Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Week at the Library (24/7)

Books this Update:
  • Personal Memoirs, US Grant
  • The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking
  • Asimov’s Mysteries, Isaac Asimov
  • Primates of the World, Rod and Ken Preston-Mafham
  • The Rise of Reason, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser

I began this week with President Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography, which was simply titled Personal Memoirs. Grant finished the book shortly before he died, and it was published posthumously by his friend Samuel Clemens, who had also encouraged him to write the book to begin with. While the book is dominated by the American Civil War, the first 2/5s concerns his pre-war life growing up and his experience in the Mexican-American war. Grant also supplies commentary in the midst of his accounts of battles. I typically found his opinions on various matters to be more interesting than accounts of military. The commentary was always interesting and often amusing. For instance:

It did seem to me, in my early army days, that too many of the older officers, when they came to command posts, made it a study to think what orders they could publish to annoy their subordinates and render them uncomfortable. I noticed, however, a few years later, when the Mexican War broke out, that most of this class of officers discovered they were possessed of disabilities which entirely incapacitated them for active field service. They had the moral courage to proclaim it, too. They were right; but they did not always give their disease the right name. (Chapter III, p. 19)

According to Grant, it was his father’s idea to send him to West Point. Grant himself was very much opposed to the idea, and at first looked for any opportunity that would allow him to escape it -- which I found quite humorous. As he grew more accustomed to army life, he decided that he could endure it long enough to merit a professorship -- but fate intervenes and he finds himself a lieutenant in Mexico, serving as a quartermaster. He comments that people have very little control over their own fates, and offers his own life as a testament to this. I want to share some of the commentary.

In the case of the war between the States it would have been the exact truth if the South had said, -- “We do not want to live with you Northern people any longer; we know our institution of slavery is obnoxious to you, and, as you are growing numerically stronger than we, it may be at some time in the future endangered. So long as you permitted us to control the government, and with the aid of a few friends at the North to enact laws constituting your section a guard against the escape of our property, we were willing to live with you. You have been submissive to our rule heretofore; but it looks now as if you did not intend to continue to do so, and we will remain in the Union no longer.” Instead of this the seceding States cried lustily, --”Let us alone; you have no constitutional power to interfere with us.” […] The fact is the constitution did not apply to any such contingency as the one existing from 1861 to 1865. Its framers never dreamed of such a contingency occurring.” (Chapter XVI p. 111)

That particular section of the book has a lot of commentary. I would like to share more, but the passages are so long that it wouldn’t be practical. Grant’s commentary, of course, is his own, and he does not pretend to be a neutral observer of the war. He refers to the Union side as the National side, refers to the rebels as rebels, and records the arrival of southern diplomats as “peace commissioners of the so-called confederacy”. I thought this wonderfully snarky.

Grant doesn’t spend a lot of time on the time between the two wars or on his post-war life. His “Conclusion” begins right after the surrender and he comments on political affairs in Europe as well as on how the war has shaped the nation. On the whole, I enjoyed the book as much as I could. I loved the commentary, but I’m not that interested in military history with a few exceptions -- the growth of air warfare being one of them. I rather wish he had written about his time as president, as one of my hobbies is reading the autobiographies of American presidents. (My favorite is Gerald Ford’s A Time to Heal. I don’t really have a least favorite, although I have read W’s A Charge to Keep . It doesn’t qualify, though, as he only wrote about his experiences as governor -- not as president and…whatever title would be best for his office now, since he has seen fit to greatly increase its powers during his reign. ) A final quotation from Grant, one that regards my hometown:

“Wilson moved out with a full 12,00 men, well equipped and well armed. He was an energetic officer and accomplished his work rapidly. Forrest was in his front, but with neither his old-time army or his old-time prestige. He now had principally conscripts. His conscripts were generally old men and boys. He had a few thousand regular cavalry left, but not enough to even retard materially the progress of Wilson’s cavalry. Selma fell on the 2nd of April, with a large number of prisoners and a large quantity of war material, machine shops, etc, to be disposed of by the victors. Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, and West Point fell in quick succession. These were all important points to the enemy by reason of their railroad connections, as depots of supplies, and because of their manufactories of war material.”

One minor note. The index of Grant’s autobiography lists “Grant, Ulysses S.” in the index. The resulting entry goes on for several columns.

Next I read Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell. Hawking is one of those rare scientists that most people have heard of, even if they don’t have a bastard clue as to what he does. I checked out The Universe in a Nutshell primarily because I wanted to see what his writing style was like. In this book, Hawking explains the ideas composing modern physics, beginning with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. While I was able to understand most of the book, there are some things -- the shape of time, to name one -- that befuddled me. Hawking is a good writer, and the book was replete with computer-generated illustrations to make his points easier to visualize. He devoted one chapter to what the future might hold, comparing it to the ideal world of Star Trek. (Hawking is a fan of Star Trek, and even made an appearance on a The Next Generation episode, where he appears in a holodeck program of Data’s design. The program allows Data to play poker with Hawking, Newton, and Einstein. You can view a short clip here.

