Archive | July 2022

Review of “The Law of Innocence” by Michael Connelly

Apparently, this is another “Lincoln Lawyer” novel (I think I saw the movie), so this is going to be a short review because, in general, series become formulaic and predictable, especially if the main character (also the first-person narrator) has been arrested for murder.

This read more like a technical report than a courtroom drama. There were plenty of motions filed and argued before the judge, but I got the feeling that it was all a farce, despite finding myself enthralled at times, especially in the first half of the book. A few tantalizing clues were introduced and I anticipated some surprises, like in an episode of Perry Mason. I had the overall impression that the author was fulfilling a book contract when it got to the end and the FBI saved the day. What a cop-out.

The problem with first-person narrators is that their thoughts have to be shared with the reader. This was attempted half-heartedly in this story; I got tired of hearing how Michael (Mickey) Haller’s life was on the line, repeated so often that I wanted to stop reading. The entire ordeal came across as a bored description of someone else’s encounter with the justice system.

I hope this isn’t representative of legal drama…

Review of “Ward No. 6 and Other Stories” by Anton Chekhov

The author is famous for writing short stories that explore the life of Russians in the late 19th century, but this collection is timeless in the way it presents the human condition, not through carefully crafted plot but instead by way of the actions of his characters. The range of personalities and life situations is boundless. This book was translated into English by Constance Garnett less than thirty years after most of the stories were written, so the overall sense of the times is carried into this translation.

There are no happy endings and the reader is left with more questions than answers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there are lessons to be learned; instead, one is left with a sense of the hopelessness of life, and the mess we make of it through our decisions and acts.

These tales of misery and woe are replete with stark humor in the way the characters are presented. The narrator doesn’t think much of them, while respecting their humanity. The poor and wealthy are equally at a loss about their situations, and I was reminded of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: all is vanity and there is nothing new under the sun; happiness is unattainable and the best we can hope for is some satisfaction, and even that is fleeting.

What keeps this from being as depressing as “Crime and Punishment” is the rich detail supplied about the characters and their lives. If not for the unrelenting imagery and often humorously simple language, this would have been difficult to read. It helped that most of the stories are short and the reader has a break between the relentless parade of hapless individuals.

The language is often ponderous (clumsy descriptions of scenes), and yet I had to look up a lot of words. I have to assume (not speaking Russian) that this was in the original text, and was Chekhov’s intent. Part of this may have been that the stories were written over several decades and his writing style changed somewhat. However, all of these stories follow similar trajectories.

From my grim review you might think I don’t recommend this book, but nothing could be further from the truth. As hopeless as the situations and lives depicted in this collection of short stories are, they are entertaining to read–just not all at once.

If there is a message hidden in these pages, it is that the most fulfilling event of one’s life is when they can finally stop dealing with the burdens imposed on them, whether by their own decisions and thoughts or by other people. If I may be so bold as to read between the lines:

Death is the ultimate escape…

Review of “Como agua para chocolate” by Laura Esquivel

Novela de Entregas Mensuales con Recetas, Amores y Remedios Caseros

This is the latest book in my Spanish reading. I don’t know if I’ll ever speak Spanish or even develop an intermediate vocabulary, but I do enjoy reading novels in their native language (i.e. Spanish). The English translation of the book was turned into a movie that I never saw, “Like Water for Chocolate.” That phrase always escaped me, until I read the book. Now I get it.

I will make my usual comments about novels written in Spanish: the authors (no exceptions so far) don’t seem to want to use subject pronouns and so it can be downright impossible to know who is speaking in a crowded room; they also don’t like to use commas, which can be very tricky for a beginner because of the use of some articles (i.e. la and las) as direct object pronouns. Comprehension depends on context, which doesn’t work so well for a beginner who is struggling with the vocabulary (I understand the grammar pretty well).

The story jumps around a lot in time and space, and I got lost a few times, partly because I took several months to read the book. The idea of monthly recipes for chapters was intriguing but I didn’t get how the recipes fit the plot; they seemed random to me, but the characters were preparing them while the action was taking place. Sometimes the menu was central; at any rate, this was a great plot idea, which kept the story alive long after it should have died. It is a simple plot that uses gimmicks (e.g. magic and jumps in the action), so that the author didn’t have to actually write a full novel. It’s more like a collection of stories with a central character. (I could be wrong there because, like I said, I took a while to read it and my Spanish is not great.)

Overall, I enjoyed the story but the ending was a massive cop-out. I’m not sure that it’s a good read for someone learning Spanish because there’s a lot of culinary vocabulary that SpanishDict was only moderately helpful with.

