In this installment of the Girl Genius saga, the interminable Si Vales Valeo story arc finally, finally comes to a close. Vol. 10 isn't a total loss,...moreIn this installment of the Girl Genius saga, the interminable Si Vales Valeo story arc finally, finally comes to a close. Vol. 10 isn't a total loss, however: we learn who Von Pinn really is, and the bonus story, recounting how the Jäger Maxim acquires a new hat, is top-notch.(less)
Another delightful volume of Girl Genius, full of excitement and hilarity. The Chapel of Bones begins with a near-deadly whirlwind of activity, beginn...moreAnother delightful volume of Girl Genius, full of excitement and hilarity. The Chapel of Bones begins with a near-deadly whirlwind of activity, beginning with Agatha's entrance to Castle, and leading up to the most climactic point of the entire story so far: (view spoiler)[the Castle's acceptance of Agatha as one of the Family (hide spoiler)]. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, recovered from his altercation with a fleet of horribly beweaponed battle clanks, hatches an insane, and hysterically funny, plan to enter the Castle himself in a highly spectacular and heavily witnessed fashion, to keep his father, the Baron, from destroying the Castle (at least while Agatha's in it). Gil's attention-grabbing battle of wits, and insults, against Zeetha is one of the best scenes in Fogliodom, and his new hat is the Jägermonsters' greatest achievement. Dare you face the terror of Gil's hand-cranked runcible gun?
In a series of short essays (including "Life" and "The Universe", but not "Everything"), Isaac Asimov reaches further and further back in time to reco...moreIn a series of short essays (including "Life" and "The Universe", but not "Everything"), Isaac Asimov reaches further and further back in time to recount what we know of beginnings. Dr. Asimov begins small, with "Human Flight," but uses this opening chapter to illustrate how pinning down a beginning depends in large part on definitions. (Most Americans would immediately think of the Wright brothers, but their first heavier-than-air, powered flight at Kitty Hawk is a fairly recent event in the history of flight.) Though this book is over 20 years out of date, the science is accurate in general, and of course everything is very well explained (apart from on occasional diversion when The Good Doctor couldn't help showing off his vast store of knowledge).
It's really too bad that Dr. Asimov didn't live to witness the amazing recent breakthroughs in astronomy, and the fantastic fossils recently collected that fill important gaps in our understanding of early life. Interestingly, he correctly pegs RNA as the most probable first replicating macromolecule, but for some reason doesn't mention the best evidence for this: that RNA molecules can act as enzymes in their own right.(less)
In this late work, the visionary Carl Sagan holds forth on the present (as of 1994) and future of space exploration. In the first several chapters, th...moreIn this late work, the visionary Carl Sagan holds forth on the present (as of 1994) and future of space exploration. In the first several chapters, the soft-spoken skeptic puts us in our place, literally. The book begins with some of the most profound and lyrical prose from any science writer, ever. Here is part of his reflections on a photo beamed back from Voyager 1, out past Pluto, in which the Earth is seen as a minuscule, baby-blue point:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," ever "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of duct suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Within a few paragraphs, Dr. Sagan both subjects us to a dose of the Total Perspective Vortex and demolishes the most dearly held prejudices and misconceptions about scientists and the nonreligious. It is not scientists and freethinkers who believe that the entire vast Universe was created for the benefit of one species of one planet among countless trillions.
After this phenomenal beginning, the book winds down to a very well written but rather unexciting description of discoveries made by old and (then) new space probes, from Venera and Viking to Voyager and Galileo, with speculation (which, alas, falls short of predicting the wonders we have since seen) about the upcoming Cassini/Huygens mission. If you're too young to remember the fantastic image beamed back from Voyager 1 and 2, or didn't follow the coverage in the late 70s and early 80s, the middle section of the book recreates some of the excitement of viewing these detailed photos of the outer planets for the first time; but the seasoned space buff will find little that's new. One prominent exception is the author's description of his own research, mainly on the composition of Titan's atmosphere. I'll have to go back and reread some of the news from Cassini/Huygens to see how well his predictions held.
