12/19/2015

Book Look - Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston



Admit I spent years unfairly biased against this book because so many people told me I should read this for its literary significance - Harlem Renaissance, New Negro Movement, etc. If only they'd told me I should read it because it's a moving and gorgeously written narrative, perhaps I wouldn't have waited so long! For those of you who many be in the same boat, let me allay your fears: this isn't a militant polemic against racism, nor the self-conscious, bloated "trophy novel" of a literary giant, nor the product of a specific time and ethos ... this is just really good storytelling, ageless and affecting in all the ways good storytelling should be.

This story narrates the life of Janie, an African-American woman growing up in Florida in the early 20th century. Yes, it was an era when racism was rife, and racism shapes the paths of her life in a thousand explicit and implicit ways, but this isn't primarily a story about racism: it's about a woman finding the courage to pursue what makes her happy, even as social norms and customs work actively to thwart her. In Janie's case, all she wants is not to have to pretend to be something she's not. Discarding husbands along the way, she finally finds happiness with a man years younger than herself - a fitting match(at last) for her young soul. In this era of modern, self-realized feminism, her patient acceptance of unhappiness, exploitation, and abuse may grate, but I believe Hurston is doing no more than painting Janie's story with the colors of her own life and times.

At the time it was published, I gather this book was not well received by Hurston's Harlem peers. I see their point (or I think I see it) - many of the secondary characters in the tale seem plucked straight out of a "common black stereotypes" casting call. There's her second husband, the Carpetbagger, fast-talking and slick and not above exploiting his fellow African-Americans; her best friend, the Patient Black Woman selflessly putting everyone else's happiness before her own; her third husband, a happy-go-lucky Mr. Bojangles; and a whole posses of straw-chewing, tall-tale-telling Old Black Men gathered wherever there's a porch and a checkerboard to host them. Again, I think this is just Hurston painting with the palette she knows, bravely (much like her heroine Janie) writing what made her happy rather than what her peers thought she ought to be writing.

Another criticism I've heard of the book is that Hurston's use of dialect can make this a slow read. For that reason I deliberately listened to it as an audiobook, narrated by actress/poet/journalist/civil rights activist Ruby Dee. Through her interpretation, any barriers between the reader and the language quickly melts away in a flood of appreciation for the uniquely authentic and evocative speech patterns and lyric metaphorical allusions employed by Hurston's rich and complex subculture. Seriously, some of the figurative language is so stunningly expressive, at times I had to stop reading and just pause to appreciate it.

As for that title, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" ... I suppose you could interpret it a lot of ways. Based on the context in which it is used in the story, though, I think it's meant to communicate the profound fragility of the lives these characters lead. None of us control our destiny, but surely this is even more profoundly true of African-Americans in mid-20th century U.S. Characters like Janie and Teacake may possess internal strength, but each of them accepts without question that they are creatures of fickle and unjust fate. What, then, to do, but embrace the moments of happiness God grants them, understanding that at any time - for reasons they will never be able to predict, control or comprehend - He may pull the rug out from under them?

I hope this review encourages others to give this a read, and I especially encourage book clubs to consider adding this to their reading lists. There's so much here to discuss, ponder, and appreciate.

11/19/2015

Book Look - Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson


A well-researched exploration of how two men - one, a "gentleman scientist," the other, an observant and curious prelate - applied scientific method (a rare and misunderstood thing back in those days!) to pinpoint the source of a deadly cholera outbreak in London during the 1850s. What I liked about the book:

* A fascinating snapshot into the state of medical knowledge in the 1850s. The amount of ignorance that still remained in the field is staggering! Definitely makes you appreciate how far we've come in a relatively short time.

* Interesting discussion of how human psychology impacts (significantly) the willingness of folks to accept new scientific explanations that don't necessarily jibe with their own qualitative observations. Eerily pertinent to what's going on with climate change right now.

* An accessible account of the specific physiological impacts of cholera on the infected host; also, the precise circumstances under which the contagion is able to spread. Also very pertinent, given current ongoing outbreaks of cholera in Africa and in countries that have recently experienced mass infrastructure devastation due to natural events (tsunamis, hurricanes).