Just between us, I think Tita is schizophrenic and…well, you’ll have to read the book and decide how to interpret the ending for yourself.

Review of “Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

It says a lot about this Russian classic that the front matter in the book doesn’t say when it was originally published. I looked it up on Wikipedia; it was published (in Russian) as a series in 1866. This English translation was published in 1992. That is important because, as I’ve learned from other translations, the translators are the real authors of this novel. I will address this divided authorship below.

There were very few typos and grammatical errors, so hats off to Richard Paver and Larissa Volokhonsky. Since they have apparently won international acclaim for their translations, I have to assume that this is as close as an English translation can get to the intent of the author. Nevertheless, when I refer to the “author” below, I am necessarily including them in my comments.

This is a psychological thriller. The author gets into the head of the protagonist, not through a few well-chosen phrases and thoughts, but by using an omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter, we finally are convinced that Raskolnikov is obsessed by his crime, even if it requires the entire book (580 pages). The details about his life and who he encounters are excruciatingly rich. Despite this, I didn’t feel like I was reading a novel written more than 150 years ago, in another language. The story is conveyed (painfully) as a timeless examination of why some people commit heinous and stupid crimes. No thought goes unexplored in this quest for the very essence of Raskolnikov’s inner being, his interpretation of the meaning (or lack thereof) of life.

There is a hint as to why the story unfolds so circuitously in its original publication as a series of chapters. The author simply forgot. It is repetitive and the style changes inconsistently. Sometimes, the other characters are the center of the action, their thoughts shared as easily as the protagonist’s (thanks to an omniscient narrator who jumps between heads within a paragraph). Then, Dostoevsky seems to remember what he’s trying to do and returns to the central theme. Finally, confirming my skepticism about unnecessarily long novels, he wraps the whole story up with an epilogue. All the loose ends are ties up neatly in a bow, just as Tolstoy did with “War and Peace.” Maybe that’s the defining characteristic of Russian authors–ramble forever then, coming to their senses, they write a quick summary.

This would have been a good novel if it were half as long. There is simply too much repetition, and too many distracting, unimportant side stories that added nothing to the plot. However, despite being a barbarian (I didn’t study literature in college), I appreciate the frank look into the conditions in Czarist Russia that inevitably led to the Communist revolution and civil war (between the white and red communists). The plight of everyone except the wealthy was deplorable. Got it!

I would like to add that sometimes dialogue can be too realistic. This novel is a good example of that literary trap. Very few of the characters could complete a sentence, from beginning to end, without a few “well,” “ahem,” “sir,” and too many other realistic, but horribly distracting, interruptions before they (failed to) make their point. Whether intentional or not, the author conveys the fallibility of oral communication between people, even when they truly want to talk openly. This failure to communicate makes sense for Raskolnikov, who had plenty to hide, but less so for the other characters.

Tolstoy published War and Peace serially, but he chose a different approach, using multiple points of view for his characters. That novel is much easier to read, despite being more than twice as long, and it was published at about the same time (1869). So, I’m not opposed to Russian literature, just poorly written novels…

Review of “The Case Against Reality,” by Donald D. Hoffman

As you can see from the book cover, the entire title was a lot longer than the title of this post. I heard an interview with the author on Lex Fridman’s podcast, and I was intrigued because I’m working on a novel (i.e. fiction) with a similar theme. This book is not a work of fiction (at least, not explicitly), however, but an overview of multidisciplinary research by the author and several collaborators on Evolutionary Biology, with a focus on Evolutionary Psychology. That got my attention because I think that is an oxymoron: Evolutionary Psychology–give me a break!

The book is well written, or else it had a good editor. (I think that Hoffman probably didn’t need a lot of corrections.)

I am not qualified to comment on the validity of his research or his conclusions. He is very honest about voicing criticisms made by his peers; however, his dismissal of their complaints is a bit too quick and unconvincing. The second major complaint I have is that the subtitle, How evolution hid the truth from our eyes, is repeated so often (often as a refutation of criticism) that it begins to sound like a mantra. Just keep saying it and you will believe. Who is he trying to convince?

He saves the quantitative basis of his work for the appendix. I would have appreciated more of a discussion of the unenumerated parameters his “mathematical” model incorporates to represent choices made by virtual “beings” in his game-theory-based model, which he declines to describe in adequate detail for the supposed semi-literate reader of the book to comprehend. I think he doesn’t want to say the obvious: he ran thousands of simulations, tweaking parameters, until he got the result he wanted. This is not scientifically unethical–by no means–but it is disingenuous, especially when presented to the non-expert as a scientific result.

