Thursday, March 29, 2018

Right Ho, Jeeves!

Right Ho, Jeeves
© 1934 P.G. Wodehouse
284 pages

What ho, readers all!  What better way to start off a new month than a Wodehouse story, featuring our favorite lovable idiot Bertie Wooster and his impeccable valet, Jeeves?   Unlike previous laughs with Wodehouse, this is a full novel and not just a collection of short stories. The premise is ever familiar:  Bertie would like nothing more than to drink and cavort, but he has pals in the soup and an aunt sending increasingly threatening telegrams. There’s nothing to do but be a sport and leg it down to Brinkley House, there to fix the woes of the world -- and by “fix”, I mean “make them worse until Jeeves arrives to put things in order again".  After studiously ignoring the attempts of his hand to get him to travel into the country and lend at a hand at an awards dinner, Bertie is forced to do so anyway to lend relationship advice to a few friends (who will wind up engaged to the wrong people), and after some spirits are added, general merriment follows.

The chief appeal of a Wodehouse/Wooster novel is not the familiar plots or even the comedy that ensues when Bertie tries to finesse social situations and make matters worse for the wear of his subtle touches,  but Wodehouse’s use of language.  I would venture to say that a reader can’t appreciate how funny English can be until they’ve read Wodehouse.  All of the Wooster stories are rendered in the first person, through a narrator who is a ball to listen to. He’s brimming with opinions, so full of them that he has to abbreviate things at random., trusting that you know perfectly well what he meant. Mix this in with physical comedy, like drunken speeches and  frequent chases through the halls and grounds of places like Highclere Castle (used for Totleigh Towers in the television series), and it’s a hoot all around.   This one features a bit of comeuppance against Bertie; ever resentful of people preferring Jeeves’ schemes to his, Bertie spends most of the novel  trying to take over. Jeeves has his revenge when he uses Bertie in the grand plan at the end to resolve everything at a stroke.

Ultimately, however, Wodehouse’s language has to speak for itself:
"And yet, if he wants this female to be his wife, he's got to say so, what? I mean, only civil to mention it."
"Precisely, sir."

"In this  life, you can choose between two courses. You can either shut yourself up in a country house and stare into tanks, or you can be a dasher with the sex. You can't do both."

"Well, Gussie."
"Hullo, Bertie."
"What ho."
"What ho."
These civilities included, I felt the moment had come to touch delicately on the past.

"I'm not saying I don't love the little blighter," he said, obviously moved. "I love her passionately. But that doesn't alter the fact that I consider that what she needs most in this world is a swift kick in the pants."
A Wooster could scarcely pass this. "Tuppy, old man!"
"It's no good saying 'Tuppy, old man!'"
"Well, I do say 'Tuppy, old man!'. Your tone shocks me. One raises the eyebrows.

"I can never forget Augustus, but my love for him is dead. I will be your wife."
Well, one has to be civil.
"Right ho," I said. "Thanks awfully."

"You are falling into your old error, Jeeves, of thinking that Gussie is a parrot. Fight against this. I shall add the oz."

"It seems to me, Jeeves, that the ceremony may be one fraught with considerable interest."
"Yes, sir."
"What, in your opinion, will the harvest be?"
"One finds it difficult to hazard a conjecture, sir."
"You mean imagination boggles?"
"Yes, sir."
I inspected my imagination. He was right. It boggled.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The World as Stage

Shakespeare: The World as Stage
© 2007 Bill Bryson
245 pages

Shakespeare: The World as Stage surprised me when it arrived. Such a slender little volume for a man whose legacy is strong even today!  Bryson’s aim is not to deliver a volume of literary criticism, or even to fix on some minor detail and create an revisionist vision of Shakespeare, but to stick to the facts.  As it turns out, there aren’t that many.  While we know bounds more about Shakespeare than many of his contemporaries -- and more of his works have survived him than them as well --  the man didn’t leave much documentation.    In creating a narrative that connects the few facts we have  -- birth,  employment as an actor, success as a  playwright, death --  Bryson also supplies background information about Elizabethan and Jamesian England, and concludes that Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishment was not “Hamlet”, but rather managing to survive childhood.   England was plagued by disease after disease, so much so that public records sometimes inserted the phrase (in Latin), “here begins plague”, as if to assure future historians that no, this isn’t an error, that many people really did die in that April with its shoures soote. 

If a reader is looking for a light history of Shakespeare that won’t lead them off the road into some niche theory of the bard,  Bryson here provides a concise, cautious, and enjoyable biography of the man and his times that will fill the bill admirably.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Read of England, 2018!

