Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Written in Blood by Colin Wilson & Damon Wilson

book cover

Written in Blood:
A History of Forensic Detection
by Colin Wilson & Damon Wilson

Trade Paperback: 704 pages
Publisher: Carroll & Graf
First Released: 1989, 2003

Source: Bought through Half.com.

Back Cover Description:
Time and again it is the most minute scraps of evidence that yield results. The Nancy Titterton case, a sexually motivated murder that took place in 1936, has all the classic simplicity of detective fiction--the murder was betrayed by a single horsehair.

Many such dramatic tales appear in this new and updated edition of the most gripping catalog of crimes by acclaimed criminologist Colin Wilson. The book follows the progress of forensic science from the first cases of suspected arsenic poisoning right up to investigations using today's impressive armory of high-tech methods: ballistic analysis, blood typing, voice printing, textile analysis, psychological profiling, and genetic fingerprinting.

The surprisingly modern phenomenon of serial sex crime is covered in depth, from Jack the Ripper through Lucie Berlin, Mary Phagan, the Black Dahlia, and Peter Sutcliffe--the so-called Yorkshire Ripper. Though sexual crimes are on the increase, Wilson shows that the odds are increasingly stacked against the sex killer with the introduction of computerized information retrieval and other fast developing techniques.

This massive and compelling account of forensic crime detection recounts the sometimes unbelievable details of extraordinary cases through history, from poisoners in ancient Rome to modern day serial murders.

Written in Blood is a true crime book that covers cases throughout history (but mostly after 1800 AD) primarily from Britain and France, but also from other European countries and America. These cases were mainly murders, robbery, and/or rape. Sometimes woven into the retelling of a case was information on advances made in forensic detection or information about specific detectives (usually the one who made the advance or someone well-known). Specific details were given about each new method and how it was used.

The book covered hundreds of cases. Each case was about a page or two long. The cases were interesting, but the briefness meant there wasn't much suspense and the pure number of them got sickening after a bit. I found the advancements in forensics more interesting.

Also, the author came across as arrogant--he'd mention when others disagreed with his conclusions about a case, but he'd make it sound like they were dumb for not seeing what was so obvious to him. He also strongly pushed the idea that--until relatively recently--humans were just too stupid to use logic in solving crime. That judges in the past were dumb beyond words and that's why some people were declared innocent even when they were obvious guilty. (Ironically, in one of those cases, the author did admit that bribes and corruption among judges was the norm at that time.)

The topics covered were: how police forces were developed in England; the development of methods of detecting poison (plus many cases involving poison); the methods developed to identify repeat criminals and dead bodies (plus cases focused on these methods); using blood types and then DNA to solve cases; methods used to link bullets from crimes to the shooter; how the microscope was used to solve various crimes (using fibers and such on the body to identify the criminal or where the person was killed); the rise of sex crimes; private detectives; country-wide manhunts; and criminal physiology (including information on lie detectors and the development of profiling).

There were some black and white pictures of several crime scenes and people discussed in the book. However, the pictures were all in one place so it was difficult to connect a picture to the particulars of the case.

The book was well-written in the sense that it was easy to understand what was going on and how various tests worked. If you love reading true crime books, then you'll likely enjoy this one. If you're interested in how forensic science developed, this book does give that information with a fair amount of detail, but it's mixed in among the many true crime cases and wasn't the primary focus of the book.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
The case had all the makings of a classic murder mystery.

The body of Nancy Titterton was found by two furniture removal men; she was lying face downward in an empty bath, naked except for a pair of silk stockings, and for the pyjama jacket knotted round her throat. Torn underclothes on the bedroom floor indicated that the motive had been a sexual attack. When the two men had arrived at four o'clock on that Good Friday afternoon--returning a love seat that had been under repair--they found the front door of the apartment standing open. The elder of the two, Theodore Kruger, had called Mrs. Titterton's name, and then, hearing the sound of a shower, glanced in through the open bathroom door; moments later, his young assistant, Johnny Fiorenza, was telephoning the police.

