Book Review: A Spy At Home by Joseph Rinaldo


Try to put yourself in the position of a retired CIA operative, returning home to his wife and son with Down syndrome (resulting in early-onset Alzheimer's), endeavoring to do his best to look after them and ensure they are provided for. Now, just to make things a little more difficult, imagine our retired spy has managed to embezzle a little under ten million dollars from his employer. Such is the premise of A Spy at Home, the first novel by Joseph Rinaldo, already published as an eBook. Mr Rinaldo explains how he is uniquely qualified to write this book, raising a daughter with Down syndrome and witnessing the effect of Alzheimer's on a family member, and indeed cryptically states that he'd prefer not to disclose the sources of his espionage-related knowledge. This intriguing combination of plot and story sounded unique and intriguing to me, so I happily accepted the author's offer to write a review.

The juxtaposition of a "tough guy" job with the emotional concerns attached with mental disability made me immediately think of Regarding Henry, penned by writer J. J. Abrams in a dim and distant era long before Lost. It's not a common combination of subjects, and surely presents the author with some difficult challenges. The author deals with these issues very well by writing the book as our retired operative's memoirs, only to be released to be read in the event of his death. In the preface, the narrator tells us that, yes, he is dead; yes, his son was a surprise; and yes, he's the one that killed his own wife. With those revelations out of the way, the book proceeds in whydunnit style, with the narrator telling us about events as and when he remembers them, indeed apologizing for his lack of strict chronology very early in the book. It's a very stark contrast between the strict mental conditioning required for his day job, and the day-to-day stresses and strains of looking after his son, whose welfare becomes more and more of a challenge as their lives go on.

The book does not go in for large amounts of descriptive passages; it is indeed intended as a memoir rather than a flowery novel, which can at times leave a very dry delivery but does, for the most part, definitely give a realistic feel and a feeling that perhaps some of the events reported have their basis in fact, written precisely as our narrator would report them, grappling with his own emotional detachment due to his job. This does result in a couple of areas where things are ambiguous; for example, it is apparent that some time passes through the story as the child Noah grows up, gets a job and goes to work, although I never quite felt sure exactly how old he was. Likewise, exactly when the story takes place seems a little unclear, although it is evidently in a near present due to the computer hackers that form an integral part of the espionage side of the story. That part of the story was also delivered in a gritty way – there was no attempt to picture the spy business as anything glamorous as in the movies, rather a day job whose employees have the same concerns as most of us, such as whether their families are eligible for benefits. The lack of description does make it a little difficult to feel for the characters; we only get to experience their situation. There are a couple of inclusions in the book which I felt did detract from the overall story. There are a few very awkward sex scenes; nothing particularly explicit, but extremely clumsy and they do not add anything to the tale – excluding them would have left the book accessible to a young teen audience which would be just as interested in the novel's parallel subjects. There are a couple of places as well where I feel the author slipped out of character for a moment and managed to let his own political viewpoint slip out, albeit briefly. I can't help feeling it is a line an editor would have removed before going to press. Overall, the writing and copy seemed good with only a couple of minor errors. At the time of writing, the book is available in Kindle format for $1.99 on These days, I feel it's difficult for authors to get the pricing right for novels published digitally; far too many fall into the trap of practically giving their works away and underselling their hard work. For the reader, however, this is surely a bargain.
The book does indeed raise some difficult ethical questions; we find ourselves wondering whether any amount of money would make a difference in this situation, and we are sympathizing very much with a father who, while he may be used to overthrowing foreign regimes and all sorts of covert operations, finds it ever more difficult to look after a son who recognizes him less and less and is constantly worried exactly how he will be cared for once the father passes on. Watching the story unfold as one tragedy follows another, all against the backdrop of possible discovery of the theft of the money and trying to find ways to put the money to work without raising suspicions, one feels the greatest sympathy for the characters, although curiously it is not so much for Noah and his condition, but for his father, for whom no amount of training could prepare him for the trials and tribulations he is to face as a spy, at home. It's a good story whose major strength to me is the realism of the characters dealing with very real lives without expecting the plot to magically resolve itself in the closing chapters. Mr Rinaldo's own experiences evidently do show through in the writing here.
Joseph Rinaldo currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. From this most American of cities he writes about the internal turmoil in the CIA, and about pirates on beautiful family-filled lakes. You've probably heard that authors write what they know. Think it's true?
A Spy at Home is available from in eBook format for Kindle and compatible book readers.

