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A. Volk (Canada)
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The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap
The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap
by Matt Taibbi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.44
33 used & new from CDN$ 19.44

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing and infuriating view of America's Injustice System, April 11 2014
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The premise of this book is simple- America has a two-tier justice system. One for the rich, one for the poor. Now that almost certainly comes as no surprise to anyone. Even though it should, as it goes against the most basic principle of justice in that it is blind to all. But what should come as a surprise is the depth to which the justice system has now become imbalanced in the United States.

Taibbi lays out two tales. The first is of poor Americans, usually minorities, who are being arrested without cause in the hopes of the police finding something to charge them with. It's fishing at its worst. One poor individual gets arrested for blocking sidewalk traffic after standing outside his house, at 1 AM, after finishing his work shift. The police don't care. His defence lawyer tells him to take a plea ($50, no $25). The judge tells him to take a plea. Finally, it turns out that the charge is dismissed. But is that justice? Hauling an innocent man to court because he's young (-ish, ~30) and black and was standing outside is, well, insane. Another young homeless man (this one actually white) gets 42 days in jail for having half a joint in his pocket.

What about the people who finance the drug trade to the tune of billions of dollars? Well, HSBC was caught laundering money for the Russian mafia, for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, for Iran, for North Korea, and for a bank with known ties to Al-Qaeda. BILLIONS of dollars. Caught red-handed. So how many days do the guilty here spend in jail? None. They get a fine of $1.9 billion dollars. Seem like a lot? It's not. That's one month's profits for breaking nearly every law regarding illegal banking and no one gets a sniff of jail time. Because the company is too big to fail and because government prosecutors don't want to take on tough cases and because the government consults Wall Street to get their advice whether it's worth prosecuting banking crimes. On the other hand, a small family-own bank has multiple people arrested for forging a few facts on a few mortgages (none of which defaulted). Because they are not too big too fail, they are small enough to prosecute. It's just as insane as the first tale, only in the completely opposite direction.

What's the solution? For Taibbi, the American populace has to wake up and see what's going on around them. They need to get enraged and engaged about the massive injustice of the system. I could only keep shaking my head and being thankful that in Canada such abuses are not quite so outrageous. But we need to be vigilant, for if we allow the rich bankers to write their own legal rules, and ignore the plight of the poor, we too could head down the very slippery slope that the US finds itself.

So I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in American society, justice, law, corporate law, economics, and the limitations of democracy. I don't recommend this book if you can't tolerate reading about incredible injustices. I know I felt like tossing the book in the air a few times myself. But I suppose that's a sign that the book is worth reading, so I have no problem giving it five stars.

The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook
The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook
by Americas Test Kitchen
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 18.77
16 used & new from CDN$ 18.77

5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic resource for gluten free cooking, April 10 2014
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I have a family member who has a gluten allergy, so I end up doing a fair bit of gluten-free cooking. Some of it comes pretty easily, like roast chicken with vegetables. Other recipes are tougher, especially almost anything that gets baked. Fortunately, there are a growing number of quality gluten free products available to buy. Still, for someone who wants to cook from scratch, it's not an easy road at times.

That's where this book enters. It's from America's Test Kitchen. As a scientist, I love the idea that cooking is largely science (with some artistic flair). You can test recipes, vary ingredients, vary methods, etc. and compare results. The book starts off with 30+ pages of explaining the science behind gluten and an overview of home-made and commercial gluten free products. It then has roughly 30-page sections on: grains, pasta, comfort foods, breads, cookies/bars, pies/tarts, and cakes. There's then some discussion of conversions from metric to imperial and other basic measurement issues.

So how are the recipes? In a word, delicious. Almost all have a big full page picture, are easy to follow, and include a section on what the gluten substitute is and why it works. That's really helpful as it enables and encourages variations on the recipe. The impact of substituting commercial vs. home-made alternatives is something that's also frequently discussed. The variety of recipes is good, and they include simple recipes (e.g., rice pilaf) and more complex recipes (e.g., pizza dough- which they acknowledge as one of the hardest recipes ever tackled in the ATK). More complex recipes often have sub-steps broken down with pictures to go with them.