I enjoyed the book, although I must say that a lot of the physics is still over my head. I’m getting there, though. According to the Blessed Wikipedia, Hawking has co-authored a children’s book about physics. I’d like to find A Briefer History of Time, as it is supposedly written in regard to a wider audience. (Meaning, of course, ‘easier to understand‘. To borrow from Star Trek, “Brane and brane! What is brane?!” sums up my response to some portions of The Universe in a Nutshell*).

Next I read Asimov’s Mysteries, by the obvious author. Asimov’s Mysteries is a collection of short mystery stories, most of which are set in a science fiction context. One of the short stories is really short: only a page and a quarter. The story was actually used in Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, because it ends with a punch line uttered by one of the characters. While science fiction stories can be a bit dodgy sometimes -- if they depend on technology or on alien settings, the author has to be able to explain the implications of said setting or technology to the reader, and sometimes that doesn’t work so well -- Asimov is a master at writing them, and every single story was excellent. Even the story he wrote as a teenager was interesting. Of course, Asimov included his usual afterwords and forewords. My only complaint is that the book ended. If I’m wrong about the existence of the gods and I die to find myself at the Elysian Fields, I hope they have a library stocked with Asimov’s complete works. Anyway, in conclusion, Asimov rocks my socks off.

Primates of the World was next on my list. It’s a fairly straightforward text on primates. (You might have guessed that from the title.) There’s no argument to be made, no astonishing revelation to be reached: it’s purely informative. The book begins with a listing of the primates, from the oldest forms (prosimians, like lemurs) to the younger forms (apes, humans included). Here’s a sample:

The ring-tailed lemur is immediately recognizable on account of its long black and white ringed tail and its black eyes, nose, and mouth contrasting with its white face. As already mentioned, it may be distinguished from members of the genus Eulemur by the presence of special scent glands situation on the forearm and the inner side of the upper arm. Ring-tails move around the forests of south-western Madagascar in groups of up to twenty-four individuals, feeding upon plant material such as fruits and seeds.

After the listing is finished, the authors move on to discussion various aspects of primate life: feeding habits, social arrangements, predators, and so on. The book ends with a look at how humans are making a mess of things and driving various primates into extinction. I was prompted to look for this book when I saw Jack Hanna on The Late Show with David Letterman, and he had an animal one that Hanna described as “not a monkey”. The animal in question was a prosimian -- a lemur. The next night, Craig Ferguson (of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson) ranted about lemurs for some reason or another. So, I decided to look for a book on primates. I have a large interest in primates -- specifically chimpanzees and gorillas -- so I looked forward to the read. The primate family is home to some truly interesting creatures -- here are some of the more interesting specimens that caught my eye:

Lastly, I read The Rise of Reason by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser. When I checked this book out, I thought it was a new series. It appears that it is instead the On the Shoulders of Giants series rewritten, which is fine given that that series is over a decade old. The Rise of Reason, for instance, has a notice on the copyright page that says that it is a rewrite of The History of Science in the Eighteenth Century. It would be prudent of me to read the later books in this series -- those written after The History of Science from 1945 to the 1990s ended -- but why re-read the books at the beginning? I decided to read the first one anyway.

This was enjoyable, as the eighteenth century was one of the more fun centuries in science. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, pops up all over the place -- in the colonies flying a kite, in England at the Lunar Society with Erasmus Darwin, in France serving on a council to investigate quackery. There are a lot of interesting stories in this book . Take for instance Charles Linnaeus, who developed the system of biological taxonomy we still use today. (That is, the practice of separating life forms into kingdoms and genera and orders and so on.) He was forever skipping classes because they didn’t teach what he was interested in -- botany. His early life is a series of instances of him getting caught skipping classes and sneaking into libraries by older professors, who take him under their wing, give him full access to their botanical libraries, and then send him on his way to places he can pursue his interest further -- paying for his education by lecturing other students on botany, knowledge of which he had obtained from his constant hooky sessions and stolen library sessions. The guy was a serial vagrant, but he was lucky enough to encounter a string of intelligent professors who cared about their students and who encouraged him. As a result, he winds up creating our taxonomic system. Or take the story of William and Caroline Herschel, a brother and sister who charted the skies together and funded their science by building and selling telescopes. These aren’t vague figures from the past, they’re real people who pursued their interests and made a way for themselves to do so that was actually conducive to their interests.

Do not think, however, that this book is merely an updated treatment. While the book does retain some aspects of the On the Shoulders of Giants series -- the section on the Scientific Method, the division of the book into Physical and Life Sciences -- it includes a third section: “Science and Society”. That section explores how the Enlightenment gave birth to the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions. It then looks at the accomplishments of Diderot and Voltaire and the introduction of The Encyclopedia, moves onto to quacks and others who were starting to prey on scientific ignorance, and concludes with a look at the revolt against reason -- romanticism. (Boo, hiss.) I recommend reading the book. (Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?)

Pick of the Week: Asimov’s Mysteries, by Isaac Asimov.
Quotation of the Week: “I would not have the anniversaries of our victories celebrated, nor those of our defeats made fast days and spent in humiliation and prayer; but I would like to see truthful history written. […] The justice of the cause which in the end prevailed, will, I doubt not, come to be acknowledged by every citizen of the land, in time. For the present, and so long as there are living witnesses of the great war of secessions, there will be people who will not be consoled for the loss of a cause they believed to be holy. As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions with acknowledged the right of property in man.” (p. 85, Personal Memoirs, US Grant.)

