Book Review: First Case In the Dresden Files...

Storm Front (The Dresden Files, #1)Storm Front by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After years of being told that I should read The Dresden Files, I finally remembered and picked this up at the library.

I loved it.

Think hard-boiled detective novel meets fantasy, with a touch of humor. I really liked Dresden - everything from the way I pictured him to the way he spoke and the slight twist on what otherwise might be cliche. Butcher takes stereotypes (ie, the hard-nosed private investigator) and makes them more interesting with innovative twists (ie, oh yeah, he's a wizard. And a gentleman.).

The book is well-paced, a page turner that kept me flipping to the end, and the story was very easy to follow. Butcher balances the details of his world nicely, too. There are places where Dresden explains aspects of the world to the reader (like a detective narrative), but there are others where he doesn't - and he doesn't need to, the details are sprinkled in and it's easy to pick up what's important and move on. Nor is he shy about setting Dresden up for failure (or a little pain) which had me pulling for the wizard even more as I got to the end.

I recommend this book to anyone who's ever enjoyed even light fantasy, detective stories, or someone who's just up for a unique twist on old ideas.

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Emergency 2.0

Yesterday I mentioned (or at least, intended to mention) the lag between the official "Emergency Notification Systems" in place where I work and the actual event as it blew up on social media. 

There was anywhere from a 15-30 minute lag time between the quake and notifications via email/land line phone. I never actually received text alerts, although I'm signed up for them and have received them in the past (although some cell services were down/flooded). The decision to evacuate didn't reach me until almost 3:00pm, and it was shared by someone who walked the hallways knocking on doors.

Which of course begs the question... when an event can erupt over facebook instantly (I got info about the quake, reported/updated magnitude and epicenter, etc, within 8-10 minutes or so via Facebook postings), how can that power be used to make emergency communications more effective?

I think this is a question that must be asked of those who design the community response infrastructure.

Howard County has sort of done this - for example, today I saw a safety update/recommendation from Ken Ulman on facebook about reporting damage and emergency preparedness. But I don't recall seeing any coordinated messages yesterday via facebook - did I miss them (entirely possible)? Anyone?  (hocoblogs@@@)

In the mean time, look at this shiny and relevant infographic, featured today via The American Red Cross, which kind of illustrates my point. I'm surprised that the numbers of people that get info via FB/Twitter aren't higher, but also recall that there was "info passing" from those sources in the halls at work. So FB & Twitter may play a larger role than can be measured directly.

How do you think Social Media should be incorporated (if at all) in emergency response?

Social Media in Emergencies

Edit to add: Marshmallow Man mentions the local response he received within hours of the quake over on 53 beers.



By now, I suspect it will surprise no one to hear that we had a small earthquake here on the East Coast.

Ok, not so small. 5.9 on the Richter Scale (or, by some reports, 5.8). Now, if you're like me and can count the number of times you've been in a quake on one hand (yes, it's more than one), that number doesn't mean a whole lot.

Here's what it meant for me: my lab is centrally located in a pretty solid building on campus. The tremors were strong enough to rattle all the glassware on the shelves, the chemical hood behind me, and create a swaying sensation (easily felt as I was cowering cleverly crouched under my desk).

It was very disorienting, especially in the few seconds it took me to figure things out. I work alone, so there was no one I could ask "did you feel that?" until well after it was over.

The University's response was strange. Emergency notification came in the form of two email (in the 15-20 minutes post-quake), and a robocall (about 35 minutes after). There was then an "evacuation" of our building, but not others in the continuous complex.

I was actually amused by the warning time, although considering the size of the campus and the coordination required it was probably pretty fast. This might spinoff a post about the expectation of immediate information - for example, how facebook blew up with info immediately - and how social media could be put to use by emergency notification systems.

But I digress.

After milling around a while, I "snuck" back in, finished my work, and left.

Even though the buildings were reopened, police remained on the corners of MLK. I'm not sure what they were looking for, but as of 4:30 or so they showed no signs of moving. Some of them looked like they'd been pulled on duty - still in jeans and plain tee shirts, with only a police vest to mark them.

At the corner of MLK and Pratt Street.

It was a very odd day, courtesy of what might have been the Spotsylvania Fault Line, according to a report on NPR (I couldn't find the link, but the quake already has its own Wiki Page).

Oh yes, and everyone I know seems to be alright.

What was your Earthquake experience?