* Interesting insights into how parasites and hosts have been shaping the evolution of one another through time - including a rather fascinating argument that Europeans evolved the ability to consume quantities of alcohol - a toxic substance - because drinking alcohol afforded us the evolutionary advantage of resistance against disease-causing bacteria. Again pertinent, given growing alarm over antibiotic-resistant bacteria ... proof, if proof was needed, that bacteria and other living organisms are just as driven to survive as we are.

* A cool reflection on how visual imaging can shape and communicate data in powerful, sometimes transformative ways. We learn that our two ersatz scientists admonished local health boards in vain to make the necessary infrastructure improvements ... until one of them thought to overlay the data they had collected on a map of London, creating the "ghost map" of the title that was ultimately successful in "selling" their message. An insight we take almost for granted here in the 21st century, the era of infographics, but which was still an emerging idea back in the 1900s

What I didn't like about the book:

* The text felt "stretched" - in the words of Bilbo Baggins, "like butter scraped over too much bread." Obvious inferences were explained ad nauseum, and specific anecdotes/details were often repeated multiple times. Feel like the story could have been told just as effectively over 200 pages vs. the current 300.

* The loooong discussion of London's ecosystem, which - while moderately relevant - seems way too specific and prolonged for Johnson's avowed purpose. I got the feeling Johnson couldn't decide if he was writing a science text or a socio-economic history.

All-in-all, though, a worthy, engaging, and informative read, both as a history and as a source of insights relevant to world issues today. If we gave students this information in school, I bet no sewer infrastructure improvement ballot initiative would ever go unfunded again!

11/08/2015

A Thousand Words - Awesome Ph.D. Theses



1. Does music express emotions or just elicit them? Read the next 200 pages to not find out. - Welldogmycats 

2. Girls take birth control. Girls then pee out unmetabolized estrogens from birth control. Pee goes to water treatment plant, estrogens not treated, male fish become female fish. - Altzul

3. Nanoparticles are weird and I accidentally made a bomb and electrocuted myself. -M33 

4. People trying meditation for the first time get aroused. - PainMatrix

5. When I get rid of this gene, it messes the brain up. A lot. - NeuroscienceNerd

6. Computer AI systems can learn to operate a warp drive and automatically build an instructional system to train people how to do it. My dissertation is probably the only one in existence to reference the Star Trek technical manual. - DrBiometrics 

7. My experimental drug does NOT cure addiction. - NotSoCleverPork 

8. Making new magnets from old magnets because we're running out of magnets.
- IAmAHiggsBoson

9. Inpatients with schizophrenia are happier and socialize more in the context of a music listening group. It was obvious before we began the project and we learned nothing. - Wouldyestap

10. Little things stick together. Here's a slightly easier way to calculate their stickiness. - Born2bwire

11. There are amoebas living in volcanos, but I never captured Bigfoot on film (I tried). - RNAPII

12. We can take random pieces of bacterial DNA from beaver poop and put them into other bacteria to discover new things, like how to break wood down into biofuels. Yes, I had to dissect dead beavers and handle their poop. - Geneius

13. This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn't. - Bear_Ear_Fritters

14. I crunch numbers using a supercomputer in the hopes of ensuring a fusion reactor in France doesn't get fried on the inside. - PhysicsFornicator

15. Two proteins touch each other in a specific place in the developing heart. No idea if it's important for anything. - Penguinpaige

16. I can make models of galaxies in a computer, but I can't explain why they don't act like real ones. Even if I bash them together or stir them around.  - McMillan_Astro

17. People sometimes think about animals as if they're people. People like those animals a little more than regular animals. Except when they don't. I can't believe they gave me a PhD. - too_many_mangos

18. Sand washes away, don't build important stuff on it - Zoidy

19. Why does a coffee stain looks the way it is, and how you can use it to make anti-laser glasses. - Stockholm-Syndrom

20. You can make antimatter move in strange ways if you set your equipment up wrong. - DrTBag

SOURCE: http://www.tickld.com/x/15-phd-students-dumb-down-their-thesis-just-for-us

10/19/2015

Book Look - Guy Deverell, by Sheridan LeFanu


Le Fanu is better known for his gothic novels, but much like his contemporary, Wilkie Collins, he also penned stories of suspense and mystery. Guy Deverell is an example of the latter genre. Though the tale does include some elements of gothic horror (a wicked Baronet, a mouldering old manor house, a purported ghost), the tale itself is grounded firmly in the familiar tropes of Victorian fiction: a beautiful and virginal young heiress, her handsome and noble suitor, a slick foreigner who is Up To No Good, a proud old estate, a gentile house party featuring the de rigueur list of Victorian party guests (a bishop, a clergyman, a military general, a self-important roué, intolerable in-laws, and various unmarried ladies accompanied by chaperones), lawsuits, subterfuges, and a disputed inheritance.

