“From the Top Down” Review

3-star rating
From the Top Down book cover

The subtitle to this book by Susan J. Ellis is “The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvement,” and that’s true as far as it goes. For executives in businesses or organizations in which volunteers make up only a small fraction of the total workforce, this book is an excellent resource. Ellis devotes full chapters to budgeting for volunteers, the impact and financial value of volunteer contributions, understanding the volunteer/employee relationship (especially how it can go wrong and what to do to prevent or fix it), legal issues, and managing volunteers at all levels, from those performing basic tasks to those supporting the executive suite. For these topics and others, the book provides a wealth of information and keen insights, including how to address and change dismissive or fearful attitudes among employees about the volunteers who are working with them.

However, there’s a whole range of other organizations the book barely even mentions: those in which volunteers make up the vast majority of the workforce and the paid staff represents the minority. These organizations include veteran or military-affiliated groups, medical condition or other single-issue advocacy groups, and many others. They have chapters or similar teams spread across a wide area, such as the entire U.S., supported by a small organizational headquarters, often located in a state or national capital. An entire, separate book could be devoted to these groups.

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Measles, the Anti-Vax Movement, and the Moral Imperative

I’m ticked off this week. No getting around it; I am. But I’m also sad and frustrated.

As of April 11th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there have been 555 confirmed cases of measles so far this year. That’s more than in all of 2018 (372) and the highest number since 2014 (667). Measles was declared “eliminated” in the U.S. in 2000, but that means the disease isn’t present all the time (or “endemic”), not that it doesn’t exist at all.

Travelers from countries where measles is still endemic bring cases into the U.S. every year. Usually, there are enough people who’ve been vaccinated around them that no one else catches the disease, or a few do, and then no one else does. This is “herd immunity” at work.

But there are states and municipalities around the country where people can claim all sorts of reasons for not wanting to get vaccinated, or get their kids vaccinated. As a result, not only are they now vulnerable to this disease—and a lot of others—but so are the people around them.

Some of these people cite religious beliefs. Some of them live in relatively small, tightly knit communities like the Orthodox Jews in part of New York City. Others are scattered throughout their cities like, say, Christian Scientists. Or they live in isolated rural areas. I’m not happy about them for reasons I’ll make clear later.

I’m much more concerned about the ordinary but science-ignorant citizens who’ve been suckered by the anti-vaccine movement into believing emotion-laden allegations that vaccines cause all sorts of conditions, the most famous, or infamous, being autism. Never mind that in the case of autism, the scientist whose study started the whole thing retracted his research long ago, agreeing with his critics that he’d made some pretty serious errors in his work and conclusions.

But the virus of fear has been released into the wild.

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A Formula for the Science in Science Fiction

The fundamental element of my Eternity Plague series—The Eternity Plague (book 1), Chrysalis (book 2), and Wild Spread (book 3, currently in draft)—is that five naturally-mutated viruses have infected all of humanity and are doing all sorts of strange and not necessarily wonderful things to everyone. My heroine, Dr. Janet Hogan, discovers the viruses and has to try to stop them before they do too many awful things. Good luck with that: so far the viruses are doing more things faster than Janet and her team can respond to them. How will the series end? Sorry, no spoilers here.

But because these books are science fiction, I wanted to ground them in science, and good science at that. But having the viruses cure and prevent all viral diseases and repair the genetic mutations that cause others?

Uh, yeah, that seems like a stretch. But that’s why I write “fiction beyond the known,” right?

Now, I’m not a geneticist like Janet is, nor do I play one on TV or in the movies, so I needed to do a fair amount of research to be able to present things in a credible but futuristic way, since the series is set in the mid- to late 2030s.

A ribosome
A ribosome

For example, early in The Eternity Plague, Janet and her team are deep inside a virtual reality simulation of a gene’s DNA being run through a megamolecule called a ribosome, which “reads” the DNA and creates a protein. I invoke other genetic machinery, including something called messenger RNA to help make the protein, which it does in real life.

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The Book/Marathon Connection

The cliché “writing a book is like running a marathon” has, like all other clichés, that kernel of truth that gets worn out from overuse. But the kernel remains true.