Beekman Place, where the Tittertons lived, was traditionally the home of New York artists and intellectuals. Lewis Titterton was an executive at the National Broadcasting Company, and his 33-year-old wife was a writer of exceptional promise. They had been married for seven years, and were known to be devoted to each other. Most of their small circle of friends were, like themselves, interested in the arts and literature. Neither of them was fond of socializing--Nancy Titterton was shy and introverted. Yet she had opened her door to her killer and let him into the apartment, which argued that she knew him.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Eric Sloane's Weather Book

book cover

Eric Sloane's Weather Book
by Eric Sloane

Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications
First Released: 1952, 2005

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Back Cover Description:
In simple language, Eric Sloane explains the whys and wherefores of weather and weather forecasting--and does it in a style that's universally appealing.

With humor and common sense shining through in a book that's also lively and informative, Sloane shows readers how to predict the weather by "reading" such natural phenomena as winds, skies, and animals sounds. This beautifully illustrated and practical treasure trove of climate lore will enlighten outdoorsmen, farmers, sailors, and anyone else who has ever wondered what a large halo around the moon means, why birds "sit it out" before a storm, and whether or not to take an umbrella when leaving the house.

Eric Sloane's Weather Book was a very fun, easy-to-understand, and fascinating book about weather. He explained ways that a person can predict the weather by looking at the sky, how to read weather maps--what all the symbols mean--and use weather instruments. He covered information about our atmosphere, air, winds, heat, and clouds, and how it all works together to create weather.

The author has a gift for making difficult ideas very easy to understand. He also included many black and white illustrations that reinforced what was taught in the text and made it clear. The book was packed full of practical information on how to become weather-wise.

This book was first written some time ago (in 1949) and was based off of articles that the author wrote for sailors and aviators. Most of the information is still completely relevant, but it does show it's age in a few places. Also, although the author referred to Jesus Christ in the below quote, Mother Nature was far more commonly mentioned. As in, it's not a Christian book.

I'd highly-recommend this well-written and interesting book to anyone who's curious about how weather is created and how to predict it.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from pages 4-5
In the course of modern living man has lost much of his weather wisdom. What with air conditioning and improved travel facilities, we seem to go where we want, and to do what we wish, regardless of the weather. Except for an occasional rained-out ball game or called-off sailing trip or postponed air flight, we presume that weather has very little influence upon us. But it has far more influence on us than is immediately apparent. We live in it, breathe it, actually swim through an atmospheric sea from room to room and from place to place; the slightest difference in the composition of this sea would change our way of living within a fraction of a second. No developments of our technological age can altar the fact that we are creatures of the atmosphere.

Our forefathers and the men of ancient times had no weather maps, but they were, in the actual sense of the word, far more air-minded than we are.

Many people are surprised when it is pointed out that in Chapter 16 of Matthew there is a favorite of sailormen, a familiar weather saying spoken by Christ: "When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather; for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering." Few appear to be acquainted with that bit of weather lore in the Bible; but most of us know some version or other of the sailor's rhyme:

Red sky in the morning
Is a sailor's sure warning;
Red sky at night
Is the sailor's delight.

Folklore is generally frowned upon by scientific men, but many of its saying and predictions have found scientific backing. The red sunset mentioned by Christ, for example, was a view of the sun through dust-laden air that would reach Him the next day. In most places weather patterns tend to flow from west to east. If "tomorrow's air" lies westward as a mass of wet stuff, the sun shining through it appears to be a gray or yellowish disk, while, if this westward air is dry, the sun appears at its reddest.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

BBAW Awards Post

I'll be participating in the Book Blogger's Appreciation Week. They asked participants in the awards part to post links to five reviews for the blog to be judged on. Here are the links:

Flawless by Scott Andrew Selby & Greg Campbell

Life Inside the "Thin" Cage by Constance Rhodes

Genius on the Edge by Dr. Gerald Imber

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

Discovery of Design by Donald DeYoung & Derrik Hobbs

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Qoute: Civil War Hospitals

From Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen (pages 170, 171-172):

The Union Hotel had been hastily converted to a hospital. It was badly lit, crowded, and poorly ventilated. The windows were nailed shut, and the smashed panes had been draped with curtains to keep out the cold....[Louisa] was put in charge of a ward of forty soldiers sick with rheumatism or fever...

