(This is a little more retro than Retronaut’s usual fare, but they have some interesting stuff.)
The New England Theater Geek has a review. If you’re not sure whether you can handle it, Wikipedia has a summary of the plot (with spoilers, of course).
I finished Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic That Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries, by Molly Caldwell Crosby. As I wrote earlier, it was fascinating, and I think the novelistic style that rubbed me a bit the wrong way towards the beginning ended up working for me (especially when I read the notes at the end and realized that a lot of the suspiciously detailed descriptions were in fact properly sourced). Very highly recommended for anybody who likes historical nonfiction, medical nonfiction, or both. Looking forward to reading (and perhaps watching) Awakenings at some point. (Crosby says she was inspired to write Asleep in part because after reading Awakenings she wanted to learn more about the epidemic, and couldn’t find anything else written since the 30s or so.)
Got an unexpected impromptu dinner date with plumtreeblossom this evening. I was kept late at work, and she had her class schedule change unexpectedly, which meant we were both in Cambridge and free at around 7:30. So we met in Central Square for dinner. We first tried Mary Chung’s, but they’re closed on Tuesdays, so we ended up having a delicious Indian meal at Shalimar. Yay!
Oh, and it was very cloudy here all day, so no chance of seeing the transit of Venus around sunset EDT. (The new userpic is from the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite.) But as I was walking home from the T station the clouds had cleared a bit, and I got to see the International Space Station pass overhead.
PS — Huge thanks to surrealestate and DD for inviting us to join them and Julian on the Cape!
I finished Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (spoilers at link, of course) a couple weeks ago. I had a weird, mixed reaction to it. I love alternate history in general, and this is an important book in the history of that sub-genre. And I love actual history, and the actual history in the book was meticulously researched.
The other thing I didn’t like about it, was that it mixed very plausible, believable characters with some really implausible behaviours and reactions. I mean, the whole premise is time travel and altering history, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief that far, but a lot of the things about how the time travellers behaved and how the 19th-century Southerners reacted to them and their technology seemed completely implausible.
I have started reading Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries, about the epidemic of sleeping sickness (epidemic encephalitis or encephalitis lethargica) following World War I. I’m only about halfway through it, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s largely taken from case histories, but it also creates an excellent sense of the era. Here’s an example:
For New Yorkers, for Americans, and for the world, the 1920s would prove to be the decade with the most rapid technological change in history. In one generation, travel by horse and carriage would make way for autos; people would travel underground, and soon, in the sky; wireless radio would change ship travel; kitchen appliances and indoor plumbing would become mainstream; light would come from a switch and heat through pipes; telephones would appear in the majority of homes; and the canned music and crackling voice of radio would provide home entertainment and news.One minor quibble I have with it is that it’s a bit fictionalized and novelistic, including details that I can’t imagine are all actually attested in contemporary sources. But that certainly adds to the vividness, and it’s a very vivid book. Definitely recommended.
¹ So in this post I have two cases of the same or similar titles appearing in italics as the name of a standalone work or series, and also in quotation marks as the title of an episode of a series. There’s something wrong with that.
- plumtreeblossom taught me how to make cheesecake on Friday! Om nom nom.
- She had borrowed I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang from me (I haven’t actually read it yet), and wanted to see the movie (same title, minus “Georgia”). Netflix didn’t have it, but Amazon did, and we really enjoyed it!
- And today, after breakfast of bacon and more cheesecake (hey, it’s a virtue to eat leftovers, isn’t it?) we went and saw the Big Apple Circus. We had a great time, despite somebody kicking over plumtreeblossom’s full glass of lemonade. Some of the acts were really spectacular. The most stunning bit for me wasn’t at all flashy, but it was just something that I didn’t realize the human body was capable of. A gymnast started standing, with her left hand on a post/support at roughly chest level in front of her. She lifted herself with just that one hand and arm to a one-handed handstand. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. The flashy stuff was lots of fun, too, and they’ve added a porcupine, a capybara (I think), and a pig to their animal act.
