Friday, December 31, 2004

My Choice for Best Read of 2004 Is from 1938

Choosing a best book from 2004 is especially difficult for me. First, I rarely read books in the year they are released, because my budget tells me 10 paperbacks are a better deal for a voracious reader than two or three first-release hardbacks. Second, I read so many books, by the time December rolls around, I may not have the same emotional tie to the very good book I read in June that I have to the mediocre novel I'm reading right now.

But looking back through my journal and blog, there is one book that screams, in the voice of Robert A. Heinlein, pick me!—because in reading this book and writing the review, I was prompted to reread three other excellent (though older) books.

For Us, the Living, Robert Heinlein's first novel, has its own review. To review it properly, I reread Stranger In a Strange Land and Farnham's Freehold by Heinlein. And due to the similarity of title and venue, I was lead to reread Ayn Rand's first novel, We the Living.

For these reasons, For Us, the Living is my choice for my best read of 2004.

Thanks to Gerald Van der Leun of American Digest for a better title for this post!

Pinker: Words and Rules—Not the How, But the Why

Language comes so naturally that it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is... We humans are fitted with a means of sharing our ideas, in all their unfathomable vastness... Yet to me the first and deepest challenge in understanding language is accounting for its boundless expressive power. What is the trick behind our ability to fill one another's heads with so many different ideas?

Steven Pinker has a strong claim to the niche his books occupy: He explains in language accessible to the layman how our brains work. In Words and Rules, Pinker expands on the language-development concepts he introduced in The Language Instinct and How We Think, to give us a clearer picture of why* this language "trick" works.

Pinker tosses out ideas like popcorn pouring from the movie-theatre machine: Language acquisition is hard-wired, but the exact sounds we will use requires a software installation. Thus languages are culturally acquired, and children who miss the "acquisition window" are condemned to learn their own "native language" as a foreign tongue. It's hard for adults to learn languages unless they have been exposed to multiple tongues during the acquisition window, in which case the "multi-lingual" switch turns on. Sounds used in language seem onomatopoeic because they are. English is terse because of syncretism and allomorphy. Adding human vocal chords to a chimpanzee would not be sufficient to give it an oral language, because the brain structures aren't there.

Whoa, too much popcorn! Pinker makes these concepts easy enough to acquire, because he provides a structure to fit them into. And that is precisely his premise. Our brains are structured to acquire language. This is a fascinating book, and gives a fair voice to competing theories of language development.

*If you're interested more in the How, I recommend the light-hearted "zero-tolerance approach" of Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss for punctuation. See How Languages Are Learned by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada, for a different look at the "how" of language acquisition.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

MacKenzie: Orbiting the Giant Hairball—Round Peg in a Cubical World


Some people have all the luck. Imagine working for a giant corporation, complete with daily meetings, cubicals, marketing geeks (Dilbert, anyone?)—and having carte blanche to do whatever trips your trigger. Gordon MacKenzie has detailed his experience as "Creative Paradox" at Hallmark in Orbiting the Giant Hairball, a book that defies description.

It is pseudo-biographical: In addition to MacKenzie's own personal hegira, it covers the growth of the greeting card industry and the founding of Hallmark by Nebraskan Joyce Claude Hall. (That's "Joyce" like "Joyce Kilmer" by the way.)

It is semi-comical: Every page is covered, marginalized or illustrated with doodles. That's right, as in bored-out-of-my-skull-in-this-meeting sketches. According to MacKenzie, his doodles literally set him free to be creative during the mandatory morning meetings.

It contains bad poetry, transcriptions of Garfield cartoons that promote his philosophy, actual cartoons that promote nothing much at all, personal ads and squibs of important information given a page of their own: Orville Wright had no pilot's license.

Nevertheless, the book succeeds—perhaps because it is deliberately, unendingly iconoclastic—in communicating how to free creativity in a business environment. I can recommend it to anyone who wants to go out on their own, who wants to stay sane while keeping a day job, or who wants to employ either of the former.
If you go to your grave
  without painting
  your masterpiece,
    it will not
    get painted.
    No one else
    can paint it.

        Only you.
           —Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Did I say lucky> I wonder if Mathew Lesko put MacKenzie onto the Hutchinson Public Library's Doskocil Company Endowment Fund. Yep, he was paid to write the book.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Spencer: Tinker—Life on the Edge... of Elfhome


I'm not usually a reader of sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Maybe I don't have the D&D gene, or perhaps I just miss the internal consistency of reality-based fiction. But Wen Spencer's Tinker is an exception.

Start with the accidental translation of a chunk of American city into a parallel universe. For 20-plus years, part of Pittsburgh has been rotating for 29 days out of every 30 into Elfhome, where passenger pigeons exist side-by-side with leg-chomping wargs and flesh-eating willows.

Add in the Elfin Interdimensional Agency, charged with insuring that only adult residents of Pittsburgh and their dependents will stay in the city as it returns to Elfhome. Toss in two minors, Tinker and Oilcan (not their real names, of course), orphans who have held on to their home despite the death of their grandfather. Stir in a soupçon of elven politics, and a dash of nasty orc-ish oni villains, and the stew is bubbling.

Did I say Tinker is a girl, a genius who owns a scrapyard? Anyone with that much cold iron is a force to reckon with in fairyland. And Tinker has the opportunity to save the life of an elven lord fleeing a pack of wargs when he runs into her scrapyard. Tinker teeters from rescue to rescue, managing to set the entire Elfhome world on its ear as she goes.

Tinker is consistently delightful, and internally consistent as well—you won't learn anything special from this book, but it is a lot of fun.

If Pittsburgh-on-Elfhome seems familiar, it has played a part in previous novels by Spencer, the Ukiah Oregon series that began with Alien Taste.

Jane Chord: Wargs out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Ghosh: The Calcutta Chromosome—Fever, Delirium and Discovery


In The Calcutta Chromosome, author Amitav Ghosh has written a fever-bright mystery story about an event that is a matter of history. In 1898 in Calcutta, Sir Ronald Ross solved a riddle: how is malaria transmitted?
"Malaria was the cold fusion of his day, the Sunday papers were scrambling to get it on the covers. And it figures: malaria's probably the all-time killer among diseases. Next to the common cold it's just about the most prevalent disease on the planet..."

In the historical tale that traces the intense competition between Pasteur in Paris, Ambrose Laveran in Algeria, and Ronald Ross in India, Ghosh introduces the mystery: a LifeWatch worker named L. Murugan investigating (in 1995) how Ross came up with his idea.
Half-stunned I look around
And see a land of death—
Dead bones that walk the ground
And dead bones underneath...
  —Ronald Ross, In Exile

Murugan's desire to learn how Ross was inspired gradually moves from simple curiosity to fever intensity. In the process, he stumbles on something he terms "anti-science." He conceives of this as a conspiracy, in which communication of ideas cannot take place by the normal methods of transmission. In effect, ideas are infections transmitted by an as-yet-undiscovered vector.
Seeking His secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad men will save.
O Death! Where is thy sting?
Thy victory O grave?
  —Ronald Ross, In Exile

Now Ghosh moves us even deeper, into the enigma of what happens when this fever takes hold. By the time the story begins, Murugan has been missing for decades. His LifeWatch ID shows up as a catalogued artifact on ADA, an archaeological sorting system run by Antar, a programmer in New York City. Antar's recognition of Murugan's ID card may be his first bite from the data-Anopheles.

Will Antar discover what happened to Murugan? Or will he, too, catch the fever, be infected by the meme—and disappear like Murugan? Ghosh has given us a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. Don't expect a clear-cut revelation. It may be, after all, only a fever dream.

Sir Ronald Ross won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1902 for his proof that the female Anopheles mosquito transmits malaria in the serum injected when it bites.