And again, the recipes work. A common restaurant with the initials BP is about the only other source of decent pizza dough, but this book makes it possible to cook at home. I haven't tried the home-made pasta recipes, but the quality of the other recipes and the explanation for how it works makes me very optimistic. Fresh pasta is something I though would be forever off the menu, so I'm looking forward to getting it back!

Overall the quality of this book, its information, its guidance, its photos, and its recipes, are all top notch. I wish it had nutritional information to go with the recipes, but I suppose I can live without them. Given that is my only reservation about this book, I think it's a solid five-star starting guide for both learning to cook and bake gluten free, but also for learning to experiment with cooking and baking gluten free.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes
Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes
by Svante Paabo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.44
36 used & new from CDN$ 19.05

5.0 out of 5 stars Describes the research as well as the findings, April 7 2014
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I just finished reading a book looking under the hood of Wall Street's engine. This book takes a look under the hood of a top science lab's engine. It records Svante Paabo's efforts to decipher the Neanderthal genome in order to determine its status relative to the human genome. So it gives you a look at the research, the researchers, and the findings.

Starting with the research, Paabo goes into significant depth regarding the methods used in his studies. It's not so much technical minutia that the reader gets bored, but it does highlight his cautious and conscientious approach (most of the time) to his studies. There's quite a bit as well on the art of publication. However, one should note that Paabo was blessed with great luck in choosing the right topic at the right time. Combined with his efforts and abilities, that made him a top-ranked researcher, with frequent publications in the top journals (Science and Nature). Most researchers don't have the ability to have back-and-forth emails with the editors of those journals courting them for their paper. That's a real luxury, and life at the top has somewhat skewed Paabo's bias about what scientific discovery is like to most researchers. Still, he's essentially humble about his position, so it's not complete hubris. More like a bias. That is, I must admit, interesting to read about for anyone interested in the enterprise of science.

There is also quite a bit on the various researchers who work with him, as well as about himself. So we get a glimpse of the different kinds of personalities attracted to this research. We also get to see what it takes to get people to work together, how to form research and funding collaborations, and how to end those collaborations. So it's another very useful guide to practical science.

Finally, we get the data. Paabo's group was the first to find and clone Neanderthal DNA. Starting with mitochondiral DNA (an independent set of DNA instructions that's easier to find than nuclear DNA) and then ending up with remarkable nuclear DNA samples. These data allow us to answer questions such as how close Neanderthals are to modern humans, how much mixing was there between those two species, when/where did this mixing happen, and once we get a better understanding of the human genome, what the differences in those DNA mean for modern humans.

All in all then, this is a very interesting book for anyone interested in the practice of science or the data surrounding Neanderthal DNA. I'd give it four stars for that. But if you're interested in both (like I am), then this is a really rare look under the hood of an exciting research lab, its members, and its findings. So for that, I'm giving if five stars.

Planet Dinosaur
Planet Dinosaur
DVD ~ John Hurt
Price: CDN$ 11.99
19 used & new from CDN$ 11.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb series on dinosaurs, April 2 2014
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This review is from: Planet Dinosaur (DVD)
This is a superb follow-up to Walking With Dinosaurs. It's purely digital, unlike WWD's digital blending into actual settings. It's not technically HD, but it looked good enough on 42" and 46" HD screens. There are multiple episodes that each deal with a lesser-known recent discovery. We get to see some of the biggest carnivores ever, both in Africa and in South America. There's some huge sauropods, a massive marine predator, an analysis of stegosaurus versus allosaurus, Mongolian raptors, and a fascinating island where the usual rules of evolution are reversed.

Overall, it provides an excellent amount of information along with some excellent visuals. The technical information is probably aimed at a slightly older audience than WWD, but the visuals should be enough to entertain younger viewers. So I feel confident with a 5 star rating, even though the lack of true HD probably leads me to a 4.5/5. But that's a small enough issue for me to say that if you like dinosaurs (or know some kids who do), this is an excellent video collection to pick up.

Flash Boys
Flash Boys
by Michael Lewis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.00
22 used & new from CDN$ 15.99

18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lifting the hood on the Wall Street engine, March 31 2014
This review is from: Flash Boys (Hardcover)
This is a really interesting look under the hood of high-speed trading. Trading that happens in microseconds (millionths of a second). In milliseconds (thousandths of a second), it takes about 100 milliseconds to blink. In that time, a stock can experience 500,000 quotes and 150,000 trades! A remarkable ability that left the door open for people to profit on that time.