I'd like to think that Dr. Sagan's timeline for human exploration of the Solar System and beyond is accurate; but I do not share his optimism.(less)
If there existed such a thing as an "epidemiological thriller," this book would be the archetype. Dr. John Snow's efforts to track down the source of...moreIf there existed such a thing as an "epidemiological thriller," this book would be the archetype. Dr. John Snow's efforts to track down the source of a deadly outbreak of cholera in Victorian London is often cited (not quite correctly) as the birth of modern epidemiology. Not as well know is the pivotal role in the investigation played by Reverend Henry Whitehead, a local minister who contributed key information linking the outbreak with a particular well that provided residents with fresh water.(less)
The Bumper Book, a collection of poems, songs and fables, is a wonderful example of mid-20th-century Americana. (Our copy was printed in 1961, and by...moreThe Bumper Book, a collection of poems, songs and fables, is a wonderful example of mid-20th-century Americana. (Our copy was printed in 1961, and by then it was already touted as a “classic.”) I remember enjoying these stories as a child, and not thinking that anything was unusual about them, but as a 21st-century adult, I find the anachronisms more entertaining than the vignettes themselves.
The first thing a modern reader will notice, to quote Mystery Science Theater 3000, is that “America sure was a lot whiter back then.” Dozens of all-American boys and girls are pictured here, and they all look like they’ve just hopped off a boat from Sweden. (They dress like they’re from Sweden, too.) Nothing but rosy cheeks and transparent skin as far as they eye can see. Good thing all the scenes are set in the Midwest—the Arizona sun would have burnt these youngsters to a crisp in about thirty sizzling seconds.
In “We Won’t Tell,” we read how a budding farmer fails to get the message that if you plant a cabbage patch next door to a huge rabbit colony, you’d better set a 24-hour guard on that thing.
We can watch Edward Lear rhyme himself into a corner in “A Nonsense Alphabet”. The verse structure for each letter is like this:
F was once a little fish, Fishy, Wishy, Swishy, Fishy, In a dishy, Little fish!
All goes well right up until the letter Z. (In case you’re wondering, X was once a great King Xerxes—Xerxy, Perxy, Turxy, Xerxy.) Now the obvious thing for the letter Z to have once been was a zebra; but you can’t go rhyming zebra in the same manner without sounding all Russian—and Good Little American Boys and Girls never imitiate filthy Commies. We must resort to “Z was once a piece of zinc….” Of course, it’s impossible to draw a cute piece of zinc, so the illustrator added an adorable little mouse hiding behind it—perhaps he’s using it as a lean-to. I’ll give Mr. Lear a break on this one: in those post-Sputnik days, it was never too early to begin teaching your future rocket scientists about metallurgy.
Next, we listen to Christopher Robin saying his prayers, blessing his family, the servants and himself—because, it goes without saying, all Good Little American Boys and Girls are also Christian (real Christians, and not those idolatrous Papists). And rich enough to bestow their second-tier blessings on “the help.”
But the story that made the biggest impression on “grownup” me told the valuable lesson of “Little-Boy-Who-Was-Too-Thin.” This poor, sticklike child was “ten pounds underweight,” and so lacked the essential fat reserves all kids need to climb trees and “throw a ball fast and high.” You see, in those days, it was believed that muscle couldn’t work properly unless it was sheathed within a two-inch layer of Crisco.
Ostracized by the school nurse and all his classmates, LBWWTT takes a straw poll of all the animals in the farmyard to find out how he can fatten up and once again be accepted into polite society. Bunny Rabbit and Pudgy Pig and Dumpy Duck all provide a grocery list of their favorite meals, provided early and often by their benefactor, Farmer Brown (yes, that’s really his name). Alas, neither LBWWTT nor his plump advisors ever think to wonder why Farmer Brown was so generous with the slops.
LBWWTT has one more interview, with Dimply Dot, the girl next door. “How did you get so delectably obese?”, he asks. Inexplicably, instead of slapping LBWWTT hard enough to send him into orbit,
Dimply Dot smiled a dimply smile at him. She ran a little race with herself, and she danced a little dance with herself, and then she stopped with a hop and a jump in front of Little-Boy-Who-Was-Too-Thin. “Bread and butter and cereal, and soup, and cocoa,” said Dimply Dot, “and I run and play in the sunshine every day.”
Somebody better check Dot’s cocoa—sounds like she’s spiking her hot chocolate with a quadruple shot of espresso. Or perhaps a little nose candy.
Armed with a literal cornucopia of nutritional advice, LBWWTT (we never learn his real name) marches home and goes on a binge that would land any modern child in a program for eating disorders. A few days later—behold! Little-Boy-Who-Was-Too-Thin is not only was the heftiest kid in class, but somehow also the strongest and fastest. Take-home message: Fat is simply a more easily acquired form of muscle.*
In summary, I have an odd fondness for products that show off the innocence of ages past, and this one’s a beaut. I’m giving The Bumper Book a mere three stars because I don’t recommend it for modern-day children; my actual enjoyment of the work measures closer to four stars.
