Posted by: bkivey | 20 May 2011

Around the World and Beyond

Book Reviews

I recently finished two books and tried to read a third, but just couldn’t get through it.

More Than Good Intentions (2011)Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel

I found out about this book from a Wall Street Journal review, and was able to locate a copy at the library. The book looks at a number of poverty mitigation efforts around the globe, including the trendy microcredit concept, and how the authors applied economic analysis methods to determine program efficacy. This wasn’t some dry academic exercise, but an on-location effort. The authors use a case study approach to show how various programs affect real people and how they tried to quantify program results. Some of the results are surprising in light of the popularity of some programs in the developed world.

I’m a numbers guy, and result analysis is a large part of my professional work, so I was a little disappointed in the ‘popular’ approach of the text, but there’s an extensive Notes section that cites all the references one could ask for. The authors summarize the seven most effective programs they found, and note that judging a charitable organization by the percentage of revenue spent on overhead ” . . . is a really bad metric.” I did appreciate the effort to quantify what to many people feel shouldn’t be measured, as charitable giving is the ‘right’ thing to do. I disagree: any time resources are expended, there is a moral obligation to both the provider and recipient to ascertain effectiveness relative to goals.

Rating: Read it.

Dead or Alive (2010) – Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood

The latest Tom Clancy doorstop, published 7 years after his last effort. The Amazon reviews are lukewarm, an assessment I agree with. The first thing I noticed was that the writing didn’t flow as well as previous efforts. It just seemed off a bit. In previous works Clancy has demonstrated a gift for character development and creating tension, and those elements were missing to a large degree in this book. His ability to draw the reader into scenes is put to good use early in the novel, and then appears only sporadically thereafter. There is one scene that I’m almost certain appears in another of his novels. There are also a few continuity problems, some rather glaring.

There’s a body count on par with a Schwarzenegger movie, along with some ‘enhanced interrogation’ scenes. The story moves along well enough to keep you engaged, and there are enough of the Clancy signature elements to keep his target audience happy. Truth be told, a mediocre effort by Clancy is better than many other authors best, but if you’ve never read him, find one of his earlier works and start with that.

Rating: Borrow it.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987) Robert Heinlein

Like many a boy with an interest in the hard sciences, I devoured the science fiction of Asimov and Heinlein. I can’t say whom I read first, but I enjoyed them both. This is the third time I’ve tried to read this book, and I’ve always had to stop in the same place.

The story starts off promisingly enough; a woman waking up with a body in her bed, then runs into the brick wall of Heinlein’s didacticism. For a couple dozen pages the author preaches on morality and social mores through a conversation between the impossibly precocious 14-year old protagonist and her uber-liberal father. I didn’t mind the politics, it’s a story, after all, but Heinlein beats the reader over the head with his views. The story came to a screeching halt along with my interest in continuing. This book will probably end up on my never-read list.

Rating: Go to church. It’s more fun, and the sermon’s better.

North Korean Scientific Advances

From the 19 May Juche 100 edition of the North Korean News Agency newspaper:

Universities Contribute to Economic Development

Pyongyang, May 19 (KCNA) — University teachers and researchers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have rendered services to the development of economic sectors.

Kim Il Sung University has helped update some of the production processes at the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex and upgrade the quality of pencil lead at the Pyongyang Mechanical Pencil Factory.

It has also renewed the production method of fermented feed and microorganism feed additives at the Tudan Duck Farm to boost meat output.

Kim Chaek University of Technology has offered assistance to the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang Silk Mill, Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex, Hwanghae Iron and Steel Complex, Tanchon Refinery and Unryul Mine in their technological updating.

Pyongyang University of Railways, Hamhung University of Chemical Engineering, Huichon University of Technology and Chongjin University of Mining and Metallurgy have also made a scientific contribution to factories, power stations and tideland reclamation.

Kim Je Won Haeju University of Agriculture and Nampho University of Agriculture have applied their scientific achievements to the Migok Co-op Farm in Sariwon City, Samjigang Co-op Farm in Jaeryong County, Chongsan Co-op Farm in Kangso District and Mangyongdae Vegetable Farm in Mangyongdae District.

It’s a relief to know that, in a land that makes Detroit look like the Garden of Eden, the efforts of the country’s premier university are going to improve the quality of pencil lead.

The Most Amazing Thing You’ll Hear This Week

I’m not an opera fan. We were dragged to the Met on occasion to attend ballet and opera performances, but my lack of German and Italian has dimmed the appeal of the art. I do enjoy anything done well, and even if I don’t understand the nuances, I do recognize when something is done extremely well. Over on the Listverse site the 16 May list was the Top 10 Horrifyingly Difficult Opera Arias. Follow the link, and go directly to No. 2. It will be 6 minutes you’ll not regret.

EDIT: Apparently the London Opera isn’t interested in fair use, so you can find the aria here. The video is about half the length of the original, so something is lost, but you’ll get the gist. It’s still amazing stuff.

The Most Amazing Thing You’ll See This Week

If you’ve ever seen the sky on a clear night in a place unsullied by artificial light, a place where it’s really dark, then you know that there are few sights more sublime than sweep of the Milky Way across the heavens. One of the highlights of camping in the mountains is the opportunity to view that sight from altitude, where it looks like clouds of stars clotting the sky.

Amateur photographer Nick Risinger decided that he wanted to do a full-color, full-sky survey to show the entire night sky seen from Earth. Using commercially available equipment and traveling throughout the American west as well as South Africa, he was able to capture and stitch together nearly 38,000 high-resolution images to create a stunning panorama of the night sky.

Make no mistake, although Mr. Risinger is an amateur, he used some serious equipment, and the cameras he employed captured stars and details of our home galaxy far too faint for the human eye to see. You can visit his website here, where he details the process and hosts an interactive image of his work as well as several Creative Commons license downloads.

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