That's essentially what this book is about. The hero of the story is a good 'ol Canadian boy Brad Katsuyama, who's sent by RBC to New York to enhance the bank's trading profile and prospects in 2002. Things go well enough for a while until (around 2006-07) Katsuyama notices that weird things are happening when he tried to trade large orders. It's almost as if the market know he's going to submit an order and works against him to drive the price up just as he submits the order. But how is this possible? There's no human leak. What's worse, this seems to be happening to a lot of other traders. What's causing it?

Without giving away the details of the investigation, Katsuyama joins forces with some other small players (RBC may be a big bank, but as a trader it's small potatoes). RBC even lets them run some experiments with real money, losing up to $10K a day to figure out the problem. Which is? The people who've set up the high speed systems (many former Soviet/Russian mathematicians) have set it up so that some people can make money off of tiny delays. Delays that allow a program to "front-run" a stock trade, driving up prices just before filling the order. Or creating artificial volume to capitalize on rebates meant to incentivize functional (real) volume. Or capitalizing on the speed gaps created between stock exchanges to pick off cheap orders from one exchange to another before anyone realized it. Individually, they were minor parasites on the system. Less than 0.1% of the costs. But in a system that deals with billions, if not trillions, of dollars, this was a major amount of money being created.

So what did Katsuyama and his crew do? One option would have been to jump in and join the exploitation. They did not. Instead, they notified a whole host of people in the trading business, informing them of why the market seemed to be acting screwy. Because it was. Perhaps not illegally so (although some legal investigations may be pending), but certainly unfairly so. They then decided to create their own stock exchange, IEX. It solves the problem by introducing artificial lag into the system that prevents high-speed traders from gaming the system. If offered all players, big and small, a chance to trade fairly. All in all, a very effective, very modest, and very Canadian solution.

Now that I've revealed some chunks of the plot, is it worth getting? Yes. Because the value of this book isn't just in the story, which is told as quickly as I have above. It's about the personalities, the environment, and it's about the evidence. Lewis writes with his usual candor and vigor, making a potentially dry and technical book come alive with details and characters. You really feel for Katsuyama as he fights a one-man (well, small team) battle against much bigger opponents. And against unfairness in general. So if you like a great story about fighting wrongs, if you are interested in big finance, if you own stocks, or if you just want to read a good story, I can confidently recommend Flash Boys for you.

A Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art
A Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art
by Carl Hoffman
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.32
3 used & new from CDN$ 17.32

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Circumstantial, but fascinating tale of murder and cannibalism, March 30 2014
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It may seem like a spoiler to say from the start that Hoffman believes Michael Rockefeller, member of that grand family, was murdered and eaten. But that's really what is described in the first chapter, so it's not giving away the ending of the book. Instead, this book reads a lot like a Columbo episode. For those who don't know Columbo (consistently ranked as one of TVs greatest shows and detectives), those shows started off with the audience viewing the crime as it happened. Columbo shows up and has to piece together the evidence to solve the crime that we already know happened.

This book starts off revealing the "crime" in the same way, and spends the rest of the book trying to piece together the evidence for it. Briefly, Michael Rockefeller was touring remote islands as a young man, looking for rare pieces of art for his family's new art museum. He and another young friend go out in heavy oceans and their boat capsizes. Their two young native guides swim for help right away while Michael and his companion drift for several hours. Eventually, Michael decides to swim for it. He's never seen again. The official cause of death is drowning (with an off chance of being eaten by sharks).

Hoffman challenges the official version, and weaves three stories into one. The first is the history of the Asmat people before and after Michael's visit. The second is the story of Michael (and his family) around the time of his visit. The third are the author's visits to the modern Asmat (and related witnesses). All in all, it's a very well-written story that offers a very compelling, if circumstantial, explanation for what happened to Michael. Given that we know the crime, it would then be a spoiler for me to reveal how Hoffman has "Columbo'd" the evidence after the fact to outline his version of what happened. The book is well-researched, with a variety of different sources of evidence being brought to bear. There is also a rather satisfying discussion of the way of life of the Asmat people, making it of some interest to those with anthropological interests.