Book Review: (Crazy + Lonely Planet)/Communist China in 1986 = 2 stars

It's hard for me to say that I fully enjoyed this book (which was chosen by my book club a while back), but it did tell a unique story, at times in language that took my breath away. Which might rate it three stars. 

But I gave it two. Here's my review of "Undress Me In The Temple Of Heaven," a memoir by Susan Jane Gilman (aka, Susie, aka, "Sushi").

Undress Me in the Temple of HeavenUndress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have some conflicted feelings about this book.

To start: the writing is beautiful. Gilman not only gives an account of visiting the other side of the world, she shares the experience of being there in 1986, just after China opened its borders to independent travelers.

After graduation, Gilman and a friend pack malaria pills, water purifiers, picky appetites, and some naivety, and hop on a plane to Hong Kong. The goal? Travel around the world. Stop 1: China. Gilman describes a route that most people would not take, mixing in their experience with local culture and her encounters with the surprisingly large (but also small) backpacking community. It's almost shocking to read about how they travel now, not just post-9/11 - something that Gilman does address briefly - but the decisions they make that I can't imagine choosing (even in my early 20s).

There is also a lot of bat**** crazy in this book.

And the crazy is what kept me reading, because for most of the memoir, I found Gilman's friend - and at times, Gilman herself - aggravating and unlikable.

To Gilman's credit, she's the storyteller, and she doesn't sugarcoat the areas where she behaves badly/questionably/etc. And when I think about it, I might not have continued reading without that element of realness (or, if I felt I was getting a very sanitized account). I really want to write this review without spoilers, so I won't go into more detail. But that aggravation did at least keep me reading, if only from the desire to see if/how the women changed.

So at the end of the day... fantastic writing style, pretty imagery, and a unique story/setting... but difficult to read because at times, Gilman and her friend just make me want to walk away.

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Fund me... but not Rick Perry.

Let's be honest, I'm not often impressed by the Republican Right. Or even the Republican "middle" - which is really just less-right.

But Rick Perry is on my radar with his stance on Global Warming. Not because I Love Al Gore, but because of Perry's line of reasoning.

From the Huffington Post:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry took his skepticism about climate change one step further on Wednesday, telling a New Hampshire business crowd that scientists have cooked up the data on global warming for the cash.
In his stump speech, Perry referenced "a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects."
"We're seeing weekly, or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what's causing the climate to change," Perry said. "Yes, our climates change. They've been changing ever since the earth was formed."

That's right. According to Rick Perry, Scientists cook the data.

But wait, that's not all!

The WaPo goes on to report the next day:
“They have seen the headlines in the past year about doctored data related to global warming,” Perry writes. “They know that we have been experiencing a cooling trend, that the complexities of the global atmosphere have often eluded the most sophisticated scientists, and that draconian policies with dire economic effects based on so-called science may not stand the test of time. Quite frankly, when science gets hijacked by the political Left, we should all be concerned.”

Good thing science is never manipulated or hijacked by the Right. Never. Never ever.

Now, I'm not saying scientists should never be questioned, or that science is always right, or that science knows everything about a given topic (let alone global warming) right now. There are too-frequent reports of people who have falsified data and lost their positions, issue retractions, damage other careers, etc. This is very, very bad. Even one report is too-frequent, given the nature of scientific research to build upon the findings of others.

But this is discovered through the process of competition, further experimentation, and peer review.

Not by politicians.

Just because a poll says a majority of people don't believe a theory (Global Warming, for example) is not true, doesn't mean that their theory is any more correct. Popular opinion does not a truth make. Ask Copernicus

It's the collection and evaluation of evidence - which can be a long, gradual process - that should influence our interactions with (and actions on) the world.

Perry uses general terms when he talks about these Scientists Gone Wild, if you watch the clip (at the end of the post). "Substantial number." Which then becomes "some cases". He points to the emergence of scientists that question the working hypothesis as evidence that the theory is false - thereby furthering the implication that the data is false and politicized. 

No, it's science. 


Scientific development comes from trying to prove or disprove a working hypothesis. Perry is merely taking the flip side of what he's accusing liberals of doing - that is, politicizing global warming - only he's doing it at the expense of science's credibility in the eyes of the public.

And I didn't hear any disclosures, Governor Perry. Come on, even "scientists" do that.

I'm not sure if it's willful ignorance, or a belief that the public is not interested in specifics behind his accusations, or the desire to capitalize on a popular idea about science.

