Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens

For a number of years now, I have made a tradition of watching A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart. I do not recall the first time I watched the movie, but it became an instant favorite. I will go so far as to say that the movie changed my life for the better in that through it I was able to gain the will to redeem my own self. I watched it during a troubled time in my life where I needed it. It is to me a powerful story about the ability of human beings to change themselves for the better. Although I have watched movie numberless times -- through several Christmases and during the year, even when Christmas was far away -- I have never read the story that inspired it. I decided to amend that this year.

The story is a familiar one: I would wager most people in the west have heard of it. They have at least heard the name Scrooge, and many people might remember that he was visited by ghosts and realized the "true meaning" of Christmas (as if there's only one). I remember as a child that Dickens "A Christmas Ghost Story" did spook me as a ghost story -- what with its doorknobs changing into the howling faces of dead people and spirits wandering about. During this past Thanksgiving break, I sat down and read the story -- and oh, what a story!

Old Marley was as dead a doornail. Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile, and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country's done for.

A Christmas Carol is the story of one Ebeneezer Scrooge, the partner of the late Jacob Marley and something of a miser. Dickens writes that his heart was so cold that the winter wind did not bother him and the summer sun didn't warm him up -- so cold that everyone around him avoided his company. John Irving introduced the story in the copy I had, and he writes that although we see Scrooge as a caricature that Dickens was attempting to convey an accurate depiction of Dickensian England's heartless "robber barons". Scrooge likes profit -- so much that he doesn't bother repainting his firm's sign after the death of Marley, and snaps at his clerk (Bob Crachit) for attempting to burn coal.

Having introduced Scrooge as a selfish, spiteful old miser, Dickens begins his "Christmas ghost story" with peculiar things happening to him. A spectre of a hearse goes before him; his door-knob changes into the face of his late partner, howling at him; the portraits on his fireplace change into portraits of Marley. Finally a ghost appears -- the image of Marley, transparent and clothed in his funeral apparel -- but with additional elements, that of cash-boxes and money registers trained to him. Scrooge is at first skeptical, maintaining that he could be seeing things -- his senses could be fooled by undercooked food -- "A blot of mustard, a bit of moldy cheese...there's more of gravy than grave about you, friend".

Marley (after convincing Scrooge of his existence) warns Scrooge that unless his heart changes, he is in for a fate like Marley's -- to roam the Earth without rest as punishment for his selfishness. "It is required of every man," the ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death." Scoorge is perplexed that Marley is being punished -- he was a good businessman. Marley replies (in one of my favorite lines) "Business! Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business!"

Marley informs Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts as part of his reclamation. The next three parts of the story concern the visits of the three ghosts -- the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. Each ghost takes Scrooge places and forces him to examine his life and the consequences of the decisions he has made. The Ghost of Christmas Past particularly upsets Scrooge. Bit by bit, we see Scrooge being slowly changed -- his heart slowly thawing. By the time he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, he is determined to not let certain things happen.

"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge, "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!" cries Scrooge as he and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come approach a grave. Upon seeing his own name, Scrooge insists that he is not the man he once was -- "I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall shrive within me! I will not shut out the lessons that they teach! Oh, tell me that I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

With those words, Scrooge finds himself in his bed -- alive -- on Christmas day, and begins to live with the spirit of Christmas for the first time, making amends to his fellow human beings. It is to be a wonderful story of human redemption -- of the power of the human will to change one's self for the better, to rise above that selfishness that comes to easily and to reach out to one another. Dickens' prose is marvelous, as is his use of symbolism. I highly recommend the story to you -- it's only a little over a hundred pages -- and declare it this week's Pick of the Week.

One quotation -- this from Scrooge's nephew Fred in response to Scrooge calling Christmas a humbug.

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, " returned the nephew [of Scrooge]: "Christmas, among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round [...] as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good, and I say God bless it!"

Almost Everyone's Guide to Science

Almost Everyone's Guide to Science
© 1998 John Gribbin
200ish pages

What's this? Science? With no history of- or -fiction added to it? Can it be? After so many months? Yes! The Thanksgiving holiday afforded me the opportunity to do more reading than usual, so I was able to find a science book to read. Almost Everyone's Guide to Science is a popular science book intended to give the reader a background in everything from atoms to the universe. I wanted to read a science book, and this was particularly useful because after so long a recess, my grasp on some of the topics I read about during the summer has been slipping.

The book is arranged topically, with the subjects increasing in scope as the book wears on. We begin with the atom and end with the universe. Humans -- via a chapter on evolution -- pop up midway through. The author is a talented writer, I think, one who manages to make abstract ideas easy to understand. He also ties together the entire book smartly. A paragraph at the end of each chapter summarizes the preceding chapter and frames it in such a way as to introduce the next chapter, tying the two topics together.

It was an excellent read, and my thanks go to whichever librarian put it on display, as that's how I found it on my way up to peruse the shelves.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Colonization: Down to Earth

Colonization: Down to Earth
© 2000 Harry Turtledove
618 pages

I continued reading Turtledove's Colonization series this week. "Down to Earth" is the second book in said series, which is about Earth in the 1960s. The Lizards have held the southern hemisphere and China for nearly twenty years, and the newly-arrived colonization fleet is making Earth more Home-like to them. Growing political political strife between the human nation-states and the Lizards -- and between the human nation-states themselves -- was the theme of the last book, and that continues in this. The Lizard version of the internet makes its appearance in this book. I always find that depictions of internet activity -- particularly from the late 1990s -- are always a little awkward. I don't know why.

The characters occupying this book are for the most part veterans of the Worldwar books, although there are a number of newcomers. One of the more interesting newcomers is Kassquit, a human female who has been raised by Lizards as a Lizard. Another element introduced is that of animals from Home -- grazing animals and pets -- being introduced into Earth's ecosystem. It strikes me as odd that the Lizards didn't anticipate what would happen when they did so -- since they boast so often that they are a methodical race that plans things through.

The aforementioned political strife is mostly between Nazi Germany and the Race. While the United States and the Soviet Union both realize that humanity is not yet ready to fight the lizards, the Nazis -- being who they are -- constantly provoke the Race, leading to a war at the end of the book that has the predictable conclusion. I really enjoyed the book, but will be taking a brief break from the series next week.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Armageddon in Retrospect

Armageddon in Retrospect
© 2008 Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Trust
232 pages.

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that thigns are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. The world is a slightly difference place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that. - Mark Vonnegut

Armageddon in Retrospect, published posthumously, is Kurt Vonnegut's final collection of short stories and essays. A fan of Vonnegut recommended the book to me, although I probably would have read it anyway. (He works in the university library and so was able to check it out before I spotted it.) I had hoped the book is a collection of anti-war essays, but it is closer to a collection of short stories than a collection of essays. The book opens with a letter written from Vonnegut to his family during the war -- he fought during World War 2 for a few minutes before being captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge -- and a speech he gave, and all that follows is short stories.

Vonnegut's short stories tend to be hit and miss for me, although I did enjoy most included in this book. There were a couple that I read through without really understanding them, but they were happy exceptions. Most of the stories deal with the war in some form or another: in "Guns Before Butter", a gang of POWs are obsessed with food recipies, to the annoyance of their German supervisier; in "Brighten Up", Vonnegut tells the story of a prisoner-turned-collaborator; in "The Commandant's Desk", Vonnegut examines Amerian occupation. "The Commandant's Desk" is probably my favorite of the stories.

