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You may know that after an Amazon transaction you will eventually receive a notice requesting an evaluation of the quality of product and delivery. In the 5-star rating system the top three ratings are Fair, Good, and Excellent. What you don’t know is what constitutes “Excellent or Good” service. What if your order shows up on time and is undamaged? Does that deserve high praise? I’ll answer that. The delivery of a product on time and in spec, even a day or two early, is within the range of ordinary or expected. It does not qualify as excellent or even good.

Conversely, a selection of “Fair” seems unfair to a vendor. If a common parcel delivery to a customer did not also deliver giggling delight, but rather an “OK, here it is”, maybe the customer would be inclined to give a mid-range rating accurately reflecting the absence of glee. Fair is death by faint praise.

What they are missing is an answer indicating that the product and delivery was “as expected” or, “nominal”.  Excellent or Good imply some sort of action above and beyond a baseline value.

Amazon is smart to collect ranking data on their vendors. It keeps them edgy and sharp. I get that.

An Excellent rating should result from service leaving the customer standing there with their pants around their ankles and a goofy grin on their face. That would rank as Excellent in my book!

But I would offer that another purpose is to condition customers into believing that ordinary products and deliveries from Amazon constitute some kind of premium service. Early on, maybe. But now it is normal. It’s just an ordinary transaction worthy of, at most, a wink and a nod.

During the last year I have been away from the chemistry blogosphere and immersed in reading classic literature and acting in a few plays. I won’t take up bandwidth with a lot of details, but suffice it to say that I would urge young technocrats to spend a bit of time reading some classic literature or doing some artistic activity. In my case, I have a special fondness for 19th century literature. Not a minute I’ve spent immersed in Balzac, Pushkin, Gogol, or the earlier writings of Cicero, brings even the slightest regret for time not spent with chemistry.

Of course, my threadbare-epiphany is in no way novel and barely worth mentioning. Many people spread their wings and glide over the wonderment of new lands. For me, I have simply chosen to spend the time doing so. Scientific greatness is not in the hand I was dealt. There will be no reactions or campus buildings named in my honor. This is the fate for most of us, really. Only it takes some time to come to that realization.  Loosening one’s grip on ambition is not gladly done. Those of us who have gotten advanced degrees are, in a very real sense, freaks who have a fiendishly tight grasp and a capacity for extended abuse (you know it’s true!).

The reality of aging is that in the footrace of one’s career, faster, younger and hungrier runners begin to catch up and surpass you. This is actually essential for the continuation of scientific progress and the extension of this age of enlightenment. The trick lies in not allowing one’s vanity to accentuate this natural progression in some humiliating way. The merits of silence become increasingly apparent with age to those who can manage it.

This cancer business has the effect of telescoping one’s life in the sense that the end-game once obscured by the haze of time begins to take shape as would an approaching stranger in the fog. It is the fear of this approaching stranger that causes the afflicted to grasp for any and all treatments, clinical or mystical. At some point it should become clear that spending down your retirement and impoverishing your survivors is destructive and selfish. But you cannot rely on your physician to help with this. Your final act as a mature adult is to decide when to call off treatment. This is not accepting defeat. It is acknowledging biological reality.

Cancer has a large head-game aspect and one’s internal monolog must constantly chant the importance of living in the moment and keeping a cheerful attitude. Those around you will be grateful, even if they do not outright say so.

I finished reading Dan Brown’s latest best seller The Lost Symbol. Brown famously authored The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. Both of these novels were crafted to include all of the factors needed for NYT best seller status- secret societies, characters solving a mystery, the chase, intelligent and attractive main characters, cryptotheological inferences,  etc. Both of the early books were quite entertaining to read and hard to put down.

It is with some disappointment and regret that I must confess that I did not care for The Lost Symbol. I found it substantially formulaic and predictable.  Interestingly, a great investment in plot design was taken by noetic science as a type of incipient breakthrough for humanity, but no meat was to be found hanging on those bones. Instead, noetic science simply served as a weak plot device to place a secret laboratory near the Mall in Washington DC.

Then there is the lengthy apology to the Masons. In fact, the book is one long apology to Masonic culture and history; perhaps for slights inferred in past Dan Brown novels? Really, the book should be titled Dan Brown’s Interminable Apology to the Masons.

Again, the hapless Harvard Symbologist Tom Hanks Robert Langdon is caught up in a cryptological extravaganza requiring the decoding of a series of symbolic puzzles, usually under duress. Dismemberment, pyramids, Masonic Temples, reluctant protagonists,crypto fu, metaphysical fu, wealthy and eccentric characters, secretive government agencies, shadowy agents, and more.

In the final chapters, Brown takes the story into what I’ll call the “Dialog on Great World Systems” (with apologies to Galileo). Using the form of the Greek playwrights, he drags the reader through the egg batter and flour of extended and pedantic dialog between characters to serve up missing information and close all of the loose ends in the story.