For a more straight-forward account of scientific competition in a hot arena, see the excellent Race for the Double Helix.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Ingram: The Barmaid's Brain—This Is Your Brain on Beer?


Even if one day scientists completely understand the wiring and chemistry of the human brain, it will still be difficult not to be amazed by an organ that can memorize the lyrics to all the Spice Girls' songs after one hearing or conjure up the equations describing the origin of the universe. Even more amazing is that the same brain can do both...

Jay Ingram has collected in The Barmaid's Brain 21 essays concerning human behavior, curiosities of life, science and history, natural battles and how things work. Each of them approaches a topic with the same left-field perspective. For example, the barmaid of the title is able to remember 95% to 100% of a 15-drink order given to her out of sequence in the noisy environment of a busy bar. The essay The Barmaid's Brain explores not only that we evidence these feats of memory, but why and how.

The Invention of Thievery looks at the way a learned behavior (in this case, birds removing foil caps from milk bottles to get at the cream) spreads through a population. The Vinland Map examines how we decide that a contended datum has been proved, especially when there is a strong belief structure in place to dispute it. An Uneasy Bargain probes the relationship between gene mapping (knowledge gathering) and genetic engineering, asking, "Once we know that a mutant gene is the cause of a disease of condition, do we have a responsibility to eliminate it?

The essays are written in an easy, approachable style, with a minimum of jargon, statistics or abstruse footnotes. If they lack some of the weight they might otherwise bring to some very weighty subjects, at least they may lead you to do the research on the questions you find intriguing. This is a great bathroom or coffee-table book—pick it up, read a few pages, put it down.


If you enjoy The Barmaid's Brain, watch for Ingram's new book, The Velocity of Honey, coming in trade-size paperback in early 2005.

EMail Scam—NOT a Book

At the risk of losing out on a million dollars, I had to share this gem that arrived in my eMail today. (Just in case, I have removed the critical reference numbers [grin].) I guess this person working for "William Henry Gates III and His Giant" is exempt from using even the rudimentary tools for spell- and grammer-checking built into Microsoft applications.


S.C.F.N; {excised}
BATCH: {excised}.
TEL/Fax; 0031-650-958-320.

Dear Winner,

We are pleased to inform you of the result of the Internet compensation promotion programs held on the 27th of December, 2004 and it is aimed at compensating frequent Internet explorers in all over the world. Your e-mail address attached to ticket number; {excised} with serial number {excised}, batch number {excised}, lottery reference number {excised} and drew from lucky numbers {excised} which consequently won in the 2nd category, you have therefore been approved for a lump sum pay out of US$1,000,000.00 (ONE MILLION UNITED STATES DOLLARS) only by the Microsoft World Company, payable in cash credited to security file numbers; {excised} at the Netherlands Payment Authority.

CONGRATULATIONS! Due to the mix up of some numbers and email addresses, we ask that you keep your winning information’s confidential until your claim has been processed and your money remitted to you in cash or into your provided bank account. This is part of our security protocols to avoid unwarranted abuse of this program by some participants. MICROSOFT WORLD INTERNATIONAL EXPLORATION COMPANY is a global leader in international software producers and one of the largest processor of software in the world since 1980. We have help people and Businesses by providing affordable, reliable and convenient payment services and software in the world today and we have invested US$2.5b into software, hardware, a simple to use interface and it is a great opportunity to anyone looking to increase sales through email marketing! so you can realize your dream of financial independence.

Note that all winners were selected through a computer ballot-system drawn from over 500,000 companies and 250,000,000 personal email addresses from all over the world online of which five where selected at random as winners in different category. This promotion program takes place every decade connected to the Olympic sports organization. This compensational program was promoted and sponsored by William Henry Gates III and His Giant cofounder of the Microsoft Corporation, holds 30.7 percent of its stock making him one of the richest people in the United States and the world today. He was the marketing and sales strategist behind many of Microsoft's software deals. Their software became the industry standard in the early 1980s and has just increased in distribution as the company has grown, Largest software producer in the world (Microsoft) and Mr. Paul Gardner Allen (Shareholder in Microsoft). We hope that you will have the chance of receiving compensation next decade as you keep on browsing the net to boost the sales of software materials in all over the world.

To obtain your claim, please contact the processing department;
TEL: +31-610-085-416.

Remember, all winnings must be claim not later than 14th of January, 2005. After this date all unclaimed funds will be return to the promotion company. Please note that in order to avoid unnecessary delays and complications, remember to always quote your S.C.F.N and batch numbers in all your correspondence with Ecoworld Wide International Bv. Furthermore, should there be any change of your contact address or information’s about you, do inform us as soon as possible to avoid disqualification of winnings.

Congratulations once again from all the members of our staff and thank you for being part of our promotion program and publications. Finally, Any breach of confidentiality on the part of any winners will result to disqualification.

Yours Sincerely,

Music (sort of): Before You Die, Listen to a Really Terrible CD

The best-selling author of The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency, The Kalahari Typing School for Men and The Sunday Philosophy Club, and the "second-best-selling author of children's books residing in Edinburgh," has a little-known facet as founder and "lousy bassoonist" in the Really Terrible Orchestra.

I've never had the pleasure of hearing a performance by the RTO, but a friend who is traveling in Scotland for Christmas called me specifically to recommend them. "Ye canna imagine how really turrible these musicians are," he informed me. "Between the greetin'* of the oboes and the off-rhythm performance of the percussion section, it was truly amazing that anything resembling music emerged."

I asked him what they had played. He confessed, "I'm no sure—it was either Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring or Here Comes Santa Claus.

The well-named concert group, which includes some of the intellectual luminaries of Scotland and England, has now released a CD. No longer do you need to travel to Scotland to assail your ears with the outpourings of, well, music-like noise, generated by the RTO. I'm sure it will be available through Amazon soon.

This would make an appropriate next-year Christmas gift for the guy who gave you the fruitcake this year. Start a regifting tradition today.

*greeting: Scottish regionalism for sobbing, crying, prob. related to "grieving."

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Sijie: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress—A Light Chinese Meal To Go


The princess of Phoenix mountain wore pale pink canvas shoes, which were both sturdy and supple and through which you could see her flexing her toes as she worked the treadle of her sewing machine. There was nothing ordinary about the cheap, homemade shoes, and yet, in a place where nearly everyone went barefoot, they caught the eye, seeming delicate and sophisticated...

Thus Dai Sijie introduces the pivot of the eternal triangle in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Her sewing machine (which the narrator breathlessly informs us, was Made in Shanghai) is equal to her capable feet in their pink shoes in attracting Luo and the narrator, two young men who occupy the other points of the triangle.

References to shoes and feet are everywhere in the book. Luo convinces the little seamstress in their first meeting to remove a shoe, revealing that, like his, her second toe is longer than the first. At one point, the seamstress suddenly changes her footwear from pink canvas to tennis shoes, "white as chalk." A suitcase which turns out to contain the treasure of banned books is described as "soft, supple, and smooth to the touch... [making] me think at once of a lady's doeskin shoe."

Luo and his narrator friend have been exiled from the world of books and education which they have just begun to taste. Maoist reeducation sent thousands of high school graduates and university students to live in peasant villages, forbidding them books other than the little red book of Mao's sayings. As they struggle to adapt to the bleak life of work, they yearn for the freer life of the imagination.

The young intellectuals are not the only Chinese with these yearnings. When the village headmaster discovers Luo's ability to relate a story, he decides to send the two each month to the cinema, so that they can bring the stories back and perform them for the village. The narrator can play the violin, and even convinces revolutionary inspectors that Mozart was a fine revolutionary thinker, suitable for village ears.

But eventually, in their rivalry for the little seamstress, they woo her with stories gleaned from the pages of Balzac and Dumas. They believe they are seducing the seamstress to accept one of them. The poignant result of this effort is both delightful and unexpected.