At long last it's April, my favorite time of the year -- a time of perfect weather, budding flowers, and reading of England!'s the last week of March, anyway, and I can't wait anymore.   If you're new, every April I like to devote my reading entirely to English history, English literature, and English personalities.  Why April?  April 23rd is the feast day of England's patron, St. George, and the anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.   Every year brings a different mix of history and literature, and some years I strike the balance better than others.  This year I've already amassed a proper pile of potential books to go after, not including the English lit on my classics club liist, and I'm chomping at at the bit. Let's start the fun!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Return of Horatio Hornblower

Hornblower Addendum
Collected 2011 eNet press
79 pages

Has it been eight years since I last sailed with Horatio Hornblower?  The naval adventure series by C.S. Forester, and the A&E movie series based on it were one of the highlights of 2010, and in the years since I’ve subjected many friends to those same movies so I could have the pleasure of watching them again in company.  In hunting for books like Horatio Hornblower, however, I stumbled upon a collection of Hornblower tales I’d missed -- or, mostly missed.  This is not a substantial collection by any means; it’s rather shorter than the shortest Hornblower work, Hornblower and the Hotspur, or Hornblower in the West Indies,  and two of its five stories have been previously collected.   The stories are chiefly of interest to those who know and admire Hornblower already,  as they put him in fascinating or morally demanding situations.  The last story here has him encounter a seeming lunatic who claims to be the emperor Napoleon, for instance, while another has him tasked with securing an Irish deserter and discovering a secret compartment in the man’s trunk filled with gold. In all instances Hornblower proves himself to be a perfectly honorable and charitable fellow.  Perhaps the most interesting story in the one in which Admiral Hornblower is asked to take insane King George III to rendezvous with another ship, but they’re stumbled upon by an American frigate in the latter part of the war of 1812.

Although this collection really only recommends itself to the completists among Hornblower readers, I felt instantly at home as soon as I started reading the first story. Forester and his naval hero were good to experience again.

I'd planned this book to be a Read of England post, but it's more "fun-sized" than a regular read. I am gearing up for that, however -- we're a week away from a solid month of English glory!

Friday, March 23, 2018

Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am

Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am
© 2011 Robert Gandt
351 pages

How does a world-class airline fall so quickly from the heights that its pilots are accidentally locked in the building when it closes its doors for the last time, forced to jump from a fire-exit door onto shrubbery below?   The decline and crash of Pan-American Airlines wasn’t as abrupt as memory has it, as Skygods narrative history demonstrates, but a drift toward failure that was nearly corrected a time or two but never long enough.   Skygods' history of Pan-Am uses the stories of its captains, executive, and crew to make personal a proud airline’s fall from glory.

Pan-Am isn’t an airline I ever flew on,  closing as it did when I was six, but as a  brand name I heard about it often enough growing up -- and I witnessed the airline’s complete self-confidence in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey.   That complete self-confidence was part of its early pilot culture,  when a airline created by a Navy buff adopted aspects of navy lingo and dress.  The planes were “Clippers”, and their crews wore smart uniforms, answering to their lord and commander in the air --  the Master of Ocean Flying Boats.  It wasn’t just a name:  Pan-Am specialized in overseas destinations, beginning with a Key West to Havana run, and to serve the undeveloped world by air, it used floatplanes or flying boats.  Pan-Am captains were alpha males later running jet engines, often wrong but never in doubt.    Juan Trippe, the effective creator of Pan-Am and its chief for decades, was certainly confident in his own vision and the airline. He  pushed commercial aviation into the jet age against its reservations, twisting elbows and manipulating one company against another, forcing them to do his bidding.  Trippe got what he wanted -- jet airlines that could go faster and over greater distances -- but  at a price. The brutal deal-making  clouded Pan-Am’s  reputation,  making it political enemies, and Trippe’s greatest dream, the 747, would bleed the rest of Pan-Am’s life.

Pan-Am had taken on enormous obligations in creating that fleet, but it had enormous assets, too: it wasn’t just an airline, it owned a pricey chain of hotels.   It was an international corporation with an antiquated culture, however; even in the sixties it operated like a small transport firm from the thirties, with such lax accounting measures that no one could tell what lines were profitable or not. When Trippe was dreaming of doubling his capacity with 747s,   flights to Europe on 727s (another Trippe coup) were flying half-empty.   And those “Skygods”, the captains who ruled their ships with an iron hand? They were getting old, with an easy arrogance made more volatile by forgetfulness.  In this period,  eleven new jets, their crews and passengers, were destroyed in spectacular crashes abroad.     Although Pan-Am would reform its approach to command and develop a stellar safety record,, it couldn’t win back political favor: its old monopoly on international routes was slowly pried away, while the old bar on domestic routes was retained.

