Phil Rambles

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    Tue, 01 Mar 2005

    Some more books
    Well, I've been very lax about updating this page...especially considering it takes very little effort! And it takes especially little effort to just mention some more books that I've read, so that's what I'll do here.

    Five-Finger Discount, by Helene Stapinski This is a memoir by a 40-year-old woman who grew up in Jersey City, in a family of small-time crooks. She's just about my age, and it's interesting to think about the differences in our vs suburbs, poor vs relatively affluent, parents uneducated vs educated. So the book wasn't bad. But it wasn't great, either. It's not really _about_ anything, and its writing style gets the job done but doesn't elevate the book. The book was OK, but I can't think of who I would recommend it to.

    Conned Again, Watson, by Colin Bruce This is an excellent book that explains a slew of logic and statistical puzzles and problems using the format of Sherlock Holmes stories. The stories are just vehicles for the puzzles and problems, but most of them do a decent job at that, providing a sort of conversational way to explain problems that would otherwise by very dry (and in truth, some of them remain dry). The good thing about the book is that it manages to make a lot of non-trivial problems understandable without introducing any mathematical formalism whatsoever. There's even a simple introduction to game theory.

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    Fri, 31 Dec 2004

    Miscellaneous Non-Fiction, 2004
    I see I haven't been posting much on here about what I've been reading. Here's what I can see on my shelf, from where I'm sitting, that I read this year but haven't posted about:

    Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer. A nicely written book about the golden age of magic (about 1880-1930), and the inventions---"it's all done with mirrors"---that baffled audiences for two generations. The book spills the secrets of a few tricks, which is interesting, but also discusses the businesses and personalities. I liked it.

    Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. If you don't know about this book already, welcome back from your round-the-world submarine voyage. Like everyone else, I think this is a very good, informative, thought-provoking, sometimes horrifying book. I recommend it.

    Krakatoa, by Simon Winchester. The author of "The Professor and the Madman" (about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the odd people who contributed to it) brings us another easy read about a historical event. This time, it's the eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa, off Sumatra, in the late 1800s... the first catastrophe (Winchester says) whose news rapidly spread around the world, thanks to the international telegraph. The explosion and subsequent tsunami killed about 36,000 people. This is a good book, and unfortunately is rather timely since it is relevant to the tragic Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.

    Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. The author visits (by plane, mostly) most of the Pacific Ocean islands that were visited by Captain Cook, writing about equally about Cook's experiences and his own a couple hundred years later. Sometimes amusing, sometimes depressing, usually interesting. This isn't a great book, but it's a good book, and if you're going to be traveling in the Pacific or have an interest in Cook, it's definitely worth reading.

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    Fri, 03 Dec 2004

    Nonfiction: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
    This is another "microhistory" book by the author of "Isaac's Storm", which was about an enormously deadly and destructive hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900. In "The Devil in the White City", Larson has chosen another macabre subject from around the same time, as one of the two true contemporaneous stories in the book, both of which take place in Chicago in 1893: the story of a man named Mudgett (a.k.a. "H.H. Holmes") who was one of the worst known serial killers in U.S. history, who owned his own hotel outfitted with gas valves so he could knock out his victims in their beds before dragging them to his soundproofed dissection chamber. The other story is of the conception, building, and execution of the World Columbian Exhibition --- basically a World's Fair --- whose attendees provided some of Mudgett's victims.

    Although Mudgett's story is certainly the more sensational, I found the story of the Columbian Exhibition more interesting. On a nearly barren patch of sandy lakeshore, the country's foremost architects and landscape architects built an entire city -- known as the White City for the uniformly white color of its romanesque buildings -- in just two years. The buildings were some of the largest built up to that time, and the city was so beautiful, and in such contrast to the "black", garbage-strewn, smelly, crowded, unsanitary cities of the day (including the host city of Chicago) that some visitors were literally moved to tears just by the sight.

    It's a good, interesting book, and I recommend it.