At 184 pages, the book is a novella in length, entirely suitable for a long evening by the fire, or to while away time on a plane or train trip. I recommend it to anyone who is horrified at the idea of exile in a desert of no books.


Quammen: The Flight of the Iguana—A Peek Into the Mind of Darwin


Imagine a moment in the history of ideas: A young man stands on the corner of a tropical island, throwing an oversized lizard into the sea.
   The lizard swims back to shore. The young man follows this animal,... catches it by its long muscular tail, and throws it back again into the sea... Always the lizard swims straight back to that same stretch of rocky shoreline where the young man waits to catch it again, throw it again. The lizard is a strong swimmer but seems stubbornly disinclined to try to escape through the water. The young man takes note of that fact and, despite his homesickness, wonders why.

The young man is Charles Darwin, approaching the end of his trip to the Galapagos Islands. The lizard is the Galapagos marine iguana, an animal adapted to swimming and feeding in the sea. Darwin spent the better part of a day repeatedly tossing the lizard into the sea, asking himself, "Why does it continue to return to me on the shore, when it has the ability to escape by water?"
The nature of this lizard's food, as well as the structure of its tail and feet, and the fact of its having been seen voluntarily swimming out at sea, absolutely prove its aquatic habits; yet there is in this respect one strange anomaly, namely, that when frightened it will not enter the water. Hence it is easy to drive these lizards down to any little point overhanging the sea, where they will sooner allow a person to catch hold of their tails than jump into the water...
   Perhaps this singular piece of apparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance, that this reptile has no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall a prey to the numerous sharks. Hence, probably, urged by a fixed and hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety, whatever the emergency may be, it there takes refuge.
   —Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, Ch. 17.

We know all about The Beagle, all about giant tortoises and finches and the theory they spawned in Darwin's mind. But this tale of the tossed lizard, which Darwin recounted in The Voyage of the Beagle, is rarely mentioned.

David Quammen, visiting the Galapagos himself, explores in The Flight of the Iguana what the later-famous theorist was like at the time: boundlessly curious, unsentimental about nature, doggedly systematic, "and yet in some measure still just a wealthy young remittance-man off on a round-the-world lark." In addition to these insights into Darwin's development as an observer and scientist, Quammen gives us his own picture of the application of Darwin's theories to island ecologies.

The Flight of the Iguana is just one of a collection of essays (most from Outside magazine). Many of them espouse Quammen's concept of the "fragile island" that supports diversity, and the impact of "island ecologies"—and their fragility—on evolution, extinction and the richness of living things on Earth.

Even with Quammen's perspective in mind, each essay is enjoyable on its own; collected in one volume, they sound a warning for those complacent that we are "saving enough". If Quammen is correct that the islands are more fragile than we think, where will a future Darwin observe the variation to inform his inspiration?


Click any image above to buy or examine at Amazon Books.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Books for Christmas! Yay!

My family, knowing my taste, usually gives me books for Christmas. Being the intelligent, thoughtful people they are, they find things that have somehow escaped my notice.

My better half gave me a fantasy paperback because "I knew you've never buy this for yourself!" Tinker by Wen Spencer is the tale of an eighteen-year-old girl in Pittsburgh. The catch is, Pittsburgh is now only on Earth for one 24-hour period every 30 days. The rest of the time it's on Elfhome, a parallel universe where the Elf Council is in charge. Tinker runs a scrapyard with her cousin Oilcan. (Not their real names, of course—in a magical land, it's not safe to give your real name.) As you can imagine, a girl who has her own source of cold iron in fairyland is no one to trifle with.

The cover says, "Buffy fans should find a lot to like!" I'll try not to let that stop me...

Mom sent me "A novel from the unfinished manuscript by Charlotte Brontë", Emma Brown by Clare Boylan. The original text apparently consisted of a "teasing opening" found in Brontë's papers. The cover text is all quotes from congratulatory reviews, and there is no excerpt inside the front cover, so I applied the Rule of 33:
...was well content to listen while he held forth on worldly matters of which I had no knowledge and in which his parents had little interest.
///He spoke of the exploitation of small children in mills and mines, of people of the colonies sold into slavery. When he introduced these unwelcome elements of the outside world the children looked enchanted, Mrs. Cornhill appeared mortified and her whiskered spouse seemed thoroughly confused by the intrusion of plain conversation upon the business of dining...

Good one, Mom!

From my in-laws, Earle and Susie, I got a divination tool, The Movie Book of Answers by Carol Bolt. Every page contains a different quote from a movie character. According to the instructions, here's how you use this book:
  1. Hold the closed book in your hand, or your lap, or on a table.

  2. Take 10 or 15 second to concentrate on your questions. Questions should be phrased closed-end [sic] e.g. "Is the job I'm applying for the right one?" or "Should I travel this weekend?"

  3. While visualizing or speaking your question (one question at a time), place one hand palm down on the book's front cover and stroke the edge of the pages, back to front.

  4. When you sense the time is right, open the book and there will be your answer.

  5. Repeat the process for as many questions as you have.

Okay, so here's my question: "Does this answer book really work?" (Following instructions, despite a disclaimer that "Hyperion and the author of this book take no credit or responsibility for what The Movie Book of Answers advises or the results thereof.")

The answer? "It [could] be bogus." —Duckie, Pretty in Pink.

Oops, I better try again—let's rephrase the question. "Can this book really give me answers?" Ah: "It could work." —Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein.

All right! Thanks, Earle and Susie!

Friday, December 24, 2004

Innis Mode and the Internet

Harold Innis was an economist and pre-McLuhan philosopher of communications—in fact, he taught Marshall McLuhan, who has acknowledged his influence in the introduction to Understanding Media*. In two books (Empire and Communications, and The Bias of Communication) published before his death in the early 50s, Innis introduced two wide-ranging concepts: time- and space-dependent media, and the hyperlink.

That's right—the blue underscored links to nuggets of information stored somewhere else are an outgrowth of the theories and thoughts of a Canadian economist who was dead a scant five years after the communication age began with the invention of the transistor.

According to Innis, space-dependent communications (as with paper or web pages), because they are arranged spacially and easily transported from one location to another, foster civilization- and empire-building, and the growth of empire, bureaucracy and the military. Speech and oral communications (as with TV, radio, MPEG and .wav) are time-dependent, and foster close communities, tradition and the organization of knowledge chronologically.

The bias of which Innis wrote is the way the predominant communication mode tends to reshape the civilization it informs. So the world of the mid-1900s in which Innis and McLuhan codified these concepts—a world of radio and newspaper, of TIME magazine and the newly-born TV—cannot possibly resemble the world of 2004 in which newspapers and news-magazines have been supplanted by the Internet, and the chronological spoon-fed presentation of TV and radio has been replaced by the on-demand, at-will Google search.

*It is in McLuhan's Understanding Media that we first see the enigmatic contention "the medium is the message".

Two writers who use "Innis mode" extensively to break the chronological chains of written fiction are John Brunner (who noted in the opening pages of his seminal Stand On Zanzibar that he had used Innis mode) and Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver).

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Hart: Diamond—History of a Cold-Blooded Love Affair


I worked in the 70s for DeBeers Diamond in South Africa, so I approached the book Diamond by Matthew Hart with more than a grain of skepticism. But the cover with its map of the Frei Staat, from Vryburg to Haut Kraal Station, from Paapkuil to Bultfontein, centered on Kimberley, drew me on. And the Rule of 33 clinched my choice.
...The Indian mines were alluvial digs. That is, the diamonds had risen from the upper mantle in pipes, and over millions of years had washed into rivers, where people found them. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Brazil supplanted India as the biggest diamond producer, and the Brazilian deposits were also alluvial. The fact that prospectors today ransack the world for pipes is due not only to recent advances in prospecting science but also to the succession of events that began in Africa, and raised the empire that shaped the modern diamond world.