My favorite piece in the book is "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets", which is a nonfiction essay where Vonnegut describes the Dresdren bombing. All in all, rather interesting. I'm glad I read the book.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

This Week at the Library (26/11)

Books this Update:
I began reading Harry Turtledove's Colonization series this week, which is a sequel series to his Worldwar. The Worldwar books, you may remember, featured a race of aliens interrupting the course of World War 2 by invading -- forcing Nazis, Soviets, the Japanese, Chinese nationalists, Chinese communists, and the Allies to work together. The lizards -- who call themselves the Race -- are unable to complete their plans to annex Earth, as they were unprepared to fight humanity, which had industrialized far more quickly than the Lizards anticipated. This series is set twenty years later. Human society and Lizard society co-exist, fairly peacefully, and each influences the other. Some humans -- Chinese nationalists and communists, as well as Muslim fundamentalists -- still fight the Lizards. Human technology has increased dramatically: cars are now hydrogen-powered, and humans have landed on both the Moon and Mars. As the book wears on, we see the increasing strain that the arrival of the Race's colonization fleet -- full of equipment, females, and so on -- is putting on Race-Human relations. Very good stuff: a refreshing change from the military-focused writing of the last books in the Worldwar series.

Next I continued reading the Gies' medieval history series with Life in a Medieval Village. The Gies' approach was similar to previous works -- using a case-studying, quoting heavily from primary sources, and weaving an enjoying and fairly interesting narrative. I didn't find this one qite as captiving as others -- like last week's Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel -- but perhaps those more excellent ones have spoiled me. We'll see.

Next I read a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov called The Winds of Change and Other Stories. There were 21 stories in all, and I found all but one of them to be quite enjoyable. There's humor here as well as Asimov's brand of technological "thriller" stories. Quite enjoyable. Some were repeats, but I don't mind re-reading Asimov's stuff. Even if I know what is going to happen, his stories are such a delight to read for me.

Lastly I read a compilation of two works by Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher. The works were translated into modern English by Sharon Leben. The book is rather short (I finished it in two sittings) but very page is full of wisdom. The discourses are simply worded, quite frank, and exceptionally compelling to the student of philosophy. I was thrilled to read it. Epictetus advocates a life of virtue and self-control, saying that philosophy is a matter of everyday living -- not something that should be limited to religious instructors and professional philosophers. Exceptional stuff, I think.

Pick of the Week: The Art of Living, Epictetus, trans. Sharon Leben
Quotation of the Week: Anything from The Art of Living. Here's a sample: "Those who seek wisdom come to understand that even though the world may reward us for wrong or superficial reasons, such as our physical appearance, the family we come from, and so on, what really matters is who we are inside and what we are becoming. [...] The overvaluation of money, status, and compeetition poisons our personal relations. The flourishing life cannot be acheieved until we moderate our desires and see how superficial and fleeting they are. "

Next Week:
  • Armageddon in Retrospect, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Women in the Middle Ages, Frances and Joseph Gies
  • Colonization: Down to Earth, Harry Turtledove

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Art of Living

The Art of Living
Epictetus, translated by Sharon Lebell (© 1994)
115 pages

One great asset I have access to is my university library. Being a university library, its historical nonfiction offerings are far greater than any public library (except for perhaps the behemoths like the New York Public Library). Thus, in addition to modern historical books, we have the books of history -- Herodotus' Histories, Newton's Principles of Mathematics, and a great sampling of Greek philosophy. My own worldview is inspired partly by Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Epictetus is a name I'm familiar with, but I've never actually read from his Discourses -- written "transcripts" of his lectures -- until this week.

The edition I found last night is a modern translation and sometimes uses English expressions like "two steps forward, one step back". There are other translation in far more poetic and formal English, but I went with this more modern one because it seemed to be very readable. I did read through some of the more formal translations after I finished this book, simply to establish a comparison, and based on that, I think there is nothing lost. Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher. His Stoicism is classical in that he, like Zeno (the founder of Stoicism) believed in an Ultimate, in Deity -- in the idea that there was a divine order to the Cosmos, that everyone had a place in it, and that reason had been given to humanity so that we could transcend our untrained animal nature and become like the ultimate.

True philosophy doesn't involve exotic rituals, mysterious liturgy, or quaint beliefs. [...] It is, of course, the love of wisdom. It is the art of living a good life. [...] Philosophy is intended for everyone, and it is authentically practiced only by those who wed it with action in the world toward a better life for all.

Epictetus believes that philosophy is not for religious leaders and professional philosophers -- it is for everyone, to help everyone live good lives. He says that philosophy "must be rescued" from the aforementioned types of people. Although the book isn't lengthy, every word in it is full of wisdom. I did not agree with everything he said (as it was recorded and translated), but the overwhelming majority of the book is solid. The value of his teachings is incredible, and I find myself wondering just how so much could be known and expressed so eloquently just to one man. When I read a book, I typically keep a page of notebook paper nearby so that I can write down any interesting quotes. For this book? I have twelve pages of quotations. I had planned to post them on my humanities blog, but I have far too many to fit in one post -- I will have to break them down.

The essence of his teaching is self-mastery over one's own life. The classic Stoic idea -- that pain is caused when desires and reality do not conform to one another, and so one must shape desire to fit reality. Epictetus, like Marcus Aurelius, holds that it is not "things" that pain us but our reaction to them. Controlling our responses to what happens to us, to what is said to us or about us, is one of the dominant threads of the book. The other concerns the choice to think about responding -- to beginning to use reason to master yourself, to hold yourself to ideals so that you can live the virtuous life. These two ideas dominate the book. Although the lectures are not tightly organized the way 21st century readers are used to books being organized, all of the elements of a in-depth book are here. Epictetus does not only describe how one should live a "virtuous" life, he explains what virtue means to him and why it cannot be achieved in any other way except for mastery of the self. "Personal merit cannot be achieved through our associations with people of excellence. [...] Other people's triumphs and excellence belong to them. Likewise, your possessions may have excellence, but you yourself don't derive excellence from them," he says.

Epictetus advises his readers (or listeners) to not concern themselves with other people's opinions of them, but to simply enjoy our lives, not allow ourselves to become undone by events of our lives, and to excel in what we do -- to practice our crafts and to relate to one another as best we can. Society's rules are also no judge -- both the "ends and means" are not conducive to creating virtue. "Socially taught beliefs are frequently unreliable. So many of our beliefs have been acquired through accident and irresponsible or ignorant teaching. Many of our beliefs are so deeply ingrained that they are hidden from our own view." (My sociology teacher would add that the power of culture is that we don't realize that culture is shaping our ideas.) Virtue, in his eyes, is its own reward. He also advocates living as part of a global, human community -- he speaks of the "human contract" and says we ought to live our lives to serve one another. (The "family of humanity" value is common among Stoics.)

I could easily write a term paper on the ideas in this book -- I have twelve pages of notes, after all. This isn't the place for that, though. I found the book to be...incredibly interesting, and very stimulating. Even as I read, I felt as if my thoughts were being slowly ordered -- tuned, to use a musical metaphor. It was well-worth the read, and I am glad that I took care to write down my favorite thoughts. This will be pick of the week.