Yes, anyone paying attention to the clues Le Fanu liberally sprinkles along the way is going to figure out the "big reveal" long before it is formally revealed. Happily, however, the book offers so many other delights - among these, Le Fanu's lovely use of language and his satirical portrayal of Victorian society - that this doesn't necessarily detract from the fun. For fun this is, in its Victorian way, from the novel's unusually well-drawn cast of characters (especially Sir Jekyl Marlowe, the novel's protagonist, an unapologetic and entirely entertaining rogue)to the sinister and pleasingly preposterous plot involving a duel, a mysterious death, love, lust, revenge, and an ominous "Green Chamber" housing some sort of malignant secret.

In summary, if you're a fan of Collins, Dickens or Austen, I predict you'll find plenty here to enjoy; and if you're not, Guy Deverell works as an entirely satisfying introduction to the venerable Victorian mystery/suspense genre.

10/08/2015

A Thousand Words - Attempted Murder


SOURCE: https://www.buzzfeed.com/virginmobilelive/20-moments-that-got-real-punny-5l87?sub=2137189_1057917&utm_term=.ldMyP4eQp#.fn35j1JLQ

9/19/2015

Book Look - Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton


This is one of those stories that works on many, many levels simultaneously. What all the levels have in common, however, is their exploration of man’s capacity for both selfishness and selflessness.

On one level, this is the story of the disintegration of a family. An elderly South African pastor travels to Johannesburg to track down members of his family who have vanished into the maw of that ravenous city, never to return. Heartbreakingly, he discovers that all of them have been marked and warped by their brush with soulless urbanism: his sister has become a prostitute, his brother a radical politician, his son, a thief and murderer. In the course of trying to cope with these heartbreaks, the aged, gentle Umfundisi (Zulu for “pastor”) is aided by a host of sympathetic strangers, both black and white. The juxtaposition of their generosity and capacity for kindness with the corruption and apathy of the city is deeply moving.

On another level, this is the story of the destruction of a way of life, as drought and ignorance of sound agricultural/land management practices threaten to forever destroy the beautiful valley of the Umfundisi's memory, leaving behind a dry and desolate plain. With characteristic equivocation, Paton challenges us to consider the extent to which we humans bring our evil with us – in the form of plows and tribes and customs – regardless of our intent.

On still another level, this is the story of the evils of European colonialism and the devastation wrought upon an unprepared native population by greedy mine owners, capitalists, and politicians. Paton doesn't shy away from blaming colonialism for the ruin of the corruption of the Umfundisi’s family and the loss of South Africa’s soul. And yet, again, he chooses the path of ethical ambiguity over the much easier path of moral righteousness, juxtapositioning acts of soulless exploitation with acts of stunning philanthropy.

Finally, this is the story of the transition of men from innocence to understanding. In ways both subtle and deeply ironic, the core tragedy of the tale forges an unexpected bond between the Umfundisi and a grieving white African businessman, kindling in both men a deeper wisdom and, unexpectedly, a faint stirring of hope that illuminates the final few pages of this complex and moving tale.

All this, Paton achieves via a wholly distinctive, lyrical narrative voice that mimics the rolling, repetitious rhythms of South African speech. At first I found this use of repetitive phrases and exchanges (for example, the staple farewell ritual of “stay well” and “go well”) a little self-conscious. By the end of the tale, however, I understood the extend to which these simple exchanges could communicate as much depth of feeling and pathos as a whole chapter of Dickens.

Readable, poignant, relevant … can we ask more from any book? If the definition of a “classic” is a tale that still has things to say about the human condition, then this one definitely deserves its spot in the pantheon.