Hart's book more than fulfills the promise made by this initial paragraph on page 33. From historical diamonds and their royal owners, the discovery of Kimberlite and the gradual growth of knowledge about the provenance of this adamant gem, and the 19th-, 20th- and even 21st-century conflicts they fueled, the book moves to modern efforts to find these ancient stones, and details the product's marketing and sale as jewelry and industrial stone.

If the book has a flaw, it is the sometimes-dizzying time changes rung by Hart as he tells of this "cold-blooded love affair" with diamonds. We may be in 1999 Antwerp as DeBeers mails out its marketing plan for the coming year: Which millennium are you waiting for? Next we hear the tale of Alexander, trapping diamonds in the fat of sheep carcasses, watching for them to be eaten by giant vultures, which then "expel" the stones into the hands of his waiting men. Then we go to Bombay in 1850 for the embarkation of the Koh-I-Noor for shipment to London. Then—swoop—we're in Manhattan at Christie's in 1997 as Eva Peron's brooch containing the intensely-yellow "Sun of May" diamond comes on the block.

Still, the book is a fascinating in-depth look at the industry that brings us engagement rings and polishing grit, and every diamond product in between. And if Hart missed the Irish connection and radio-satellite component creation, well, that's a truly esoteric use of diamond. I forgive him the omission.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Moore: Lamb—The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal


There is a real dearth of information about the life of Jesus between the manger and the meeting with John the Baptist. What was Jesus like as a ten-year-old? How about as a teenager? Christopher Moore has given us a sweetly skewed look in Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff.

Moore has avoided outright blasphemy by placing the voice with Biff, the childhood pal of "Joshua". The sincere, though immature, Jesus whom Biff introduces is sure of his vocation and destiny, but not yet ready to "take it on the road". (For one thing, he keeps making mistakes with raising the dead.)

When Biff accompanies Joshua on a quest to find the wise men who decided he was the One, the two boys encounter everything from a free-wheeling prostitute to a semi-scamming monastery full of martial artists, travel all the way to India only to fall afoul of the thugee cult, and return in time for Joshua to perform the miracle at Cana.

Christopher Moore is not known for treading lightly or preserving proprieties, so I was impressed at the way he manages to let Biff tell his story without ever really undermining anything essential about Jesus' known life. We are left with a humorous idea of what it might have been like to be the best buddy of the teenage Christ.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and did not hesitate to share it with my mother. Perhaps I can entice her to add her comments.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Hamblyn: The Invention of Clouds


You call the wispy high clouds of the December sky "Cirrus". So does the German, Spaniard, Russian, Afrikaner... We have a common language for speaking of clouds due to a remarkable Quaker chemist, Luke Howard, who codified and named clouds (in Latin, the scientific language then and now) according to the behavior he had observed. In The Invention of Clouds, Richard Hamblyn tells us of the life, times and work of this amateur meteorologist.

Howard lived in London at the end of the 18th century, when the intellectual life of Europe was aboil with new theories of natural philosophy—science—and young intellectuals found their way to the coffee-house to debate their favorites in a heady atmosphere of stock trading, tobacco-smoking, drug experimentation and science.

The Royal Society was nearly one hundred years old, and was essentially closed to the Quaker Howard. In any case, it was the society for "old fogies"; the coffee-house set formed dozens of societies of their own. Howard was "discovered" by Alexander Tilloch, a Scottish-born publisher and magazine editor, who then introduced his work to the Askesian Society, a group founded by three Quakers specifically as a debating club. The Askesians preferred a more interactive inquiry than the sedate Royal Society functions. Howard's first presentation of "On Modifications of Clouds" was made in this hurly-burly venue.

Hamblyn makes clear that it is not only Howard's work that is seminal in this tale. The birth of the scientific journal (Alexander Tilloch), the explosion of interest in science (the Askesian and other societies), the growth of the stock trade as a basis for endeavor, even the rise of the naturalist school of painting, all have their place.

Altogether, The Invention of Clouds is a thoroughly fascinating glimpse of the transformational second wave of communication. For those of us surfing the third wave, it has a strongly familiar flavor.

Other books of interest about this period are The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow, about the Birmingham society of Luke Howard's day (which included James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus); and A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss, a fictional account of the coffee-house trade in stocks in the mid-1700s.

Morris: Cat Watching & Corey: Do Cats Think?


Those of us of a certain age remember being titilated by zoologist Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, a frank study of the human being as animal. Morris has published other works (The Human Zoo, Intimate Behavior) focused on humans, but has continued to write about animals qua animals as well.

If you share a home with cats, you will be delighted by the insight Morris has provided into their behavior, needs and even communication in Cat Watching. Why do cats purr? What leads a cat to knead our laps, or present its rear, tail up, when we stroke it? Why does your house cat invariably choose your favorite chair to destroy with its claws? What does it really mean when cats hiss? Lay their ears back? Open their pupils wide in bright daylight?

Is the solitary cat, even when domesticated, a sociable creature?
Living in cities and towns, ... cats show a remarkable and unexpected degree of sociability. Anyone doubting this must remember that to a cat, humans are just big cats..."

Desmond Morris gives us a fascinating window into the minds of these intimate aliens we feed, pet, and welcome into our hearts.

Paul Corey does not achieve the same scientific distance with the subjects of his observation in Do Cats Think? Notes of a Cat-Watcher. Yet the anecdotal tales he uses to illustrate his opinions of cats' emotions, behavior and real communication are not less powerful for that.

In fact, I found this book sweeter—more poignant—than Cat Watching because the incidents Corey describes involved cats he loved.
The following Monday we visited [Leo Secundus], arriving early while the vet was still at breakfast... We saw cages of cats and dogs, but no Sec. We called his name. Instantly we heard his loud, desperate cry. We... found him in the cardboard box we'd brought him in...
///He pushed himself up with his front legs when he saw us... Huge tears formed in his eyes and ran down his cheeks.
///Maybe they weren't tears of emotion at all. It was a chilly September morning. He had heard familiar voices [that] excited him. The sudden blood heat meeting the cold air on the surface had made his tear ducts water. As simple as that.
///And were the tears running down my cheeks caused the same way?

The hardbound version is occasionally available on eBay; it is beautifully illustrated with color photos. The trade-size paperback is also available in bookstores and sometimes on eBay.

With both these books, you will be well equipped to interpret what the heck your cats are doing, and why.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Lightman: Dance for Two—Art Gracing Science


Essays are an esoteric art form, and as E. B. White remarked, the most egotistic. Partaking of poetry, prose and process, they often capture only the fringe audience for each. Alan Lightman is one of the art's most graceful modern performers, bringing literary and scientific concepts into harmony; in Dance for Two, twenty-four of his best essays are collected.

A Day in December chronicles an otherwise ordinary day in 1979 when Alan Guth, a 32-year-old physicist, discovered mathematical proof of the Big Bang. Time for the Stars uses Halley's Comet, Newton and Galileo, Darwin and the Cro-Magnon cave paintings to argue for the value of investment in pure science research. Is the Earth Round or Flat? challenges us in a direct, illuminating—and entertaining—way to verify for ourselves even the most basic premises.

If Birds Can Fly, Why, Oh Why, Can't I? evokes man's yearnings for flight to explain the mechanics involved in the flight of birds.
In many ways, human beings circumvented the difficulties of aviation long ago, at Kitty Hawk... But in our dreams, when we soar into the air to escape danger, or to simply bask in our strength, we fly as birds, self-propelled. It may be awkward, to imagine ourselves installed with one hundred feet of wing, but that's what Nature asks, to fly like a bird.

Readers may have encountered Lightman's work in the "science fiction" novel Einstein's Dreams. This book is less a story with a discernible plot than a series of essays centered on Einstein's explorations of the nature of time. Lightman is uniquely equipped to illuminate Einstein's musings—he is professor of both physics and writing at MIT.