Be suspicious of convention. Take charge of your own thinking. Rouse yourself from the daze of unexamined habit. Popular perceptions, values, and ways of doing things are rarely the wisest. Many pervasive beliefs would not pass appropriate tests of rationality. Conventional thinking -- its means and ends -- is essentially not credible and uninteresting. Its job is to preserve the status quo for overly self-defended individuals and institutions.

Judge ideas and opportunities on the basis of whether they are life-giving. Give your assent to that which promotes humaneness, justice, beneficial growth, kindness, possibility, and benefit to the human community. Examine things as they appear to your own mind; objectively consider what is said by others, and then establish your own convictions.

The Winds of Change and Other Stories

The Winds of Change and Other Stories
© 1983 Isaac Asimov

Having survived the flood of term paper deadlines, I can now cool my heels and relax -- and so I did, with another collection of Asimov's short stories. This particular collection contains 21 such stories, all preceded by one of Asimov's charming forewords, explaining the context in which he wrote it. A couple of the stories are quite short and function almost as lengthy set-ups to a pun -- Asimov loved wordplay.

A couple of the stories were repeats for me, not that I mind much. I re-read them and enjoyed them just as much as I did when I read them for the first time. There are some very funny stories in here, such as "How it Happened", which was supposed to be the first in a collection of short stories depicting cosmological history. It's...well, I shook with laughter for a while. One story, "Belief", deals with a physical scientist who realizes he can levitate -- and has trouble figuring out how to convince his (rightfully) skeptical colleagues that he's not pulling tricks on them. "Ideas Die Hard", written in the mid-fifties, concerns man's first space flight to the Moon -- interestingly enough, Asimov depicts the astronauts taking about three days to get to the Moon, which is how long it took the various Apollo astronauts to travel there. One of my favorite stories was "Lest We Remember", and it involves an experimental drug that is supposed to increase the ability to recall.

Asimov entertains and delights as usual. If you can find it, why not give it a try?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Life in a Medieval Village

Life in a Medieval Village
1990 Frances and Joseph Gies
207 pages, plus index, notes, and a bibliography

This week I continued reading from the Gies' excellent series on daily life in the medieval era. This book, like Life in a Medieval Castle and Life in a Medieval City, uses one particular example as a case-study. The authors chose the village of Elton in England as their case study for this book. The book is divided into ten chapters. The first introduces the medieval village, comparing it to its ancestors. The authors claim that the medieval village is a unique entity: a new way of living and producing, and one that has not been since since feudalism faded from history.

Subsequent chapters deal with how villagers live, the organization of marriage and family, the village as a working area, how the local parish was integrated into the feudal system, village justice, and finally with the demise of the medieval village. As usual, the Gies quote extensively from primary source materials, including the medieval equivalent of police logs and instructions to parish priests. The book is an in-depth look at manorialism, understandably so since the Gies hold that "the medieval village is unthinkable without its lord". Under manorialism, the majority of people were serfs -- slaves, nearly, tied to the land. They were not allowed to leave the village without their lord's permission. The authors also examine the various types of field systems used.

In general, I found this book to be weaker than the other ones by the same authors. There wasn't as much information on village laws as I was expecting. I was also looking for more information about craftsmanship. Still, it was an interesting enough of a read.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Colonization: Second Contact

Colonization: Second Contact
© 1999 Harry Turtledove
598 pages

A few weeks ago I read the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove, which depicts what happens when lizard-like aliens who call themselves the Race invade Earth. While they expected to face humans armed with swords and spears, they found instead tanks, machine guns, jet aircraft, and atomic weaponry. Unprepared for this, their planned conquest quickly stalled as they found themselves running short on supplies and constantly stymied by the ever-changing tactics of their human foes. At series' end, the two sides -- human and Race -- agreed to a truce of sorts, wherin the Lizards maintained control of most of the southern hemisphere and China.

Second Contact is set twenty years in the future -- in a world where humans and Lizards have grown used to living beside one another. Driven by Mother Necessity, technological progress has surpassed the progress of the real 1960s. Humanity has left the warm and safe confines of Earth to explore parts of the solar system. We're told Nazis landed on the moon -- "Das ist one small step for a man, one giant leap for the Deutsche Volk!", I'm guessing -- and Americans have landed men on Mars. (I'm not altogether sure why: our main reason for exploring Mars is to see if there was ever life there, to settle of the question of 'Are we alone'. The precense of the Lizards seems as if it would have made that a moot point.)

There are three major spacefaring nations -- the United States, the Greater German Reich, and the Soviet Union. Britain and Japan have also poked around, but they are not major contenders. Hitler and Stalin have both died -- in their places are Himmler (head of the SS, which maintained the Nazis' death camps) and General Secretary Molotov. Earl Warren -- who presided over the "Who Shot JFK?" commission in real life -- is the president of the United States. Now that they are no longer fighting Lizards, the various nation-states are once more subjected to friction. Britain is slowly becoming a client state of the Reich, and the Nazis and Soviets still despise one another. The Lizards, meanwhile, have been fighting problems of their own. The Chinese Civil War never concluded with a Communist victory here (1949 was the year China became "Communist" in real life), but Mao's fighters have not given up -- and they are being supplied by the Soviet Union.

Tensions between humanity and the Lizards increase when their colonization fleet arrives. The fleet of the 1940s was purely for conquest: it was male-only, and contained no supplies for making Earth theirs. The colonization fleet carries building materials and females, however -- the tools for reshaping the Earth the way the lizards want to see it. Interestingly, females do not seem to be relegated to breeding stock: they hold rank in the Race's hierachy. This first book focuses on how Earth has changed in the last twenty years with the precense of the Race, exploring how human cultures and the Race have impacted one another. It also provides plenty of political intrigue: a mainstay throughout the book is the question of what the United States intends to do with the large space station it is building in deep space. Also, an un-named power keeps attacking the Race, which annoys them greatly.

This first book in the Colonization series was extremely interesting. What I like about Turtledove is that his books often employ political and cultural stories -- not just military. I'm not too much interested in military matters, with the exception of looking into how wars shape society. (There are other exceptions: I've written several papers on early air warfare, for instance.) I look forward to continuing the series.

Tosevite males wore robes and headpeices of cloth to shield themselves from the sun the males of the Race found so friendly, while the females swaddled themselves even more thoroughly. The Argentine Big Uglies, who lived in a harsher climate, wrapped fewer cloths around themselves. Fotsev had trouble understanding the reasons behind the difference.

When he remarked on that, Gorppet answered "Religion," and kept on walking, as if he'd said something wise.

Fotsev didn't think he had. Religion and Emperor-worship were the same word in the language of the Race. They weren't the same here on Tosev 3. The Big Uglies, not having had the benfefit of thousands of years of imperial rule, foolishly imagined powerful beigns made in their image, and then further imagined that those powerful beigns had created them in their image rather than the other way around.

It would have been laughable, had the Big Uglies not taken it so seriously. As far as Fotsev was concerned, it remained laughable, but he did not laugh. [...] If [the local Tosevites] thought they had to bow down five times a day to revere the Big Ugly they had writ large in the sky, easier to let them than to try to talk them out of it. [...]

Gorppet must have been thinking along related lines, for he said, "If they are going to have these absurd notions, why do they not have the same ones, instead of arguing about who is right and who is wrong?"