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Chest Pains? Don’t hesitate. Get to an Emergency Room.

12 lead electrocardiogram of a ventricular tac...

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A few days ago, I sent a text message to my fiancee while at work, and just happened to mention that I was experiencing "chest pain". That choice of words is very important. I didn't say indigestion, or heartburn, because, well, I simply don't get them all that often. What followed was a blinding panic, of which the details have now become incredibly hazy, and to most of which I was completely oblivious. I simply walked over to the first aid cabinet, took myself an antacid, sat down, and continued to work. I proceeded to make my scheduled phone call and carried on as if nothing untoward was happening. I sent what I thought was a reassuring text message to say that I was OK, it was nothing, and it would pass. Yes, I agreed, this probably was the worst case of heartburn I'd ever experienced, and yes, I was a little surprised that it had pretty much been with me all day, actually, now I think about it, maybe it started last night, and nothing had shifted it. But I was OK, absolutely, and with that supposedly-reassuring message, I continued with my work day.

I've only recently joined the ranks of millions of people "my age" who have to take medications to manage their health. For far too long, I've been of the opinion that, if I don't feel good, I should simply take a tylenol and just "get on with it". Anything more serious than that, well, that's what sick days are for. Up until this year, I can't even remember the last time I went for a routine doctor visit, or a check-up. It was quite possibly back when I was under the protection of Britain's National Health Service, and I haven't lived there for fifteen years. Doctor visits have been something only "sick" people do. Perhaps then, I was overdue for an awakening. Of course, I have far too many risk factors. I'm overweight, I was a heavy smoker since being a teenager, I have a family history of high blood pressure. It turned out, in fact, that wasn't the whole picture. My triglycerides were astronomically high; so high, in fact, that my cholesterol readings wouldn't even show up through them, and no lifestyle changes could possibly bring them down rapidly enough. My doctor promptly put me on medication for the trigs, and pointed out that just because my blood pressure was the same as I'd ever seen it, that didn't mean it was "normal". Even considering all these risk factors and my new medication regime, I still didn't find any reason to be perturbed that afternoon.

My work day certainly was not going to continue as normal. As I continued with my scheduled phone call, other calls were incoming. I must admit, I have probably had about three incoming calls in the past three months. Three within a few minutes seemed, well, a little unusual. Never mind; they could leave a voice mail – I'll pick it up later. Next, instant messages. One from a contact in the process department. "Are you there?" – what's this? Did I not fill out my forms correctly? "Please, answer me." Yes, I'm here, I'm fine. What is all this fuss about? Another IM, this time from HR. "Do you need us to call you an ambulance?" Of course not. I'm just a little uncomfortable, that's all. The facilities coordinator walked into my cube to "check" on me. Yes, I'm here. Oh yes, I'm fine. Nothing to worry about. Erm, what's going on? "Your fiancee called the front desk, distraught that she couldn't get a hold of you." I looked at the blinking light on my phone handset. "She's left work and she's on her way here. Since you won't take an ambulance, she's going to take you to the ER herself."

I sighed in complete disbelief. I'm fine, this is nothing. The phone rings, one more time, and this time I answer it. It's C, driving up the interstate, absolutely frantic with worry, crying. Once again, I'm trying to explain. I'm OK. This is nothing. It can't be anything serious…

Can it?

Or is it?

I must point out, I've been in "emergency" rooms a lot, lately, and it's always seemed like something of an oxymoron. You go in there and register, which involves sitting in the waiting room and filling out paperwork, which you duly hand in, to be told to sit back down. Perhaps what seems like an hour might pass, before you go into the little entrance room, get your vitals taken and an initial assessment, and if it's apparent you're not in any immediate danger, then it's back to the waiting room again. Eventually they take you back to an exam room, where you may eventually get seen, and, more than likely, depending on what other poor souls are in that night, it may be a couple more hours before you might get some pretty ordinary pain medications, perhaps some cursory first aid, and then you're sent home.

Not this time. My feet didn't touch the ground.