All in all then, this is an easy book to recommend. The story is compelling. The research is thorough. And the writing is satisfying. This may not win book of the year, but it's a very safe book to recommend to a wide range of readers who enjoy true crime, history, travel and exploration, and/or anthropology.

What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night
What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night
by John Brockman
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.43
41 used & new from CDN$ 9.23

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Educated guide to what we should be worrying about, March 23 2014
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I'll admit to being a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, probably because I also like stories of Robinson Crusoe and Huck Finn. But I'm certainly not a fan of bringing any of that end-of-world stuff to real life, so it would be interesting to know what we should be worrying about and trying to prevent. This book is written by dozens of academics, inventors, journalists, etc., who contribute 1-5 page essays on what they think we should worry about. Which includes, in some places, nothing. Or at least less things than we worry about now.

So it's a pretty balanced account. Personally, I mostly felt my biases confirmed, in that a lot of the articles echo my biggest worry- that we are becoming a less-educated, less-thoughtful, and/or less-scientific society. Because a democracy requires informed citizens to work, and the rise of anti-science has people voting for things that they don't know about and/or are against their own best interests in the name of blind ideology. That's scary stuff.

Overall though, the book makes clear to me that there are plenty of things to worry about. From climate change, to rampaging AI, to engineered viruses, to the failure of mathematics, one certainly has a lot to choose from. Fortunately, the book also makes clear that there's a lot of things we can ignore. Including, to a degree, all of the above. Because worrying is only useful insofar as it motivates positive action. Without that, one's probably best left to become educated about the issues, then put them to the side so that we can focus on positive action rather than worrying one's life away.

So I think I can safely say this is a very interesting book to read. While some sections are somewhat self-serving (my research won't get funded-style complaints), a lot of sections are though-provoking, interesting, and supported by at least some evidence. So if you're curious what the experts think are the real problems, definitely give this book a look. If you don't like books written by experts, then you should definitely give this book a look!

Garrett For Hire
Garrett For Hire
by Glen Cook
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.00
36 used & new from CDN$ 5.61

4.0 out of 5 stars Further adventures with Garrett, March 11 2014
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This review is from: Garrett For Hire (Paperback)
This is a three-book compilation, the third in a long series of books about Garrett. Garrett is an ex-marine turned private eye in a fantasy city call TunFair. There are elves, trolls, vampires, dinosaurs, etc. aplenty. Although the action generally remains firmly fixed on the main character and his cast of misfit allies. The three books in this compilation are:

Deadly Quicksilver Lies: A killer is on the loose. A sadistic one at that. The killer is the brother of a woman who's daughter is in danger. But all is not as it appears. Frankly, I found this story rather confusing in its narrative and overly reliant on forced plot mechanisms. While Garrett frequently blunders through mysteries as a technique for solving them, he was particularly dense in this story. So I'd give it two or three stars.

Petty Pewter Gods: In this story, Garrett is asked to help out some petty minor gods who need to get some spiritual help or face oblivion. This story is by far the most "fantastic" of the Garrett series with lots of magic and mythical creatures. It's a light-hearted romp for the most part, but a definitely dark sprinkling of Lovecraftian mythology sufficiently darkens the tone. I quite enjoyed it, and would give it five stars as pulp fantasy.

Faded Steel Heat: Features beer, politics, and shapeshifters. It was an interesting story, even if it did drag a little here and there. The way a couple of major bad guys are dealt with left me a little flat, but overall it was a fun story. Garrett is a touch dense at times, but not as bad as in other stories. I liked the giant keg idea. So a good four stars, maybe five in a generous mood.

Overall then, this is a good continuation of the series. If you're new to them, you really need to read them in order to fully enjoy the series and its characters. As a collection, I'll give this four out of five stars.

Pacific Rim (Bilingual) [Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet]
Pacific Rim (Bilingual) [Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet]
DVD ~ Charlie Hunnam
Price: CDN$ 19.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome movie, awesome DVD, March 6 2014
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I group up watching mecha fight giant robots. G-Force and Golderak were staples, but Sabre Rider, Voltron, Godzilla, etc. were all favorite cartoons (Robotech too). So when a fantastic director took on the task of bringing this kind of action to the big screen, I was immediately interested. Does it work? Absolutely, 100%, yes. Guillermo Del Toro has produced an amazing faithful translation of the genre to modern cinema.

