a bolted (quarter-inch bolts) 5.4 called Renunciation.") and recounts the development of her bouldering career — a career during which she has won twenty national competitions and made the semi-finals in five World Cup meets.

In subsequent chapters, she explains the various handholds and other climbing techniques she uses, and describes her fitness regimen. This narrative is illustrated with plenty of color pictures of her and other climbers. It is a very well-written and informative account, including discussion of safety, medicine, and climbing ethics. I would not describe it as a bouldering manual; rather, it is a personal testament from someone who loves bouldering and is very good at it. On that basis, and for those interested in the sport, I judge it worth reading.

2. Catastrophe Theory for Scientists and Engineers

Catastrophe Theory for Scientists and Engineers
Robert Gilmore (Institute for Defense Analyses)
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 0-471-05064-4 666pp. HC/GSI $?

I bought this book (for much less than its original price) because it has a chapter on aerodynamics. Unfortunately, that chapter is only 24 pages in length and serves only as one example application for the Catastrophe Theory of the title. In other words, it has little of value to me. In his Preface, the author differentiates between quantitative and qualitative methods for solving systems of equations, and describes Catastrophe Theory as a qualitative method. I'm not sure I understand his meaning of "qualitative", but it seems to mean the study of the properties of sets of equations by numerical methods (as opposed to closed-form solutions). "Catastrophe" seems to equate to singularity, and there is much emphasis on stability and bifurcation. Catastrophe Theory thus appears related to Chaos Theory. The book is highly technical and abstruse; I judge it useful only to those studying theory for theory's sake.

3. The History of Geographic Information Systems

The History of Geographic Information Systems: Perspectives from the Pioneers
Timothy W. Foresman (editor)
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall PTR, 1998

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 0-13-862145-4 397pp. HC/GSI $?

Chapters by various pioneers describe historical development of GIS in government (Census Bureau, Interior Dept., Oak Ridge National Lab) and commercial concerns, as well as in Canada. It's mainly of interest to history buffs, since it devotes little space to describing the way the technology works in detail. Still, it's hard to dislike a book that uses Professor Peabody's Wayback Machine as an icon of historical investigation.

4. This Business of Television

This Business of Television (2nd ed.)
Howard J. Blumenthal
Oliver R. Goodenough
New York: Billboard Books, 1998

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 0-8230-7704-7 666pp. HC $35.00

Mainly useful for independent producers of television shows, or films intended for television, and their staffs. Coverage includes: the various markets (distribution systems) such as commercial networks, PBS, cable networks, Pay-Per-View; regulation of distribution (the FCC); production of various genres (game shows, music video, sports, etc.); audience measurement; advertising; contracts and unions; and international television. Has a 3.5" floppy with sample contracts in MS Word 6 format.

5. Quotations of Chairman Jesse

Quotations of Chairman Jesse
Myron Rupp (compiler)
St. Paul, MN: Ruminator Books, 2000

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 1-886913-39-0 130pp. SC/SF $9.00

This novelty book joins a long and honorable tradition of political-parody "Quotations of..." books, all inspired by the Original Little Red Book, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, and all in the same paper-bound, palm-sized format. President Lyndon Johnson got the treatment with The Thoughts of Chairman LBJ, which presented some of his most careless utterances, such as "I'm proud to be in your wonderful city (Cleveland, is it?) today (March the first, isn't it?)". Jesse Ventura got the treatment because he won the governership of Minnesota. There's not a whole lot that can be said about this book, except that the collection of sayings is eclectic, characteristically blunt, and contradictory. A lot of this can be laid to the selection process.

6. All About Vitamins

All About Vitamins
Jack Challem
Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1998

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 0-89529-875-9 128pp. SC $2.99

This pocket-sized book is organized as a list of FAQs — Frequently Asked Questions — about vitamins. It is (or was) available at Walgreen's drug stores. An introductory chapter discusses the general topic of vitamins and related topics; then comes a series of chapters devoted to the vitamins in alphabetical order. Following this, other nutritional supplements like Alpha-Lipoic Acid are covered. Here's a sample (pages 90-91) of the advice:

Q: What is alpha-lipoic acid, and how does it help diabetics?