And in a way, that's what's most alarming about Perry. His comments reflect a fundamental problem in the perception of science - which, in turn, leads me to believe this is an attitude he's likely to carry into the White House

The prejudice that scientists would fabricate data to funnel in research dollars doesn't bode well for the future of research in America. Clearly, Perry has never tried to apply for an NIH grant.

It's not about global warming, Perry. Sorry.

Here's a video of his answer so you can judge for yourself. The question takes a while and is hard to understand, but Perry is loud and clear.

S&P Ratings - The aftermath

I am not an economist. 

I know there are basic principles - supply and demand, etc. I more or less have some grasp of the way the system works (at least, I've thought about it). But anything below the surface? Well... let's just say at one point I decided to crack a text book to try to learn on my own, and I glazed over in the first few pages. Thrilling it was not.

Now I kind of regret not taking econ classes, because I feel continuously in a state of catch-up.

Take the stock downgrade by Standard & Poor's, for example, on August 5. It's all over the news, and it's hard for me to really evaluate the stories/analysis without taking the reporter/oped at it's word.

From my disclaimer above, I've obviously got a long way to go before I can do anything other than repeat opinions of "what to do." And I'm not going to even touch the "why" - HCR stated it pretty nicely a few weeks ago. 

So what's gotten my attention so far? The purpose of agencies like the S&P, and the response since the downgrade.

S&P is an American financial services company that offers credit ratings (Moody's and Fitch are the other two major ratings agencies). Clients (countries, municipalities, companies, etc) pay the S&P to rate their bonds, which in turn communicates to investors the risk associated with that investment. 

From the S&P "General Criteria: Understanding Standard & Poor's Rating Definitions." June 3, 2009.

Ratings convey the "creditworthiness" of the investment - that is, the likelihood that debts will be paid back according to the terms of a contract. The possibility of default is the key factor that issues S&P ratings, according to their site, although other factors play a role in rating. 
In our view, likelihood of default is the centerpiece of creditworthiness. That means likelihood of default--encompassing both capacity and willingness to pay--is the single most important factor in our assessment of the creditworthiness of an issuer or an obligation. Therefore, consistent with our goal of achieving a rank ordering of creditworthiness, higher ratings on issuers and obligations reflect our expectation that the rated issuer or obligation should default less frequently than issuers and obligations with lower ratings, all other things being equal.
Although we emphasize the rank ordering of default likelihood, we do not view the rating categories solely in relative terms. We associate each successively higher rating category with the ability to withstand successively more stressful economic environments, which we view as less likely to occur. We associate issuers and obligations rated in the highest categories with the ability to withstand extreme or severe stress in absolute terms without defaulting. Conversely, we associate issuers and obligations rated in lower categories with vulnerability to mild or modest stress.
--From the S&P "General Criteria: Understanding Standard & Poor's Rating Definitions." June 3, 2009. (emphasis mine)
Just reading this excerpt - dated from 2009 - puts the S&P's decision to downgrade the US debt in less questionable ground (at least, in my mind). It also throws interesting light on the posturing that's gone on in the wake of the debt deal - in some cases, posturing that could further jeopardize the credit rating were it to become reality, like Perry & Romney's statements against the debt deal. Failure to come to a compromise seemed to be central to the S&P evaluation. 

As for that difference in bond ratings...? 

From the S&P "General Criteria: Understanding Standard & Poor's Rating Definitions." June 3, 2009.
The US now shares a credit rating with Spain, which has been downgraded as part of the fallout from Greece's repeated economic woes in the European debt crisis (Greece has been downgraded to junk status).

To get further perspective, here's a list of credit ratings of countries worldwide.

Amid all the finger-pointing and railing in the wake of the downgrade are a few stories that have gotten my attention.

First, the Obama adminstration's reaction to the "miscalculation" in the S&P analysis. Legitimate? Yes. But it simply made the S&P come out and fully explain the political nature of its decision.

Three downgraded municipalities have "fired" the S&P

Allegations have arisen (or been implied) of "insider trading" at the S&P in advance of the downgrade.

There is an ongoing investigation as to whether or not the S&P improperly rated mortgage securities in advance of the debt crisis.

I'm interested to see how this plays out. The last one is particularly interesting. Is it possible that the S&P "caused" the debt crisis (or is this an argument that is being shored up for use against the S&P in the future, possibly to mitigate any fallout from the downgrade)? 