Is it for everyone? I doubt it. But if you love these kinds of stories, with huge mecha and fantastic monsters, then you'll love this movie. The special effects are great, the pacing is good, the plot is reasonable, the acting is sufficient, and the audiovisual filming is excellent.

As for the DVD, it's packed with special features on the making of the film. I watched it again with Guillermo Del Toro's commentary and it really fleshed out his influences for the film as well as all the decisions he made in directing it. Clearly, it was a labor of love. A tribute to a genre he too grew up with and admired. The Blu Ray quality is as clear and crisp as you can get.

Overall then, if the thought of giant robots fighting giant monsters appeals to you, watch this movie. If it really appeals to you, buy this DVD set. You won't be disappointed!

Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes
Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes
Price: CDN$ 9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing look at men (boys) versus women (girls), but needs more evidence, March 6 2014
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Beneson is not the first person to look at the differences between the sexes, even from an evolutionary perspective (e.g., Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences 2nd (second) Edition by Geary, David C. published by Amer Psychological Assn (2009). However, she takes a relatively new tack on the subject by linking male and female traits to two distinct sex roles. Males are warriors, females as worrying mothers.

From an evolutionary perspective, this is not an unreasonable approach. There is good data suggesting that these are indeed to highly sex-linked roles that were important for ancestral humans. Beneson draws initially upon developmental research looking at the behavior of young children to build her case. Much of it her work. Her argument is that if we are indeed predisposed to behave in certain ways, then we should see these behavioral differences in the sexes emerge early, without any strong environmental inputs. She does present some compelling data to suggest that boys are indeed somewhat predisposed to seek out other boys, form competitive groups that compete with each other, but put internal differences aside in the face of competing with external groups. Girls on the other hand tend to have a much more individualistic approach, maintaining relationships with a smaller number of peers for shorter periods of time. Indeed, this represents one of her more interesting findings. Counter-intuitively, boys are MORE social than girls, and are BETTER at retaining friendships. Largely because boys seem to be able to overlook and/or forgive small slights to friendships because of the need to maintain a cohesive front against external groups. Given that a cohesive group is essential to fighting off enemies, this is a valuable trait for boys to have. Fight within a group for dominance, but set all issues aside (and maintain friendships) when enemies arise. And boys seem to be very concerned about enemies or villains from a very young age. They like setting up mock-fights with opponents as well as real fights.

Girls generally do not. They prefer more nurturing activities as well as less risky activities than boys. Because a woman's primary role is raising her children, and her welfare is extremely important for the success of that job. No one else cares for a child (in most cases) as well as their birth mother. This means girls don't need to build huge coalitions. Indeed, other girls can be competitors for resources a woman eventually needs to raise her own children. So girls make and break friendships more often. They exclude other girls more often than boys exclude boys. Yet they fight less because they have more to lose than boys/men do (the latter can sacrifice their life to save their wife and child, knowing that their wife will likely do a good job raising the child).

I can't do full justice to the hypothesis here, but it's an interesting and compelling one that I largely agree with. However, I don't think it's the entire story. Or that the data is as cut and dry as Beneson would have us believe. She uses a lot of anecdotal evidence as well as a lot of leaps from children to adults (and vice versa) to support her story. She also ignores some potentially revealing evidence, such as personality trait differences. Personality traits would be a simple and efficient mechanism to result in the behaviors she explains without having to rely on specialized behavioral modules tuned to different social behaviors.

Overall then, I found it a very compelling read. Beneson's hypothesis certainly is in line with a significant quantity of evidence. Her logic is generally sound, although it could be tighter in spots. Her writing is clear and engaging, making the book easy to read (I'd say it's aimed at a general, if educated, audience). However, I can't quite give the book five stars because a lot of it is still based on conjecture and weak data that is often presented too strongly for my tastes. So good book, better idea, and I'm looking forward to seeing more data to test and/or flesh out the basic hypothesis.

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