(The Race's relationship with middle-eastMuslims, especially after the rise of militant fundamentalism led by Khomeini, is funny.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

This Week at the Library

Books this Update:
(Click titles for individual commentaries.)

This week is unusual in that I have more nonfiction in it than fiction: it hasn't been that way since the summer. Asimov and Turtledove's series have much to do with that. My intended reading was nonfiction-only, but I was able to read the two Asimov books while taking breaks from my papers. I think it's interesting that I managed to read five books in the same week that I worked on three papers.

The first book I read was Isaac Asimov's extended biography. I didn't mean to read it through, but Asimov has that effect on me: once I started reading it, I didn't like to stop. Asimov's biography is large and written in a personal style: it seems like an intimate conversation between the reader and the man. Asimov writes about his life, his work, and his views about death. One particular opinion he expressed was on the relationship between television and reading. Television, he said, was a passive activity: it supplies every aspect of the story, so the viewer need only to receieve. In reading, though, the information you are provided with is limited, so the reader's mind has to actively construct the world about which he or she is reading: he has to provide the scenery and sounds and so forth.

I also read a collection of twenty or so short stories by Asimov called Buy Jupiter and Other Stories. The title is a fun, which Asimov is fond of. The majority of the stories were new to me, and almost all were enjoyable. There were a few I didn't quite get, but it didn't help that I was reading with a headache.

Next I read Frances and Joseph Gies' Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. The Gies have written a series of books on life in the medieval era, and I have enjoyed all of them thus far. This latest has quickly become my second-favorite. The Gies are quite thorough: they begin by surveying the technology of the ancient era, establishing where it was when Rome began its decline. They show that there was no real "fall" of technology of knowledge: it slowly faded in the north, but lingered much longer in southern France and Italy. They write a narrative of the medieval era that depicts society slowly changing over time, arriving at new inventions as it does. As ever, the Gies force me to broaden my percetions.

After this I moved on to a history-of-science book. Hal Hellman presents ten feuds of science -- hence the name Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever. The stories begin with the beginning of science as we know it -- with Galileo. Galileo was important in that he taught his students to rely on observable evidence. He popularlized Kepler's notion of a heliocentric universe, bringing him in conflict with the Church. The feuds that follow track science's course: Newton and Lebniz fighting over who discovered calculus first, followed by the "evolution wars" and Kelvin's fight with the geologists over the age of the Earth. The book ends with social science, with a feud that epitomizes the nature versus nurture debate. All in all, interesting.

Lastly I read Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life, in which he attempted to use sheer rationale to construct ethical arguments about vegetarianism, abortion, euthenasia, infantacide, practical living, and political systems. He attacks both conservative and liberal positions, and if you read this I suggest you commit time to it: some chapters aren't light reading. I thought some of his arguments were too unemotional: people are emotional creatures, and any ethical system has to consider that.

Pick of the Week: I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov and Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by the Gies.

Quotation of the Week:

  1. "It always seems to me that it's not hard to be nice to people in small ways, and surely that must make them more willing to be nice in small ways in return."
  2. "There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity."

Next Week:
  • The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Arthur C. Clarke
  • Life in a Medieval Village, Frances and Joseph Gies
  • Colonization: Second Contact, Harry Turtledove

Writings on an Ethical Life

Writings on an Ethical Life
Peter Singer, © 2000
329 pages, plus an index

Almost every Friday, I listen to an online show called "Point of Inquiry", which features 20-minute (or so) interviews with various personalities. While the show is produced by a skeptical think-tank, its guests are not necessarily involved in the skeptical movement -- the host, D.J. Groethe, often interviews religious philosophies and personalities. Last week, he interviewed Peter Singer -- and I was interested enough in what he said to find one of his books.

Writings on an Ethical Life is a collection of selected chapters from various books of his, taken from books like Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics. He writes on a variety of topics: environmentalism, vegetarianism, abortion, euthanasia, living ethically, and so on. He attempts to arrive at ethics through strict rationalism. According to the New York Times Book Review, "Singer's documentation is unrhetorical and unemotional, his arguments tight and formidable, for he bases his case on neither personal nor religious nor highly abstract philosophical principles but on moral pisitions most of already accept".

I almost think that some of Singer's arguments are too rational. We can't seperate ethics from emotion, for we are emotional creatures and those needs must be considered. Singers' rationalizations are typically built on utilitarianism, or at least a form. Utiliarianism is a ethical philosophy that advocates that we should base our decisions on whatever provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. My own ethical philosophy tends toward this, butI'm leery about going too far.

The chapters on abortion, infantacide, and euthenasia constitute a good bit of the book. Singer attacks the idea that human life is necessarily sacrosanct: he attacks both conservative and liberal issues, including my own that "humaness" starts with the development of the brain. I find it particularly difficult to summarize or comment on his views on any of these (with the exception of euthenasia, which I view as a right) It's safe to say, though, that whatever your views are, Singer challenges them. His arguments are all based on a kind of utiliarianism: he suggests that in some cases it's best to kill a deformed fetus or even an infant, in the interests of the quality of life. I agree with this, but what unsettles me is the emotions surroundin the death of a baby. I have been raised in a culture that views the death of a baby as more tragic than the death of an adult, and even I can't go against that without feeling uncomfortable.

His last chapters deal with the good life -- with the value of treating people well and responding to their needs. In "Darwin for the Left", he writes that the political left ought to adopt Darwinian thinking: to realize that human beings are naturally inlcined to look only after their own self-interests and that we should push for a system that takes this into account and doesn't ignore it the way current governments do -- ones that expect people to behave themselves and live by ideals.

It was an interesting, if slow and difficult, read.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Great Feuds in Science

Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the liveliest disputes ever
Hal Hellman © 1998
192 pages, plus bibliography and index

Last week I wanted to read a little science, and while roaming through the shelves, my eyes found this book. It looked interesting, so I checked it out. The book has ten chapters, each on a historical scientific "feud":
  1. Galileo versus Pope Urban VIII: An Unequal Contest
  2. Wallis versus Hobbes: Squaring the Circle
  3. Newton versus Lebniz: A Clash of Titans
  4. Voltaire versus Needham: The Generation Controversy
  5. Darwin's Bulldog versus Soapy Sam: Evolution Wars
  6. Lord Kelvin versus Geologists and Biologists: The Age of the Earth
  7. Cope versus March: The Fossil Feud
  8. Wegener versus Everybody: Continental Drift
  9. Johanson versus the Leakeys: The Missing Link
  10. Derek Freeman versus Margaret Mead: Nature Versus Nuture

The author introduces the 'contestants', providing brief biographies, then moves on to the conflict between the two (or more, in the case of "Evolution Wars") contestants. While I've heard of some of these conflicts, there were were a few (Wallis versus Hobbes, for instance) that were complete unknowns to me. Overall, the book was fairly interesting, and helped to add background to conflicts I've read about in brief -- like Cope versus March, which is mentioned in an inside in Spangenburg and Mosers' history of science series. According to Spangenburg and Moser, they were less scientists and more entrepreneurs who thought of nothing of dynamiting their fossil sites after they were done to prevent other people from finding out about anything they'd missed.

The authors are fairly throrough, although some articles -- "Evolution Wars"-- were stronger than articles like a "A Clash of Titans". The last article on "Nature versus Nurture" was particularly interesting to me. I am interested in both biology and sociology, and so the question of whether our genes or socialization are more important in determining how we act and how our societies function. This author seems to give the impression that the nurture argument is more odminant, at least in the specific case that it examined -- Margaret Mead's experiences in America Samoa.