...the first wounded were coming from Fredericksburg...

For an unmarried woman of thirty, who may have never seen a naked man....she had not only to see the men's bodies, but to touch them intimately and with assurance. She clutched her block of brown soap and "manfully" made a "dab at the first dirty specimen" she saw, an "old withered Irishman" so delighted to have a well-meaning woman sponge him clean that he blessed her on the spot, which made her laugh. The worst was not over, but the fear of it was. For the next twelve hours she moved from bed to bed washing putrid gaping wounds, mopping foreheads, bringing water to those who could drink and food to those who could eat, and stifling tears at the sight of young boys with stumps for legs or holes blown through their peach-fuzzed cheeks as she tried to ease their misery. Her gentle touch was usually the only, and the best, offering she could make to them. After she spoon-fed a New Hampshire man, she accepted a pair of earrings intended for the wife of his dead mate because, he said, she looked so much like the man's new widow.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Compass by Alan Gurney

book cover

by Alan Gurney

Hardback: 288 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton
First Released: 2004

Source: From a library book sale.

Book Description from Publisher's Website:
Compass chronicles the misadventures of those who attempted to perfect the magnetic compass—so precious to sixteenth-century seamen that, by law, any man found tampering with it had his hand pinned to the mast with a dagger. From the time man first took to the seas until only one thousand years ago, sight and winds were the sailor's only navigational aids. It was not until the development of the compass that maps and charts could be used with any accuracy—even so, it would be hundreds of years and thousands of shipwrecks before the marvelous instrument was perfected. And its history up to modern times is filled with the stories of disasters that befell sailors who misused it. In this page-turning history of man's search for reliable navigation of treacherous sea routes around the globe, Alan Gurney brings to life the instrument Victor Hugo called "the soul of the ship."

Compass tells the impressive story of the development of the marine magnetic compass, starting at about 1187 AD and going into modern times. The movement of the ship and the iron used in building the ship, in ship-board weapons, and in items stored on board caused no end of havoc to the magnetic compass' ability to correctly point toward magnetic north. As ship building techniques changed, new ways of correcting for these problems had to be devised. This book described these developments as well as scientific sea-voyages done to discover what the source of these problems was and some information about other methods of marine navigation. Some of this information overlapped a bit with the story told in Longitude by Dava Sobel.

There were some black and white illustrations--mainly of the various compass types and maps related to the solving of the compass deviation problem. Since details about the scientific (compass-focused) voyages were included, it would have been nice to have a map showing the route of these voyages. However, I could generally follow the route described without a map.

The author assumed the reader had a certain familiarity with ships and the sea, so he would define those terms only once and not very clearly. The book also focused on the developments in the compass from the perspective of Britain, only briefly mentioning what the rest of the world was doing with compasses.

The book was written in a conversational style and, overall, I found the book enjoyable and well-written. It seemed aimed toward people who use a marine compass--to increase their appreciation for it--but the book will probably also appeal to those who read and enjoyed Longitude and to those who like reading about how different technologies have developed.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
The cry of "Breakers ahead!" was the first warning that the navigating officers had made a dreadful mistake in their dead reckoning, or, in the mordant Spanish equivalent, their navegacion de fantasia.

Minutes later, in the howling dark of an autumn night, four ships of a Royal Navy fleet were mastless hulks being pounded to pieces between the hammer blows of the Atlantic breakers and the anvil of the Scilly Islands' granite reefs. Some two thousand men and officers from HMS Association, Eagle, Firebrand, and Romney died on that night of October 23, 1707. One more vessel, HMS St. George, struck hard but surged clear and survived.

Among the drowned was the fleet's portly, florid-faced commander, the fifty-seven-year-old Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His body was found washed ashore in a sandy bay some seven miles from the wreck. Legend has it that a local woman, thirty years later, made a death-bed confession that she had found a waterlogged Sir Cloudsley unconscious on the shore, and then helped him into eternity for the sake of the diamond and emerald rings on his fingers.