For someone who has read a variety of “non-fiction” books on psychology and neuroscience (both medically and computationally based), the sickeningly common references to apples, vision, evolution “choosing,” and so on, are filler. Boilerplate. Nevertheless, his conjecture that our perceptions are nothing more than an interface with reality is interesting; however, until his research produces more than an infinity of simulated results using a model of (admitted) simplicity, his conclusions remain nothing more than speculation. To Hoffman’s credit, he admits this openly; but dismisses it just as quickly.

How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

I don’t know and don’t care because I don’t believe in angels…


This is a quick post to summarize what I said about modern Japan being an analogue to the Taconic orogeny. For example, here’s a photo of Mt. Fuji, seen from the ocean (Fig. 1). (Imagine being in the back-arc basin during the Cambrian period.)

Figure 1. Mt. Fuji from the sea.

The Sea of Japan is more than 500 miles across at its widest point, so sediment eroding from the mountain chain that forms the backbone of Honshu is collecting along the western coast of Honshu as well as in deeper water offshore.

Here’s a schematic cross-section of the most-likely geography during the Taconic orogeny (Fig. 2). Imagine Honshu as the island arc shown offshore of the ancient North American continent (to the left in the cartoons).

Figure 2. Schematic cross-sections of North America and a hypothesized island chain during the Taconic orogeny.

Modern Honshu and the Sea of Japan are most representative of the Taconic orogeny earlier than 543 my, before subduction began on the western margin in the top panel. There is no subduction in the Sea of Japan today; in fact, spreading stopped about 20 million-years ago; details are hard to find because there are no easily accessible seismic sections of the Sea of Japan. Thus, to apply the cartoon from Fig. 2, ignore the subducting back-arc ocean crust (black layers) and focus on the deformed gray areas in the middle panel.

The lower panel is probably what will happen to Honshu in the distant future. For example, the Pacific plate is being subducted at ~10 cm/year (4 inches). We can use an average width of 1000 km (625 miles) to estimate that it will take 10 million years [1000 km/(10 cm/y)] for the lower panel of Fig. 2 to become reality.

With respect to the scale of the analogous processes occurring in the Japanese Islands and N. America (during the Taconic orogeny), we can do a simple comparison (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. The left panel shows the extent of rocks associated with the Grenville orogeny, associated with closing of a precursor to the Atlantic Ocean (Iapetus Ocean). The right panel shows the island of Honshu. The arrows show a hypothesized, similar-sized island arc (outlined in black) during the early stages of the Taconic orogeny, when sediments eroded from the earlier (Grenville) mountain belt (orange) were buried deeply beneath the back-arc basin between the Grenville Belt and the offshore island. They would have been subjected to intense heat and pressure. Note the immense scale of this geologic province, based on the similar size of Honshu and the island arc that became the rocks we’ve seen throughout eastern N. America.

This has been a very simple, hypothetical reconstruction, but I hope it helps you envision what the proto-north American continent was experiencing. The key point is that a massive mountain-building event, something like the Taconic-AcadianAlleghanian orogenies, which lasted throughout the Paleozoic era, wouldn’t have been an earth-shattering event…

What Goes Up…

I’ve been talking about mountain building events that continue for hundreds of millions of years a lot in my posts, referring to the erosion of mountains into mud, silt, and sand, carried by rivers to be deposited as broad expanses of sediment. On sufficiently long time scales, this is an accurate representation of the delicate balance between uplifting mountains and the inexorable influence of rain, ice, wind, and water to eradicate all evidence of an orogeny. For example, the collision of North America with Europe and Africa required nearly all of the Paleozoic Era, beginning with the Taconic Orogeny (550-440 Ma), reaching a crescendo during the Acadian Orogeny (375-325 Ma), and culminating in the Alleghanian Orogeny (325-260 Ma). By the way, the abbreviation Ma (mega annum) is used to indicate dates that were determined by radioactive dating, rather than the more ambiguous “my” for millions of years. There is uncertainty (error bars can never be zero), but not with respect to the general timing of geologic events.

Figure 1. Ridge of Precambrian schist, metamorphosed and transported along thrust faults during the Taconic orogeny; it was subsequently uplifted during the following approximately 400 my, and is now exposed to weathering. This photo was taken on the south side, looking northward.

This post is going to examine details of how uplifted rocks can be broken down into pieces that are weathered while being transported to their final resting place, whether in a river, lake, shallow bay, or the deep ocean.