All in all, fairly interesting and well-organized. If you pay attention to the dates and themes, you may realize that the book starts at the beginning of science as we know it -- Galileo's insistance on observation -- and moves through the history of the centuries following, up to the development of social science in the 20th century.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages
© 1994 Frances and Joseph Gies
291 pages, plus notes, an extended bibliography, and an index

The Gies' various books on life in the middle ages have continued to delight and entertainment, and so I looked forward to this particular book. My anticipation was only heightened by the fact that I am interested in pre-industrial technology, particularly concerning architecture and craft. The Gies did not disapoint, and this book has become my second-favorite Gies book -- the first being Life in a Medieval City. The book consists of seven chapters.

The first, "Nimrod's Tower, Noah's Ark", examines popular conceptions about technology in the middle ages. The Gies are forever forcing me to broaden my perceptions about the middle ages, and they do so again -- and again and again -- in this book. In "Triumphs and Failures of Ancient Technology", the Gies track the growth of technology up until the decline of the Roman Empire. They cover water wheels, road-building, weapons, smelting technology, astronomical tools, horse equipment, handicraft, and the like. In the chapters to follow, they move chronologically through the middle ages, ending with a chapter titled "Leonardo and Columbus". Another chapter, "The Asian Connection", is tucked in between the end of the early middle ages (500-900) and the beginning of the economic revival of the early 11- and 1200s. This particular chapter focuses on how technology and learning drifted west fro the Arab world, India, and China.

This is definitely one of the most interesting books I've ever read. The Gies cover a nearly unbeliable about of material in only three hundred pages, and I'm at a loss as to how to properly summarize it. They write about bridges, cathedrals, ship-building, glass-blowing, road-laying, pottery-making, iron-forging, masonry, the growth of universities, the development of art, water wheels, proto-industrial looms, the spice trade, crossbows, the Columbian exchange, mail armor, the Greek disdain for manual labor, trebuchets, cannons, the Roman preference for tehnology over natural philosophy, sanitation programs in cities, Leonardo's technical drawings, the birth of paper -- I could go on and on. All of this is informed by primary-source materials, from which the Gies quote liberally. They also use medieval depictions of water wheels and clock towers and so forth to illustrate what they are writing about. Joseph Gies once edited the technology articles for the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and his knowledge comes through in technical explanations. I didn't understand all of his explantations -- especially in regard to complicated mechanisms like printing presses and clock towers -- but many were.

The Gies also fit all of this into a general narrtive about the development of the medieval world, and I could appreciate this all the more, having read their other books. This book was enormously interesting: I really can't say that too many times. I reccommend it eagerly to anyone who is interested in the medieval era or the history of technology. I only wish the Gies had an official website.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Buy Jupiter and Other Stories

Buy Jupiter and Other Stories
Isaac Asimov, © 1979
207 pages

Today while in the library taking notes for my two term papers, I read through Buy Jupiter and Other Stories. I did not intend to finish it, but I realized I was finished with my notes ahead of time, and rather than starting my first paper an hour before lunch, I decided to return to and finish Buy Jupiter. It is a collection of some 20+ short stories by Isaac Asimov, each with generous afterwords and forewords. It turns out that I am not the only fan who adores these little asides by Asimov -- apparently he was written to by fans who thanked him for them.

Many of the stories are quite brief. There were about four that I didn't quite "get", but there were also some stories that really struck me and have become favorites. I'll mention a few of the stories: all are not necessarily favorites.
  1. "Buy Jupiter" concerns the reaction of Earth when aliens approach requesting to buy the planet of Jupiter. The conclusion is rather comedic.
  2. "The Founding Father" is about the crew of five Earthmen who crash on an Earth-like planet with an atmosphere of ammonia. They labor to make it livable. Excellent conclusion -- one of my favorites.
  3. "Button, Button" features an inventor who uses German sentence structure whenever he grows emotional. As a student of the German language, I found that particularly interesting.
Many of the stories feature a first-person narrative voice, which is unusual for Asimov's short stories -- at least the ones I've seen. The book is an exceptionally quick read.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I, Asimov

I, Asimov
© Isaac Asimov, 1994
Doubleday, New York

Ben Bova visited me [in the hospital] and, noticing the manuscript spread over my bed, asked what I was doing. I explained. "In this autobiography," I said, "I'm including every stupid thing I can remember having said or done."

"Oh?" he said, eyeing the pages. "No wonder it's so long."

I am currently working on the research for two history papers as well as a number of sociology papers, and so am in the university library quite a bit. I hole myself up in my favorite little corner, reading and taking notes, composing a narrative in my head. Every hour, though, I take a break from the accounts of war and wool-trade and read a little. I read Communism by Richard Pipes in this manner, and this week I read I, Asimov in the same manner -- or almost. I, Asimov is considerably more difficult for me to put down, and I went through 20+ "chapters" at a time before finishing it today. I had to get it out of the way -- I was already hooked, and trying to work while having already sampled it was distracting.

I, Asimov is as you might imagine an autobiography by Isaac Asimov. I have already read one such autobiography -- It's Been a Good Life, edited by his wife and composed of excerpts from this book, others, and letters. It's Been a Good Life was considerably shorter than this, and I wanted to read more about his life after I finished it a month or so so back. The book is not expressly organized chronologically: while the topics themselves are arranged into a loose chronological framework, Asimov often goes back and forth between various areas of his life. The book was written in 125 days, and he wrote the sections as they came to him -- hence the fluid nature. The sections number nearly two hundred, but they are not lengthy like chapters -- some are only a page or two long, while others are considerably longer.

Asimov was born in Russia, although his parents moved when he was scarcely three. He could not speak Russian, or read it, and did not consider himself a Russian by any stretch of the imagination. His father was more or less a secular Jew, as was his mother, and consequently he was not raised with religion -- although he did go to Hebrew school to learn the Torah and Hebrew after his father began working for a synagogue. At first he resented this, as he did not see the use, but realized when he was older that any knowledge is usable. To paraphrase him, "Having familiarized myself with Greek myths and the darker Norse myths, I realized right away that I was dealing with Hebrew myths." Asimov learned to read and write at an early age and took immediately to the public library. His father was in no position to censor his reading to "proper" literature, and so he read anything he had a mind to. His family ran a candy store with an accompanying magazine rack, and it was through this story that Asimov read pulp fiction magazines, which introduced him to their fan clubs and eventually the world of writing.

While he wanted to write for a living, he thought this was not possible and so went to college. His father wanted him to become a physician, but he detested the medical art and went into biochemistry instead. He worked for the army during World War 2 and was drafted at the war's end. After this, he finished his PhD and began teaching. He began writing nonfiction on the side, which gave him outside income. The writing eventually became so popular that when he was relieved of his lecturing duties at Boston University he was able to write full-time and make a substantial living at it.

It's a large book, but very readable and very enjoyable for an Asimov fan like myself. He wrote about so many topics in the book that it is difficult to do it justice. He wrote about his experiences with Star Trek conventions, for instance, and describes how he met and befriended various personalities like Lester del Ray and Carl Sagan. Asimov describes the worlds he lived in -- the world of authors, graduate students, New Yorkians, soldiers, intellectuals -- in considerable detail and always with that informal style of his that makes the book read like a direct conversation with the reader. Asimov is frank about his abilities and his shortcomings -- as well as those of others. I greatly reccommend the read. Here are two quotations I found likable enough to write down:

  1. "It always seems to me that it's not hard to be nice to people in small ways, and surely that must make them more willing to be nice in small ways in return."
  2. "There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity."