My vitals were taken the moment I walked in the door. Before I knew it, I was swept into an examining room where a huge number of sticky electrodes were waiting for me. I needed to use the restroom, desperately. "I have to go", I pleaded, only to be told, no, let us do this first. The electrodes were stuck on me, in places I'd expect, and other places I never thought. My ankles? Why are they putting electrodes on my ankles? Suddenly, I felt considerably less confident than I did earlier that this was nothing serious. Can I go to the restroom now? Please? Paperwork swept under my nose, quickly and efficiently. "Do you have a religious preference?". Oh my God. Suddenly, it seems perhaps I do. Not tonight God, please, not tonight. Restroom, now, quickly. I believe it might have been a few seconds too late, but any embarrassment for that seemed irrelevant now. More staff awaiting for me, seemingly right outside the restroom door. Shirt off, arms above head, two chest x-rays, one from the front, one from the side, don't even bother getting dressed. Slip on this very fetching hospital gown, and straight to an exam room, covered in sticky monitor pads. Oh no, not a needle. A blood sample drawn. I must have encountered fifteen different members of hospital staff in the space of a few minutes. Results, back already. EKG appears normal; chest x-ray is clear. Troponin levels OK. Troponin. A substance measured in nanograms, that's capable of determining whether there has been any cardiac muscle damage. Not just to show whether you're having a heart attack, but maybe even if you've already had one. For the first time, that possibility struck me. The damage could have already been done; and, of course, I broke down and cried.

The emotions of the experience were thoroughly draining; finding out that I was indeed OK had an effect on me I didn't expect. I became indignant, upset, even angry at all the fuss. Over "nothing, nothing at all". It all gushed out of me later that evening, in a fit of unexpected and unjustified rage, one that, for the second time in a day, brought C to tears. Once spent, once exhausted, I finally took the time to sit up and listen, to see what had just happened from her perspective. Then, and only then, did it completely sink in just what had happened; more importantly, what could have happened. After waiting too long to find each other, one of us could simply have disappeared; the two of us could very easily have become just the one of us, just the one, in a blink of an eye. Every second mattered; every moment; that's why there was no delay, no hesitation from the wonderful staff at El Camino Hospital. And yet, for several thousand seconds before that, I had dismissed it all as nothing important, nothing significant – yet, very easily, there could have been nothing left at all.

What have I learned from this experience? Two things – first of all, if ever your partner is getting frantic, and desperately telling you what you need to do, listen. Listen very carefully. Think exactly why they're saying these things. Don't be selfish, because if you don't take notice, that's exactly what you're being. They know exactly what they're talking about, whether they happen to be a nurse or not. But, more importantly, if you feel a pain in your chest, then don't hesitate. Don't brush it off as "just indigestion". It could so easily be something far more serious. It took my emergency room experience to appreciate that.

This has been a public service announcement.

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Book Review: “A Trace of Smoke” by Rebecca Cantrell

A newspaper crime reporter scans the photographs of the unnamed dead found drowned in a river, posted in a police station. One photograph particularly catches her eye; she recognizes it as her brother. He had lived a colorful life, performing his drag act and associated with several perhaps dangerous gay lovers – at this point, perhaps this sounds like a formula for many a contemporary novel, but for Hannah Vogel in A Trace of Smoke, things are far from formulaic. It is 1931 in Berlin, the Nazis are on their way to power, and, furthermore, she and her brother have lent their identity papers to a young Jewish couple who are at that very moment escaping to New York. Add a father looking to bring justice to the rapist who attacked his daughter, and a child with a birth certificate claiming Hannah and her brother are his parents, and the scene is set for a story that includes its fair share of surprises.