The death by drowning of two thousand men and the loss of ships is still considered the worse shipwreck disaster ever suffered by the Royal Navy. It led the British government, by a 1714 Act of Parliament, to create the Board of Longitude and its financial prizes for anyone discovering a "practicable and useful" method of determining a ship's longitude at sea. The end result was threefold: the publishing of accurate astronomical tables for calculating the lunar distance method of finding longitude; John Hadley's reflecting quadrant for the accurate measurement of lunar distances; and John Harrison's famous marine chronometer.

Ironically enough, the shipwreck disaster was not so much a matter of longitude but more a matter of latitude, inaccurate charts, an unknown current, and shoddy compasses.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mountain Rescue Doctor by Christopher Van Tilburg, M.D.

book cover

Mountain Rescue Doctor:
Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature
by Christopher Van Tilburg, M.D.

Hardback: 304 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
First Released: 2007

Author Website

Source: Bought through Half.com.

Book Description from Publisher's website:
Christopher Van Tilburg, MD is an emergency room physician, ski patrol doctor, emergency wilderness physician, and member of the Hood River Crag Rats, the oldest mountain rescue team in the country. When Dr. Van Tilburg's beeper goes off, the call may take him racing up a mountain peak to rescue an injured hiker, into a blizzard to search for missing skiers, or to a mountain airplane crash scene for body recovery.

Dr. Van Tilburg's work requires a unique combination of emergency medicine, survival skills, agility, and extreme sports. In Mountain Rescue Doctor, Van Tilburg shares personal stories of harrowing and suspenseful rescues and recoveries, including the recent Mount Hood disaster, which claimed the lives of three climbers. Mountain Rescue Doctor is an exhilarating tour through the perils of nature and medicine.

Mountain Rescue Doctor is a memoir describing what it's like to be a part of a mountain "search and rescue" team. The author told many vivid, suspenseful stories about a variety of different rescues--some easy, others hard--over a particularly active year. The author is a doctor and often had to do emergency medical care under some extreme circumstances, but it was easy to follow what he was doing and the descriptions of the injuries weren't gory.

He also included information about the dangers of mountain hiking, biking, and climbing; a brief history of rescue teams in general and his group in particular; how the different types of searches are handled; the mundane aspects of being a SAR (Search and Rescue) member--like meetings and training; how being a on-call SAR member effects his family; why he picked this job and how he got training for it; and some stories about his recreational mountain climbing trips.

There were also several pages of impressive, full-color photos from several of the rescues that he described. Overall, I found this memoir well-written, very interesting, and hard to put down. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes extreme sports or who thinks the topic sounds interesting.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
"Belay on?" I shout.

"On belay," yells Jim.

"Send me down!" I holler back as Jim begins to lower me into the crack in the earth. I can't see much. Not the bottom of the canyon. Not the cliff. Not the nearly dead patient lying on a ledge halfway to the creek. The hillside is thickly tangled with vine maple, ferns, and poison oak. I drop backward in a blind descent on the rope and plow through the brush with my butt and back. A branch catches my helmet and twists my neck. I duck my head to release the branch, which snaps back and pops me again in the face. My boots squelch into the thick muck and leave deep footprints. When I hit soft forest duff, the thickly matted decaying leaves and branches of the forest floor, my feet slip. My knees slam the ground with a sickening thud. Pain shoots into my legs. I hope I didn't break my kneecaps. I start to slide on my knees. The rope holds fast.

As Jim lowers me into the abyss, I also have to haul down the stretcher and medical bag, as the brush is too thick and entangled to drop the gear down on a rope. So in addition to keeping myself upright, bushwhacking backward down the hillside, and trying to watch for the upcoming cliff edge, I am dragging the stretcher. Wiry vine maple branches reach out, grab the stretcher, and pull it back up the hill. As I tug, the vine maple fights back and tears my shirt. Finally I yank the stretcher with all my might. It pops free, slides another ten feet, and nearly bowls me over. The rope goes taut again: Jim's got me.

