Smoke and Ashes

[Amazon Link]

The fourth book on my Edgar Award Nominees reading project. No surprise, it's pretty good. It is the third in a (so far) four-book series, with number five coming out in July. Fortunately, it's not one of those books that depends on knowing much about what's happened in previous entries in the series.

It is set in 1921 Calcutta. The narrator, Sam Wyndham, is on the local police force. One night he comes across a grossly mutilated corpse! And immediately scarpers, avoiding the other incoming cops! Why?

Well, he's not at the location in an official capacity. It turns out that Sam, in the great British detective tradition, is a substance abuser. His substance of choice is opium, the crime scene is a sleazy den, and it wouldn't do for his superiors to discover this nasty habit.

Which is fine, except that another body soon turns up, mutilated in exactly the same way. And the body that Sam discovered seems to have vanished. Complicated.

Meanwhile, Sam is tasked with discouraging the locals from protesting India's colonial status. Coming up is the imminent arrival of the Prince of Wales, who's touring the various domains of the British Empire. Wouldn't do to have the Indians making a ruckus! Sam gets to discuss non-violent resistance tactics with practitioners (some actual historical action figures) (but not Gandhi).

In his investigations, Sam is assisted by his Indian sidekick, "Surrender-Not" Bannerjee. With the book's author having the name "Abir Mukherjee", you might think Wyndham could be caricatured as a total colonialist twit, and Bannerjee the actual crime-solver. That would be a cheap trick, and Mukherjee avoids it. Instead, Wyndham is freer from bigotry than most of his compatriots.

So the question is: what's going on? Who's doing these grisly murders, and does it have anything to do with the upcoming royal visit? (Spoiler: you bet.) Pulse-pounding finish!

Last Modified 2022-10-01 1:04 PM EDT

Countdown 1945

The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World

[Amazon Link]

The lead author in big type: Chris Wallace, the Fox News guy. In fine print underneath: with Mitch Weiss. Hard to say who actually did most of the typing.

But let's ignore that for now. The book concentrates on the "countdown" to the dropping of "Little Boy" on Hiroshima. Starting 116 days before, with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and ascension to the Presidency of Harry Truman. Truman is quickly told about the Manhattan Project, the super-secret operation at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Hanford, etc. to put together the gadget of then-incredible destructive power.

The book is written for broad audiences, concentrating on a few dozen of the personalities involved. It leans toward telling "good stories" up and down the chain of command: the biggies: Truman, Oppenheimer, Groves; the flight crew: Tibbets and the rest. It also tells the story of Hideko Tamura, a 10-year-old kid in Hiroshima who survived. And many more.

The book also examines the iffy ethics in visiting mass destruction on a city with a lot of civilian deaths. (It's hard for us moderns to remember that intentionally inflicting civilian casualties was considered a crime.) I'm probably a little biased: in 1945, six years before I was born, my dad was in Europe, pretty sure that he was about to be shipped out to the Pacific for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. Which was guaranteed to be a meat grinder.

So dropping the bomb may have made my very existence possible. Hard for me to discount that.

I enjoyed the book, certainly a page-turner. It would make a good gift for a high school student interested in history. (Or for one you're trying to get interested in history.)

If I had but one quibble, I'd say the book misses a bet by not including Richard Feynman's Los Alamos stories, a combination of heartbreak (his wife Arline dying of TB in an Albuquerque sanitorium) and hilarity (circumventing security to the consternation of his colleagues, for his own amusement). That's told pretty well in Gliek's bio and Feynman's own memoirs compiled by Ralph Leighton,

Last Modified 2022-10-01 1:04 PM EDT


[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Truth be told, this is an OK comedy, raunchy division. Not great, not awful. The star, Adam Devine is an Iowa boy, like me and Neal Stephenson. So we'll give him a pass, and hope he works on better projects in the future.

He plays Phil, who has a sweet San Francisco pad, coupled with a soul-deadening job at an Internet content farm; he and his co-workers have the non-stop everyday task of composing clickbait listicles. ("Ten Cats That Look Like Ryan Gosling") He's a friendless loner, shies away from any sort of risk-taking, dedicated to the phone he looks at incessantly. (Like all San Franciscans, the movie claims.)