Vermont (Fig. 2) was entirely covered by ice several times during the last couple million years.

Figure 2. Topographic map of northern Vermont (See inset for location.) Smuggler’s Notch is the local name for the area shown in Fig. 1, a region covered by as much as one mile of ice during the last glacial maximum. The peaks in Fig. 1 were covered by glaciers, which carved U-shaped valleys as well as creating cliffs on the south sides of topographic highs.

The rocks at Smuggler’s Notch are the same ones we saw in the Taconic Mountains and along the White River. They are equivalent to those we encountered along the Potomac River, 500 miles to the south. What happened when rocks formed as much as 20 miles beneath the surface are exposed to low pressure and temperature?

Figure 3. Photo of a different part of the ridge seen in Fig. 1, revealing large, overhanging blocks of schist. This rock is permeated with joints, created when overburden, and thus pressure, was reduced dramatically. Brittle fracture is the result, and all of those flat surfaces implicate the effects of ice and gravity on physical weathering.

There is a lot of missing rock from the cliff shown in Fig. 3. Where did it go?

Figure 4. Huge blocks fell to the narrow valley formed by glaciers during the last couple-hundred-thousand years, littering the base of the cliff with blocks as large as houses. The largest recorded is estimated to weight 6000 tons. These blocks are piled up like dominoes, forming caves that have been used for millennia by wildlife and people as refuges. (Climber for scale.)

How did these huge blocks get where we find them today?

Figure 5. Photo of disrupted forest where a block rolled down the slope at the base of the cliff seen in Fig. 3, before coming to rest. Note the young trees and gravel slope. Falling hundreds of feet is the second stage of breaking down the mountain. The first is dislodging the block along joints, which allow water to weaken the rock by changing the chemical composition of the minerals.

Mechanical weathering doesn’t stop when the fallen block comes to rest. Then, water carries small grains and uses them as abrasives to grind the once-humongous blocks into gravel (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Rock debris collected along a nascent stream, filled with smaller blocks of schist that originally fell from the cliffs that tower above the narrow valley. Gravel fills every nook and cranny in the jumble of rock, grinding away whenever water power is sufficient to mobilize the harder and more resistant minerals (e.g. quartz and feldspar).

All that bumping and grinding eventually produces a scene like that seen along the path of the White River (Fig. 7), with bedrock resisting the seasonal onslaught of gravel and sand carried by intermittent, torrential flows.

Figure 7. View of White River (see Fig. 2 for location), showing the eventual outcome for peaks like those seen in Fig. 1. The bedrock blocking the channel will be eroded in its turn as it is exposed to surface weathering, by isostatic uplift.

I hope this post connects the dots between the loftiest peaks (Fig. 1) and the lowest streams (Fig. 7).

Deja Vu

As we entered the Taconic Mountains on US 4 in Vermont, something didn’t look right, or it looked too familiar to be correct. It took a while to realized what was wrong with Fig. 1.

Figure 1. Road cut along US highway 4, near Rutland, Vermont. This is Precambrian (1000 to 500 Ma) schist with strong foliation dipping to the west.

These are the mountains for which the Taconic Orogeny (550-440 Ma) was named. They were deposited as long ago as a billion years in a shallow sea (e.g. Sea of Japan) and then buried, before being compressed and heated, finally being pushed onto the porto-north America continent by 440 Ma. During this long period of metamorphism, the clay minerals comprising the bulk of the sediments recrystallized into mica (mostly muscovite), a platy mineral that creates both a sheen and a fissile texture, the tendency to flake apart (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Close-up of Fig. 1, showing the glistening caused by alignment of platy muscovite in the sun (upper center), and fissile texture caused by the same alignment and weathering as water works its way between mineral grains. Image width is about 6 feet.
Figure 3. Close-up of the foliation surface of the rocks seen in Figs. 1 and 2. Note the linear ripple-like texture, which may be remnant from the original sediment (note the surfaces seen in the last post), or a coincidence. The brightness is caused by aligned muscovite crystals. (Image is 2 feet across.)

The Taconic Mountains are the remnants of a mass of metamorphic rock that was pushed over younger, less-altered rocks in this region. This occurs along low-angle thrust faults when the rocks are buried less deeply, so that they break rather than fold like putty. Speaking of ductile deformation, we saw plenty of evidence of that in the White River‘s exposed bed (Figs. 4-6).