This Week at the Library (12/11)

Books this Update:
I began this week with World Made By Hand, written by James Kunstler. Kunstler is a social critic who spoke at my university a few weeks back, and his lecture was on "Life After Peak Oil". Kunstler predicted all manner of dire things occurring to us after we ran out of oil, and his ideas are fairly reasonable in the event that we do run out of oil before we're able to find a new way of maintaining normalcy within a range. He's very big on the idea that we're not going to maintain normalcy, that our present society is doomed to collaspe and that this will happen in the next twenty to thirty years.

World Made By Hand is written in the kind of world where our society has vanished. War over what little oil is left destablizes the geopolitical scene. While Kunstler is not very specific about what exactly happens, we know that war comes to the so-called "Holy Land". Since humanity can no longer ship food, manufactured goods, or the supplies from which those goods are made across vast distances -- our transfer trucks and modern ships depending so much on oil -- globalization ends. Economies -- and life itself -- become more local. More of the population works on farms, people begin to become aristans again, and we find ourselves in a world that is somewhere between the high middle ages and the old American west. Disease has ravaged the population, ostensibly because innoculations are no longer available.

Kunstler's story is set in the small town of Union Grove, which is near Albany in what used to be known as New York. His main character is Robert Earle, a former executive who is now the town carpenter. Union Grove has three major population centers: the town itself with democratically-elected officials, a trailer park town surrounding the dump ruled by a criminal warlord who is a New York redneck, and Bullock's plantation. The beginning of the book sees a religious sect led by the charismatic and folksy Brother Jobe. The sect -- the "New Faithers" -- provide Union Grove's townsfolk with a lot of extra manpower something that's more important -- the willingness to do stuff. The New Faithers have seen the shape the rest of the country is in, and they plan to make Union Grove a "New Jerusalem". World Made By Hand is the story of these people during one long and particularly hot summer in their new world they are 'making by hand'.

Kunstler's world is...somewhat romantic, in that the people face a lot of adversity but make it through with hard work and stubborn effort. Does that really happen? Human beings are far from ideal creatures. I'd like to believe we could make it through such a new dark age, but I'm not sure. Anyway, it's an interesting read -- even if you think Kunstler is just using it to scare people into better urban planning.

Next I read a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, all featuring robots or computers. There were a number of repeats, but considering the author, I didn't really mind. Asimov begins the book with an introduction, saying that these stories were written in the 40s and 50s and thus may seem dated by contemporary standards -- although some of his predictions have come to past. In "The Martian Way", for instance, he writes about a spacewalk even though no one had ever walked -- or floated, rather -- in space before. A few favorites:
  • "The Feeling of Power" is one of my favorites. People have completely forgotten how to do ordinary math, so dependent on computers are they. Earth is at war with the planet Deneb, which is similarly addicted to computers and is probably settled by humans. Then a lowly technician realizes he can do math in his head, which has implications for the war effort.
  • "Little Lost Robot" deals with robots at a hyperstation. It features Susan Calvin, Asimov's first female and one of his most memorable characters. One robot with a superiority complex is told to "get lost" and promptly does so -- compromising the security of Earth's hyperspace program and possibly the future of robotics.
  • "Franchise" is one of the more interesting stories, because it predicts the importance of voting machines. Asimov wrote this in 1955, remember. In Asimov's future -- in our reality, November 2008 -- Multivac has come to control the elections by analyzing data and coming to a rational prediction about who the elecorate would vote for -- if they were in fact to vote. So complex has Multivac become by 2008 that it only needs to ask a few questions of one voter to come to its decision. This voter is apparantly chosen by Multivac to be the most represenative of all his citizens. He is informed thusly: "Mr. Norman Muller, it is necessary for me to inform you on the behalf of the President of the United States that you have been chosen to represent the American elecorate on Tuesday, November 4, 2008". Considering the week I happened to read this in, you can imagine what I found so interesting about it.
Robot Dreams was of course interesting. I enjoyed almost every story in it, with an exception or two. Even if you've read some of these before, I recommend the reading.

Having a pick of the week this week would be fairly pointless, as I only read two books. I still have papers to work on, so once again my weekly reading will be a bit...suppressed.

Next Week:
  • Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel : Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, Frances and Joseph Gies
  • Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer
  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (Possibly: it still hasn't shipped yet, even though I requested it on Friday.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Robot Dreams

Robot Dreams
Isaac Asimov © 1986
Berkely Publishing, NY
349 pages

When I first started reading Asimov's fiction, I started with short story collections -- and this week I returned to that type of literature. Robot Dreams is a collection of short stories that deal with robots or computers. Some of these stories have appeared in collections I've read in weeks past, and so I re-read them -- and enjoyed them again, as much as I did the first time I read them. Asimov begins the book with an introduction, and it is his introductions and commentaries that first made me such a fan of him.

Although the collection is titled "Robot Dreams", the stories in the collection don't all have robots. Many of them are about the role of computers -- which for Asimov, writing in the forties and fifties, was real science fiction. A few of his stories feature Multivac, which is a character by itself. Multivac is always depicted as a massive computer that coordinates all of the other computers on the planet -- Asimov never predicted personal computers (although he did predict hand-held computers and personal consoles that could access the "real" computers). In Asimov's stories, computers are industrial and government tools, each section having a part of the globe to handle its problems. Asimov also depicts computers building better computers, to the extent that humanity forgets how to and becomes as dependent on the computers as -- well, there's no real anagram, I don't think.

A few stories from the collection, with comments:
  • "The Feeling of Power" is one of my favorites. People have completely forgotten how to do ordinary math, so dependent on computers are they. Earth is at war with the planet Deneb, which is similarly addicted to computers and is probably settled by humans. Then a lowly technician realizes he can do math in his head, which has implications for the war effort.
  • "Little Lost Robot" deals with robots at a hyperstation. It features Susan Calvin, Asimov's first female and one of his most memorable characters. One robot with a superiority complex is told to "get lost" and promptly does so -- compromising the security of Earth's hyperspace program and possibly the future of robotics.
  • In "Robot Dreams", an experimental robot brain leads to a robot that have subconscious thoughts and dream about them -- but its subconscious thoughts of those of it freeing robots from human servitude.
  • "Lest We Remember" is the story of a man whose life is changed when he takes part of a medical trial designed to increase the ability to recall stored memories -- and who learns that an infallible memory doesn't necessarily make one wise.
  • "The Ugly Little Boy" is always mentioned by Asimov as one of his personal favorites. I find it enjoyable, but it's not a favorite of mine. Still, I mention it because he likes it so much. The story is about a Neanderthal boy who is ripped from time and brought to Earth to be studied.
  • "Franchise" is one of the more interesting stories, because it predicts the importance of voting machines. Asimov wrote this in 1955, remember. In Asimov's future -- in our reality, November 2008 -- Multivac has come to control the elections by analyzing data and coming to a rational prediction about who the elecorate would vote for -- if they were in fact to vote. So complex has Multivac become by 2008 that it only needs to ask a few questions of one voter to come to its decision. This voter is apparantly chosen by Multivac to be the most represenative of all his citizens. He is informed thusly: "Mr. Norman Muller, it is necessary for me to inform you on the behalf of the President of the United States that you have been chosen to represent the American elecorate on Tuesday, November 4, 2008". Considering the week I happened to read this in, you can imagine what I found so interesting about it.
I enjoyed almost every story, even those I have read before. There are a couple of shorter stories that I didn't quite "get", but they were vastly outnumbered by the interesting ones. I enjoyed the collection immensely and reccommend it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