One thing that struck me as a 21st-century reader, reading Greenblatt’s exposition of Lucretius’ view of the universe, is just how far you can get by pure speculation, without formally using anything like the scientific method. Lucretius, and Epicurus before him, made up what they thought they knew about the world with nothing like formal experimentation, with no theory-testing, just coming to conclusions based on whatever they happened to observe, plus whatever biases were already in their heads. And to be sure, they got an awful lot laughably wrong from a modern vantage point. Quoting Greenblatt:
Lucretius believed that the sun circled around the earth, and he argued that the sun’s heat and size could hardly be much greater than are perceived by our senses. He thought that works were spontaneously generated from the wet soil, explained lightning as seeds of fire expelled from hollow clouds, and pictured the earth as a menopausal mother exhausted by the effort of so much breeding.But he also believed that everything in the universe, whether matter we interact with on earth or lights we see in the sky, was made up of tiny indivisible particles; that while physical objects seem solid, those tiny particles probably have space between them,; that they interact, and that while a rock face may be eroded to sand and a human being may decompose to dirt, the tiny indivisible particles (though they may scatter) never change or disappear; and that all these particles were in constant motion, and that their behaviour in aggregate was controlled by random fluctuations, by what we would now call laws of statistics. He believed that living matter was made of the same particles as inanimate matter. He believed that human beings were animals, and that the differences between different kinds of animals were generally matters of degree, rather than kind. He believed that animals develop from other animals, as the random changes (or “swerves”, hence the title of Greenblatt’s book) of the atoms the animal was made up of accumulated into larger changes, and the animals with beneficial changes did better than the animals with detrimental changes, so that the beneficial changes were passed on. He believed that consciousness was a phenomenon produced by physical bodies that could be explained (like everything else in the world) by the incredibly complex interactions of uncountably many tiny particles.
All in all, it strikes me (and Greenblatt) as a startlingly accurate picture of the world for Iron Age philosophers to make up out of their own minds, their haphazard observations of the world around them, and earlier authorities’ writings.
So of course I had to order the Loeb edition of On the Nature of Things. I wish my Latin were good enough to read it in the (particularly difficult, I gather) original, but I’m going to have to content myself with glancing across at the original when I come across a particularly good or interesting passage. (And looking a lot of stuff up.) It’ll be a while till I get to that anyway.
I also recently read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis 2 (the sequel to Persepolis, which I read a few months ago. Both very highly recommended (and quick reads, of course, being comics). They’re great example of the use of the comic format; there were lots of panels which were very concisely evocative in ways I can’t imagine a pure-text book or a movie being.
And finally, on Friday plumtreeblossom and I went back to see Theatre@First’s production of Pride and Prejudice again. And again it rocked (often with laughter). It obviously wasn’t exactly the same this time, but you can basically re-read my opening-night review and not go wrong. Of course, we noticed lots of stuff this time that we’d missed last time. And this time I took a lot of pictures, which hopefully I will eventually get around to posting on Flickr.
Still desperately looking for a renter (or, failing that, a sugar daddy or a winning lottery ticket), but I have a few nibbles this week.
So, full crazy-busy busy life, but largely full of fun.
Last night we watched Life Beyond Earth. We didn’t learn a whole lot we didn’t already know, but it was fun to see all the interviews (including Stephen Jay Gould — who at one point said something [I forget what] that made me say “That’s silly!” aloud before realizing with amusement that I was talking to Stephen Jay Gould — and Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler), and the CGI was pretty, if overused.
Today we watched another episode of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. This episode centered on Gettysburg, and also on the first African American regiments (and was predictably heartwrenching). We’re really appreciating this series. (And we can’t wait for the Prohibition series to be available for streaming.)