10 Potential Perils of Ebooks

I'm no Luddite, as I expect this blog demonstrates. However, I do continue to have serious reservations about a future in which digital books replace paper books.  Here are some things I think we definitely need to ponder as a society before making the switch.
  1. Privacy. Libraries are forbidden by law from disclosing the books their patrons check out, but ebook retailers are allowed to monitor every aspect of your ebook usage ... even if you buy the book outright.  This includes tracking which books you buy, monitoring which pages you read, where you read them, when you read them, how much time you spend on each page, passages you highlighted, and any annotations you may make. All this info goes into a database where, presumably, it becomes available to pretty much anyone that wants it badly enough, including authorities. Think about that the next time you read a book that advocates overthrowing the government, or happens to mention how to make a bomb, or - in the course of an otherwise innocent mystery - discusses ways to get away with murder.  Honestly, I'm not sure how I'm ever going to read an ebook in future without constantly second-guessing what inferences Homeland Security may be drawing from my literary choices.
  2. Content Filtering.  Another use for the data ebook companies are collecting? They're using it to determine how to make content more "marketable."  I just came back from listening to an author talk about how he's going to cut one chapter out of the next edition of his book because data shows most people are skipping it. So what happens if the folks publishing "War & Peace" find out most people are skipping chapters 9-15? Do they cut those chapters out so that they can sell more copies? What about controversial texts, like the next Democracy in America? (Ebook publisher: "Hmmm, they don't seem to like the parts that are critical about Americans, so let's cut those out.") The next The Prince? (Ebook publisher: "They're loving the stuff about soulless capitalism - let's beef those parts up!") The next Communist Manifesto? (Ebook publisher: "Wow, this is so not PC! Someone take out all that damned stuff about socialism!")
  3. Recommendation Filtering. The same gentlemen mentioned above waxed enthusiastically about the "Netflix-ization" of ebook recommendations, by which he meant Netflix's algorithm that recommends new videos based on your past preferences.  Who needs the bother of browsing through bookstores when technology can hook you up with something you're sure to enjoy, based on an analysis of your previous reading habits? Am I the only one that considers the prospect of a constant drip-feed of filtered content terrifying?  It's hard to imagine a more effective way to narrow rather than broaden minds.  Seriously, have you ever tried actually "browsing" the content available via Netflix? Everything's been shoved into so many micro-categories that it's almost impossible to stumble upon something unexpected.
  4. Price. You know what paper books offer but that ebooks lack? (Besides that lovely book smell, I mean?) An aftermarket. I don't have economic information about used book sales, but I'm betting they constitute a huge percentage of total book sales every year. One understands that neither paper nor digital book publishers are fond of used book sales, as they potentiallyreduce sales of volumes at full price. No doubt it's true that some people who buy used books could afford full price. However, a considerable number of people who buy used books do so because they can't afford full price.  For them, a world without paper books offers only two options: library or nothing. Which leads me to my next concern ....
  5. Accessibility.  Say what you will about the bulk and fragility of paper books - at least no expensive infrastructure is required to read them.  All you need is some light and a set of eyes. Ebooks, on the other hand, require an e-device (kindle, e-phone), batteries, and internet connectivity.  All of which can be financial challenging for the 15% of U.S. citizens who live in poverty. Build all the libraries you want, but if the only thing they stock is digital content, they're of next to no use to folks who can't afford digital e-readers. Ironically, these are the very folk who are in most desperate need of free/easy access to books, as literacy is arguably the most critical enabler to reversing poverty.  If you want to widen the social divide in the U.S. even further, then withholding books from poor people is a great way to set about it. 
  6. Portability.  Forget loaning your book to anyone else. Ebooks come with highly restrictive licenses designed to prohibit the sharing of content. You can also forget about giving books as gifts.
  7. Digital Mortality.  It's common to think of digital content as immortal, but the fact is, it's all stored on hard drives that have the lifespan of about three years - in other words, the lifespan of a hardy gerbil. Server farms are constantly having to switch them out in order to ensure that content isn't lost. Consider this: if a server farm were to be deprived of electricity for a year, at least one third of the content would vanish; if deprived of electricity for three years, all the information stored on all the servers in all the world would vanish entirely.   IT folks call this scenario "digital apocalypse." Without books to help sustain our social and cultural identity, I'm pretty sure the apocalypse wouldn't stop there.
  8. Continuity.  Such is the nature of competition that the current handful of ebook companies are all offering their content in incompatible formats. Which makes the business of switching platforms potentially perilous if you want to retain access to the ebooks you've purchased, as there's no guarantee they'll port to your new device. Oh, and did I mention that ebook companies can decide to delete any ebook you've purchased from them at their will? Just what our society needs - an even more efficient and full-proof method of burning books.
  9. Attention Span.  Research indicates that in order for the brain to gain the full benefit of reading, distractions must be avoided.  It is, of course, absolutely possible to use e-readers in ways that minimize distraction. However, this requires resisting the temptation to check texts and click on embedded hyperlinks - temptations which paper books do not offer.
  10. Glare.  I know that ereaders are getting better at minimizing glare, but in the meantime I can't be the only person tired of constantly having to adjust my position so as to avoid glare and consequent eye strain. It's enough to put a person off reading entirely.