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    Sat, 31 Jan 2004

    Nonfiction: The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science, by C.C. Furnas.
    This book was written in 1936 by a Yale professor of chemical engineering. I picked it up at a yard sale, and thought it might prove entertaining. We're 70 percent of the way through the hundred years Furnas was writing about, so we should be able to check some of his predictions. I thought a lot of them might be laughable---weekend trips to the moon, that sort of thing. And indeed, starting the book with a chapter on eugenics seemed like a good indication that the book might be pretty wacky. Instead, it's remarkable how well he did (even in the eugenics discussion). Would I do as well at predicting the course of the next hundred (or seventy) years?

    Here are a few selected quotes from the book, arranged by chapter title.


    Infectious Diseases

    The proper way to choose a remedy for a cold is to write down all known methods, each on a separate slip, mix well and while heavily blindfolded, withdraw one from a hat. One has the satisfaction of knowing that the remedy thus prescribed will be just as good as any other.


    ...The childhood diseases will have disappeared, the common cold will have gone the way of the dodo, smallpox will only be a matter of record of the past generations. But these curses will still be lingering in some forgotten spot and there will be an old-time epidemic of smallpox around the corner just waiting for us to cease vaccinating for a few years.



    The expert practicing dietitian cannot recommend a perfect diet but she can suggest a very good one. The general plan seems to be to call on the old shotgun recipe and thus include a little of everything partly to please your taste and partly to be certain that you get all the essentials. Everyone must have all the vitamins and he must have minerals. ... The perfect diet is not yet and will not be for a long time to come, but until it gets here it will be best to rely on the experimental information already gathered than the harangue of the food faddist.


    What of Death?

    ...Inherited life-span might be defined as the length of life of the average person if everyone died of old age instead of dying by accident or from some specific disease...We do not know what this theoretical life-span is, for so very few people die of true old age that we cannot strike an average; but if we could, the figure would probably creep up towards the century and would surely be more than 70 years. [Note: at the time that the book was written, life expectancy in the U.S. was a bit less than 60 years.--Phil].


    Poor Plants and Ailing Animals

    Twenty-five years ago the New England hills were covered with a growth of chestnut trees that made a magnificent showing. Today there is probably not a full-fledged native chestnut in the entire area. Someone unwittingly introduced the chestnut blight from Europe or perhaps indirectly from Japan and that was the last of the chestnut. This devastation was due to a fungus that is parasitic on the chestnut but one that was so unwise as to kill its host. (The spreading chestnut under which the Village smithy stood did not share this fate. It had previously fallen in the march of progress, being cut down in 1879 to widen Brattle St. in Cambridge).



    There is a real need for vest-pocket receiving sets weighing not more than half a pound, which a man can carry conveniently anywhere he may go and pick up the ether waves at will....Vest-pocket transmitters might be very desirable but they offer far greater difficulties than a small size receiver....Housewives should not anticipate their wholesale use for calling up the husband in his car and telling him to bring home a loaf of bread. The ether is already so cluttered up with a little bit of everything that a few million additional messages along towards dinner time would prove fatal. [Failing to anticipate the invention of cellular technology, this is one that Furnas got wrong.--Phil]


    Leisure Without Lethargy

    We may look forward to the day when the average struggle for existence will be relegated to a minor problem. Only those who have endowed lives are in that fortunate position now, and they are not certain how long it will last. Every man is not a king nor is everyone in the future going to be rich nor is he going to be able to lead a workless life, but the working obligation for an average scale of living will decrease to the dimensions of a chore, leaving ample time for leisure. The balance of power in American life will then shift from the job to the hobby...(snip)...There will be more golf courses, if the game survives, more tennis courts and bathing pools, almost anything might turn up. Archery might become as important as in the days of Robin Hood. Unheard of games might arise [Like Ultimate Frisbee--Phil]. It does not make much difference what they are. It is only necessary that they shall be enjoyable.

    There shall be more fishing, be assured of that. It will be a national problem to shorten the time between bites....