Now the noms: The plan for this weekend was to make lots of food, so that we could each have leftovers for lots and lots of meals (as well as sharing deliciousness this weekend). Last night was meatloaf (more or less according to cathijosephine’s super-easy recipe), corn on the cob, and beets. After dinner, we put corned beef (with carrots, potatoes, onions, and artichoke hearts) into the larger crockpot and left it cooking overnight (and into today). This morning we had a store-bought quiche for breakfast and then after The Civil War had some of the corned beef and veggies as a late lunch before parcelling out and packing up the rest of it. I just had quiche and meatloaf for dinner, and I’ve easily got enough leftovers in the fridge for another ten meals; maybe more. plumtreeblossom took home about half as much (which is probably ten meals for her, too). Yay for lunches I don’t have to buy at work, and yay for excellent cooking company!
PS — And last night I noticed that Mars was out,¹ so I got out the telescope, and we looked at Mars (basically a featureless orange disk in that telescope under the somewhat hazy seeing conditions, but still a disk), the moon, and the Pleiades. I would have looked at Jupiter, but it was very low on the horizon, and (1) it would have been tricky to catch it between the tree branches, and (2) I didn’t want my neighbours to think I was looking into their windows, since Jupiter was about even with them.
If we’d been out earlier I think we could have seen Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in the sky all at once. That would have been a nifty telescopic jaunt across the sky.
¹ by which I mean I noticed something bright, reddish, and not twinkly, and my phone told me “Yup, that’s Mars, all right.”
- The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, by B. R. Myers This was a fascinating read. I never was able to shake the awareness that I was seeing North Korea through the filter of one person, though. (For instance, there are several places where Myers writes, essentially, All other Western North Korea experts think that X, because they’re deceived by Y, but I know that Z.) And some of the contrasts he tries to make between the North Korean personality cult and (say) those of Stalin’s USSR or Ceauşescu’s Romania seem somewhat contrived — sure, North Korea is really an authoritarian rightist state with a very thin Marxist veneer, and lots of other layers, rather than a socialist state organized along Marxist principles. But the same is true to varying degrees of the Soviet Union, China, and so on, and to say that North Korea is different from Stalin’s USSR because it’s not really Marxist is a bit unconvincing. But it was certainly a fascinating read, and maybe any book about North Korea is going to feel like that just because there’s so little information available in English about North Korea.
- We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (Wikipedia link with spoilers), by Phillip K. Dick. This is the novella that the movie Total Recall (which I haven’t yet seen) was loosely based on. The premise is that memories are malleable, and can be implanted and removed or covered over. There’s a bit of an industry in giving people fake memories of things they want to do but can’t afford, like a vacation to Mars, or memories that are essentially fantasy fulfilment, like having been a secret agent. Of course, in the novella, things eventually go wrong...
- Rogue Moon (Wikipedia link with spoilers) by Algis Budrys. Part of the premise of this short novel is that the Americans (still in the throes of the space race with the Soviets) have developed a sort of teleportation along the lines of Star Trek’s transporter: your body is taken apart here by a scanning beam that records the position and motion of every atom in it (in the novel’s decidedly non-quantum physics), and then recreated from raw materials at the receiving site. (In fact, I have no evidence of this but I suspect this novel was the inspiration for the transporter; the novel was published in 1960 and won a Hugo in 1961, so it’s easy to imagine that Roddenberry or one of his colleagues might have remembered it while they sat around a table trying to figure out a plausible way to avoid having to do expensive and time-consuming planet-landing shots.) But the novel makes quite a lot of the fact that the original body is destroyed, and the person who appears at the receiving site is a replica, albeit with all of the original’s memories. This was a good read despite, or perhaps because of, being so dated; it was fascinating to read hard science fiction with extremely futuristic technology set in the Cold-War early 1960s, with the social expectations and prejudices of the time.
- And I’m not nearly through it, but I’ve recently started The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, which is fascinating so far. It tells the story of how Lucretius’ philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, lost for centuries, was discovered in the early 15th century, and of its huge impact on the course of Western intellectual history.