Although Pan-Am’s profits dwindled into losses year after year, the  downward spiral seemed to be arrested by another CEO, who closed a lot of low-performing lines and put employees on furlough.  The airline began making money again, only to blow it all  in a bidding war  for a southern airline with domestic routes.  The integration of the two airlines was not handled well,  and from then on Pan-Am’s successive directors kept repeating the other’s mistakes:  they’d sell off a performing asset, use the money badly, and come out worse for the wear.    Pan-Am just couldn’t adapt to slug it out in the domestic markets,   and in gutting its international flights to finance the domestic fight, it essentially consumed itself to death.  Outside matters didn't help, from an oil crunch to an act of very public terrorism that saw Pan-Am Flight 103 smeared across the Scottish countyside. 

I don’t know that any extinct airline enjoys the reputation in death that Pan-Am does, receiving adulation in modern films like Catch Me if You Can and the series Pan-Am.  And then there’s the case of a man who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to recreate a first-class cabin and lounge from a Pan-Am 747 in his garage, then expanded it in a separate building.   Those who remember it -- or those who are simply curious about it -- will find in Skygods an easy but sad  narrative of the airline’s return to Earth.

CBS apparently did a short clip on the anniversary of Pan-Am's closure:

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Door to Door

Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
© 2016 Edward Humes
384 pages

Are you interested in the Port of Los Angeles? Do you hate cars and find hushed reports of every auto death in a single day great reading?  Do you long for the day when you can sit in your Google or Uber shuttle doing your sodoku while it toodles down the road?  Well, here's your book -- Door to Door, a book which describes itself as being about transportation but which is mostly about the aforementioned port, with a few other essays grafted on, vaguely united in their common theme of complaining about cars and aging infrastructure.  What is here is enjoyable to read,  at least for people like myself who find  transportation fascinating, but it's not a good book; the organization and few topics chosen make it seem more like a collection of essays written by someone chiefly interested in Los Angeles.  I've read Humes before, in his Garbology, and according to my notes it was likewise a grab-bag of topics.

In the age of globalization, logistics is a growth industry. Even if robots take the jobs of cabbies and long-haul truck drivers,  the demand for consumer goods is such that more ships and trucks will be required to carry them.  At the Port of Los Angeles, which handles a third of all goods consumed in the United States (from bananas to smartphones),  the managers there are finding themselves in the position of the New York harbormasters in the late fifties:  the ships arriving are too large to handle easily.  When containerization first arrived,  they required infrastructure at so  different a scale than the old break-bulk shpping that it was  easier for cities like New York  and  London to build new docks altogether. But now the container ships have outgrown the commercial docks built especially for them.

The roads, too, are problematic, overburdened by the fact that  everyone drives everywhere; even highways built to link ports and industrial sections are now co-opted for ordinary through traffic, and the sheer number of cars makes it difficult for transit options like buses to take off. Why would people ride the bus when cars so so much faster? Some cities are exploring ways to create better transit efficiency, like creating bus-only lanes; logistics chiefs like a UPS director interviewed here believe a similar approach for freight traffic  would help the gridlock.  Humes deplores the relative spending of China, Europe, and the United States on transportation:  the US simply isn't keeping up, he says, with a gas tax stuck in the nineties and zero mass infrastructure ideas in the works.  If we are stuck with car-centered infrastructure, says Hume, the best alternative may to work to replace the consumer fleets with self-driving cars -- but cars that don't allow humans to take over, because the cars will eventually be better drivers than humans ever can be. And if you doubt that humans are crappy drivers, he has an entire chapter called "Friday the 13th" that tells the story of seemingly every single person killed in the US by automobiles that day.  (Auto deaths by year are usually around 40,000 in the US, averaging out  to 110 people a day.  Guns got nothin' on the automobile.)

A book called Door to Door: The World of Transportation should cover much more than it did.  The two paragraphs above give it far more organization than it had itself, because it was mostly about the port -- with odd chapters like the logistics of soda cans thrown in. There are better books written about infrastructure (Infrastructure: A Field Guide) better books written about transit  options (Straphanger), better books on shipping, ((90% Of Everything), and so on.  Again, this is enjoyable enough to read, it''s just not a good as a book on transportation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Inevitable

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
© 2016 Kevin Kelly
336 pages

No one can say where exactly a ball thrown in the air will land,  but at least on Earth it’s a certainty that a thrown ball will land.   Kevin Kelly,  formerly of Wired magazine, can’t  say exactly what the future will look like, but he is confident enough to predict what trends will continue based on present technology.   Our global civilizations have been radically transformed from the 1970s til now, but computers weren’t the catalyst for all the change we see around us. Networked computers were. By themselves,  the first computers were house-sized calculators and overpriced filing cabinets;  when they began exchanging information freely, magic happened.   What world-changing wonders can we expect from the current trends in technology?