    ...The average man will have the means to travel considerably in modest style and he will have the time. Why shouldn't he go?

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    Sun, 04 May 2003

    Nonfiction: Salt, by Mark Kurlansky
    One of my favorite genres is sometimes called "nano-history" or "micro-history"; books in this genre take an apparently small or insignificant invention, event, or phenomenon, and by telling its story they touch on much broader aspects of history. One example is "Longitude", by Dava Sobel; another is Mark Kurlansky's excellent book "Cod." "Salt" is a worthy addition to the growing library of books of this type. Although not as good as "Cod," "Salt" is nonetheless chock full of interesting facts.

    For almost the entire history of mankind, until about 150 years ago, salting and pickling--which is preservation in brine---were almost the only ways of preserving food for a long period (except for smoking, which worked for some meats; and a very few foods, like potatoes, could keep for a long time without special measures). Salt was therefore critically important, to a degree that is almost impossible to imagine today: lack of salt could make it impossible to preserve enough food for winter, and could prevent armies from stocking sufficient rations.

    In this book, Kurlansky outlines the political, military, social, and economic importance of salt, and gives many examples of cases in which the need for salt affected the course of history. The book is also full of interesting trivia. For instance, the old English word for a salt-works was "wich", and every "wich" town in England is the site of a former salt-works: Greenwich, Norwich, and so on.

    The book is very readable and very interesting...put it on your list.

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    Mon, 28 Apr 2003

    Nonfiction: In the Wake of the Plague---The Black Death and the World it Made, by Norman Cantor
    This repetitive and narrow book discusses the effects, and to some extent the causes, of the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century and recurred many times over the succeeding centuries. At its best, the book discusses some noteworthy effects of the plague: examples include the creation of a labor shortage in some areas and the social changes that this led to, and the alteration of the ratio of men to women (since the plague killed both sexes about equally, while the other main cause of mortality, death during childbirth, took only women). At its worst, the book is repetitious on some main points while failing to delve into others.

    If you know as little about the Black Death as I did, and are somewhat interested in it, this book is sufficiently informative to be worth reading. If you already know the subject, or don't care to know it, then give it a miss.

    By the way, the fictional "Year of Wonders", by Geraldine Brooks, is a pretty good book about the effect of the plague on a small English town in 1666.

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    Thu, 24 Apr 2003

    Book: Blinded by the Right, by David Brock
    David Brock is the former conservative "hit man" who wrote the books "The Real Anita Hill", "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham," penned dozens of right-wing hate pieces about the Clintons and about liberals in general, and was the toast of the conservative establishment in Washington for most of the 1990's. In his book "Blinded by the Right," Brock reveals that virtually everything he wrote was a lie.

    Brock says he was motivated by unreasoning hatred of liberals in general, and by the fact that the more vitriolic he became the more he was lauded by the conservatives. More importantly, he says that many conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich were equally unreasoning and hateful. Conservative media such as the American Spectator and the Washington Times frequently published unsubstantiated rumor as fact, which didn't bother him at the time...but his conscience was eventually tweaked when he found that the problem went beyond publishing rumors, to publishing "facts" that were known to be false. Once he started to critically examine his own work, and that of others, even his admittedly atrophied conscience recoiled, and he renounced the innuendo and outright lying in which he had previously participated.

    Having read the two paragraphs above, you've got the gist of the book. The details are somewhat interesting---who said what to whom, which conservative columnists were liars and which were hypocrites, and so on---but the book is really much longer than it needs to be. It's still worth reading, though. For one thing, it shatters the illusion that all of the major media outlets check the facts before publication: Brock says that in fifteen years of writing, the only time true fact-checking was performed was for the Esquire article that became the basis of "Blinded by the Right."

    There are important messages here for anyone, conservative or liberal, who bases his or her opinions on editorials, opinion pieces, and even "in-depth reviews" of "the facts." If Brock is to be believed, the problem is bigger on the right than on the left, but no one is immune.

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