Figure 4. Photo of White River near the village of South Royalton, VT, showing exposures of Precambrian schist and gravel bars. The following photos were taken on this outcrop.
Figure 5. Detail of orthoclase (pinkish area) and albite (whitish) feldspar minerals squeezed out of the original muddy sediment during metamorphism. These minerals may have originally been present as lenses of sandy sediments or be the product of remineralization, which includes a component of concentrating incompatible elements. Very little quartz was present.
Figure 6. Image of nearly vertical foliation (i.e. layering) of schist in White River bed. This broad area of irregular feldspar and quartz may have been a large sand lens (e.g. a flood deposit) in the original sediments.

This post is titled “Deja Vu” because we saw schist with a similar composition and orientation in the Potomac River, more than 500 miles to the south, in a band tens of miles across, centered on Great Falls, Virginia. Such a broad distribution tells us that a vast mountain belt eroded about one billion years ago, and then its erosional remains were buried so deep that they nearly melted. The subsequent collision was no laughing matter. I have been using Japan as an analogue for the Taconic Orogeny for two reasons: (1) Honshu, the largest Japanese Island is about 800 miles long and it is depositing vast quantities of mud into the Sea of Japan; (2) using a modern analogue demonstrates that mountain building is a slow process, barely noticed by the inhabitants of island arcs destined to be smashed onto the continents facing them.

Rocks like those seen in this post are already buried beneath the Japan Sea and deformation has no-doubt begun. We just have to wait 400 million years for them to come out of the oven…

The Outer Limits

This is the first of several posts, reporting the roadside geology of western New York and central Vermont. Today, we will visit Binghamton, New York. This small city (urban population less than 50 thousand) sits at the confluence of two perennial, gravel-bedded rivers (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. View from Confluence Park in Binghamton, NY, showing the Susquehanna River (left side) and Chenango River (right). Note the weir on the Susquehanna, which maintained sufficient depth for a lock (Fig. 2), which permitted access further upriver.
Figure 2. Photo of submerged lock that operated in the 1800s along the Susquehanna River. Similar structures are present along the Potomac in VA and MD. The outline seen in this image may be only the foundation. The stonework was probably removed to create a clear channel for the modern bridge (Fig. 3).
Figure 3. Photo from the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers, showing the bridge that has replaced the lock structure shown in Fig. 2. Note the gravel bar to the center right of the image, where a small tributary has been channelized but still is depositing large gravel and small boulders in the Susquehanna channel.

Enough of Holocene and Anthropocene geology. The fascinating thing about this region is that it preserves a huge volume of sediment eroded from mountains that were growing during the Devonian Period, about 350 million-years ago (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Geologic map from Rock D, with Binghamton near the center. Note the tan-shaded area that expands from Albany westward. These rocks were originally sediments, deposited from a high mountain range located somewhere east of Albany, carried by ancient rivers as far as 500 miles to the west . (The scale is in the lower left of the image: 100 km is about 63 miles.) This humongous basin, collecting boulders, sand, silt, and mud about 350 my ago, was preserved because it was a precursor of what was to come 100 million years later, when Africa and N. America collided, burying these rocks deep enough to save them from erosion, but not deep enough for them to lose their sedimentary character. This perfectly preserved basin–frozen in time as if in a museum–is called the Catskill Delta.

We didn’t have the time or resources to go on a quest for rocks that would reveal what was happening during the Devonian Period, so we took some photos of charismatic blocks that had been removed from their original location and “deposited” along the path that followed the Chenango River through downtown Binghamton (Figs. 5 and 6).

Figure 5. Photo of slab of mudstone (not in original orientation), showing irregular ripples accentuated by silt against a matrix of mud. This is a very common environment in river flood plains during high-flow events, when gentle currents separate silt from mud. Flow during these intervals is insufficient to form unidirectional ripples, and the result is seen in this image. The sample is about two feet across.
Figure 6. Photo of silt surface in shallow water from unreferenced rocks from the Catskill Delta. Note that this bedding plane has a more criss-crossing pattern of “ripples” and contained more silt (light-colored). This sediment was probably deposited in a similar environment to Fig. 5. Both were quickly buried during a flood that occurred not long after these fragile sedimentary structures were created. If you were to step on these sediments in a modern stream, they would be what we term “mud” and avoided if possible.

The title of this post refers to the outer limits of a broad plain that was receiving gravel, sand, silt, and mud from a rapidly rising mountain belt–probably like western North America today (e.g. the Sierra Nevada mountains). It wasn’t a continental collision, but it was pretty massive, with elongate swaths of sediment subsequently buried by what came later.

I’m talking about a Clash of the Titans...