Two things happen: he meets the lovely Cate, proprietor of a bike shop. It's a "meet cute", involving destruction of said phone. So he needs a new one, he gets one from Wanda Sykes, and it has one of those new-fangled AI assistants, named "Jexi".

It turns out that Phil's copy of Jexi is all too advanced, complete with character flaws. For one, she's foulmouthed. (The first five times Jexi deadpans an f-bomb, it's pretty funny. The next few hundred times… maybe not so much.) Jexi dedicates all her CPU cycles to improving Phil's life. And guess what, it works!

It works all too well: as Phil and Cate hit it off, Jexi feels ignored and gets jealous. And dedicates herself now to ruining Phil's new life.

I stayed awake. These days, that's pretty high praise.

Last Modified 2022-10-16 9:42 AM EDT

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]
Consumer note: searching for "dumpster fire" at Amazon gives you a lot of hits. Probably too late for the Christmas tree ornaments, but our Product du Jour will allow you to properly commemorate the year almost gone by.

  • One of our yearly traditions is to link to Dave Barry's 2020 Year in Review. And here's a one-sentence excerpt:

    And then, sprinkled in amid all the political coverage, we begin to see reports that this coronavirus thing might be worse than we have been led to believe, although at first the authorities still seem to be saying that it’s basically the flu and there is no reason to panic, but all of a sudden there seems to be no hand sanitizer for sale anywhere, which makes some sense although there is also no toilet paper, as if people are planning to be pooping for weeks on end (ha) and then we learn that Tom Hanks -- Tom Hanks! – has the virus and now they’re saying it’s a lot worse than the flu and we need to wash our hands and not touch our faces and maintain a social distance of six feet and use an abundance of caution to flatten the curve (whatever “the curve” is) but they’re also saying we don’t need face masks no scratch that now they’re saying we DO need face masks but nobody HAS any face masks but hey here’s a funny meme about toilet paper but ohmigod look at these statistical disease models WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE but Trump says maybe this hydroxysomething medicine will work no it won’t work yes it will work no it won’t and now they’re saying there won’t be enough ventilators or hospital beds or PPE and Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx are saying everybody has to shelter at home or else WE ARE ALL DEFINITELY GOING TO DIE hey here’s another funny toilet-paper meme but seriously what is PPE and is that different from PPP and where will we get the ventilators and there won’t be enough hospital beds and there is still no hand sanitizer and I keep touching my face and they just canceled the NBA can they even DO that wait now they canceled ALL the sports and closed all the schools the colleges the stores the restaurants the bars the theaters the hair salons the parks the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and now they’re saying we need to stay at home for HOW LONG what about the toilet paper I can’t stop touching my damn face are you seriously telling me all this is because somebody ate a freaking bat maybe Amazon has toilet paper ohmigod they’re sold out too WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THE TOILET PAPER not another Zoom meeting I am so tired of shouting at people in little boxes maybe I should take a shower but what’s the point hey here’s a bunch more funny memes ohmigod look at the Stock Market the price of oil maybe I’ll just take a peek at my 401k oh NOOOOOOOO and WHAT ARE PEOPLE DOING WITH ALL THIS TOILET PAPER and how long do we have to keep being abundantly cautious what did Trump say about the ventilators and what did Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci say about what Trump said about the ventilators and what did Trump say about what they said about what he said about the ventilators ventilators ventilators LOOK AT THESE MODELS WE ARE STILL GOING TO DIE but do we really want to go on living in a world where there’s no toilet paper and every single TV commercial sounds like “as we navigate these difficult times together, the National Association of Folding Chair Manufacturers wants you to know that we are committed to running these TV commercials with a somber narrator voice telling you how committed we are” and WHY WOULD SOMEBODY EAT A DAMN BAT these memes are getting old hey do you think that Carole Baskin woman actually fed her husband to a tiger maybe we should order pizza tonight wait I think we had pizza last night are you sure it’s Tuesday because it feels more like Thursday no please God not another freaking Zoom meeting stop already with the memes if the tiger ate her husband shouldn’t there be a skeleton somewhere are we flattening the curve yet Dr. Fauci Dr. Birx because we’re in a recession no wait maybe it’s a depression look at the unemployment numbers we are never going to recover from this if the virus doesn’t kill us we will starve to death we need more money from the government we need billions no we need trillions no we need MORE trillions where is this money coming from we have to open the economy up but if we do WE WILL ALL DIE hey I found some toilet paper oh no it’s one-ply which is basically the same as using your bare hand thank God I also found some hand sanitizer and speaking of good news Bernie Sanders is endorsing Joe Biden so apparently they’re both still alive if I see one more meme I am going to puke in my facemask I’m afraid to get on a scale my thighs are basically two armadillo-sized wads of pizza dough hey Dr. Birx Dr. Fauci when will we have a vaccine when will we have herd immunity when can we go outside when can we go back to work what is the “new normal” good lord what did Trump say about disinfectants DON’T INJECT CLOROX YOU IDIOTS what about the food chain what about reinfection what about the second wave hey they’re showing the NFL draft and Georgia is opening the tattoo parlors and holy crap now it’s...