(Grant was a bit of an optimist on that. I quote directly from one group: “All that the South wanted to do is to establish the CSA to uphold the principles of the founders concerning limited government. lower taxes and individualism.” If that link and quotation made you cry, click here for one that will make you laugh. )

Next Week:
  • The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx. I decided a few months ago to start reading historically significant books, and this is one of the biggies. Outside of religious texts, I can’t think of a more historically significant book -- although just like religious texts, the influence of the book can be both good and bad.
  • The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene. The book is about the theory of relativity, quantum theory, and their relationship to one another.
  • Books that Changed the World, Robert Bingham Downs. I’m checking this one out to aid in my quest.
  • Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, Neil Postman. I found this one while searching for “Enlightenment”.
  • Nine Tomorrows: Tales of the Near Future, Isaac Asimov. Yes, once again I found another collection of short stories after I thought I was very nearly out.

* That reference will either (1) have no meaning to you, (2) enrage you, or (3) amuse you deeply.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

This Week at the Library (17/07/08)

Books this Update:
  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Harry Potter Universe by Tere Stouffer
  • The Undertaker's Window by Philip Margolin
  • The History of Science from 1945 to the 1990s by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser
  • Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov
  • The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve

I began this week with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Harry Potter Universe. While I was amused by the idea of a Harry Potter encyclopedia -- there are, after all, probably already Potter wikis out there -- I actually found the book to be amusing. The author, who holds a Masters in Children’s Literature and who is apparently one of the first Harry Potter scholars (?), wrote her graduate paper on the differences between the Potter universe and the universes of other similar fantasy works by C.S. Lewis and J. R. Tolkien. This is sort of what she does in this book. Stouffer looks into the origin of various characters’ names, the origin of their spells, the history of mythological creatures in human literature -- drawing on various mythologies and folk tales, from the Judeo-Christian bible to Celtic fairies. It’s a brief, but interesting read if you like the Potter books and want to learn more about trolls and so on. I’m not much for fantasy, but the Potter books are unique in …bewitching me.

Next I read Philip Margolin’s The Undertaker’s Widow, which I found to be rather captivating. It’s about an ethical judged named Quinn who finds himself rapidly being entangled by a web of conspiracy, deceit, and blackmail. I enjoyed it immensely. While blurbs on the back of the book describe it as a “legal” thriller, it could be variously described as mystery, a political thriller, or a legal thriller. The story takes place in Portland, Oregon, and the mystery begins when a contender for one of Oregon’s senatorial slots shoots an intruder in her home after he shoots her husband. It was a fast, tight story with several nice twists.

After that, I read The History of Science from 1945 to the 1990s. I commented last week that the physics was rapidly going over my head, and that problem was exaggerated here. I read the section on gluons and muons and that sort of thing several times and didn’t understand a lick of it. Since the book was published in the 1990s, it doesn’t mentioned string or M-theory, one of which I actually remember from Dan Falk’s terrific Universe on a T-Shirt. I think I should revisit that book, since I remember actually understanding -- at least a little bit -- the atom. Happily, atomic theory is only one small section of the book. As ever, the book is divided into two parts: Physical Science and Life Science. In all of the preceding books, an appendix in the back included a section on the scientific method. In this book, that section introduced the book. Life Science was mostly about viruses -- AIDS received much more publicity back then in the 90s. I only see an occasional commercial about it now, and if it weren’t the fact that I read newspapers from around the world, I might be oblivious to its continuing existence. I haven’t heard anything about AIDS from network television in years.

What made this book a blast for me was the rest of the Physical Science section, as large parts of it were on space and that I understand quite well. The book was written in the early 90s, so it mentions possible plans for “Freedom Station”, which I know from reading Basecamps to the Stars was the planned US-only space station before the idea was scrapped in favor of the International Space Station, which sounds much less gimmicky. The book references the then still-living Carl Sagan, which was a bit weird. He died in 1996. It’s strange reading a book from the 1990s and realizing it was over a decade ago. I came of age in the 90s, so it’ll always be my “home” decade -- or the decade that my temporal frame of reference is at least partially tied to.

Next I read The Neandertal Enigma. (While “Neanderthal’ is the typical spelling, the author drops the second H because the “th” sound doesn’t exist in the German language, which is where “Neanderthal” derives from.) The book is about the author’s struggle to figure out where Neanderthals fit into human evolution. The impression I have from contemporary reading of various books is that Neanderthals aren’t our ancestors: they were roaming around Europe and Asia, but eventually squeezed out and eliminated by our ancestors, who were migrating out of Africa. This in fact a new theory when the author hears it in this book, and it is in opposition to the old idea that Homo sapiens evolved directly from Neanderthals. The Leakeys and their work at Olduvai Gorge are mentioned a lot.

Ancient bones from Olduvai
Echoes of the very first cry
‘Who made me here, and why?’
‘Beneath the copper sun..
African ideas, African ideas.
Make the future clear, make the future clear.
And we are scatterlings of Africa, both you and I
We’re on the road to Phelamunga,
Beneath a copper sky
And we are scatterlings of Africa,
On a journey to the stars..
Far below we leave forever dreams of what we were.