*I suspect the real subtext here was that obesity was still considered a status symbol—a holdover from the bad old days when being rich meant having enough to eat. Perhaps extreme slenderness was also shunned because really skinny children were particularly apt to die off of tuberculosis and heart defects and other nasty diseases.
The great irony here is that according to the pictures, even the properly “fat” children are all of perfectly healthy weight. Compared to today’s corpulent youngsters, they would look like the stick men LBWWTT was accused of resembling. But those poor, backwards 20th-century folk knew nothing about how to properly pack on the pounds. Since the nearest McDonald’s was probably four counties away, the best that Little-Boy-Who-Was-Too-Thin could manage was milk and cocoa, bread and butter, cornmeal mush, fruit and vegetables, and playing in the sunshine. "Playing in the sunshine," indeed. Where's the PlayStation 3 when you need one?(less)
Rock critic Dave Thompson chose the perfect title to convince me to read his historical lament of the demise of classic rock. I’m hardly an expert on...moreRock critic Dave Thompson chose the perfect title to convince me to read his historical lament of the demise of classic rock. I’m hardly an expert on classic rock, but I’m far from a casual listener. In the same vein, I’m no expert on “modern” rock, but I’m far from a casual hater.
Alas, the book did not live up to its title. First of all, I detected a definite shortage of vitriol specifically directed at modern music, although Thompson does earn an extra half-star for calling Pearl Jam “atrocious.” A large part of the problem was that the faults of post-classic rock seemed to be shared with many true classic rock groups and hits; it was never clear to me what definitively separates the enjoyable classic rock from the music the author purports to detest.
My second biggest difficulty with I Hate New Music is really an issue with music critics in general, who appear to get far more out of a piece of music than seems humanly possible. Now if someone can experience a work of music far more deeply than I—if they enjoy entire dimensions of terpsichorean beauty that I fail to sense—more power to ‘em; but Thompson flings an amazing amount of hyperbole around on what to me are really dull songs. One might imagine his review of a dial tone: “A minimalist masterpiece; a brooding symphony in mild dissonance—pretentious, yet poignant in its unrelenting murmur of interweaving drones.”
Still, the book does have a couple of highlights that might make it worth reading by a classic-rock aficionado. The best is the Classic Rock Manifesto, a collection of 18 declarations defining true rock ’n’ roll, beginning with this woefully ignored truism:
1. WE DELCARE UNEQUIVOCALLY that the phrase is “rock ’n’ roll.” It is not “rock AND roll,” nor “rock & roll,” nor any other variation. Ignorance of this law will not be tolerated, although dispensation is permitted to the retrospective transgressions committed by Led Zeppelin, Gary Glitter, and Kiss.
Several more belly laughs may be found in the Manifesto, e.g.: “Real rockers don’t go to rehab. Real rockers don’t even know what rehab is, and if you tried to tell them, they’d rip your fucking head off and snort your brains out with a straw.”
I picked up the book in part to expand my classic-rock horizons, and so I found Thompson’s list of the greatest 100 classic rock songs a valuable resource. Not because I agreed with him—my list would have been very different—but because he included a fair number of tunes I didn’t recognize, at least from his descriptions, and provided enough justification for their place in the list that I’ve resolved to give them a(nother) listen on that universal resource of low- to medium-fidelity free music: YouTube.
What really soured me on I Hate New Music, though, was actually a throwaway comment that alone pulls my rating down by a full star, into two-star territory:
…and why you can no longer smoke when you attend a concert, even though it has now been scientifically proven (Nature Genetics journal, April 2, 2008 (sic)) that lung cancer is a genetic condition and is only rarely associated with things like…oh, I don’t know, smoking.