First, says Kelly, is “becoming”:    In the late eighties, Zygmunt Bauman introduced the term liquid modernity to our sociological lexicon.  In previous generations, changes happened slowly enough that our societies were able to digest them and establish a new normal.   As the 19th gave way to the 20th century, however, the rate of change has quickened to the point that a new normal is impossible: societiy is revolutionized multiple times within a single generation, with the effect that there is no stable ground to be had, no new normal to be reached. Now our products are no longer discrete products, but services that are continually being changed -- think of Office 365, or even Windows 10. Windows 10 is rumored to be the last Windows, not because Microsoft is retiring from the OS business, but because Windows 10's frequent updates constantly add  new features that would have otherwise been developed and delivered in a new Windows.  Our phones, too, are not merely the device that came out of the original box: as we add apps and accessories, we change their nature.

The second big-ticket item in here is "cognifying", by which Kelly means using machine intelligence for everything. There won't be a master AI that controls every aspect of our lives, he says;  instead,  we''ll develop multiple machine intelligences for different suites of needs, and they''ll be utterly mundane -- and already are. When we execute a google search for recipes or ask it for directions, we are in fact helping train and  benefit Google's machine-learning algorithisms: we are teaching them what we're most likely to be looking for.  Those "Related Products" that Amazon helpfully shows you are also an early example of machine intelligence, as Amazon's database learns your shopping preferences and attempts to predict what you would like next.

Two more concepts from the book worth sharing quickly here are Accessing and Tracking. Tracking sounds obvious, but Kelley isn't just talking about website cookies or Google & Apple recording your movements through your phone's  GPS. By tracking, Kelly means that the door is open to quantifying every aspect of our lives.   People can already use their phone's apps to track how much they walk per day, how well they asleep, and record their diets;  they can already use phones to monitor their heartbeat;   phones in the near future will be able to monitor blood pressure and blood sugar, as well.  Cheap cameras and cloud storage mean that we can record more moments of our lives,  and later poke through them at our leisure as if they were files in a drawer.  The cloud is a key aspect of much of what Kelly covers, but it is especially prominent in the "Accessing" chapter, in which he writes that we're moving away from an ownership society. We no longer need to own a car;  we just need access to one. Apps and tech allow us to share resources,  and in some cases the resources are becoming so cheap that they can be offered for free: no one needs to  struggle with an ersatz Office clone when they can use the freely available OfficeOnline.

There are ten real concepts in total (there are two more chapters, "questioning" and "becoming", but they're less about content than thinking about our relationship with content), and the author purposely avoids mentioning any downsides. He takes it for granted that everything can be used to malicious purposes, but that would be another book entirely. (A book like Future Crimes II, perhaps...) I also liked the chapters on Interacting and Screening; one addressed the future mundane role of virtual reality and augmented reality,  in that games and movies will become more "real", and our travels in the real world will have a digital overlay adding more information -- the ubiquity of screens dovetails with that rather nicely. One disturbing possibility Kelly mentions is having glasses or ocular implants with different apps installed; one can read people's faces and match them to a driver's license database.   The other concepts in the book are extensions of minor things happening now, like remixing and filtering.

As someone who can be both entranced and repelled by the promises of technological -- completely fascinated on a abstract level,  distantly horrified at a human level --  I found The Inevitable enthralling reading.  The author is sloppy with language, however, using "socialism" and "collective" when 'cooperative' would have been more accurate. For some reason he thinks libertarian individualism is contradicted by Wikipedia , when it's merely individuals voluntarily working together toward a common goal.  Socialism makes me think more of involuntary mass actions, like taxes and slavery.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Testing, testing

Last week I purchased a new phone, one of those modern miracles that can order a custom sandwich, rent a car, check a flight, and read me a book while also allowing Google and the NSA to keep tabs on me.   I bought it for the camera, and today I finally had occasion to try it out when a friend of mine announced he was giving a private cemetery tour to an exchange student from Vietnam who had been staying with his daughter this past week.  Although I've walked the cemetery in question, I'd never heard my storytelling friend do his "ghost tour", and was more than happy to join them.  The ghost tour, which is part of the annual Selma Pilgrimage (a weekend of people touring fine historic homes, hosted by teenage girls in antebellum dresses), uses multiple locals playing the parts of deceased locals to tell the story of Selma. 