My favorite essay in Dance for Two is the first in the book. Pas de Deux beautifully describes the delicate interaction of forces between gravity and the trained muscles of a ballet dancer.
In soft blue light, the ballerina glides across the stage and takes to the air, her toes touching Earth imperceptibly. Sauté, batterie, sauté. Legs cross and flutter, arms unfold into an open arch. The ballerina knows the easiest way to ruin a good performance is to think too much about what her body is doing...
\\\While she dances, Nature is playing its own part, flawlessly and with absolute reliability. On pointe, the ballerina's weight is precisely balanced by the push of floor against shoe, the molecules in contact squeezed just the right amount to counter force with equal force. Gravity balanced with electricity...
\\\For an ending, the ballerina does a demi plié and jumps two feet into the air. The Earth, balancing her momentum, responds with its own sauté and changes orbit by one ten-trillionth of an atom's width. No one notices, but it is exactly right.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Voice of RAH: Robert A. Heinlein's First Novel

It is for us, the living, rather; to be dedicated to the unfinished work... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom...
—Lincoln at Gettysburg

In 1938, a naval engineer named Robert A. Heinlein was taking the first steps toward his future as the preeminent science fiction storyteller of his century. Thanks to Robert James of the Heinlein Society (who is erroneously listed as author on, we can now read this first effort from the pen of RAH: For Us, the Living.

The story takes less than two pages to dive straight from the present of 1938 to the "far future" 2086: Perry Nelson drives off a cliff, dies—and wakes in the future as a house-guest of the dancer Diana. The rest of the novel covers his efforts to learn about the world he now inhabits, and how it got that way.

Like the Ayn Rand novel of similar title (We, the Living), Heinlein's first-born is dry, more than a bit preachy, and takes hard work to achieve that "willing suspension of disbelief." That being said, Spider Robinson (who wrote the intro) was right to say that For Us, the Living "is so immensely much more than [Heinlein's] first novel. It is all of them, dormant."

So many elements and concepts that Heinlein would develop into full-blown, mature stories are here in embryo: his far-ranging future history, the libertarian and feminist political bents, the skeptic's-eye-view of government or corporation as benefactor—even casual private nudism and the intelligence of cats.

Fans of early Heinlein will be spooked, though not surprised, by the foreshadowing (from 1938, remember) of Hitler's death by suicide, and of 9/11 in an air attack on Manhattan in 2003. Lovers of Heinlein the engineer will rejoice to find dozens of "future" gadgets (yes, including the Internet!) in common use today. Here also is a realistic relationship between a man and woman that pre-dates Robert's meeting with Virginia Gerstenfeld.

Don't expect a fully-realized RAH novel here. Heinlein himself referred to For Us, the Living as a novel, only once repudiating the term in a private correspondence, but it was never published (or even edited) during his life. Its position as first is evident in the awkward story development, lack of polished exposition and reliance on lecture to develop the plot. But as Spider Robinson says, Heinlein's future ascendency as writer and story-teller is "...all here, nascent, in thumbnail view. So is that splendid, unmistakable voice."

For Us, the Living was nominated for the 2004 Prometheus Award, but that honor went instead to F. Paul Wilson's Sims.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Meyer: 100 Best Films to Rent You've Never Heard Of

REFERENCE (sort of)

The best Christmas gift-book I ever opened (thanks, Caroline!) is this compilation by David N. Meyer, 100 Best Films to Rent You've Never Heard Of. The sub-head, "Hidden Treasures, Neglected Classics, and Hits from Bygone Eras" is entirely born out by the films that made it onto the list.

Example 1: Aguirre, Wrath of God. If you've seen this movie you know how powerful it is. Meyer gives us the principal actors, director, and a useful review. But Meyer adds Attitude and Mood indicators for each movie. Aguirre is noted for Attitude: Existential Conquistadors, Mood: Arty mind-blowing travelogue/adventure. One sentence from the review helps set the tone:
The Spaniards fear the Indians and they fear demons, but they fear Aguirre the most, and for good reason... Only the strong survive, and nobody's stonger than Aguirre. Don't forget: His nickname is "Wrath of God"...

Example 2: A Fistful of Dynamite. Attitude: Ka-boom!, Mood: Exciting, adorable spaghetti western. My all-time favorite western, and one-third of the reason I still love James Coburn—the other two thirds are In Like Flint and Waterhole Number 3—was released in Africa where I first saw it as Duck, You Sucker. A reviewer noted "My political views swung from the left when I was a child to the right when I knew better, and I still get caught up in the revolution in this movie."
Coburn plays a demolitions expert, so he gets to blow things up. Coburn's entrance is immortal: a series of symmetrically-timed explosions erupt from either side of the roadway, and through their smoke appears Coburn, riding a turn-of-the-century cycle...

Last Example: Vanishing Point. Attitude: Dope-fueled road movie, Mood: Car chases, hippie philosophizing, car chases. Man! I think this was the last movie I ever saw at a drive-in, in a car loaded with testosterone-stoked college students. (The trip back to the dorms was more terrifying than the movie.)
Barry meets some engaging characters along the road, as all picaresque heroes must. ...Dean Jagger, Severn Darden (are there any dope-fueled, worthy trash films from the 1970s that -don't- feature Severn Darden?), and Paul Koslo appear.

There are 97 other gems waiting here for you. This is a book to take along to the store, rental shop or Let me say one more thing: A Boy and His Dog—the Don Johnson you never knew: after the Apocalypse, sex and rhubarb pie.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Bujold: Falling Free—On the Essence of Evil


I watched on TV the National Geographic Channel documentary about the Enschede train derailment on June 3, 1998; more than 100 people died when Germany's high-speed Inter-City Express (ICE) train went off its rails and crashed at 125 mph into a bridge abutment. An episode in the "Seconds from Disaster" series, the program made it plain that in testing the motion of wheels on rail at that high speed, quality control had seen the flutter that would generate the disaster. The tests were rejected, because the flutter was interpreted as an artifact of the measuring process.

When I learn about disaster arising from poor engineering or quality testing, I flash on Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free. Leo Graf is an engineer tasked with training workers who have been modified genetically to work in free-fall. The quaddies (so-named because one of the mods replaces their legs and feet with a second fully-functional set of arms and hands) are virtual slaves of the corporation that created them to construct space ships.

One of the lessons Graf teaches these nascent engineers has resonated with me for decades: the absolute evil represented by deliberately falsifying engineering test results. In their class on x-ray crystallography and weld-testing, Graf addresses the quaddies:
"Look at this. What do you see?" He nodded at Tony again.
"A laser weld, sir."
"So it would appear. Your identification is quite understandable—and quite wrong. I want you all to memorize this piece of work. Look well. Because it may easily be the most evil object you will ever encounter."
They looked wildly impressed, but totally bewildered. He commanded their absolute silence and utmost attention.
"That," he pointed for emphasis, his voice growing heavy with scorn, "is a falsified inspection record. Worse, it's one of a series. A certain subcontractor... found its profit margin endangered by a high volume of its work being rejected... The welds passed the computer certification all right—because it was the same damn good weld, replicated over and over again..."
He gathered his breath. "This is the most important thing I will ever say to you. The human mind is the ultimate testing device... There is nothing, nothing, nothing more important to me in the men and women I train than their absolute personal integrity. Whether you function as welders or inspectors, the laws of physics are implacable lie detectors. You may fool men. You will never fool the metal."

102 people died in a train crash, and 104 were injured, because the designers of the ICE train tried to bypass this lesson. Whatever the other flaws of the novel (there are several), Falling Free and Leo Graf have this to teach us. You will never fool the metal.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

PSST, Santa: Here Is My Christmas Wish List

Dear Santa, I tried to keep my list smaller this year—remember 2001, when I tried to replace that crate of books that got lost in the move? But I've been really good this year, consciencious about keeping up my blog and cross-posting it to Blog Critics and now American Digest. So please consider this list December 24th as you load your bag!