I should note that I didn’t quite finish the book. As the argument and counter arguments about the “Eve” hypothesis (that all modern human beings descend from one African woman, whose ancestors then populated Europe and Asia while pushing out the Neanderthals) were developed more and more, I began to lose interest. It didn’t help that during my reading I had a sinus headache, which has just gone away today. It turns out that I am less interested in Neanderthals than I thought I was. On a side note, the author mentions Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which depicts Cro-Magnons (ice age humans) and Neanderthals living beside one another. I read the five books in the series last year. He refers to them as “romance” novels, which is interesting. I think he means they show a romanticized view of life back then, since sex doesn’t show up that much until the third book. After that, of course, Ayla and Jondalar are inseparable, joined at the...hips. The writing of The Neandertal Enigma is good, it’s such that it was becoming something I wasn’t all that interested in -- a lot of discussion about mitochondria DNA.

Next I read some of Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. I say “some” because the book offers commentary on Shakespeare’s plays, and it would be rather silly of me to read commentaries on plays I’ve never read. While Asimov does quote liberally from the plays he’s commenting on and summarize the plot, I decided I didn’t want to read commentaries of plays I’ve not read. I did read some, and some were enjoyable even without having read the original plays, but I decided not to go on. (I decided to not go on right in the middle of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because I was tired of reading about fairies and goblins. I moved on to Julius Caesar.)

Pick of the Week: The History of Science from 1945 to the 1990s.
Quotation of the Week: Not an exact quote, but in The History of Science, the author commented that Pluto’s position as a planet seemed to be safe for the time being. I thought it amusing.
Next Week:
  • The Rise of Reason, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser. The authors of The History of Science series have another series.
  • Primates of the World, Rod and Ken Preston-Mafham
  • Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant
  • Asimov’s Mysteries, by Isaac Asimov. Science-fiction mysteries in short-story form.
  • The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

This Week at the Library

Books this Update:
  • The History of Science, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, Elliot Roosevelt
  • Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor by Isaac Asimov
  • Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution, Randal Keynes

I began this week with The History of Science from 1895 to 1945. At usual, the book is separated into the physical and life sciences, but this book does away with the recap that the other books employed -- previous advances are summarized in their respective chapters. Some of the advances in this book include quantum theory and the discovery of viruses. While the book is as well-written as the ones preceding it, some of the topics -- like quantum theory -- are harder to understand, and so I enjoyed this book less. The book does mention “the Leakey’s brilliant son, Richard”, which amused me as a few weeks ago I read one of Richard Leakey’s works -- his commentary on The Origin of Species.

The next book I read was a recommendation from a friend. The book, by Margaret Atwood, is called The Handmaid’s Tale and is set in a dystopian world where the United States has turned into a monotheocracy, functioning as a military dictatorship where society is stratified along religious lines. How exactly this happened is unclear. A massive earthquake along the San Andreas vault causes numerous nuclear power plants to “explode”, and then a conspiracy takes over the government and suspends the constitution. It is unclear as to whether or not the conspiracy was already in place and just seized the moment or if it formed immediately after.

While it doesn't seem possible that dull-minded people like fundamentalists could manage to take over a country in one fell swoop, their job was made considerably easier by the fact that paper money had been done away with -- everything had become computerized. Once the unnamed group takes over the government by assassinating everyone in the Congress (it must not have been an election year), they suspend the Constitution and seize control of the money so they can make the United States a Christian nation -- or at least their version of a Christian nation. Now, you would think that the military would object to this, but they were fooled into thinking Islamic fanatics from Iran did it. Bear in mind, this book was written when fundamentalism was rising in both Iran and the United States -- when people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were gaining political power.

The new government is run along strict biblical lines, although the goons show a decided preference for the Hebrew scriptures; indeed, the stratification of women is completely based on Abraham's family. Abraham, for the uninitiated, is the legendary father of both the Hebrew and Arab peoples. According to the Hebrew bible, Abraham was a tradesman from Ur, which is not far from Babylon. Yahweh told him to leave Ur, and he did, and in return Yahweh promised Abraham that he would have a child and one day he'd have a mess of descendants. The promised kid doesn't come for a long time, though, and eventually Abraham's wife Sara becomes barren -- so Sara tells Abraham to knock up her handmaid Hagar so they'll have a child. So Abraham does: he knocks the girl up and they have a kid named Ishmael. Although Hagar wasn't Abraham's wife, she's Sara's handmaid, and Sara is Abraham's wife, so...the kid is technically Abraham and Sara's somehow. (Yahweh doesn’t think so, but fortunately his twin brother Allah does.)

That's what happens here. The people running the government -- old guys who like uniforms and call themselves "Commanders" and their wives, old "Ladies Against Women" types -- are all barren, so they need young hussies to propagate the species. The women are divided into five different castes -- "Wives", "Marthas" (old servants), "Handmaids" (whose job it is to get pregnant and give the commander and his wife a child), "Aunts" (who train girls to be handmaids), "Jezebels" (prostitutes, who serve the Republic by doing whatever prostitutes do), and "Unwomen", or women who are too educated or lesbian to be of any use to the Republic of Gilead. Unwomen are either killed, sent to The Colonies for hazardous duty, or turned into Jezebels.