After all the stress of the car Friday night (and again not being able to start it, even with a jumper box, on Saturday), I was very relieved to see plumtreeblossom. We had a lovely Mexican dinner (and lovely margaritas) in Quincy Center, and then went home and watched the fascinating and charmingly low-budget documentary King Corn.
This (Sunday) morning, I called around and found a tow company that came to the parking garage and tried, just as unsuccessfully as I had, to jump-start the car (I suspect there’s some sort of electrical problem like a short), and then towed it to my house. Since we couldn’t get it out of park (which happened a couple times before while I was unsuccessfully trying to start it but turning the key a few times usually fixed it; this time it didn’t), the tow driver showed me the shift release override, which is a handy thing to know about if I ever get this car on the road again.
That is unlikely to happen very soon; I don’t really have money or cycles to deal with this right now. Too many other things need attention.
After that, we had yummy Japanese food for lunch on our way to the Museum of Science to see the gecko exhibit, which was lots of fun. I put some photos up on my Tumblr account. (Sorry about the terrible image quality.) We had a great time! Then we watched an IMAX movie about dolphins.
And tonight at her place we watched another episode of Ken Burns’ The Civil War.
By the way, our copious documentary-watching has seriously expanded our vocabulary for insults. A week or so ago plumtreeblossom sent me a text in which she referred to somebody (not any of you, dear readers; fear not!) as stupid enough to qualify as a mammal-like reptile.
- Deep Future, by Curt Stager
Stager is a paleoclimatologist, and this is his attempt to apply what he knows about climate change at long timescales in the past to the future, and human impact on climate. It’s a fascinating perspective, and I would definitely recommend this book. As an example of taking the long view, Stager points out that thousands or tens of thousands of years into the future, after (even in a worst-case scenario) we’ve exhausted the fossil fuels and the climate is slowly cooling, our distant descendants are likely to be inconvenienced as shipping through the Arctic becomes harder, and farming becomes harder in Siberia and maybe on the margins of Antarctica.
I heard about this book from Stager’s appearance on On Point (which you can listen to online). He’s also got a weekly nature series of his own (with very short episodes), called Natural Selections; they’re typically about a particular animal or plant.
- Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel describing the author’s childhood during and after the Iranian Revolution. It’s been made into a movie, and there’s a sequel (book) about Satrapi’s life as an émigrée in the West that I look forward to reading. Fascinating and a very quick read. (I’ve had this book for a long time, but just got around to reading it. Thanks to cathijosephine for finding it on my shelf and giving me the little nudge.
- Sex on the Moon, by Ben Mezrich
This is the fascinating and fictionworthy true story of a NASA intern, Thad Roberts, who stole some lunar samples and tried to sell them. (He also ended up with a little bit of ALH 84001 by accident.) This suffers from a little bit of the “I must throw in lots of adjectives and adverbs to make my prose as vivid as possible” phenomenon that some authors of novelistic nonfiction sometimes fall prey to, but not so much as to be distracting, and the book is very well constructed, and it’s a fascinating story. Definitely recommended reading for anybody considering a career as a would-be criminal genius¹ — or a career at NASA, or both. :-) The book clearly depends a lot on Mezrich’s interviews with Roberts himself (although he also interviewed plenty of other people), and almost certainly paints Roberts more sympathetically because of it, but it was a gripping (and fairly quick) read.
There were a few technical errors, but very minor ones, and the accuracy of the book about the things I know something about makes me feel pretty confident in the quality of the research. (Definitely a step above typical newspaper science journalism, for instance.)
¹ And the message is definitely “pick another career”.
( Cut for the benefit of those of you who are already familiar with the story. )
Something that makes this story even creepier is that “Amina” got technical assistance setting up A Gay Girl in Damascus, and a lot of exposure, from Paula Brooks, the blogger behind LezGetReal. In the aftermath of the exposure of the hoax, in which a post on LezGetReal apologized for having been duped by Amina, “Paula Brooks” was exposed as another straight man pretending to be a lesbian, Bill Graber.