  • The Science of Science Fiction Writing, James E. Gunn and James Gunn
  • A Devil's Chaplain : Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, Richard Dawkins
  • The Shadow of Saganami, David Weber
  • Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter, Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen E. Ambrose
  • Polaris, Jack McDevitt

The authors' reputation is what draws me to want The Science of Science Fiction Writing. I read Kampus and The Listeners years ago, but still remember being pleased with the way the Gunns wove present and future science together to create realistic (and thought-provoking) fiction. (Is my ambition showing yet?)

Santa, I know you can get me copy of Richard Dawkins' A Devil's Chaplain before the 12/24 release date. I can hardly wait to read the essays on animal rights, jury trials and education "examined through the lens of natural selection and evolution". Even though I've already read the essay about Stephen Jay Gould elsewhere, I will look forward to having it collected with some thoughts I haven't read yet. (Oh, Santa! For this gift, Boxing Day will work too.)

The Shadow of Saganami launches a new series in David Weber's excellent Honor Harrington universe. While mainly covering the battle between socialist collectivist Republic of Haven and the Kingdom of Manticore, Weber's original series has also shown the internal conflict between a hereditary elite and a merit-driven aristocracy, between fundamentalist fascism and religious democracies, and between the politically motivated and those who just want to get the job done. The new series promises to deliver more of this insight, in the stories of the officers trained by Honor Harrington. (I know I never buy Weber's books hardbound, Santa, but I can make an exception for a gift.)

Santa, I haven't been able to find Teddy Roosevelt's Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter in the local bookstores, so I hope you can come through with this one. Mike Resnick quoted extensively from Wilderness in one of his Veldt-In-Space books (was it Under African Skies? The Outpost?) but Stephen Ambrose has collected them into a single volume. And Santa, would you please ask Mr. Ambrose to write something new? I loved Nothing Like It In The World!

One more wish for this Christmas, Santa. I know I have complained about how long it takes to read a Jack McDevitt novel, but I learned that Polaris returns to the characters in A Talent for War. The real relationships McDevitt manages to describe in the process of delineating his wildly speculative futures form the strong backbone to his writing—this is why reading McDevitt is worth the struggle! So please, Santa, I'd love to see a new McDevitt under my tree Christmas morning.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

McDevitt: Omega—Intelligence Under a Dark Cloud


I should know by now. Any book by Jack McDevitt is going to take time and effort to get into, even require backing up to reread whole sections. Omega is no exception. Part of the truly vast McDevitt universe that includes The Engines of God, Deepsix and the truly awesome Chindi, Omega brings back Priscilla Hutchins ("Hutch"), now agency director, as well as a host of other well-realized McDevitt characters.

He does character interaction so well that sometimes we become immersed in the soap-opera contentions of his people, and lose track of the bigger picture—in this case, an intelligence-destroying cloud that is bearing down on Earth. And that inattention becomes part of his story, for Earth is also unconcerned. The threat is 900 years in the future, and "there'll be time later". Then explorers discover a living civilization bare years away from the cloud's destruction, and Hutch must organize the effort to save them without running afoul of the agency's prime directive.

In typical McDevitt-fashion, characters grouse about food, worry about their love lives, back-bite and nit-pick—and ponder issues like intelligent design and the original source of evil. In one scene, an explorer muses about the city-blasting clouds,
[I'm not sure] which explanation [scares me more.] Either they're natural, which leads to the conclusion that the universe, or God, however you want to put it, doesn't approve of intelligence. Or they're built and set loose. That means somebody who's very bright has gone to a lot of trouble to kill every stranger he can find.

You need a big canvas for these concepts. McDevitt has shown time and again that he can handle the challenge.

Each novel stands on its own, but reading them in sequence may reduce the effort needed to take on the next.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Gaiman: Stardust—No Fairies Allowed!

Whimsically Wonderful

There is always room for whimsy, and no one does it better than Neil Gaiman. Stardust, a fairy tale set in a relatively modern day—"Mr. Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr. Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face on cold paper; Mr. Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires."—charts the path of a young man off to find his heart's desire in the world, starting with the strangely-unused meadow beyond the town wall.

Although it is perfectly good meadowland, none of the villagers has ever grazed animals on the meadow on the other side of the wall. Nor have they used it for growing crops.... Instead, for hundreds, perhaps for thousands of years, they have posted guards on each side of the opening on the wall, and done their best to put it out of their minds.

The reason, it becomes apparent, is that the land beyond the wall is fairyland, a Grimm place where finding one's heart's desire is no simple thing. Dunstan Thorn is "eighteen, and not a romantic", but he eagerly breaches the wall and crosses that meadow. What he finds is very different from the adventure stories he has read.
Tristan sat at the top of the spire of cloud and wondered why none of the heroes of the penny dreadfuls he used to read so avidly were ever hungry. His stomach rumbled, and his hand hurt him so. Adventures are all very well in their place, he thought, but there’s a lot to be said for regular meals and freedom from pain.

Gaiman has created a very adult fairy tale, exploring some implications of magic and sorcery ignored or omitted in the kiddy tales we learned when young. And while the story does have the obligatory happy ending, it is a peculiarly Gaiman happiness.

Stardust reminded me of The Princess Bride, but without the self-conscious tongue-in-cheek flavor of that novel. "Heather" gives us a very evocative review, but the Green Man Review by Debbie Skolnik may be a spoiler.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Not a Book (I Think)—To Trouble Born

As I was "Next Blog"-ing, skimming through the other blogspots, I found this heart-wrencher:
I just learned my Granpa is dead. It turns out he actually died several weeks ago, but nobody thought I would need to know. Why!?

I don't mean why did he die—he was 95 or something, according to Mom. I mean why didn't they think I would want to know. He was my Dad's dad, and we don't speak to them any more says Mom. For one thing she says, he was an ornery old man who kept her from being happy with Dad. For another, he didn't leave us anything.

I can't find the words to say how angry I am at her and Dad. Didn't leave us anything? HE LEFT ME ALONE!

Born, the author of the blog Born in the Maze, seems to be writing a real-time account of his/her life. It's not an easy life, based on the few days posted so far. If fiction, it's an interesting take on blog writing. If real, it is a cry for—what? Help? Attention? Guidance?

There isn't much there yet to tell which it might be. The clues are few: the simplistic use of language and adolescent approach to life may be assumed. The relatively sophisticated use of links in each post may only reflect a geeky teen's ability to use HTML.

I'm going to keep eye on it.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Christmas Rereading—Fictional Messiahs and Jihads

Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land tops my Christmas rereading list because it considers the making of a messiah. For those who have not encountered this novel in either the original release or the 1991 uncut version (all three of you), Stranger is the story of a young man raised by the puissant Old Ones of Mars, who then returns to Earth to spread the Gospel (and related powers) they taught him. Heinlein uses the story to jab at the tabloid and main-stream press, fringe and established churches, courts and lawyers, and (of course) the government.

But along the way, the story—maybe inadvertantly, although I doubt anything ever appeared in Heinlein's work that he didn't plan with glee—underscores the original message of the Christ: love each other; and tells us in a less-brutal (because fictional) way than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the consequences of preaching love to those focused on money, power—or scripture.
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The original novel Dune reveals Herbert's empathy with the nomadic Arab of pre-mandate Palestine. (Remember, Herbert was British.) But to reread this book today is to experience the spooky realization that the Fremen are eco-terrorists.