9/08/2015

A Thousand Words - Traffic Report

Lol pictures gallery of the hour (05:13:29 AM, Tuesday 24, March 2015 PDT) – 10 pics:

SOURCE: http://lolsuperfails.com/best-november-funny-quotes-063119-pm-saturday-14-november-2015-pst-10-pics/

8/27/2015

30+ Types of Specialty Gardens



I love gardening! Or, rather, I love the idea of gardening, as the heavily wooded plot on which I live is rather too rich in shade, deer and rodents to allow for much actual planting. However, this doesn't prevent me from daydreaming about the types of gardens I'd plant if I had unlimited time, unlimited space, unlimited $$, unlimited sun, and perhaps a few acres of greenhouses. Some of these specialty gardens listed below are fairly well-known; others, however, I've "collected" from my life and travels. If you end up being inspired by this list to plant any of these, send me a photo!

  1. Booze Garden (aka Cocktail Garden).  Having just recently read The Drunken Botanist, I'm now all aflame to create a garden full of plants involved in the production of alcohol so that I can distill my own! All kinds of garden appropriate plants can be converted into booze, especially fruits.  It's also easy to grow many of the herbs used to create simple syrups; for example, mint, lemongrass, geranium, and lavender. (Source: The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart)
  2. Chinese Garden. I read somewhere that Chinese gardens evolved from so-called "scholar's gardens," intended to facilitate the academic contemplation of Chinese scholars and beaurocrats. Typically incorporating a combination of plantings, water, rock (the rocks were supposed to remind the scholars of cool mountains), paths, and structural elements, these elements are then artfully arranged into mini-landscapes. In my dreams my own Chinese Garden incorporates weeping willow, ginkgo, flowering cherry trees, chrysanthemums, and a moon gate.
  3. Christmas Garden.  Almost every year at Christmas my family travels to a nearby botanic garden specifically to ogle their greenhouses and indoor structures stuffed to the brim with holiday plants - poinsettias, peace lilies, hollies, ivy, mistletoe, and conifers/boxwoods of every description. What I wouldn't give to be able to create a Christmas garden of my own!
  4. Color Garden.  I love the idea of creating single-color gardens in which flowers of a single color are grouped.  Within such a garden one would be able to move past color and truly appreciate the nuances and variations of nature - shade, shape, texture.
  5. Cottage Garden. It's hard not to be dazzled by scripted chaos of a cottage garden, an over-the-top cacophony of the snapdragons, irises, lilies, peonies, columbine, geraniums, foxglove, cornflowers, phlox, allum, and - of course! - roses ... either consuming the whole yard or confined behind white picket fencing or cockleshells all in a row.
  6. Curiosities Garden. A garden entirely composed of weird-looking (and acting) plants? What could be cooler? I imagine this as a sort of outdoor "cabinet of curiosities," combining nature's oddest fauna - monkey puzzle trees, dragon's blood trees, exotic fungi, carnivorous plants - gathered from the four corners of the earth.  
  7. Dinosaur Garden (aka prehistoric garden). A garden comprised solely of species and varieties that existed on earth during the time of the dinosaurs. Think exotic conifers, redwoods, cycads, ginkgos, sphenopsids (like horsetails) and ferns. 
  8. Dry Garden.  Dry gardens are just what they sound like - gatherings of drought-resistant plants (ex: succulents) artfully embedded in dryscaping. I've seen this done in some of the wealthier neighborhoods in San Diego and Arizona; the result is something between landscaping and artwork. So many gorgeously exotic succulents - so many patterns and effects you can create with stone!
  9. Formal Garden. Every great house in Europe seems to have least one formal garden, featuring boxwood-lined, geometrically-arranged paths, often surrounding elaborate topiary sculptures or a fountain. However, formal gardens aren't reserved for great houses - many middle-class homes in Colonial Williamsburg feature formal gardens too, some of which do double-duty as herb gardens. Though I do love a nice topiary elephant, I think the latter sort may be more within my scope.