This won't be a complete tour of the Old Live Oak Cemetery, which has incredible stonework and an attractive layout, full of live oaks and magnolia trees, but I wanted to share a few photos and/or stories.

We rendezvoused at the "Pigeon House", a small structure in the middle of the cemetary that once was the residence of the caretaker, and was later used as a gathering spot for bands and picnics.  It's called the pigeon house because the eaves housed carrier pigeons. if you click to enlarge the picture you should be able to see the meshed-over cubbies where the pigeons lived.

Elodie Todd Dawson,  sister-in-law to Abe Lincoln,  and partially responsible for the somber beauty that is Old Live Oak.  She and her family purchased the land and organized its layout, with the pattern of oaks and magonlias that creates bountiful shade even in the summer.  According to a local story, Elodie wore carefully-applied wax makeup and  never stood or walked in direct sunlight -- if she had to travel through it, she hiked up her skirts and double-timed her way into the shade. This was called "Elodie's Walk". Her husband commissioned a memorial statue of her for $7000 after death, disliked the hair, and commissioned another for $5000 more.  

Old Live Oak is one of the more spellbinding places in Selma ,between its oaks laden with Spanish moss, the field of stone, and the flowering bushes.

Obelisks and crosses predominate the graves here, but some are particularly ornate. 

(Note to self:  learn to crop images on phone before sending them to my cloud...)  This obelisk has been churched up a little.

A memorial to the fallen. An inscription reads,
 "There is grandeur in graves, there is glory in gloom."    

I first read those words seven years ago, when walking this cemetery and listening to the fallen leaves skitter in the wind, and they clicked. I've never forgotten the expression.  It comes from a poem called "Land Without Ruins"

If you are curious about the Ghost Tour, someone on youtube posted truncated clips of two of the performances. My friend is reprising a role in the first video as a local rogue named George Washington Gayle, who put an ad in a 1864 paper for someone to shoot Lincoln, and a young lady whom I don't know is playing Elodie, the woman whose grave I shared above.   

"Elodie's" accent is more than little exaggerated -- every actresses who does her lays on the southern drawl as thick  as they can.  

Thursday, March 15, 2018

City of Fortune

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas
© 2012 Roger Crowley
464 pages

In the north of the Adriatic grew a city built not on land, but upon the water -- whose fortune was earned in transit, by  running the ships that connected Europe with the Orient.  Already a powerful commercial entity at the time of the Fourth Crusade, Venice's actions there would catapult her to empire -- empire based on the broken back of eastern Rome, but empire nonetheless, and she would survive near-defeat and triumph again and again until finally she met her match in the Turks. City of Fortune is a history of the Stato da Màr, the empire of the sea that existed wherever waters run.  A highly narrative history  that focuses on Venice's peak and fighting decline,  City of Fortune is a treat for students of European history as it tells the story of this most singular state.

This book was a particularly rare treat for me because I had no idea how it would end. I knew Venice was built from a swamp and maintained itself through trade, and that it was extensively involved in the crusades as the provider of transportation. I had no idea how powerful it was at its peak, however, and knew nothing of the circumstances of its decline.   The story of Venice is one not of Europe, but of the Mediterranean: Venice, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Turks are its primary actors.   In the beginning Venice was technically a vassal of the eastern empire, commonly called the Byzantine, but  as it made its living by trade the city rarely behaved like a subordinate, frequently engaging in commerce with the constantly-attacked empire's enemies in the middle east. When the Church organized another crusade to redeem Jerusalem from the rising Turks, Venice would become the key agent in derailing the crusade, ultimately sending it to conquer Constantinople instead of Jerusalem, and solidifying Turkic rule in Judea instead of repelling it. Venice's entire economy and much of its citizenry were consumed by the contract with the west to transport their men and material to Jerusalem:  when the west balked at paying in full, Venice decided to use their armies to redeem its gold in other ways, by sacking some of its rival-neighbors.  When some ambiguity over the Byzantine succession presented an opportunity for regime change and rewards in gold, naturally Venice took advantage and carried the crusade toward  Constantinople. Things didn't go as planned, and....well, long story short the west conquered the city, fractured the eastern Roman empire, and left it easy pickings for the Turks as they continued to march west. 