A: Alpha-lipoic acid—or lipoic acid for short—also helps cells to convert food to energy by improving the breakdown of sugar. Lipoic acid is so efficient at this that it has been used for years in Germany as a "drug" for diabetes. Originally, alpha-lipoic acid was used to treat diabetic polyneuropathy, a group of nerve disorders in diabetics. These disorders can result in pain or numbness. The numbness is dangerous because a diabetic with neuropathy (nerve disease) of the foot may not know, for example, that he has injured his foot. As a result, infection and gangrene, to which diabetics are especially vulnerable, may set in. Diabetic patients generally benefit from 200 mg of lipoic acid, taken three times daily.

Personally, I would have moved the dosage information, which IMHO reads a bit too much like a prescription, to the chapter where dosages are discussed, and make it more clear that these are only general suggestions. (There is, of course, a disclaimer inside the front cover.)

A final chapter suggests dosages of the various substances and explains the additional ingredients ("excipients") used in compounding them. A glossary, lists of on-line and printed references (including the author's Web site), and an index round out the slim book. It is packed full of straight advice, and I rate it very useful.

7. Cryptozoology A to Z

Cryptozoology A to Z
The Encyclopedia of Loch Ness Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Loren Coleman
Jerome Clark
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 0-684-85602-6 270pp. SC/BWI $13.00

The term "Cryptozoology" was introduced by Bernard Heuvelmans after the success of his 1955 book On the Track of Unknown Animals. Heuvelmans, a pioneer in the field, coined it from a fusion of three Greek words: kryptos (hidden), zoon (animal), and logia (study).

True to its subtitle, this book describes a great many reports of mysterious animals, from the well-known Abominable Snowman to the Zuiyo-Maru Monster. This last entry was hauled aboard a Japanese trawler off New Zealand in April 1977. After measuring it, the crew returned the rotting 33-foot, 4,000-pound carcass to the sea. But photographs (one reproduced here) and samples were taken; the samples showed the monster to be a decomposed basking shark.

Many of the entries describe legends like the Chupacabras (goat-sucker); the Abominable Snowman falls into this category. Some are hoaxes; at least one sighting of Bigfoot is such a case. Extinct, even prehistoric, animals are well represented. And some are real; the "living fossil" Coelacanth is the prime example.

The book is fascinating to browse, an excellent reference to keep handy. Its many entries are supplemented by an extensive list of suggestions for further reading, which doubles as endnotes.

8. Introduction to Mathematical Fluid Dynamics

Introduction to Mathematical Fluid Dynamics
Richard E. Meyer
New York: Dover Publications, 1982
(Orig. pub. 1971 John Wiley & Sons)

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 0-486-61554-5 185pp. SC/BWI $7.95

The treatment of fluid dynamics presented here is apparently logical, thorough, and well-organized. The book contains many helpful illustrations. However, I could not "get into it". The notation, based on set theory, put me off. Another negative indication is Meyer's note on his general approach:

Of the two possible didactic approaches to a physical subject, one proceeds from general definitions to their implications, leaving aside the problem of deciding which definitions are relevant to a particular, real situation. The other proceeds from specific situations and examples to definitions there relevant leaving the general principles of the subject to emerge only by and by. Fluid dynamics is too varied and subtle a subject for the first approach, but the second is too hard on the student, who has to persevere through an inordinate volume of work before the subject takes over-all shape. Like most other textbooks, this work therefore adopts largely the first approach.

One possible conclusion from the above is that it is (currently) impossible to learn fluid dynamics from reading a book; several years of formal study are required. I must add that, based on what little I know about fluid dynamics, its practical use is based on the second approach: restricted cases involving only subsonic speed, or only laminar flow. Problems are analyzed within these narrow subdomains, then the vehicle design is iteratively re-worked to achieve a reasonably successful compromise. But experts are gradually building bridges between the subdomains.

9. Gemstones of the World

Reviewed 12/24/2001

Gemstones of the World
Walter Schumann
Evelyn Stern, FGA (Transl.)
New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1977

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 0-8069-3088-8 256pp. HC/FCI $17.95

This book itself is a gem! Loaded with technical information such as tables of hardness, specific gravity, dispersion, pleochroism, fluorescence, index of refraction, even absorption spectra, it also has concise but fact-packed articles on gem mining, production, classification and history. Diamonds are emphasized, but the coverage is comprehensive, even including organic gems like pearls and coral. It also contains 87 color plates and a number of black and white photographs. Its bibliography is unfortunately short, listing mostly titles in German and journals. But the index is very complete.