Rebecca Cantrell places her story with research and attention to detail, and not more than a little homage to such iconic portrayals of 1930's Berlin as Cabaret. The result is the events are effectively placed against a backdrop of real places and events, however without too much in the way of dry factual details. This results in a portrayal which is evidently a work of fiction: in fact, the actual historical background seem very unobtrusive and perhaps a little sparse. For the reader expecting a historical novel, this may be somewhat disappointing; there are just enough details provided, but only just. At first I struggled with this and wanted more, but after a while the reason for this becomes clear. Location is secondary to character in this novel. The end effect in fact is that the backgrounds are portrayed very much in gray, almost as if they were shot in black and white, with the characters standing out in bold color. In particular, there are splashes of red throughout, signifying passion, intrigue, and of course blood. These splashes of red reminded me very much of the way that odd glimpse of color was used in Schindler's List, or to denote something supernatural as in The Sixth Sense. It comes across as a very effective part of the storytelling. The factual and historical background is dour; the characters themselves deliver the color. For the curious, there is a welcome glossary at the end of the book.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the story is the overall pace at which the story unfolds. At first, the tale is somewhat slow and sluggish. The narrative has to fill out the background information for Hannah and her brother, and their fellow characters in the story, somewhat mechanically at first. It seems to take a few chapters for things to get started. Again, this may be disappointing to the reader at first, but it results in a clever build-up of pace that is maintained for much of the thirty chapters. It seems Hannah's challenges increase, step-by-step, one at a time, throughout the book, reaching a breakneck pace for the big resolution of the story. Before long, what could have been a murder mystery plot brings in potential blackmail, priceless gemstones, a scandal involving a high-ranking Nazi, the peculiar child who believes Hannah to be his mother, and enough loose ends to draw us towards a conclusion which leaves just as many questions answered as unanswered, ready for the sequel, The Night Of The Long Knives.

Above all, the outstanding part of this novel is the sympathetic character of Hannah Vogel herself. It would be very easy for a novel in this setting to portray every one of the Nazis as wicked and evil, but Hannah's eyes are just as capable of seeing good and evil in all the characters she meets, even each of the growing list of suspects in her brother's murder. In particular, she finds herself very much aware of the contradictions that many of the characters face when trying to reconcile their lives and beliefs with the events that unfold around them. The story is very much one of conflicts between prejudices, and one which is far richer in the intricate relationships between human beings than their politics. Hannah is an absorbing heroine, and not without her own flaws; her fellow characters are all multi-dimensional, resulting in an enthralling and captivating read.

Interested in A Trace Of Smoke? If you have a Nook or compatible eReader software that can read LendMe books, my copy of A Trace Of Smoke is available to borrow. Just join or log in to, and search for the book. If it's still available, it's yours to read for one week.

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Aneurin Bevan, The National Health Service, and a Trip To The Doctor

Statue of Aneurin Bevan in Cardiff Queen Street

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The collective principle asserts that… no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

That's a quote from one of my heroes – Aneurin Bevan, voted in an online poll as the number one Welsh hero, beating out competition even from luminaries such as Tom Jones and Richard Burton. Bevan had worked as a coal miner since the age of 13, and as a union official found himself leading the local miners in the 1926 General Strike. Three years later, he became the Member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale, a post he held right until his death in 1960. He was known for his supreme oratory, regularly exchanging verbal blows with his long-time political enemy, Winston Churchill. 

But Bevan's enduring legacy is the formation of the United Kingdom's National Health Service, achieved when he became the Minister for Health and Housing in Clement Attlee's Labour government after the conclusion of the Second World War. He saw "the sale and purchase of medical practice as an evil in itself" and sought instead a program that was "free on the point of delivery". Ninety-seven percent of the British public were signed up within a month of 5 July 1948, the date when his National Health Service Act came into force. While the NHS has often been under attack, most particularly in the past thirty years and especially since healthcare reform has become a topic for discussion in the US, it has endured. In general, most British people are content with their system; during 2009, Professor Stephen Hawking went on record saying that, without the NHS, he wouldn't be alive today. In recent comparisons with six other wealthy nations, the United Kingdom's healthcare system ranked second overall, and number one when it came to efficiency. (The US, the country with the most expensive healthcare system in the world ranked last overall, and at best next to last in any of the dimensions of the study).

OK, I've made my point. I'm a product of that healthcare system. It was there for me when I came into the world; it saw me through my first 25 years as, overall, an exceptionally healthy individual. It's the reason both my parents are cancer survivors. And yet, it seems nobody can even mention healthcare without it becoming political. Why is that? You wouldn't expect your doctor to talk about politics, would you? Today, though, that's precisely what happened. I did something today I have never been able to do since moving to the United States. I went to see a doctor, without actually being ill – well, except for some little minor annoyance. (Cooties, I'm sure. Girl cooties, no doubt. Or her dog. Or her cat.) Why have I never been able to have preventive medical care up until now? Because, quite simply, I couldn't afford it. The last thing I wanted to hear this morning was a treatise about how "socialized" healthcare basically can't get to you until you're about to kick the bucket, and about the superiority of a system for which your insurance would "probably" pick up the tab, and if not, there were plenty of other programs.