For a time Venice would flourish in its ill-gotten gains:  from the ruins it turned its commercial holdings into a genuine empire, and the wealth of the ancients and the east would pour into Venice.  When like proud Athens it found itself in bitter wars with its neighbors, even being surrounded by a  Genoese fleet, it somehow rebounded. But  nations reap what they sow as well as individuals,  and Venice's empire of the sea was no match for the Turks' increasingly vast holdings in the middle east,  marching through Asia Minor and soon pushing around Venice for possession of islands and seaways.  Venice would attempt to organized a general European defense of the Med, but her own prideful pushiness made her a pariah -- and her attempts at lifting high the cross were laughed at, considering Venice's long history trading with Christendom's foes.   Venice would lose her military might to the Turks in battle after battle, but ultimately it was Portugal who would see the city fall from commercial dominance. Faced with the Turkic domination of the west, the closing of access to India and China, the Portuguese would find new ways east -- and  as the Age of Discovery dawned, Venice's brilliant star would dim. But that's a story for Crowley's other book, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire.

Curiously, for a century or so there existed a lovely hotel in downtown Selma modeled after the Places of the Doges in Venice.  The building was destroyed in the late sixties to  make room for city hall.  A pox on politicians!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Star Trek Vanguard: Declassified
© 2011 Kevin Dilmore, David Mack,  Marco Palmieri, and Dayton Ward
404 pages

At the edge of Federation space, at its shared border with the Klingons and the Tholian Assembly, lies trouble.  The area known as the Taurus Reach brims with mineral-rich planets supporting humanoid life,  but has remained curiously uninhabited for eons. The Tholians regard it with fearful reverence,  as if something is buried there that should remain so.  Here enter Vanguard Station,  a Starfleet starbase intended to oversee the colonization of the Taurus Reach  -- and more secretly, a lab to examine its buried secrets. The ST Vanguard series has combined excellent characters, intriguing scientific mystery and steady drama for five books.  Now, in Vanguard Declassified, we find four more stories of intrigue, set throughout the first four books of the series. Three of the authors are familiar for their contributions to Vanguard, but Marco Palmieri is better known as the editor who is responsible for spearheading the Star Trek Relaunch.

In “Almost Tomorrow”, the Klingons enter the scene for the first time, and a spy is revealed. This features our favorite Machiavellian Vuclan, T’Pyrnn, and a sex scene that’s more awkward than most because she has a malevolent ghost in her head who wants to possess her lover. Oh, you wacky Vulcans.

“Hard News” features a world-weary but determined journalist and his girl Friday, developing a story that will expose a connection between the Orion pirates and some Starfleet intelligence ops. Word to the wise, making Orions grumpy is a bad idea. They’re not Klingons and you won’t see them coming, green skin aside.

“The Ruins of Noble Men” is a  story set in two different time periods; in one, a Vanguard ship is dispatched to a suddenly isolationist colony world  to convince them to come back to the fold. The colony is hiding a secret, though, and  in attempting to establish meaningful communications with them Captain Desai finds herself thinking about an episode from her former boss-lover’s youth, when he had an usual run-in with a Klingon named Gorkon.  (Casual Trek fans may remember Gorkon as the assassinated chancellor in The Undiscovered Country.)

The last story, “The Stars Look Down”, is by David Mack and involves a secret mission to land on a Gorn-controlled world, infiltrate one of their ships, steal/copy data and compromise the original, then get out before the Gorn reprise Cestus III.   Features Quinn, a smuggler-scoundrel in the cut of Han Solo or Mal Reynolds,   along with his SF intel partner Bridy Mac.  This being a David Mack story, there’s intense drama and tragedy. (If you find yourself in a David Mack novel, pray that you are a one-page extra character who is not important enough to matter, either as a tragic death or as a plot driver. Be the guy behind the desk who nods to the main characters as they are running into action. It’s just not safe otherwise.)

The four stories span the entirety of the first five Vanguard books, and between then feature most of the favorite characters from the series.  All four are  enjoyable tales; I was most partial to “Hard News” because of the unsusual first-person perspective and the general story:  I like the pre-ENT Orion pirates. They got a little weird after ENT, with pheromones making people slaves and such. Fewer sex slaves and more organized crime, please, thank you.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Short rounds: of cybercities and medicinal ectasy

Recently I've read a couple of books that I wasn't particularly impressed with, but  they weren't stinkers enough to merit one of those rare-but-fun-to-write negative reviews.  They're in that "I can manage a paragraph of mixed interest and disappointment" grey zone.