More to the point, the conversion of Paul Atreides to the messianic Mu'adib—conservative ruling-class heir to fundamentalist jihad leader—maps the slippery path of proselytic education, leading to the vision of all who believe differently as evil and deserving of death. Whether you see mujahideen or red state/blue state bomb-throwers may depend on today's headlines more than Frank Herbert's words.
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Nevil Shute himself thought Round the Bend was his best novel. The messiah-figure of this story is Connie Shaklin, a Western-educated Malayan aircraft mechanic, whose message is the moral imperative of good maintenance of machines upon which others' lives depend;
...Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need...
(Rudyard Kipling, The Sons of Martha)

The religious movement that grows up around this inoffensive and admirable dictum eventually leads to Shaklin's martyrdom—and the quiet growth of a new religion. The story shows the way a religious meme grows; in seemingly-barren soil, fertilized by the religions that precede it—and watered by the blood of martyrs.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Gould: Wonderful Life—The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History


Steven Jay Gould (1941-2002), the popular and prolific science writer and paleontologist, was adept at the encapsulating essay; his short pieces compiled into thematic volumes are very enjoyable. So I was not prepared for Wonderful Life, which focuses on a single topic for an entire book: the Burgess Shale, and the implications of the fossils found there.

When C.D. Walcott's wife's horse kicked a curious stone out of the snow, leading to discovery of the rich fossil beds of the Burgess Shale, it nearly tripled the number of examples of Cambrian life-forms. Even more important, because of the way the fossils were preserved—in successive mud-flows—we have fossils that show antennae, legs and other delicate features that heretofore had been lost in the fossilization process.

Gould tells how the contents of this trove have shaped our knowledge and theory of these early life-forms. The first part of Wonderful Life, in which he covers the finding and publication of the fossils, has the genuine Gould appeal; the feeling of being involved in a scientific discovery.

Gould uses the breadth of the Burgess fossils to illuminate evolution: "In conventional Darwinian theory, the organism proposes and the environment disposes... competition is the great regulator... Thus, diversity is self-regulating..." How, then, he asks, did we get the "Cambrian explosion", the unprecedented growth in types of complex organisms that "suddenly" appear at the opening of this geologic age?

He answers the question, in part, by exploring the theories of Harry Whittington, Simon Conway Morris and Derek Briggs. These Cambridge paleontologists responded to the wealth of possibilities opened by the finely-detailed Burgess fossils by proposing a new Phylum designation for each of the unique forms found in the shale. (An equivalent might be assigning star catalog designations to meteorites.)

Even more strangely to the science-reader's eye, Gould then diverts into a phenomenon he calls
Contingency... the control by immediate events over destiny, the kingdom lost for want of a horseshoe nail... The theme of contingency, so poorly understood by science, has long been a mainstay of literature...

Indeed, this theme gave the book its title—after quoting Ruth Rendell, Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut and the movie Back to the Future, Gould nominates the Frank Capra movie It's a Wonderful Life as the holotype (perfect example) of contingency thinking. And the contingency he has set up as straw-man for his book to tackle? The (long-since outmoded) concept that "that evolution marches inexorably towards a pinnacle such as man".

The book is both enjoyable (particularly in the first part) and deeply disturbing, as it shows one of Gould's few flaws: his pursuit and popularization of ideas and theories that would serve to justify his own personal beliefs. Wonderful Life is a wonderful book—just not wonderful science.

"The true index of how unalike two animals are is how unalike they actually are!" is the crux of Richard Dawkins' critique of the book. "If only Stephen Gould could think as clearly as he writes!" Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene) is a member with Daniel Dennett of a coterie of science philosophers who have long had disagreements with Gould's conclusions.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Buti: Rumbling Wine Barrels and Jackass Brandy

Wine connoisseur? Think you know California Wine Country? Not if you haven't run across the true stories of prohibition in San Francisco, replete with bootleggers, cops, prostitutes, gangsters, grape and gunshot, in Rumbling Wine Barrels and its companion volume, Jackass Brandy. Author Bruno Buti spent his childhood observing some of these events firsthand, and collected the tales of others from family and friends. His free-wheeling informal style makes the books easy to read.

In Rumbling Wine Barrels, Buti has combined the patchwork of family history into a lively account of the running battles between "wine hijackers" Primo Novelli (a "teamster and rascal of sorts") and Buti's father Mike Buti (and his mother Livia), their friend Pucci (a San Francisco fireman), federal agents, Sicilian mobsters from New Jersey, assorted cops and "soiled doves", and a perfectly twisted scheme to make money and mayhem.

Buti warns us at the beginning that while the story may not be perfectly true in every detail, it is a faithful rendition of the struggles—on both sides—that Prohibition generated. Italian emigrants in the wine country in particular, already fighting the hostility* emigrants encounter everywhere, were hit hard by Prohibition. In some cases, where a family had sunk everything into the production of grapes, the law had a harsh effect: choose between law-abiding poverty, or the very lucrative life of crime.

In Jackass Brandy, Buti continues the tale of his father's rise to become Capo of the local bootleggers, battling the hijackers from the other side as a producer of the high-proof alcohol known as jackass brandy. Now the Italians are battling not only the lawmen and rival mobs of Rumbling Wine Barrels, but also lawyers: their own turncoat counsel ("a crook in his own right") and the politically-ambitious District Attorney of Amador County, the Honorable Earl Warren. Buti tells how Warren:
...embarked on a campaign to throw the lot of them in jail: bootleggers (Mike's gang especially), hijackers, tainted Federal agents, Sheriff Becker and his deputies, extortionists of their own making, crooked fellow lawyers... and any and all that had anything to so with the illegal alcohol and gambling trades. He was to give no quarter, not even to his own.

Both books shine with an authentic flavor that has little to do with varietal and vineyard. This is a rare vintage, bold and surprising. Gulp, don't sip.

*A long-time winemaker in Sonoma County, Frank Pastori, tells us that in the twenties, Italians were banned from entering the local bars. In Geyserville, the small town near the Pastori vineyard/port winery, this ban was finally broken when another local Italian vintner (whose name I will not mention, but you would recognize it instantly) went into the bar and began tossing gold coins, one after another, down the bar to pay for drinks on the house until the barkeep finally relented.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sawyer: Hybrids - Seeking Paradise in Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy


The third book of Robert Sawyer's series about the interface of the Neanderthal Parallax with our Earth, Hybrids is a worthy follower for the first two. All are based on the premise that a parallel universe (in which the world is occupied solely by Neanderthals) has intersected ours deep in the nickel mines near Sudbury, Ontario.

As you might guess from the titles, the first book, Hominids, introduces the alternative world in which (as Sawyer has it) the Sapiens hominids did not hunt the Neanderthal branch to extinction. The second, Humans, delves more deeply into the interaction of Homo Sapiens humans with their long-lost Neanderthal cousins. The third explores the prospect of the birth of a hybrid child.

The parents of this planned child will be Neanderthal scientist Ponter Boddit and his very good Sapiens friend, Mary Vaughan. They will need to choose explicitly how their child will express the wildly different characteristics of Neanderthal and Sapiens. Will it have 24 chromosomes (be Neanderthal), or 23 (be Homo Sapiens)? Will it have golden eyes like Ponter's or blue eyes like Mary's? Most important, will it be able to believe, as its mother does but its father cannot, in God?

Once again Sawyer has given a picture of an idyllic society, an Eden peopled with Neanderthals. These are peaceable hunters who eat meat almost exclusively, yet somehow have not hunted bison and passenger pigeons to extinction. They submit to the ultimate Big Brother, a bio-coupled Companion that records everything they do and say, yet somehow avoid abusing that capability.

They ruthlessly cull their gene pool of characteristics defined as undesirable, and just as strictly limit their reproduction. They marry twice, once in a homosexual relationship that occupies them for twenty-four days per month, and once for their opposite-sex partner for the four days per month when "Two become One." Except for those four days, men and women live totally apart.