He's absolutely right, of course. This is indeed a free market economy, and, as such, standard rules apply. As a paying customer, I am this doctor's employer. I was dissatisfied with his work, and I didn't think he was right for the job. So I did what any free market employer should do with that kind of employee. I fired him. I'll be seeing another doctor for my next visit.

He didn't even address my cooties either, but did suggest I could invest $110 for a slip cover for my bed sheets.

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Two navigation technologies, three centuries apart

This blue plaque remembering John Harrison is ...

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(Disclaimer: Although I am employed by Telenav, Inc., a company specializing in GPS applications, there is nothing proprietary included in this article – it is all information readily available from sources such as Wikipedia).

Navigation has changed quite significantly over the years. For quite some time, mariners have been able to calculate their latitude – their distance north or south of the Equator – with reasonable precision; just measure the angle of the sun above the horizon when highest in the sky, adjust for the tilt of the earth and the progress of the seasons, and, with a considerable bit of geometry (quite literally) out comes the result. It takes quite some effort to compute by hand, but such an essential requirement at sea deserves that much attention.

Establishing longitude, however, is a considerably more challenging proposition. In theory, it's quite simple, provided you can accurately tell the time. The notion of time zones is familiar; with every degree of longitude one travels east or west (about sixty nautical miles at the equator), the times of sunrises and sunsets shift by four minutes. In other words, if an accurate clock was set in Greenwich and taken on board a ship, observing the sun at noon and checking the time difference gives the longitude. The problem, though, is to find an accurate timepiece, particularly one that would operate satisfactorily on a ship with wide ranges of temperature, humidity, rough seas, and so on. Measuring longitude precisely was so important to navigation that the British Parliament passed an act in 1714 establishing a prize, worth millions in modern terms, for anyone who could suitably make progress in this field. John Harrison was a man who dedicated his entire life to this problem, making succession after succession of better and better chronometers; quite a tall order for the times. The terms and conditions of the prize required an accuracy better than sixty miles for an Atlantic crossing before any money would be paid; as mentioned above, that requires the clock stays within four minutes of true over the entire trip.

Nowadays, with atomic clocks and GPS, it seems the problems of three hundred years ago are far behind us, but in fact, even GPS depends on something very similar to the longitude problem. While most people have some ideas exactly how GPS works, there may be some surprising details. Basically, GPS satellites transmit time signals. A receiver can read the time signal, compute exactly where the satellite should be at that time based on its known orbit, calculate the time the message took to arrive and hence the distance to the satellite, and, with a bit of triangulation from multiple satellites, work out exactly where on the Earth the receiver is. At least, that's the theory – but, with a little thought, you'll realize that can't possibly work.

Radio waves travel at the speed of light, three hundred million meters per second. Even if time measurements for GPS were accurate to a millionth of a second, that's three hundred meters – hardly the sort of accuracy everyone expects from their navigation devices. And the quartz crystals in our mobile devices – yes, those very same quartz crystals that were vaunted for their accuracy when they were included in digital watches – are nowhere near as accurate as that. (The important thing about quartz crystals is not their accuracy – it's that they're ridiculously cheap). If the clocks in the mobile devices drift, it would be very difficult to compute a position on Earth; in fact, the position calculated would be thousands of miles off and maybe not on the planet at all. So how can GPS achieve the results with the accuracy we're used to? Is there another John Harrison who found a way to measure the time more accurately?

Almost. Instead, the problem is solved in a slightly different way. Instead of using GPS to locate our position in three dimensions (which would in theory take three satellites), we have to also locate ourselves in a fourth dimension, time, which takes four satellites. In essence, while our devices will incorporate an error in any time observations, that time error should be pretty much the same for all of the GPS satellites that are being observed. The time error produces what is known as a dilution of precision. The more satellites that can be seen, the more precise the calculable result. Although it might seem that your GPS device or navigation program can position you precisely, it requires a considerable number of measurements from ever-moving satellites to get that precision, not to mention a fair amount of mathematics. Something worth thinking about, when you find yourself literally holding what was once a secret Department of Defense technology in the palm of your hand.

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Infographic: Travel and Vacation Statistics

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Infographic: Online Schooling – Visualizing Pi

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