The Handmaid's Tale is about one handmaid -- who before the takeover was a college graduate living with her husband and wife and working in a library. She only accepts her fate because she hopes that there is a resistance -- hopes that there are those working to destroy this New Order. This story is about her own personal resistance -- the story of a free mind rebelling against those with power over her. I won't say more. Once I found the book, I found it rather gripping. According to Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge), The Handmaid's Tale is on the American Library Association's list of most-challenged books, as some see it as "anti-religious".

Even if that were so, intellectual cowardice is no excuse not to read the book. As it happens, though, the book is not anti-religious. While the Republic of Gilead is a religiously-defined world, the religion in question is practiced only by a nutty few. Most Christians in the United States are just ordinary people who happen to wear crosses at their necks. There are some who are assholes, but that's just the law of averages. This book isn't about the majority of Christians or even most fundamentalists -- it's about the ones who transcend batshit craziness and become positively evil -- like cells that turn cancerous just for the sake of being little microscopic dicks.

After The Handmaid’s Tale, I read Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, a murder mystery set in the 1943 White House, during the Trident Conference. Murder…is part of a series of mystery novels starring Eleanor Roosevelt. I am amused by the idea of Eleanor Roosevelt dressed in Sherlock Holmes’ cloak, cap, and pipe, closely followed by FDR in a Watson-style bowler, who says ‘But Eleanor! How did you know?”, and her replying “Elementary, my dear Franklin.” The book was interesting. As it was penned by Elliot Roosevelt, one of the Roosevelt sons, I imagine it’s a fairly accurate depiction of 1943 D.C.  -- or at least as accurate a picture Elliot could paint from his own memories and research. The series of books appears to have been published after Elliot’s death.

I took a break from conspiracies and murder to read Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, which is a collection of some 600 jokes complete with commentary by Asimov. He included all sorts of jokes, from puns (some of which I’ve used to annoy my friends with already) to cultural/ethnic jokes. Asimov being Asimov, though, the jokes in question are not offensive and still funny. Here’s my version of a favorite from the book:

There’s this Palestinian walking in the desert, going from his school to his family home. As he’s walking, he suddenly gets an eerie feeling. Pausing to take things in, he realizes that a sandstorm is bearing on him and will overtake him in only minutes. There’s no way that he can make it to his home in time, so he decides to dig a small pit for himself. He figures that he can lay on his belly in the pit and tuck his face into his jacket so that he’ll protect his mouth, eyes, and nostrils from the sand. So he drops down and starts digging furiously. As he’s digging, he encounters a curious sort of container. It looks old. He tries to take the top of so he can use it as a cup to aid in his digging, but when he opens it he finds himself face to face with a genie.

The genie roars “Thank you for saving me, young master! For your reward, I shall grant you three wishes! Choose wisely.” The young guy is taken aback, but quickly asks that the genie get rid of the approaching sandstorm. All at once, the sandstorm is gone. The Palestinian is amazed -- this is real. “Your second wish, young master?” inquires the genie. The Palestinian stands and thinks for a while, then says that he wants a large home surrounded by lush farmland -- filled with servants and luxury goods, along with a wife. The genie nods, and suddenly the desert transforms into a magnificent estate, surrounded by farms that are ripe for the harvest. The estate looks like the old Hanging Gardens -- magnificent. There are sport cars in the driveway, and the young man is suddenly flanked by a beautiful woman who is his wife.

“For my first wish, I saved my life. For my second wish, I secured my future. For my third wish, I should look to the welfare of my people,” said the young Palestinian. “I want you to destroy the nation of Israel”, he says to the genie. All at once, the estate and wife are gone, and the sandstorm is seconds from overtaking the young man. The moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for: your genie may be Jewish.

Asimov’s version was more medieval -- an Arab dying of thirst in the desert who wishes for a palace with camels and who wishes for the destruction of the Jews. I made it contemporary. My favorite chapter was the chapter on wordplay, because I like puns. I like puns because I don’t have to memorize anything: all: mine are usually extemporaneous -- I just happen to hear an opportunity and I seize on it. I will do this even if the pun is a particularly terrible one, because groans can be rather melodious.

Next I read Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution by Randal Keynes, who is related to both Charles Darwin and the economist John Maynard Keynes. As I mentioned last week, I basically checked this book out because the cover art caught my eye and the inside text looked fairly interesting. Like Charles Darwin: the Naturalist who Started a Scientific Revolution, this book focuses on Charles Darwin and his theory of descent with modification. Since both books are essentially on the same subject, a comparison is due. The Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution is a much more comprehensive biography of Darwin and the theory. Its beginning chapters focused on Darwin’s family history, and the book went into depth exploring what books and what scientists inspired Darwin and so on. Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution is different. While the book does cover the development of the theory, its author does not describe the voyage of the Beagle in detail. This book is about Darwin, the adult scientist and family man -- the man who pauses his daily trips around the Sandwalk to play with his children, who rented a home for his family while he was undergoing treatment in another city just so they would be close by -- the man who made notes about his children growing up, from the time they were babies -- and who monitored his daughter Annie’s death in hopes of finding a cure. I mentioned before that the author is related to the Darwins. Because of that, he has access to family items like Annie Darwin’s writing case -- complete with writing quills that still have dried ink on the tips.