More than sexual and social customs, Neanderthal and Sapiens differ in number of chromosomes: Neanderthals have one more, apparently due to the combination of two chromosomes into one for Sapiens. For Ponter and Mary, this would prevent the natural combination of sperm and egg. A gene-coding invention that seems to offer the solution is banned in Neanderthal space and poses its own unique danger on the Sapiens side of the interface.

If you haven't read the first two books, Hybrids is hard to get into. When you have, it is a typical Sawyer feast - a dozen solid science facts and theories twisted together with a total blue-sky conjecture or two, then tossed into the ozone and left to fall like the tapir's leg-bone where it may.

Is it just me, or is this a Canadian's-eye-view of Paradise? Don't get me wrong, I adore Robert Sawyer's fiction. I usually grab each book as soon as it appears in paperback. But I think Mary Vaughn's appreciation of Neanderthal sexual mores may have more to do with her rape than with how fertile, intelligent women normally react. For me, this was the worm in the apple of this whole trilogy. BookLoons has a review that may be a spoiler if you haven't read the book already.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Norwood: New Tea Lover's Treasury - History and Mystery of an Ancient Addiction

It was at Copia, the museum-like celebration of food, wine and California culture in Napa, California, that I first encountered James Norwood Pratt, the amiable author of the New Tea Lover's Treasury. Pratt was there to speak about the cultural aspects of enjoying tea.

Instead, with an enthusiastic audience to encourage him, he began an extempore presentation about the history of tea and its impact on the world stage. Merchantilism, British Imperialism in China and India, Yankee Clippers and the beginnings of caffeine addiction all rose from the trade in this ancient plant, relative of the camellia.

The New Tea Lover's Treasury is the printed version, with copious illustrations, of that engrossing presentation. Pratt's expertise in tea trading, culture and history shines in every section of this book, from the introduction: "Just as wine is the Christian sacrament, tea is the Taoist/Buddhist communion and its story illuminates all Asian life and culture, not to mention much else besides..." to the clipper races: "Regardless of the real quality, everybody who was anybody in England wanted to offer their guests a sample from the cargo of the year's fastest and most famous ship... To the public at large, the excitement of the tea clipper races was rivaled only by the Derby." to the end of Communist isolationism: "It was on Wednesday, 22 October 1958, exactly three hundred years after China tea had first been tasted in London... that China tea came under the hammer again in Mincing Lane and, for the first time, the producers themselves sold their tea in the West". Pratt gives us a lucid view of tea history in the first half of the book.

The second half is devoted to detailing the varieties of tea available today, and how to infuse and enjoy them. Whether your taste is for making and drinking tea, or reading about it, the New Tea Lover's Treasury satisfies. I recommend reading it beside a fire in winter, with a mug or cup of your favorite infusion close to hand.

Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside: candles at four o'clock, warm hearth rugs, tea, a fair tea maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.
—Thomas de Quincy, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Pratt's publisher, PTA, is a small San Francisco house. As a result, the books are not easily available, even from Amazon. Give them two weeks to deliver, or order directly from Pratt's Tea Society. As a companion volume of fiction for that winter's night, I recommend Tea With the Black Dragon by R. A McAvoy.

Jane Chord: Tea Ultimate.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Pelligrino: Dust - Not With a Bang, But With a Whimper (and Screams)


Periodic mass extinctions—whether caused by meteorite impacts or global climate change—are a fact of geologic history. In Dust, Charles Pellegrino proposes an alternative: buried in the "junk DNA" of insects is a super-hibernation command. Every 33 million years or so it triggers the effective disappearance of all insects everywhere on Earth.

We accept the premise that this vanishment will be followed by the death or drastic change of most other life on Earth. Ever since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring appeared in 1962, ecological disasters have had a ready meme to play in the public consciousness.

While Carson's treatise showed birds, insects, fish and mammals all being poisoned together, however, Pellegrino has given us extinction driven by the loss of a single class. More important, this is not an event we have caused, can control, or could even repair.

The book moves quickly from the premise to deceive in horrifying, agonizing detail how ecological collapse and multiple extinctions cascade from bug-loss. While humans, in their scratching, clawing desperation to survive, do contribute a tiny amount to the disaster, the power of this novel comes from the myriad ways in which we and the greater animals we love simply fold tents in the aftermath of the insects going.

Just keep reminding yourself, it's only fiction.

For real chills, don't skip the Reality Check at the end of the book, in which Pellegrino details the real science and paleohistory that informed his fiction. See the thoughtful review by A. L. Sirois, and Greg Thurlbeck's more critical comments.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Wilson: SIMS - Not Your PC Sims World


F. Paul Wilson fluctuates between speculative "hard" sci-fi (Enemy of the State, The Tery) and fantasy of the type to which Stephen King used to set his pseudonym (The Tomb, Nightworld). SIMS belongs to the former category.

Wilson has put together current science—the growth of knowledge about human and other genomes, gene splicing and cloning—with the likely moral, religious and ethical questions that might rise from their use to create a subhuman labor force, the sims, and label them leased product rather than slave. Creation of this product fueled the rise of a corporate giant, SimGen, dwarfing even Microsoft. Power generated by the monopoly over an essential low-cost labor force has protected SimGen from scrutiny.

Then Patrick Sullivan, an ambulance-chaser of a labor negotiator, is approached by one of the sims for help in forming a labor union. What he learns in the process will expose a secretive government agency, change public opinion (and his own) about the meaning of "humanity", and open wide the secret of the sims.

WARNING: Don't start this book on Sunday evening—if you do, you may have to call in sick Monday to finish it!

SIMS won the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Award for 2004. The review at another site is not signed, but I must agree with the reviewer about how hard it is to put down.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Turtledove: In the Presence of Mine Enemies - Alternate Chanukah


Harry Turtledove has carved out a substantial niche in the alternative history genre, with multiple series of novels exploring what the world would be like after the South won the US Civil War, post an American Revolution that failed, or in which the German Reich was victorious in WWII, among others. In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a stand-alone novel in that "Germany Won WWII" universe, but it does not require any further knowledge of Turtledove's alternate history than that statement.

This is a fairly dark tale of Jewish families living in disguise in 21st-century Nazi Berlin. Heinrich Gimpel eats pork, swears "Jesus!" and "Christ!", crosses his heart to betoken a truth-telling—and celebrates Passover and Chanukah quietly at home with his family and other Jews who do the same. The German Reich is confident that Jews have been exterminated; yet they still teach their children a casual, attenuated hatred of the kind we reserve for the wicked witch and the troll under the bridge.

The story centers on Heinrich, his Jewish friend Walter who has hacker-level access to the SS genealogy databases, Heinrich's daughter Alicia who at age 10 has just learned her family's secret, and Frau Professor Doktor Susanna Weiss whose gender seems to be more of a hindrance in her life than her secret background. Each of these central characters faces a personal choice to continue as a Jew and retain the secrets of all in their group.

Turtledove's expertise in building alternate histories illuminated by the knowledge of real history shows in both subtle and blatant ways: a Yeltsin-like mounting of a panzer tank that sidelines the Gorbachev-like Führer, a Chernobyl- or Bopal-like disaster that kills "an unknown number of Untermenschen", and of course, Führer Kurt "Haldweim".

The novel was expanded from a short story by the same name, and retains only a trace of its small-format origin (chiefly in too-frequent repetition of "what if we got caught, oh no!" musings by the principals.)

At a time when it is common to accuse one's political opponents of "Fascism" and draw parallels between Hitler and whoever, it is valuable in itself to be reminded what those terms actually meant and what it might feel like to live under such a regime. If for no other reason, I can strongly recommend this novel.

David Roy of Curled Up With a Good Book finds Turtledove's writing wooden and "pleasant" but "no Merlot". Be sure to check out BlogCritics for the bloggers-eye-view of this novel. Many thanks to the Wikipedia for letting me know how to spell Führer with the umlaut!