It definitely is a keeper. Best of all is the fact that I got it for $9 at Megabooks in Palo Alto, California.

10. The Ground Is Our Table

Reviewed 8/25/1995

The Ground Is Our Table
Steve Allen
Arthur Dubinsky (Photog.)
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN ? 141pp. HC/BWI $3.95

Into this slim little book are crammed the heartbreak and outrage of decades of mistreatment of migrant farm workers by American growers. Steve Allen has read widely on the problem. With both passion and solid research, he refutes the various arguments often used to justify the status quo:

  • The economic argument ("It would break us to pay them decent wages.")
  • The indignity argument ("No American would stoop to such work.")
  • The social Darwinism argument ("They're the scum of the earth, deserving no better.")
  • The moralistic argument ("They're still better off than the poor of India, China, ...")

The unchanging misery these honest laborers are needlessly condemned to bear has not ended with the publication of Mr. Allen's book. It continues today, as I have seen in San Jose, CA in the 1980s. The Ground Is Our Table is a masterful, succinct and accurate summary of a disgraceful, and disgracefully enduring, state of affairs. If you never read anything else on the subject, read this evocative work.

Addendum 2003: Lest there be any doubt, let me make it clear that this is Steve Allen the comedian, aka Steverino, now sadly deceased.

11. Photoshop 5 Artistry

Reviewed 5/12/2004

Image of 'Photoshop 5.5 Artistry' cover
Photoshop 5 Artistry
Barry Haynes
Wendy Crumpler
Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 1998

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN-13 978-1-41659-806-0
ISBN 1-56025-895-9 357pp. SC/LF/FCI $55.00

I used this book for a Photoshop class I took, so I got to know it fairly well. It has some annoying grammatical goofs (see e.g. page 48 for "oh, alright"), some puzzling passages, and a few instructions that don't work as written. But in the main it is a useful book for learning Adobe's flagship graphics program, first describing the features of the program and then presenting hands-on exercises in a progressive sequence. It is very well produced, with dozens of exquisitely colorful prints, and a good bibliography and index. A CD-ROM is included.

Actually, I should have said "was a useful book", for it has long been superseded by the volumes for Photoshop V5.5 (for which I copped the similar cover image), 6.0 & 7.0, versions which have added significant new features. However, there is enough commonality with V5.0 that this edition still has value for someone on a tight budget looking to pick up the basics.

12. Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity

Reviewed 6/01/2007

MYTHS, LIES, AND DOWNRIGHT STUPIDITY
John Stossel
New York: Hyperion, 2006

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN 1-4013-0254-8 304pp. HC $24.95

Television journalist Stossel here debunks many modern media myths. As he tells us in his introduction, the mass media (and especially television) have strong incentives to report stories with an alarmist slant. A prime example is embodied in the question, "What's causing the cancer epidemic?" As John Stossel points out, this is the sort of inquiry epitomized by the proverbial "Are you still beating your wife?" — for the data show there is no cancer epidemic.1

His focus ranges widely. But my favorite example comes from his interview with Dr. Walter Burnstein and Burnstein's "political organizer" Michael Colby. They formed a group they call Food & Water to protest the irradiation of food. They are sure this causes cancer in children. Stossel's researchers called the author of the study on which they based their claim, and she said that was not her conclusion:

Stossel: "She never said these kids were developing cancer."

Burnstein: "These are pure scientists and she doesn't want to make that break. We are taking it the extra inch. We're saying to people, 'Don't — don't be put to sleep by people who work in test tubes — don't. I don't need proof that it goes to cancer. We already know it leads to cancer."

– Page 5

Translation: "Don't bother us with facts; our minds are made up." (Dr. Burnstein, by the way, is an osteopath from New Jersey.) Stossel's latest book is well worth reading, and looks entertaining to boot. Recommended.

1 This technique — asserting dire conditions or consequences unsupported by evidence — is often applied in debating climate change. However, I doubt Mr. Stossel will debunk applications of it he finds there, because he's gone over to the side that habitually applies it: The Denier Side.