World Made By Hand

World Made By Hand
© 2008, James Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, NY
317 pages

I think this is the first book I've ever seen with its own trailer -- with the narration taken directly from the plot summary on the book's dust cover. A few weeks ago, James Howard Kunstler spoke at my university and I went to go see him. He spoke on "Life After Peak Oil". Our way of living in the west, as you know, is completely dependent on oil. We receive manufactured goods from overseas courtesy of oil-using transport ships: we receive our food from great farms in the midwest through oil-using transfer trucks, and that food is grown by a mere few through the use of oil-using mechanized tractors. In the United States, the overwhelming majority of people go to their jobs and schools and everything else using automobiles -- we live in vast fields of subdivisions far from urban centers. Kunstler is very critical of surbanization and has written a book about it -- one that I intend to find. World Made By Hand is a book written in America's post-oil future. He never gets a specific year, but I would estimate that this takes place in the 2020s.

Rather than repeating Kunstlers' various predictions, I'll simply write about the book -- because Kunstler makes his predictions come true in it. One of the blurbs on the back of the book says that "...since this brooding powerful, novel takes place in the future, you could call it science fiction. Except the end of the fossil fuel economy has preetty much done away with science -- and the advent of peako oil means it may not be entirely fictional much longer." World Made By Hand is the story of one small community in upstate New York, "Union Grove". It is near Albany, as the characters make their way there in return in a matter of a day or two. If you want a complete synopsis, you can just go to the trailer link above: it gives you the essence of the plot without spoiling the story.

In Union Grove, civilization after oil is decaying. Most of the people here still retain memories of the old days. Some, like the viewpoint character Robert Earle, don't particularly miss the old days. Earle was an executive of a software company in the old days, making regular flights across the United States and the world. Now he works as a carpenter and will as the plot goes on become the town's mayor. The people of Union Grove have been adjusting slowly to the loss of the old order. While we are never given specifics, we know war came to Earth as the oil wells ran dry. One particular war in the so-called "Holy Land" is referred to numerous times, but it is the only conflcit mentioned specifically. Nuclear bombs from terrorists destroy D.C. and Los Angeles. Without automobiles and electricity, the globe collapses -- people become aware of only local concerns. There is no more United States: there is only Union Grove and the surrounding county.

The people of Union Grove are lucky in that they escape the complete loss of law and order that takes over other areas. As the summer begins, the town of Union Grove sees its population increase substantially when a religious sect arrives. They call themselves the "New Faith". They wear simple, sober clothing and are described as a cult by the fearful Union Grover citizens. Their leader, "Brother Jobe", is amiable if a bit devoted. The New Faithers left their homes in Virginia and have traveled north. They describe the complete chaos that pervades most of those areas, and announce that they intend to build a "New Jerusalem". The Union Grovers react with skepticism, but acknowledge that even in Union Grove, things are falling apart. The town's electricity is nonexistant, and its water pressure is falling. Their system relied only on gravity, but now even it seems to be failing them.

At the book's beginning, Robert Earle, Shawn (a young farmboy), and his friend Reverend Loren head off to the town dump to forage for supplies. The dump is under the care of a New York redneck by the name of Wayne Karp. Karp controls the dump and rules over "Karptown" -- a community of trailers -- with an iron fist. The dump's supplies are sorted by the Karptown lot, though, so they have their uses. When one of Karp's men shoots the farmboy in cold blood, Earle begins to realize that things have fallen too much apart. Encouraged by Brother Jobe, he sets out to a psuedo-plantation run by a man named Bullock. Bullock is the town's judge, and Earle and Jobe aim to convince him that he should start doing his duty.

At Bullock's plantation, Jobe and Earle find a nicely-working community that has been rebuilt from nothing in the past twenty years. The townsfolk have most of the amenities of the old life, including electricity and hot dogs. Bullock relies on riverboat transporation to trade goods, and when one of his boats goes missing, he asks Earle and Jobe to help him recover it and his crew. They wil eventually do so, and Bullock agrees to help Union Grove bring order. Earle is elected the new town mayor, and the three of them work together to turn rebuild the Union Grove community. While the Union Grovers join a levee at Bullock's plantation/manor, thugs from Karpstown drift down to pilfer supplies from the town.

This presents the book's ending conflict: the forces of law must prove they can deal with the community's criminal element in a lawful and orderly way without resorting to violence. Earle is a student of history, and sees the need for his community to maintain some kind of civil decorum. The book ends on a hopeful note, as the community moves on and continues rebuilding. Its last lines: "And that is the end of the story of that particular summer when we had so much trouble and so much good fortune in the world we were making by hand."

Kunstler has been called "cantankerous", accused of both Luddism and nostalgic bullshit by varying people I've spoken to. I don't think the world presented in World Made By Hand is nostalgic, although it may be a bit romanticized and hopeful. I didn't mention the full range of activities that the petty criminal lord Wayne Karp indulged in, but Earle and the townspeople are remarkably civil in their treatment of him even though he probably deserved a round with a bullwhip. The world Kunstler creates is a gritty world -- one I would not want to live in. I do want to live in a "human-scale" community, and I already do -- Montevallo, where I can walk everywhere I really need to go, and where I could bike to places further than my walking range. I love living here, and would be content to remain here for all of my days -- although that probably will not happen, as I will have to move wherever there are jobs.

While the book's setting is harsh and unforgiving, there is a bit of romanticism about it, I suppose. Union Grove's citizens, by and large, are there for one another and work together for the common good. They learn to embrace the strangers to their town, and everyone works to rebuild the community into a world made by hand. At the same time, we see plenty of examples of people who have given up, or people who have started to prey on their fellow beings -- how much romanticism is there really?

The story was captivating: I was never bored. Kunstler constantly releases details about what happen to put them into this predicament throughout the book. Had I not attended his lecture, I might have been confused. Thought was put into the printing of the book itself. Its pages are not perfectly cut and lined: there's some technique some printers do to give the edge of the page an uneven, but natural-looking, line. The result is that the book's pages have actual texture and they feel substantial.

All in all, I enjoyed the read and reccommend it as an interesting story -- even though I'm a bit skeptical that this will happen. It seems to me to be a secular doomsday scenario, with society's "sin" of oil corrupting it and leading to its destruction -- giving people the opportunity to rebuild a new world, a "better" world.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This Week at the Library (5/11)

Books this Update:

I started this week with Wampeters, Foma, and Granfallons, by Kurt Vonnegut. The book is a collection of miscellaneous works produced by Vonnegut, ranging from essays to speeches to short stories. While the material is quite diverse, Vonnegut's wit and commentary prevail.

Next I finished Communism by Richard Pipes, which is a history of 'Communist' governments in Russia, China, and the third world. Pipes is a Russian historian, and so the chapters on Russia were rather strong and informative. Communism in Russia is presented as nothing more than a tool for Lenin to gain power to overthrow those he felt had wronged him.