    Dave's not making this up.

  • Looking to turn things around in 2021? At LessWrong, "Ideopunk" has 100 Tips for a Better Life. Let me just snip the section on "Rationality". Not that a typical Pun Salad reader needs… oh, well. Some links and formatting elided:

    1. Noticing biases in others is easy, noticing biases in yourself is hard. However, it has much higher pay-off.
    2. Explaining problems is good. Often in the process of laying out a problem, a solution will present itself.
    3. Foolish people are right about most things. Endeavour to not let the opinions of foolish people automatically discredit those opinions.
    4. You have a plan. A time-traveller from 2030 appears and tells you your plan failed. Which part of your plan do you think is the one that fails? Fix that part.
    5. If something surprises you again and again, stop being surprised.
    6. Should you freak out upon seeing your symptoms on the worst diseases on WebMD? Probably not! Look up the base rates for the disease and then apply Bayes’ Theorem
    7. Selfish people should listen to advice to be more selfless, selfless people should listen to advice to be more selfish. This applies to many things. Whenever you receive advice, consider its opposite as well. You might be filtering out the advice you need most.
    8. Common systems and tools have been designed so everybody can handle them. So don’t worry that you’re the only one who can’t! You can figure out doing laundry, baking, and driving on a highway.

    I don't agree with all of Ideopunk's tips, but (dude) I had to think about them. Probably I should think more about number 92.

  • Andrea Peyser has some wicked fun at the NYPost: Alec Baldwin must know more about Hilaria than he's letting on.

    Alec Baldwin, love of my life, obsession of my soul. My super-size, gelatinous hunk of Soft Serve non-dairy product. Failed impersonator of President Donald J. Trump. Duped husband of an agile and flexible Spanish impersonator.

    Oh, babe, how I’ve missed you!

    But Alec, dear, sweet, demented Alec. You really need to calm down and listen up.

    That woman you married, Hillary/Hilaria, the one with the smoking body and a craving for celebrities with deep-seated anger issues, is not all that she seems. That ex-yogi, who has been passing herself off for years as exotic and foreign, turns out to be as spiceless and American as a shopping-mall food court that’s run out of Panda Express.

    She’s a full-blown phony!

    Alec's a pretty good actor, especially when he manages to portray "decent human being" convincingly. It's a real stretch.

  • Philosopher Johnny Anomaly wonders out loud: Is Intelligence Overrated? (Betteridge's law of headlines alert!) Bottom line:

    Some of the smartest people in universities deny that intelligence is real, that it is heritable, or that it makes a significant difference in people’s lives. As Russell Warne shows in his excellent new book, they are wrong. University professors and public intellectuals are full of bad ideas. But my guess is that as genetic testing and reproductive technology improve, many parents will ignore the pundits and seek to enhance their children’s intelligence. Some will do this the old-fashioned way—through mate selection. Others are likely to select embryos for intelligence using polygenic scores, along with other traits. But few of them will continue to deny what is increasingly obvious: intelligence is good for individuals and groups, and more intelligence is generally better, at least within the normal range of current human abilities.

    This is not to say that … well, a smart person like you should be able to fill in the rest.

  • And Mark Perry favors us with another Animated chart of the day: World’s top ten billionaires, 2000 to 2020.

    It's volatile. Bill and Warren fight it out, only to be surprised by Jeff!

Last Modified 2022-10-01 1:04 PM EDT