It’s a classic case of denial, and a perfect illustration of why, if you are going to make factual claims on a subject outside your area of expertise, you should vet your claim with someone who knows the field. It’s uncertain whether Thompson yanked this pseudodatum from one of those ridiculous “smoker’s rights” groups, or whether he misinterpreted a news article, but there is no way he actually looked at the research studies he (improperly) cited. He makes it sound like lung cancer is a purely genetic disease, like cystic fibrosis or phenylketonuria (PKU). That’s utterly false, but a detailed debunking is not straightforward, because his citation is not to an actual article, but to a nonexistent issue of Nature Genetics. The April 2008 issue of Nature Genetics has no mention of lung cancer. On the other hand, the April 3, 2008 issue of Nature does discuss three reports implicating a gene on chromosome 15 in lung cancer, so this issue of Nature is most likely the quoted source. The great irony is that the lung-cancer gene in question is a nicotine receptor, meaning that it increases risk for lung cancer by means of altering smoking behavior. Another inconvenient fact is that this nicotine receptor gene has a rather small effect: having a susceptible genotype less than doubles the risk of lung cancer. The genetic effect is overwhelmed by the general effect of smoking, which increases the chance of lung cancer more than tenfold for your typical lifelong smoker, and which accounts for 90% of lung cancer deaths in men in the United States, not to mention more than half of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and larynx.(less)
Of the LIFE Nature Series, Early Man is unquestionably the most outdated. (Even the title contains an archaic term for humanity.) Nonetheless, if allo...moreOf the LIFE Nature Series, Early Man is unquestionably the most outdated. (Even the title contains an archaic term for humanity.) Nonetheless, if allowances are made for the crude state of the science at the time of publication, this book provides some clear insight into the process of paleontology, in addition to its purely historical value. The chapter on making stone tools is an interesting read in any case.(less)
A cute math book for precocious children, You Can Count on Monsters illustrates the concept of prime factorization by combining "monsters," representi...moreA cute math book for precocious children, You Can Count on Monsters illustrates the concept of prime factorization by combining "monsters," representing the prime numbers, in strange and silly ways to form composite numbers. Also includes an carefully explained version of Euclid's proof that the prime numbers are unbounded (i.e., that there is no largest prime number).(less)
The Innocents Abroad seems to be regarded as Mark Twain's definitive travel book; but I liked both Roughing It and A Tramp Abroad better. This book is...moreThe Innocents Abroad seems to be regarded as Mark Twain's definitive travel book; but I liked both Roughing It and A Tramp Abroad better. This book is derived from a series of newspaper columns he wrote while abroad, and he didn't quite succeed at transforming them into a single, coherent narrative.
Twain does get in a few good digs at the "pilgrims" (devout Christians visiting the Holy Land), and his account of visiting the holiest places in Jerusalem is seething with barely-restrained skepticism. That he doesn't come right out and denounce them for superstitious silliness is no doubt because he didn't want to offend three-fourths of his potential audience.
The best passage in the book is quoted below. He and several shipmates decided to have lunch in Constantinople (İstanbul to us), but did not meet with satisfaction:
I never shall want another Turkish lunch. The cooking apparatus was in the little lunch room, near the bazaar, and it was all open to the street. The cook was slovenly, and so was the table, and it had no cloth on it. The fellow took a mass of sausage meat and coated it round a wire and laid it on a charcoal fire to cook. When it was done, he laid it aside and a dog walked sadly in and nipped it. He smelt it first, and probably recognized the remains of a friend. The cook took it away from him and laid it before us. Jack said, "I pass"—he plays euchre sometimes—and we all passed in turn. Then the cook baked a broad, flat, wheaten cake, greased it well with the sausage, and started towards us with it. It dropped in the dirt, and he picked it up and polished it on his breeches, and laid it before us. Jack said, "I pass." We all passed. He put some eggs in a frying pan, and stood pensively prying slabs of meat from between his teeth with a fork. Then he used the fork to turn the eggs with—and brought them along. Jack said "Pass again." All followed suit. We did not know what to do, and so we ordered a new ration of sausage. The cook got out his wire, apportioned a proper amount of sausage-meat, spat it on his hands and fell to work! This time, with one accord, we all passed out. We paid and left. That is all I learned about Turkish lunches. A Turkish lunch is good, no doubt, but it has its little drawbacks.
Like ‘em or hate ‘em, reptiles are fascinating creatures. LIFE Nature Library’s The Reptiles is an accessible, clearly written introduction to the unu...moreLike ‘em or hate ‘em, reptiles are fascinating creatures. LIFE Nature Library’s The Reptiles is an accessible, clearly written introduction to the unusual biology of this class of animals. The chart of reptile evolution has been completely redrawn since this book came out, but otherwise the biology is still pretty accurate (disclaimer: I'm a geneticist, not a herpetologist).