I moved on to Nemesis, by Isaac Asimov -- a science fiction story set two hundred years in Earth's future, at the beginning of a hyperspace age. An Earth settlement is established on a planet orbiting a large gas giant which is itself orbiting a red dwarf star called "Nemesis" for its potential to end life on Earth permanently.

Next I read more nonfiction, namely Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages. The book begins by exploring the contributions that the Roman family, the German family, and the Christian religion made to the development of the medieval family from 600 to 1500 CE. After establishing this, they then move chronologically through the middle ages, taking time to explore the effects of the Black Plague and the economic revival along the way.

Lastly, I finished Asimov's Puzzles of the Black Widowers, another of his Black Widower mystery collections. I've been reading it off and on for a couple of months. Entertaining and well written as always.

Pick of the Week: It would be between Gies and Asimov. Let's just go with Nemesis for old times' sake, shall we?

Next Week:
  • A World Made By Hand, James Kunstler
  • Robot Dreams, Isaac Asimov
I am entering into an extraordinarily busy academic period that will not end until Thanksgiving, so my reading will be limited.

Puzzles of the Black Widowers

I've been reading Puzzles of the Black Widowers on and off for a couple of months now. Rather than reading it straight through, I'd read a puzzle or two whenever I ran out of my weekly reading. This morning, I finished another Black Widowers book. Asimov follows the same formula: in every story, the Black Widowers -- a small club of six or seven gentlemen who meet once a month for dinner together -- go to their restaurant. The host brings a guest, and in the course of the guests' interview, a mystery arises. The Widowers then try to work out the solution to the mystery through rational thinking. After they have exhausted all possibilities and are stymied, the last Widower -- Henry the waiter -- points out the obvious and unforeseen solution.

As usual, there are twelve "collections" in this series. A few of the mysteries:
  • In "Unique is Where You Find It", the Widowers try to puzzle out what element of the periodic table is most unique to a particular college professor who has challenged their guest.
  • In "The Envelope", the Widowers are asked to speculate on the significance of an envelop tucked into the jacket of a spy.
  • "The Recipe" is a locked-room mystery that the Widowers attempt to solve.
They were all enjoyable, excellently written. I enjoy these Widower tales very much, as the characters are interesting and the stories always quite interesting. "The Recipe" had a fairly obvious solution, though. Usually I have to think about them to solve the mystery, but in "The Recipe", I simply read and wondered, "When are they going to bring up...".

All in all, though, superb as usual. Asimov is the master.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages

Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages
Joseph and Frances Gies, © 1987
Harper & Row, New York
369 pages.

This week I continued reading Gies, this time one of their books concerning changes in the family during the middle ages -- from late Roman times until roughly 1500 and the Renaissance. The authors begin by looking at the way three institutions shaped the medieval family: the Roman family, the Germanic family, and the Christian church. After this, the book moves chronologically -- Early Middle Ages, High Middle Ages, and Late Middle Ages. The Gies deal with peasants and aristocrats seperately, using specific towns to explore differences.

The book is well-written, which is what I have come to expect from the Gies. In certain sections, the Gies focused on particular families and I found some of the more extended passages to be uninteresting, but for the most part the book is captivating. What I enjoyed most about the book is that it broke the simplistic idea that medieval culture was monlithic. The impression that I had was that the lords and churchmen held absolute sway over the peasants and that the church have this massively strong cult of anti-sexuality going on, so much to the point that even sex outside of marriage was frowned upon.

The authors show that reality varied tremendously in all aspects. I'll mention a few points from the book as an example:
  • While marriage is regarded as a religious institution, it did not become customary for people to take their vows inside a church until the late 1400s.
  • Some medieval personalities maintained that such vows were unnecessary -- that so long as two people committed themselves to one another, consumated their union, and showed 'marital affection' toward one another that they were married.
  • In the realm of disicpline toward children, not all attitudes were 'medieval'. Two men were mentioned as having rather 24th century attitudes toward raising children -- treating them with respect, sympathy, and responsibily rather than with fear.
  • Gies again wrote on the life of peasants and their limited self-government.
The Gies don't only just write about family structure and relations: they also describe the physical makeup of homes that medieval families lived in. There's a lot of information here, and it's presented quite well. Were I ever in the position of reccommending a book on this subject, this particular book would be a recommendation.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


© Isaac Asimov 1989
Doubleday, New York
364 pages

Having completed Asimov's Foundation series, I decided to return to a volume of short stories, Robot Dreams. I had some difficulty in finding a copy, and so in the meantime I read Nemesis. Nemesis takes place on Earth, during the twenty-third century. According the Fount of All Knowledge, Nemesis's place in the Foundation metaseries (the Robot, Empire, Foundation, and assorted short stories all put together) is as a "legend". Earth is apparantly united: the characters make reference to a Global Congress and a global president. Meanwhile, humanity is spreading throughout the solar system in "Settlements". They are limited to the solar system because hyperdrives are not yet available -- but they become so as the book wears on.

The first half of the book contains two seperate stories. One is about a settlement called "Rotor" that finds a way to move a bit more quickly through space, if not achieving faster-than-light speed. The commissar of Rotor opts to take the settlement to Nemesis, a nearby star. "Nemesis" is named by Eugenia Insignia, a scientist onboard. During the heyday of the space rage, back when cosmologists began realizing that most stars were binary stars, some theorized that our sun, Sol, had its own counterpart, one they termed "Nemesis". They named it so because they thought such a system might explain why the solar system is periodically subjected to increases in comet activity.

The first story is about Rotor -- its journey to Nemesis, its discovery of a massive gas giant with an Earth-sized moon, a moon that is semihabitable. Asimov does not spend much time detailing their journey, the discovery, or the building of a dome around the planet (which they term Erythro). He quickly moves this first story to a point in time twenty years after their "leaving". The second story begins twenty years before their leaving, and he goes back and forth between the two. This did not cause any disconnect at all: despite the twenty-year gap, I read the stories perfectly well. The second story, set in the "past", deals with Earth's response to Rotor's leaving. They realize there may have been a purpose behind the Leaving when they discover Nemesis, and predict that its course through space will take it through the Solar System in five thousand years or so.

Without spoiling the book's plot, the Earthers begin to work on the problem of hyperspace, and use superluminal ability to reach Nemesis for themselves. Consequently, the second story -- set in the "past" -- catches up to the first story at page number 268. The rest of the book is the covergence of the two stories. The Earthers and the Rotors must work together to reach a compromise concerning Erthyro. There is more going on in this story than political intrigue, however. Most of the first story concerns the mysterious planet Erthyro -- a world lit by red sunlight, covered by nude dirt and seas that are filled with a form of prokaryotes. There are a number of strong characters in the book. Eugenia Insignia has already been mentioned, but she has a daughter named Marlene, who has the unusual ability to read people's body language thoroughly. (She would make an excellent cold reader, no doubt.) Marlene's father is the subject of the second story on Earth, as he works to find a way to reconnecting with his daughter.

The story was quite good and the characters strong. I enjoyed the book, although not as much as I did the Foundation books. That's to be expected, I suppose -- with the Foundation series, my enjoyment was magnified because of the grand story each book's seperate story worked into. It was as ever enjoyable.