 This had some interesting topics, from growing kidneys to developing Geordi's VISOR from Star Trek, but I was not impressed at all with the author's grounding as a science journalist. Trust and regard sailed out the window when he hailed the average increase of height and bodymass following industrialism as proof that humans can evolve much more quickly than previously expected., that's proof that our present geneset can do more when it has better materials to work with, i.e more access to different kinds of food, and less work to do fighting off vicious diseases. Have the South Koreans evolved past their primitive ancestors in the north, or are their shorter northern cousins just malnourished? Kotler also referred to a cure for cancer as a vaccine. Cancer isn't a microbe you fight off with antibodies! Sure, maybe he was dumbing things down to increase potential leadership, but forgive me if I don't take the chapter on medicinal ecstasy too seriously after that.. (In the last part of the book, he explores ecstasy and LSD's potential in helping people deal with end-life terror, as well as PSTD. Steroids are also billed as an anti-aging  superweapon, but by that point I wasn't really taking the author too seriously.

This is not on the level of Michio Kaku. It's more like Newsweek fluff pieces.

Next up, Smart Cities! Ooh, cities meets the digital world, two of my favorite topics. This should be outstanding! ...well....not quite.  The cover is lively, sure,  but the book is more conceptual than practical  in that the author spends most of his time talking about the city as a living machine in abstract, or weighing top-down city government approaches against apps created by ordinary people.    I wanted to read about different ways smart cities were happening, but they're only mentioned from time to time as examples of the more elevated debate.  I think I learned more about a smart transit system from Straphangers, in its chapters on Paris' metro card, then I did here.  Sure. there are mentions of apps for citizens to report problems, and mentions of how other apps can bring the city more to life by leading users to bars and places they've never heard of, but these are only teases.  I bought this book last year, started reading it, quickly lost interested, and mounted another assault this week only to find it wasn't really a hill worth that much worry.  

Ah, well.   They can't all be life-changing books. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

This Is Your Brain on Parasites

This is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Brains and Shape Society
© 2016 Kathleen McAuliffe
299 pages

Are you under the influence?  There’s a chance that you may be, even if you haven’t darkened the door of a bar in years. Our bodies are home to a multitude of microbes,  many of them allies of a sort:  in exchange for a moist roof over their heads, they help us digest food, or take up space that would otherwise be available to the disease-causing riff-raff.  Other,s however, are the riff-riff, and they can exert a bad influence on those who let them hang around.  By and large we’re familiar with bacteria that can cause disease, but there are microbes which have more subtle effects --  seemingly causing shifts in our mood, our metabolism, and our ability to think and process information. This is Your Brain on Parasites argues for a parasite-centered perspective on health and evolution,  told in four parts.    She opens by establishing the ubiquity and variety of microbes,  moves to demonstrating how some species can directly manipulate other species’ behavior,  argues that human beings’ mental/emotional state can be likewise influenced by microbes, and finally argues that much of human civilization is indirectly driven by parasites in that an obsession with cleanliness has driven us to create religions, laws, etc.

Whew! That’s a lot to take in in one book. The first two sections are paths well traveled, from 10% Human to Gut. The second section addresses an utterly fascinating aspect of nature, the ability of some species to manipulate others. The creatures documented here aren’t all microbes: parasitic wasps show up hijacking spiders and roaches and putting them to work, the first as a shelter-creator and the second as a beefsteak on the hoof.  The mechanisms for manipulation are not always known. Microbes aren’t comic book villains with glowing towers: they do their work with secretions of chemicals,  sometimes using our own bodies to produce it for them.  By subtle means can one parasite prompt grasshoppers to move en masse toward bodies of water, drowning themselves  Part of the difficulty of studying parasites is that their manipulation of one host is only one part of their life stage, and they usually have a series of hosts to go through to get back to where they can spawn. One parasite common to humans arrives  in the intestines, matures, works its way to the exit, raises hell to make us itchy, and then relies on a probing finger scratching the itch to carry their young out into the world to restart the cycle.  That’s more indirect manipulation, but the author also includes cases in which the presence of certain bacteria are strongly correlated with instances of depression, and others with dangerous, near-deadly behavior.

The last part, attributing everything from sanitation to religion to racism on human attempts to ward off parasites, is...interesting, but an example of how specialists in one field tend to view everything from their particular angle.   The fact that religious dietary laws often barred the very species which carry the most risk for internal parasites is insightful, but  human culture and evolution are rivers fed by many streams. Attributing the motherload to parasites, or cooking, or power, usually tells more about the author’s interests than the actual subject.  On the whole, however,  This is Your Brain on Parasites smartly marches through a lot of linked territory and makes itself of interest to general science readers.

  • Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer. A more in-depth treatment of parasites in general, and an inspiration for this book according to the author.  I read this back in 2008 but that was back in days when I posted one great big wall of text about every book I'd read in that week, and few of the 'reviews' were more than the same kind of abstract you'd find on an Amazon publisher' s description. 
  • I Contain Multitudes, Gut, 10% Human

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness
© 2014 Russ Roberts
269 pages

An economist and a rabbi walk into a bar and co-author a work on the meaning of life. That's not the opening line to a joke, but a near-description of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. This little book gives a modern interpretation of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, girding it with references to Rabbi Hillel. The contents are surprising, if your association of "economist" is with strictly matters financial, like stocks and trade deficits. Ironically, writes Russ Roberts,  the subjects economists are consulted most on, like the future health of the global economy, is what they're worst at doing. The heart of economics as originated by Adam Smith is behavioral, however, judging how people use their scarce resources to make the best life possible for themselves -- both as individuals, and with other people. The same desire for understanding that Smith applied to humans at the level of nations in The Wealth of Nations is applied more intimately to individual persons here. What do we really want?

The answer isn't money, though it can help. The Theory of Moral Sentiments contends that what people want most, what actually makes us happy, is to be loved and lovely.  This isn't about romance or aesthetics; Smith's use of love encompasses respect, admiration and affection. "Lovely", too, also has a deeper meaning: it is to be worthy of respect, admiration, and affection. People not only want to be held high in the esteem of others, but they want to have earned that place. Part of Smith's argument is that each of us has an Impartial Observer in our heads, an ethereally human figure who is constantly watching, judging, and arguing with us.  A conscience, so to speak, a means through which we can evaluate our own actions  or behavior from an outside perspective, to see ourselves as we are being seen.  This conscience is not perfect -- it can be lied to and argued with through justifications of our behavior -- but unless its voice is smothered and distorted by our own willful actions, it is invaluable. We can strengthen the observer by reflecting on the behavior of others -- when we see them acting irrationally, we can turn our analysis on ourselves, to see  that behavior which we dislike present in our own actions.  We can use this impartial observer to help not fool ourselves, to help us become lovelier -- and so, loved. The impartial observer rings a bell for me in part because of past readings into primate social behavior, particularly the fact that chimpanzees and such will often act in private in ways that strongly imply they are imagining what the consequences of their being caught in unsocial behavior would be.  I suspect that this observer  is some kind of internal-audit tool of our socially-oriented brains, useful for anticipating how our behavior will be interpreted by others.

Students of schools of Greek philosophy like Stoicism -- which regarded moral excellence or virtue as its own reward -- will recognize the 'virtue' of Smith's loveliness straightaway.  Epicureans, who regarded simple pleasures as the key to the good life, will also find an ally in Smith, when he asks: "What can be added to the happiness of a man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?".  Smith regarded the chase for fame, power, and gadgets and goods as self-defeating. These itches are insatiable, leading us to constant torment as we try to reach greater and greater levels. Even those who reach the top must find it a hollow victory, judging by the inner lives and outer behavior of celebrities, politicians, and such.  If we understand our core desires, however -- this yearning to be loved and lovely -- we can be conscious of when we are attempting to fill the real need with ersatz praise,  in admiration for our things rather than ourselves.

Those who have an interest in human flourishing will definitely find this little book worth their attention.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Springing forward

At the library I've put out the gardening books, which means it's officially springtime! least, in central Alabama.  I'm still not certain we're past the threat of a sudden frost, but I am looking forward to my annual spring planting, of vegetables that do OK and of flowers that fail completely. (Every year I plant flowers and get green sprouts, but no actual flowers.  Sure, I could buy flowers and plant them, but the joy is watching them grow, flower, not just admiring them after they've done it already.)

Recently I requested a science book on NetGalleys and was promptly sent...a third of it.  The third comes from Soonish:  Ten Emerging Technologies that'll Improve or Ruin Everything,  a bit of futurism/science fusion. The authors are the creators of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and their artwork is part of the text.   The part accessible via NetGalley only covered the falling costs of space travel, the feasibility of space elevators, and the potential if any in mining asteroids. Although the text itself was a nice mix of information and amusing commentary,  I wasn't particularly interested in this section of the book. I wanted to read about 3D printing and advances in medicine, and I got cannons that shot things into space.  It was perfectly entertaining, to the degree that I was interested in such things.  Perhaps one day the full book will be cheap enough for my miserly self to buy it.  Until then I have The Inevitable and Tomorrowland,   one of which should address those subjects.