13. Capitalism at the Crossroads

Reviewed 5/27/2010

Image of 'Capitalism at the Crossroads' cover
CAPITALISM AT THE CROSSROADS
Aligning Business, Earth, and Humanity
Stuart L. Hart
Al Gore (Fwd.)
H. Fisk Johnson (Fwd.)
Upper Saddle River: Wharton School Publishing, July 2007

Rating:

4.0

High

ISBN-13 978-0-13-613439-?
ISBN 0-13-613439-4 260pp. SC/GSI $17.99

This book does not seem exceptional. Professor Hart hits all the right notes, but seems not to grasp that sustainability requires a radical rethinking of how businesses are organized. His emphasis is on persuading multinational corporations to involve indigenous peoples more fully. He admits that there was a time when government regulation was needed to force corporations to behave responsibly toward the environment, but says that is no longer true. On page 22, he writes of "a new effort, the Base of the Pyramid Protocol, which seeks to develop a practical approach for becoming indigenous." In this passage, he explains it more fully:

Antiglobalization demonstrators have made it apparent that if corporate expansion is seen to endanger local autonomy, it will encounter vigorous resistance. Multinationals seeking new growth strategies to satisfy shareholders increasingly hear concerns from many quarters about consumer monoculture, labor rights, and cultural hegemony. As long as multinational corporations persist in being outsiders—alien to both the cultures and the ecosystems in which they do business—it will be difficult for them to realize their full commercial, let alone social, potential.

The next challenge will thus be for corporations to become 'indigenous' to the places in which they operate (see Exhibit 1.2). Doing so will require that they first widen the corporate bandwidth by admitting voices that have, up to now, been excluded; this means becoming radically transactive rather than just radically transparent. It will also entail the development of new 'native' capabilities that enable a company to develop fully contextualized solutions to real problems in ways that respect local culture and natural diversity. When combined with multinational corporation's {sic} (MNC) ability to provide technical resources, investment, and global learning, native capability can enable companies to become truly embedded in the local context.

– Page 21

Pardon my cynicism, but I fail to see the need for multinational corporation's (or corporations') becoming indigenous. Local independent businesses do just fine. And what is the "full social potential" of a multinational corporation?

The book has one of the longest Acknowledgment sections I've seen — one in which Prof. Hart recounts his career. He also seems very fond of flow charts and business jargon. I did not read past Chapter 1, from which these quotes and notes are taken. For me, the best thing about this book was the original forward by Dr. H. Fisk Johnson, head of SC Johnson company. He truly walks the talk," showing us how a company can profit while being environmentally responsible.

14. Outnumbering the Dead

Reviewed 5/28/2010

Image of 'Outnumbering the Dead' cover
OUTNUMBERING THE DEAD
Frederik Pohl
Steve Crisp (Illus.)
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990

Rating:

4.5

High

ISBN 0-312-07755-6 110pp. HC/FHD $14.95

Several centuries from now, Rafiel is an entertainer known throughout the solar system. His fame comes from starring in musicals drawn on classical themes. As the story opens, he is about to begin rehearsals for the title role in Sophocles' Oedipus. He is also recovering from rejuvenation treatments; for, unlike most humans, Rafiel has a genetic condition that denies him the option of immortality. At the cost of a ten-day hospital stay, the treatments give him the youth and vigor needed for singing and dancing — but only so many times. He is now past 90, and though everyone pussyfoots around the topic, he knows his time is short.

Like actors generally, Rafiel's friends are a fast-living but superficial bunch, given to ostentation and casual sex. Their productions are superficial too, with lyrics resembling advertising jingles. Rafiel swims easily through this world, bantering in the polyglot lingo of his time. But he carries a torch for Alegretta, a doctor who attended him through a former rejuvenation. It was easy to see that they would get back together and he would ultimately choose to join her aboard the generation ship where she makes her new career, outward bound for another star. So, at the end of his life, he reclaims its human purpose.

Fred Pohl is a member of the master class of science-fiction writers. For him, this is a modest effort: enjoyable and modestly inspiring, but not memorable. It was first published in Britain; the U.S. edition which I read came out in 1992.


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