Pick of the Week: Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution
Quotation of the Week: “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.” - Charles Darwin, p. 308 of Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution. Original source is his Autobiography.

Next Week:
  • -The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the World of Harry Potter. I’m not kidding. I saw it when looking for one of my other books, and the very idea of it amused me so much that I had to check it out.
  • Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, because I like Asimov and am only familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedies.
  • The Neanderthal Enigma, which I checked out because Neanderthals may be interesting.
  • The History of Science From 1945 to 1990, which is the last book in the On the Shoulders of Giants series -- alas.
  • The Undertaker’s Widow by Philip Margolin, which I checked out because I like Margolin.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

This Week at the Library (3/7)

Books this Update:
  • The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara
  • The History of Science in the 19th Century, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser
  • Tales of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov
  • No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker

The first book I read this week was Jeff Shaara’s The Steel Wave. I’ve been waiting for it for a little over a year, or ever since I finished The Rising Tide. Strictly speaking, The Steel Wave is “historical fiction”: Shaara attempts to tell a story from history through the eyes of various historical personalities, using memoirs and such to inform his retelling. The style is informal, and quite personal. If you remember, The Rising Tide was first in a planned trilogy of WW2 books: The Rising Tide focused on the American invasion of Africa (Operation Torch) and all that followed, including the invasion of Sicily and the Italian peninsula.

Three characters from The Rising Tide return in The Steel Wave: General Dwight Eisenhower, who is now in charge of planning the invasion of continental Europe, or “Operation Overlord”; Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who happens to have been sent to the “backwater” Normandy countryside as punishment for losing Africa and being too “defeatist’; and Sgt. Jesse Adams, a paratrooper. Adams participated heavily in the invasion of Sicily, as his paratroop unit was to help tie down Axis armor in the area. General George Patton also appears in the beginning and end of the book as a viewpoint character, but he spends the overwhelming majority of the book commanding the fictitious First Army, which the Nazis believe is poised to invade northern France. Shaara also uses supplemental characters when necessary. For instance, he introduces the book with “The Commando”. whose job it is to infiltrate the area around Utah beach and collect soil samples to see if the area is sturdy enough to handle heavy equipment.

The book isn’t quite as thick as some of Shaara’s other contributions, but it’s a good read. I was never disappointed by the story, which moved quickly. While the central conflict of the book is military, we also see bureaucratic conflicts. In The Rising Tide, Eisenhower has to balance the forceful personalities of George Patton and Omar Bradley, both of whom want the glory -- while dealing with the cautious and methodical style of Bernard Montgomery, the British officer in the area who had been defending British possessions in Africa from Rommel. In The Steel Wave, Montgomery and Bradley are both nominally under Eisenhower’s command. While Montgomery’s cautious approach arguably costs the Allies’ military campaign, Eisenhower has to balance military needs with the need to keep the morale of British citizens up by keeping their hero in the fight. Eisenhower also has to deal with Patton, who has a tendency to make an ass of himself and embarrass the American side of the Allied command. Fortunately for Eisenhower, he finds the perfect place to stick Patton and keep him out of trouble.

On the German side, Rommel -- who takes his duties seriously -- has to deal with a variety of issues. Hitler is becoming more authoritarian and less competent -- a pair of traits that seem to go together. The Reich is stressed because of this, as the war in Russia is not going well. By “not going well”, I mean that the Red Army has stopped only because Stalin wanted to wait for the Allied invasion of France. Rommel can’t get the supplies he needs to adequately defend against the threat of Overlord, and Hitler’s constant interference means that Rommel has to ask the Fuhrer’s permission to even use his panzers -- a problem that will cost Hitler’s empire down the road.

Overall, the book was good. The narrative was excellently written. I didn't see anything factually wrong, although I did have exclamation point movements every time characters would mention the Luftwaffe, as in the book they seem to regard it as a credible threat. I thought that the Luftwaffe was pretty much a nonentity by this point; the Allies enjoyed a massive advantage in numbers (something like 25 to 1), and Eisenhower was confident enough about that advantage to tell the troops that the only planes they would see would be Allied ones. Because of this, it's hard for me to take these characters' concerns seriously -- but I think Shaara must have justification for writing it. Perhaps the German army officers were unaware as to how many planes the Luftwaffe was losing.

Next I read The History of Science in the 19th Century. The 19th century is huge for science. Not only are some tremendous advances made in chemistry, biology, and astronomy, but science as a discipline is really taking form -- the scientific method is beginning to be adopted, leading (pleasantly) to the partial extinction of things like phrenology and astrology -- which live only in the minds of the gullible. I learned about something completely new in this book -- spectroscopy. If you want to learn about it, you can go here. It’s a good resource for explaining scientific concepts to laypersons like myself. I found the site initially when I looked for how we know what the speed of light is, and when I looked this up again while reading The History of Science, I happened upon the above linked topic just as I was beginning to read about spectral lines, which is something of a coincidence. I said before that science as a discipline was taking form -- here we see groups like the Lunar Society, which was frequented both by Benjamin Franklin and Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Other groups, like the American and British Associations for the Advancement of Science, are formed in this time period. The National Academy of Science was also founded in the United States at this time, although the British, French, and German equivalents were founded two centuries earlier.