Is the S&P the cause of the recession (or will it be the cause of a relapse), or is the downgrade an effect of the recession? It seems very circular to me.

Has the dust-up damaged the reputation of the S&P? How will this affect the benefits of good credit ratings from this agency? 

How will the decision to drop the S&P by Los Angeles and two counties in California affect those municipalities - both in terms of future investiment, and in economic recovery? To me, it doesn't seem legitimate to drop a credit agency because they call you out as an investment risk. 

Finally, I know the news has said the mortgage probe began before the downgrade, but I can't help but feel there might be political motivations on either side. Should S&P have to consider political fallout in the wake of its decisions? If there's evidence of this (or the perception of it), how will it affect the legitimacy of S&P credit ratings?

These are just the questions rattling around in my head. What do you think?


Where am I, Wednesday?

Good morning, SwimWriteRunReaders! Where am I in the HoCo? (hocoblogs@@@)

Leave your guess in the comments below.


Book Review: When the mind becomes a blank slate... every... morning.

My Book Club (the awesome ladies at HoCoBoCo) chose Before I Go To Sleep as our pick for August. As I was describing the book to a friend, she said, "Huh, it sounds like Momento."

Kind of, but it's better. Trust me.

Discussion isn't for a few weeks, but here are some of my initial thoughts...

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Before I Go To Sleep" is a psychological thriller that plays on the triumphs and faults of human memory and the vulnerability that comes from forced reliance on others. SJ Watson takes a sometimes-overdone plot convention (amnesia) and, with strong writing and an excellent sense of balance between suspense and reveal, creates a story that drives the reader through to the end.

From the outset, Watson dumps the reader into the question mark that is Christine's life. Red flags pop up relatively early, but there are so many that tracking them leads the reader down the same false roads as Christine. The unreliable narrator (Christine) is a critical handicap and a means for building both frustration and suspense, but - importantly - not at the cost of belief.

Not until the last fifty pages or so, when the "less-resolved" warning signs more clearly point to the direction of the plot, does the ending really become clear. I did find myself wishing that the ultimate resolution came at the hands of Christine herself, not the outside forces at play, but at the end I was happy with the way Christine changed. And I really liked where Watson chose to end the story.

I'd recommend this book as a fast-paced, entertaining read, particularly for those who like trying to puzzle out a mystery on their own ahead of the narrator.

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Food versus Food: Cups of Cakes

...or, as those in the know like to say... "cupcakes."

Just before they say "Om nom nom nom."

By Marvelcakes (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The cupcake has always been pretty awesome, a great treat that - when it's really good - doesn't even need the frosting. 

think of kid things when I think about cupcakes: licking the cake batter off of the spoon; holding the sprinkles up high so they fall evenly... on everything but the cake; glossy round chocolate and vanilla tops crammed into a tray and sent off to school for birthdays (back when you were allowed to do that sort of thing).

Since then, though, cupcakes became a trend. Or, as some would call it, a passion. (or a curse - do a google search. There's lots of CupCakeHatin' going on out there.)

So how do cupcakes in the HoCo measure up against eachother? This FvF is all about finding out! (hocofood@@@)

Contender #1: Snickerdoodle cupcake from Fresh Bakery (the cupcake stand in the Mall).

Fresh Bakery is actually located in Owings Mills, but has "cupcake stands" in area malls - including the Columbia Mall. Somehow, since it's been open, I've managed to walk right past the stand without noticing. Repeatedly. So I took SixSwims with me to make sure I didn't bypass the cupcakey goodness.

Fresh Bakery cupcakes sit in neat rows near little placards, beneath domes of glass. But that's not actually the most interesting thing about them. They're square, which is a pretty interesting visual. But how does that translate to taste?

I chose snickerdoodle because the name was appealing - another throwback from childhood - and the cake was very pretty. 

Square cupcakes from Fresh Bakery. Snickerdoodle is on the right.
Cindy's choice (chocolate/chocolate) is on the left.
Seriously, the square thing is neat.

The first bite of cupcake was excellent - the icing was flavored lightly with cinnamon, but there was a slight crunch to each bite. I couldn't decide if it was a sprinkling of sugar (..to go with the snickerdoodle theme...) or if the cake had been sitting for a while. I really wanted it to be a dusting of sugar. The yellow cake was moist and sweet, but didn't seem to have any noticeable traces of cinnamon. 