Read more of chapter one.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Book Quotes: The Moon as a Shield

From Our Created Moon: Earth's Fascinating Neighbor by Don DeYoung & John Whitcomb (page 56):

...[the] moon actually prevents space collisions with the earth (Comins, 1991). Many space rocks that would otherwise hit the earth are instead drawn to the moon by its gravity attraction. The far side of the moon, exposed to incoming objects, is especially heavily cratered. Some of these lunar craters are over 150 miles (241 km) in diameter. Such large impacts on Earth could cause profound changes in the earth's atmosphere and climate.

On a larger scale, the planet Jupiter also protects the earth from collisions with asteroids and comets. Jupiter's mass is greater than the other eight planets combined. As a result, Jupiter has a large attractive gravity force for objects approaching the inner solar system.In 1994 astronomers watched fragments from Comet Shoemaker-Levy strike Jupiter. The approaching comet broke up when it crossed within Jupiter's Roche limit.... Two dozen separate impact collisions then occurred on Jupiter, each one much more energetic than a nuclear blast. Had any of the comet fragments hit the earth, a crater at least 50 miles in diameter would have resulted.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Life in a Medieval City by Joseph & Frances Gies

book cover

Life in a Medieval City
by Joseph & Frances Gies

Trade Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Harper & Row, Publishers
First Released: 1969

Source: My personal library (as a book I inherited from my grandpa, but only just now read).

Back Cover Description:
Life in a Medieval City evokes every aspect of city life in the Middle Ages by depicting in detail what it was like to live in a prosperous city of Northwest Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The time is A.D. 1250 and the city is Troyes, capital of the county of Champagne and site of two of the cycle of Champagne Fairs--the "Hot Fair" in August and the "Cold Fair" in December. European civilization has emerged from the Dark Ages and is in the midst of a Commercial Revolution. Merchants and moneymen from all over Europe gather at Troyes to buy, sell, borrow, and lend, creating a bustling market center typical in the feudal era.

Life in a Medieval City is an educational nonfiction book. It covered all aspects of city life in the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe. The focus was mainly on what life was like in Troyes, France, but the authors also compared Troyes to various other European cities.

The content was technical (as in, serious research rather than interesting trivia), but the writing wasn't dry. I liked the depth of information and the quotes from documents written at that time. There were some black and white photos, illustrations, and maps (including one of Troyes in 1250 A.D.).

The book covered what a burgher's home was like, what life was like for the housewife, childbirth and children, weddings and funerals, small and large businesses, the doctor (and some about the medicine), the church, the cathedral, schools and scholars, books and authors (and poets), theater, disasters (including flood, famine, plagues, and war), how the town government worked, and the Champagne Fairs held in Troyes and other towns.

Overall, I found this book very interesting and informative. I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to know the details about what life was like in a European city in the 12th and 13th centuries.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter Two
In a thirteenth-century city the houses of rich and poor look more or less alike from the outside. Except for a few of stone, they are all tall timber post-and-beam structures, with a tendency to sag and lean as they get older. In the poor quarters several families inhabit one house. A weaver's family may be crowded into a single room, where they huddle around a fireplace, hardly better off than the peasants and serfs of the countryside.

A well-to-do burgher family, on the other hand, occupies all four stories of its house, with business premises on the ground floor, living quarters on the second and third, servants' quarters in the attic, stables and storehouses in the rear. From cellar to attic, the emphasis is on comfort, but it is thirteenth-century comfort, which leaves something to be desired even for the master and mistress.

Entering the door of such a house, a visitor finds himself in an anteroom. One door leads to a workshop or counting room, a second to a steep flight of stairs. The greater part of the second floor is occupied by the hall, or solar, which serves as both living and dining room. A hearth fire blazes under the hood of a huge chimney. Even in daytime the fire supplies much of the houses' illumination, because the narrow windows are fitted with oiled parchment. Suspended by a chain from the wall is an oil lamp, usually not lighted until full darkness. A housewife also economizes on candles, saving fat for the chandler to convert into a smoky, pungent but serviceable product. Beeswax candles are limited to church and ceremonial use.