After this, I read Isaac Asimov’s Tales of the Black Widowers, the first collection of his “Black Widower” mysteries. The Black Widowers are a group of six men who meet in a New York restaurant once every month to socialize with a guest -- a guest who invariably happens to bring a mystery to the table. Tales of the Black Widowers contains twelve titular tales. In each, the Widowers attempt to find the solution to the mystery through reason. As in More Tales from the Black Widowers, the “mysteries” vary. Sometimes one of the Widowers catches something intriguing in their customary interview of the guest and wants to follow up on it: sometimes people come to the Widowers for help. One of the stories was completely different, and it is by far my favorite in either book. It’s called “The Obvious Solution”, and I think the book is worth finding just for that one story alone. As usual, Asimov introduces the book and provides lovely afterwords after each story.

Because I have a friendly and personal writing style, readers have a tendency to write to me in a friendly and personal way, asking all kinds of friendly and personal questions. And because I really am what my writing style, such as it is, portrays me to be, I answer those letters. And since I don’t have a secretary or any form of assistant whatever, it takes a lot of the time I should be devoting to writing.
It is only natural, then, that I have taken to writing introductions to my books in an attempt to answer some of the anticipated questions in advance, thus forestalling some of the letters.

For instance, because I write in many fields, I frequently get questions such as these:
“Why do you, a lowly science fiction writer, think you can write a two-volume work on Shakespeare?”

“Why do you, a Shakespearean scholar, choose to write science fiction thrillers?”

“What gives you, a biochemist, the nerve to write books on history?”

“What makes you, a mere historian, think you know anything about science?”
And so on, and so on.

It seems certain, then, that I will be asked, either with amusement or with exasperation, why I am writing mystery stories.

Here goes, then.

This is how Asimov begins his introduction to this book: as ever, I enjoy this part of his short-story collection the most. I think Asimov intended for his readers to solve the mysteries along with the Widowers, and sometimes I was able to do so. But honestly, sometimes I found myself so enraptured with the story that I just wanted to see how he ended it, brilliantly. I was only disappointed once, but I won’t mention the story lest I spoil it for someone else. As usual, I love this book. Sadly, though, my local library doesn’t carry any more of the Widower tales. I think they have one more collection of short stories, but just the one.

Next I read a recommendation: No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is a larger one, which is fitting given that it focuses on the lives of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, two historical personalities who seem larger than life at times. FDR is far and way my favorite president, and has been ever since I can remember, so when a friend of mine brought my attention to the book, I made haste to find it. The book is about life in the United States during the Second World War, but because the Roosevelts were so involved, the book is dominated by their two personalities.

The book is essentially the story of what happened on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, beginning in the late 1930s. The author takes care to introduce subjects when they come up -- offering brief biographies of various personalities, brief histories of issues like civil rights and the labor movements -- but it moves at a steady pace through the end of the thirties and into the forties. Because FDR is my favorite American president, I knew quite a bit of it already -- but there were numerous things I didn’t know. For instance, toward the end of the book the author brings up FDR’s plans to build a new “liberal” party. According to the author, Franklin believed that the nation needed a defined liberal and a defined conservative party: as it was then, both parties were fractured. He aimed to start this process by partnering with Wendell Wilkie, the man who ran against him in 1940 -- a liberal Republican who seemed to back FDR’s policies very nearly to the letter. One can certainly see why Roosevelt would have wanted a strong liberal party, as he struggles constantly with the southern Democrats, who are vigorously opposed to any kind of social reform. (By “vigorously opposed”, I mean “beating up people for being black”). Civil rights becomes a major issue because the nation needs soldiers and it needs workers -- and blacks (the author uses the word “Negroes”, apparently so the reader won’t lose contextual focus) were being largely ignored (and beaten up). Roosevelt got his wish posthumously, of course -- the Democrats adopted civil rights as a key party platform and the southern bloc left. (Good riddance.)

Civil rights is a recurring issue throughout the book, for two reasons: the war makes the racial reckoning unavoidable, and Eleanor Roosevelt is determined to effect positive change however she can -- which causes the president some problems. The author also mentions FDR’s balancing act between helping labor and getting big business on his side to fight the war without isolating either. A few weeks ago when I was doing some temporary work for a plant, I thought to myself that it would have been most unpleasant to be a factory hand in the 1940s. I assumed (rightfully so, it turns out) that workers would be made to work long hours in uncomfortable environments -- and I speculated to myself that one couldn’t complain without being branded an enemy sympathizer. It turns out my suspicions were correct, as apparently both labor and big business accused one another of trying to use the war to assert their own primacy.

The other recurring home-front issue that bears on today’s world is that of women’s rights. As the men were being drafted to fight the war, women were running the factories -- and finding out that they rather liked the idea of being productive. Social expectation changed, and society started to change with it. It seems that the headway that was made in civil rights and gender quality was lost in the 50s, though, as I’ve never heard of any real advances in either of those areas happening until the 1960s.