Dan Brown the fiction writer reassures the reader that despite what fiction writers invent concerning Masonic rites and secret knowledge, they really are godly and patriotic fellows after all. But rather than leave it there, Brown attempts to ladle some theological pan drippings into the gravy by suggesting that the Christian Bible is actually full of symbolism.  Indeed, as the gazillionaire and noeticist siblings suggest, it is mostly symbolic. D’oh!

And, along that vein, the story asserts that Noetic research has uncovered that “ancient knowledge” is substantially correct, including that encrypted into the Bible, and with that realization, mankind is now on the cusp of a new era of civilization. Interesting story idea, but it never develops the noetic stuff in a satisfactory way.

I viewed the new version of The Andromeda Strain recently. The miniseries is directed by brothers Ridley and Tony Scott and was broadcast on A&E. I really like and respect Michael Crichton for the book and the original movie was quite good. And, Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors.

But this remake is a problem. The production value is excellent and the cinematography is quite inspired in a few places. I couldn’t do better than Ridley Scott, so who am I to complain? But there is the rub. While it is technically competent and visually stimulating, the storyline is a bit … well, I’ll just say it … overwrought. The updated storyline is just too bloody complex. Too many little cul-de-sacs and backstories to keep track of. It has that same manic, runaway train feel as ER. Just like Crichton’s most recent books. I can’t finish them.

Part of the problem with much of contemporary movie making is the persistance of formulaic and over used themes. Tired, threadbare archetypes of reluctant heroes, corrupt politicians, and busty nubiles who are handy with martial arts and firearms. I enjoy watching Angelina Jolie spraying machine gun fire as much as the next guy, but enough! Lets move on to something new.

Which brings me to the latest Indiana Jones movie. This movie proves that even George Lucas is subject to the Peter Principle. The storyline is a patchwork of whatever few baby-boomer oriented euphamisms that haven’t already been hijacked by the trolls at Industrial Light and Magic. It’s a contrived piece of cinema that was apparently designed by MBA’s and industrial psychologists to extract money from your debit card. (But I did enjoy some Milk Duds during the show.)

For Gawd sakes, George, go out back and dig up some of that money you have buried in the back yard and buy a better script next time.

Google has been posting a series of interesting talks by contemporary authors. This talk is by Michael Shermer, author of Mind of the Market, and editor of the popular magazine Skeptic. It is a lengthy 53 minute video, but I would highly recommend it. I think Shermer has a good grasp on the anthropology of our present world.

This is off-topic, but useful. This link gives a bunch of really good hints on how to save money for your start-up company.

In an effort to rescue books from the pulping cycle, several new additions to the Gaussling Library have been made.

Hey Rube, Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness,  Hunter S. Thompson, 2004, Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-684-87319-2.

Comments: HST in his later years. Toggles between professional football and professional politics- two savage blood sports.

The Road to Reality, A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, Roger Penrose, 2004, Vintage Books, ISBN 978-0-679-77631-4. 

Comments:  Holy Moses! I hope to glean a few crumbs of insight into my pathetic Homo Chemicus brain.

Lanthanide and Actinide Chemistry, Simon Cotton, 2006, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-470-01006-1.

Comments: Contains something that doesn’t seem to be taught anymore- descriptive inorganic chemistry!

Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgeman, 2005, E.P. Dutton, ISBN 0-525-94908-9.

Comments: An “encyclopedic” download from the authors brain. Here is a selection from the listing of our 51 states-

“Louisiana. Nickname: “The Emeril State”; Motto: “Bam!” Notes: New Orleans was the first city to offer indoor absinthe faucets, and indeed has always played a cosmopolitan and libertine ragtime beneath America’s generally dull Sousa march of rural piety … For while the state had been purchased by the US as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1802, the city itself was, for obscure reasons, placed in escrow, where it remains today, technically under the jurisdiction of Gibraltar…”

I’m halfway through Crichton’s 2006 genetics saga Next. Slogged all the way to chapter 35 of 94. I hate to say it, but I’m bored out of my skull. I ran into the same issue with his last book, State of Fear. The question is this- Should a fellow spend perfectly good heartbeats in finishing the book, or move on to a better read? Ahh, I’m moving on.

Next reads like a made-for-TV drama. Thin character development and short chapters are ideal for the 12-minutes-of-ads-per-half-hour-of-programming world of television. Between chapters I fully expect to see a testimonial about erectile dysfunction or a teaser for a NASCAR race pageant. The chapters are so short and the narrative jumps around so much that it becomes difficult to keep track of what each character is doing. It is attention deficit narrative- ADN.

Crichton has become a TV writer and to expect anything different seems unrealistic. I’m sure it’s a good living. Hmmm, I wonder if he is on strike…?

I keep hoping for another Andromeda Strain and we keep getting ER

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