Young man running with computer
Photo by Photostock, via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I got to thinking about this because, while I work on draft #4 of Wild Spread, I’m also getting ready for my 19th consecutive year of volunteering with the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. There are many parallels between writing the book and my volunteer work—which I do to honor the memory of a friend who was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building—the first being that they’re both important to me. I’ve also completed one half-marathon and two books, so I can speak with at least some knowledge of running and writing.

The other parallels between writing and marathoning include:

  • They require persistence. This is the obvious one. Both require continuous, steady exertion and development in order to complete the task. Runners and writers both build endurance and confidence over time, and both must learn a lot along the way, about themselves and what it takes to achieve their goal.

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“Friendly Fire” review

5-star rating

Friendly Fire, by Scott A. Snook. Copyright 2000 by Princeton University Press

As I did when I reviewed Joan Piper’s book, A Chain of Events, I need to begin with a set of disclaimers.

Friendly Fire cover image
  • I am a retired Air Force officer.
  • I was a Mission Crew Commander (MCC) on the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
  • On the date of the shoot-down of the two Blackhawk helicopters over northern Iraq—April 14, 1994—I was deployed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to fly missions enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq for Operation Southern Watch/Desert Calm, the counterpart to Operation Provide Comfort (OPC).
  • In July 1994, when the first investigation report was released, I was deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, to fly OPC missions. I was in the audience at the base theater when the report was briefed to the aircrews there the evening before it was released to the public.
  • I knew slightly both of the MCCs who were on the AWACS crew the day of the shoot-down, and have since gotten to know one of the senior officers involved in the decisions on who to prosecute or not. I did not know the one AWACS officer who was ultimately court-martialed but declared not guilty by the jury.

Because this book was my second one on the shootdown, I was prepared for another difficult read. I also came to the book with a fair degree of skepticism. The author, Scott Snook, was an Army officer: what biases was he going to bring to the work? I had skimmed the book before I actually sat down with it and was concerned that, as a psychological study, it was going to be dry and uninformative.

I’m pleased to say that, on the first count, I think Snook did a fairly good job, although hardly a perfect one. More on that in a moment. On the second count, Snook’s in-depth and cross-level evaluation of the events, non-events, and individual, group, and organizational psychology of what happened was far better than I expected.

To read more, click here.

The Friends We Leave, the Friends Who Leave Us

Two weeks ago today, as I write this, my closest friend left all of us behind, going on to whatever, if anything, is next. She left behind a lot of broken hearts and fond memories. Fortunately, because she was a wonderful writer of poetry and prose, a painter, a musician, and much more, we will have tangible things to hold near to revive those memories.

Cappy Love Hanson portrait

Cappy left “too soon,” of course. Far earlier than any of us would have wished. Frankly, we would have wished that she would never leave and spare us that pain. Never mind that if we were the ones to leave first, we would be inflicting that pain of leaving on her.

Such is the nature of our feelings about those we hold most dear, even at times when letting go is the kindest thing to do. I do not think that was the case this time, but what do I know?

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“Too Close to Home: The Samantha Zaldivar Case” Review

5-star rating

It’s hard to say I “enjoyed” this book. After all, how can one “enjoy” a book about the real murder of an eight year old girl by her mother’s boyfriend? Indeed, at times there were tears in my eyes.

That said, there’s a lot to like—or maybe “appreciate” is a better word—about Too Close to Home. Let me set the scene first.

Cover and photo by Jesaro Photography. Used with permission.

Samantha’s home life was anything but easy. Her mother, Rachel Stra, had been divorced by Samantha’s biological father. Samantha and Rachel had moved with Rachel’s boyfriend from Florida to western New York to “get a fresh start.”

Angel Colon, the boyfriend, was no angel. He’d been involved in drugs and crime in Florida and Georgia, and was abusive with Rachel and Samantha. Despite that, he and Rachel had had two more daughters together, but Samantha became the odd girl out in the family. To top it off, Rachel was not the best of mothers: inattentive almost to the point of neglect.

Then one day in February of 1997, Samantha didn’t show up for school, although Angel claimed he’d put her on the bus that morning. She didn’t come home that night, and her classmates reported they hadn’t seen her. The search began. By the time a week had passed, suspicion began to focus on Angel and the possibility that Samantha was no longer alive.

To read the rest of the review, click here.