Fresh Bakery's cupcake was a nice, light ending after a dinner, and a pleasant treat.

Which brings us to...

Contender #2: Snickerdoodle cupcake from Kupcakes & Co in Elkridge.

Kupcake & Co is located at 6010 Meadowridge Center Drive in Elkridge - you have to drive around to the back of the small strip-type mall to find it. It's a small shop with one table and (the day I went) two huge racks of fresh cupcakes.

Curious how my experience would compare, I couldn't resist ordering the Snickerdoodle cupcake.

Snickerdoodle Cupcake from Kupcake & Co.
It got a little squished en route to the eating (in the back, so this is the better side), but that was my fault.

Kupcake & Co's Snickerdoodle cupcake is visually impressive to start, crowned with a generous swirl of cinnamon-colored icing and topped with pieces of snickerdoodle cookie which give a nice texture. I'm not normally a girl who likes loads of frosting on cake, but this frosting was sweet without being overpowering - the cinnamon definitely helped. 

The cake was spiced as well. Biting into it made me think of warm spice cake around the holidays, and even though I liked the icing, I would have been fine without it

And, while I could easily put away a whole cupcake... honestly I didn't need to. Even split between two people, this cupcake was a decadent after-dinner treat.

The Verdict: I thought it would be a hard decision, but while both cupcakes were tasty, a clear winner emerged quickly: Kupcake & Co.! They might turn out a round cupcake, but they don't cut corners. (I know... I know... sorry. Please come back.) Their Snickerdoodle cupcake looked great, I loved the cookie accent. Most importantly, all of the components tasted wonderful, and the cupcake tasted very fresh.

Where do you go for your cupcake fix? What's your favorite flavor? Tell me in the comments!


Where am I, Wednesday?

Good morning, blogfans! Where am I today in the HoCo? (hocoblogs@@@)

Leave your guess in the comments below!


Book Review: Blindness, and the occasional problem with art for art's sake

Hey, fun fact... GoodReads has a publish-blog option! Since I've recently gone on a borrowing spree at my local public library, I figured I'd share my thoughts on the books I've enjoyed.

BlindnessBlindness by José Saramago

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ok, about Blindness.

First of all, I loved the premise and I really liked the story. As horrific as it was at points, it seemed very real, very immediate and desperate when I was able to immerse myself in the narrative. Questions - and a real desire to see the protagonist come out of the situation - kept me turning the pages.

That having been said, this was a book I would have preferred to read in one sitting. This is mostly because of the style - minimal dialogue tags/dialogue smashed within a paragraph, etc - that made it difficult to pick up after time away. That device - along with the lack of names, which I thought worked well with the dehumanizing aspect of the story - disappeared from notice after a few pages.

More annoying was the occasional intrusion of the phantom narrator, which seemed to serve nothing more than commentary on the plot (a la Jane Austen style narrating - it doesn't actually forward the plot or shed more light on the situation, it just tells the reader what the author is showing). Page 94 is a great example of where I was reading, and then was suddenly slammed out of the story by a direct address from the narrator.

I think this is a great book with a fascinating story and the potential to drive really compelling discussion about human nature and the ability of literature to amplify aspects of that nature that are both great and horrible. I do offer the caveat, though, that for me, the dedication to "art" - the format, the narrator - made the book harder to read at times, took away from the immediacy of the story, and left me questioning some of Saramago's choices.

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A refusal to vent, August, and a party.

Posting here's been inconsistent. Sorry about that.

Part of it is that I'm incredibly busy. The other part is that the things occupying my mind are not things I'm really willing to blog about. It's hard to publish updates about things like school/work without turning it into a vent, and that's something I don't want to do on my blog.

Still, things are looking up.

Here's what you can expect for August:

Food versus Food - Two posts, set and ready to go. I know. Be excited!

Some DIY and cooking posts - I've got some cool DIY projects going that I just have to share. The word of the day is "Upcycle."

Where am I, Wednesday? - guess where I am in the HoCo, based on the amazing photo technology of the little Droid X That Could.

And more. (aka, blanket statement to promise additional content, probably related to happenings both local and national)

Also, don't forget about the HoCo Blogs party coming up next Thursday! It's a family-friendly event on Aug 11 at Stanford Grill. 5:30pm. RSVP here!


Where am I, Wednesday?

Here you go, blog friends! Where am I in the HoCo? (hocoblogs@@@)

Bonus points if you can tell me where I was standing when I took the picture.