I didn’t like this volume nearly as much as the others in the series. Though technically good, the writing is a little too “chatty.” Adding a personal touch to a scientific discussion is great, but devoting a third of the text to the author’s back yard in Florida seems a bit excessive. But far worse: it is extremely bad form to lament the imminent extinction of green sea turtles, immediately after rhapsodizing about the quality of the turtle soup in eight different restaurants in Germany. Oh, the hypocrisy, it burns.(less)
The Mammals, like the other volumes of the LIFE Nature Library, is a clearly-written summary of its subject, with spectacular illustrations. This part...moreThe Mammals, like the other volumes of the LIFE Nature Library, is a clearly-written summary of its subject, with spectacular illustrations. This particular volume is about average for the series; the basic science has withstood the past fifty years fairly well unscathed, although of course it lacks the revelations of modern molecular biology, genetics or evolution. Its biggest disadvantage is the cover illustration: a frowzy-maned lion that looks as if it had recently died of embarrassment.(less)
The Earth (published in Germany as Die Erde, and in Brooklyn as Da Oit) is a kind of bridge between the LIFE Nature Library's most expansive (heh-heh)...moreThe Earth (published in Germany as Die Erde, and in Brooklyn as Da Oit) is a kind of bridge between the LIFE Nature Library's most expansive (heh-heh) volume, The Universe, and the remainder of the series, which deals with strictly terrestrial phenomena (with the possible exception of Evolution). In addition to geology, the subjects of interest include solar-system astronomy, paleontology and (a brief foray into) ecology.
As always in the LIFE Nature Library, the presentation is clear and straightforward, and the photography magnificent. The science is more dated than average for the series—which, of course, is no fault of the author's. However, I was surprised to see plate tectonics get such short shrift. The theory was still not rock solid (heh-heh) in the early 1960s, but it is treated more or less as an unlikely hypothesis, and strong evidence in its favor is cited without the connections being made. Most prominent in this category is the fossil and other evidence showing that current polar landmasses were once near the equator, and vice versa; these data are explained by proposing that the Earth's axis has shifted wildly in the past.(less)
The Birds (published in Germany as Die Vögel, and in Brooklyn as The Boids) is my favorite of the "animal" books in the LIFE Nature Library series. Th...moreThe Birds (published in Germany as Die Vögel, and in Brooklyn as The Boids) is my favorite of the "animal" books in the LIFE Nature Library series. The explanation of the mechanics of bird flight is a paragon of clarity; I'm impressed so much was known about avian aerodynamics fifty years ago. The section on bird evolution is a bit sketchy, but of course that reflects the limited knowledge of the time, and not any omission on the author's part.(less)
I read this book just after returning from a vacation to Germany and Switzerland; I wrote a travelogue about our experiences, and discovered that Twai...moreI read this book just after returning from a vacation to Germany and Switzerland; I wrote a travelogue about our experiences, and discovered that Twain had written about many of the same places we'd visited, especially Heidelberg.
A Tramp Abroad highly entertaining, semi-fictional account of an extended vacation in southern Germany, the Alps and Italy. Twain relates his adventures touring central Europe by foot, boat and train, accompanied by his agent (in actuality, the story is drawn from a sabbatical to Europe with his family, during which he worked on his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn). The narrative alternates between straightforward description of the land and people of Europe, and satire poking fun mainly at contemporary travel guides.
At times, Twain goes a little overboard with the satire, as in his story of an expedition from Zermatt, Switzerland, to the Riffelberg Hotel (on the slopes of the Matterhorn), in which he hires dozens of guides and porters, spends days in the wilderness repeatedly getting lost, on what is really a three-hour hike along a well-traveled road.
Most of the time, however, his humor is spot-on. His ascent of Rigi-Kulm, above Lake Lucerne, to see the sun rise is side-splittingly funny, and his recollection of participating as second in a French duel (very early in the book) is a masterpiece. The descriptive sections, while not particularly humorous, are also well worth reading.(less)
When I was a little kid we had two frogs in a terrarium: a tree frog named Archy and a bullfrog named Mehitabel. I'd always wondered about their names...moreWhen I was a little kid we had two frogs in a terrarium: a tree frog named Archy and a bullfrog named Mehitabel. I'd always wondered about their namesakes, and it's astonishing that I waited nearly four decades to explore further.
I really wanted to like Archy & Mehitabel. Anything with such a strong connection to my early childhood really ought to be liked. Also, it's such a perfect fit for me: weird poetry written by a Blatella germanica with illustrations by the immortal George Harriman (of Krazy Kat fame). I'd always imagined it as humorous and light-hearted. Was astonished to find Archy's writings so philosophical. And dark—very dark. Mehitabel is even worse: a criminally irresponsible nihilist, without even the saving grace of being funny like Space Moose. By reading The Lives and Times of archy & mehitabel I lost some of the innocence of youth I'd carefully preserved from ages ago.
I guess it's fitting that one morning we checked in on our frogs just in time to see the last of Archy's feet disappearing down Mehitabel's gullet.(less)