This book isn’t completely about social history, of course -- but social history is one of my pet history subjects, so these three topics were the ones I paid most attention to. The author also writes about the Roosevelts’ various friendships, their hobbies, and their personalities -- but I was most interested in the social developments. While the book is mostly complimentary of Roosevelt, it does bring up one of the more infamous acts of his presidency -- executive order 9066, which allowed military commanders to define areas of the country as “military areas”, which would allow them to forcibly resettle the people living and working in certain areas -- and “certain areas” turned out to be Japanese-American farms and neighborhoods. The policy also made the military responsible for housing displaced persons, and the result was camps for people whose ancestors came from Japan. Outside of John Adam’s Alien and Sedition acts, the Red Scares, and the Military Commissions Act, the internment of American citizens is one of the darkest moments in the history of American civil liberties. The book is a lengthy read, but well worth if it you like the Roosevelts or want to learn more about social developments in the 1940s.

Lastly, I read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. It’s also a recommendation, although I think I would have gotten around to finding it myself, given my interest in neuroscience and the biological (no Freud) aspects of psychology. Pinker deals with three ideas about human nature in his book: the blank slate, or the idea that human minds are born as Play-Doh, completely malleable : the Noble Savage, the idea that human beings are essentially good creatures and are corrupted by societal pressure and needs: and the Ghost in the Machine, the idea that in each of us is some ethereal spook that makes choices independently of the biological processes of the mind. Pinker doesn’t call the book The Modern Denial of Human Nature for a reason: it is his idea that the latter two can be safely tied to the Blank Slate idea. Throughout the book, Pinker first deals with the implications of the Blank Slate as a whole, and then deals with the latter two specifically.

I found this book astonishingly interesting. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wondered why people were the way they were. Even during high school when I was incurious about the world at large, I was still captivated by the question of why people were the way they were. This is one of the reasons I liked sociology so much when I first discovered it in my first two years of college -- and the reason I like books like V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain and this one. My view of human nature is naturalistic, of course, and was that way even when I was a fundamentalist Pentecostal. I still believed in an immortal soul, I just didn’t know where it went or what it did. (Since I believed then and still believe now that every aspect of “being human” is controlled by our genetic information, the idea of a soul to explain anything is really superfluous.) In high school, I was introduced to the “nature/nurture” debate where people question which has a bigger influence on why we are what we are: our genes, or our environment? Now, back then and until recently (recent years) I thought our environment had a bit more to do with it. In the past two years, though, as I read more and more biology, I realize how much our genes impact our lives. While the environment we’re raised in is very important, our genes determine how we respond to that environment.

Pinker’s view places more emphasis on genes than I have previously. After establishing this, he goes on to examine four arguments against the naturalistic view of human nature :

The anxiety about human nature can be boiled down to four fears:

If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified.

If people are innately immortal, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile.

If people are the products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions.

If people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose.” (P. 137)

He then commits a chapter to each. He then examines how this idea of human nature “can provide insight into languages, thought, social life, and mortality (Part IV), and how it can clarify controversies on politics, violence, gender, childrearing, and the arts. (Part V).” (P. 3) While some of the book is pure science -- and thus will take some time to digest it -- most of the book is simply an exercise in reasoning, looking at what that science means. Pinker uses a lot of quotations to illustrate points . Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson (both biologists) are quoted heavily, but he also references the ancient Greek aristocrat Pindar and the poet Kahlil Gibran, as well as employing popular culture references (“Gee Officer Krupke” from West Side Story and comic strips, as well as bits of 1984 and Huckleberry Finn) to make his points. In my view he’s an excellent writer and the book deserves to be read -- even if it makes some of its readers, including myself, slightly uncomfortable. According to Wikipedia, Skeptic magazine criticized the book, which is interesting. I’d like to read that criticism.

Pick of the Week: A tie between Tales of the Black Widowers and The History of Science.
Quotation of the Week: There was an excellent quotation on the importance of maintaining civil liberties during war by Eleanor Roosevelt in No Ordinary Time, but I’ve not been able to find it again -- so I’ll just substitute one from her autobiography. “Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”

Next week:
- The History of Science from 1895 to 1945. I’m continuing the series, of course.
- Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor: 640 Jokes, Anecdotes, and Limericks, Complete with Notes on How to Tell Them, from America’s Leading Renaissance Man by (of course) Isaac Asimov.
- Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom by Elliot Roosevelt. When reading No Ordinary Time, I discovered that one of the Roosevelt sons wrote a series of mystery novels starring his mother. No, I’m not making that up. I decided to check one out to see what it was like.
- Portraits of Great American Scientists by various authors. I found this book when I looked up “E.O. Wilson” at my local library. Since E.O. Wilson is on the cover of this one, I’m going to take a leap of faith and say he is one of the scientists looked at in the book.
- The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel set in a world where the United States is taken over by fundamentalist Christians; a recommendation.
- Darwin, His Daughter, & Human Evolution by Randal Keynes. While moving toward the science section to pick up the history of science book, I saw this one displayed. The cover caught my eye, and it looks readable so I decided to go with it.