And of course real activists in Syria are abducted (and sometimes tortured and killed), but this sock puppet got lots more attention that real people, and (at least according to Egyptian Chronicles; I haven’t run across other sources) the Assad regime predictably used this hoax to try to undermine the credibility of real stories of government repression.
After Assad Goes: 1. Inside Syria tries to answer the question “What do the protesters want?” and comes up with a fairly optimistic answer.
After Assad 2: Beyond our Borders (which I’ve only read about half of and very quickly skimmed the rest, since plumtreeblossom and I are trying to get out the door to get to EarthFest on the Esplanade) talks about how a democratic Syria would look to its neighbours (short answer, “Terrifying!”). This is really interesting, and I think these issues are part of why the U.S. has been (even) slower and more tentative about supporting the Syrian protesters than it was about supporting the Egyptian ones. As important as Egypt is in the region, it’s (very large) influence was fairly simple and straightforward.¹ Syria, though, has complex and far-reaching unpredictable tentacles in all sorts of nearby countries — and moreover, nearby countries have complex and far-reaching and unpredictable tentacles in it, too!
¹ To my untrained, not particularly well informed eye, anyway. Of course Egyptian foreign policy has changed in some important ways since the revolution, too.
- Saw The Social Network and The King’s Speech. Both were great and had very good (if very different) acting. The King’s Speech led to a lot of poking around on the net looking up historical information and finding actual recordings of speeches (see comments) by George VI (including the eponymous one) and Edward VIII.
- Got together with desiringsubject and plumtreeblossom and a few other people after work a couple times for drinks and had an epically lovely time.
- Had my weekly dinner with cathijosephine (having had to cancel the previous week). Since the weather was so terrible and plumtreeblossom had had a rough and very wet and cold day at work, I asked if she could join us so she could decompress from the day (and get a ride and not have to trudge through the snow and ice), and that was lovely.
- Saw gilana and ladrescher in The Vagina Monologues. This ended up with a delightful bonus: We ran into joyeous at the show, and went out to Grendel’s afterwards. (Maybe sometime I’ll get my picture of the snow koala we saw on our way up; in the meantime, if you follow joyeous on Twitter or Facebook you can see her photo of it. Too cute!)
- Went to surrealestate and DD’s for games, and played Dominion for the first time in a very long time, and had a wonderful time. It’s so wonderful to have DD local again!
- Continued to enjoy owning a car again.
So in general, I am feeling very good. I am, however, not so thrilled these days with living on this side of the river. Anybody wanna buy half of a duplex in Quincy with a garage and ample off-street parking?
You can click on the picture to massively embiggen in case you want to try to figure out whether that thing is steam powered or not or what the weird black box is under the chassis in front of the things that might be batteries with all the little U-shaped handles on it.
There’s a great podcasting app available for my new phone (an Android Dev Phone, the unlocked version of the T-Mobile G1, about which I could write an awful lot if I had the time and energy), so I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. Most often, I’m listening to On Point. (It’s two hours every weekday, so that’s a lot to listen to even if I don’t listen to every show.)
Tonight, I listened to yesterday’s segment “Everything, Incorporated”, in which Douglass Rushkoff talks about the ideas in his new book Life, Inc.. I found it really really interesting. He talks about the origins of the modern corporation and of money, about railroads and corn and hiring a lactation consultant to teach you how to breastfeed so you don’t have to impose on mothers you know to talk to you about it and about being criticised by his neigbours for posting about a mugging because they thought it would hurt their property values. It’s a fascinating scratch-the-surface but very interesting examination of how we ended up with the social and economic structure we live in. It touches (briefly) on an idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for a long time and wanted to post about (but never collected my thoughts enough) about how money distorts our priorities and our notions of sacrifice and benefit, because some kinds of value and importance are much more easily measurable with money than other kinds.
Anyway, if any of that sounds interesting, I would encourage you to listen to it. The page linked above has a big “Listen to This Show” button to stream it, or you can download he mp3 here.