  10. Fruit Garden (aka orangerie). This garden would undoubtedly require greenhouses, but what could be better than fruit picked fresh off the vine or tree?  I might even throw in a grape arbor or two, since I live in an area where wineries are becoming ubiquitous.
  11. Grasses Garden.  I'm such a sucker for ornamental grasses! I love their height, their lightness, and their infinite variety - some sporting stalks topped with oats, others cattails, still others gaudy flowers.  What a pretty garden one could make of just ornamental grasses.
  12. Hanging Garden. Have you ever passed through a trellis "tunnel" overgrown by wisteria? Then you know the sort of garden I'm imagining, composed entirely of arching trellises overgrown with floral vines (wisteria, bougainvillea - whatever I can get to grow in my zone), their blooms dangling through gaps in the boards.  I'd line the trellises with white fairy lights and place wrought iron tables underneath the blooms to create a magical place for evening parties.
  13. Herb Garden. An oldie-but-goodie ... a garden dedicated to growing kitchen herbs and spices. True, some herbs/spices aren't terrifically photogenic - they look more like grasses or weeds - but the scent of an herb garden in full flower is more than adequate compensation!
  14. Japanese Garden. Though not my first choice (I tend to prefer letting nature be natural), one has to appreciate the aesthetic charms of Japanese gardens, with their delicate bonsai trees, sculpted paths, and delicate bridges.
  15. Medicinal Garden. A garden comprised entirely of plants with identified medicinal properties, because how cool would it be to run out into the garden to pick from fresh aloe vera whenever you need it? Other medicinal plants worth the space it takes to plant them include chamomile, echinacea, ginseng, gentian, lemon balm, comfrey, feverfew, and yew.
  16. Native Garden. I'm borrowing this idea from the Smithsonian Museum of Native Americans, which has planted the grounds surrounding the museum with vegetables and fruits native to North America. Depending on climate, such a garden could include varieties of beans, corn, sunflower, tomato, chili peppers, squash, pumpkins, beechnuts, concord grapes, black cherries, strawberries, blueberries, cranberries and key limes.
  17. Night-blooming Garden. Also known as Moon Gardens, these landscapes feature plants that bloom only at night. The white flowers of most moon garden plants look luminous by moonlight. As a bonus, night blooming flowers attract pollinating insects through fragrance, rather than color, perfuming the air with rich scent. Some good night blooming flowers for a moon garden include Moonflower (Ipomea alba), Four o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), Nicotiana (Nicotiana alata), Yucca (Yucca filamentosa), Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria),and Artemesia. (Source: http://www.gardenguides.com/84223-novelty-garden-ideas.html)
  18. Poisoners garden. Several botanic gardens around the world have begun featuring poisoner's gardens - gardens devoted to plants that produce deadly toxins: belladonna/nightshade, hemlock, monkshood/aconite, jessamine, angle trumpet vine, etc.  (Liability? To hell with liability!)  My own poisoner's garden would include plaques for each plant listing the infamous poisoning trails in which it had been implicated!
  19. Pollinator's garden (aka  butterfly garden). A garden full of temptingly delicious pollen ... if you're a pollinator, that is! Not only would the butterfly and hummingbird sightings be lovely, but I'd be giving overworked bees a break by providing easily accessible sources of pollen; we all know bees need all the help they can get. Plants that attract pollinators vary by growing zone, but I've heard butterfly bush, butterfly week, bee balm, phlox, and milkweed (for monarchs) are reliable staples. 
  20. Rain garden.  As a scientist I'm sensitive to the need for more rain gardens - gardens built in shallow depressions whose purpose is to gather and filter rainwater before it enters the water table. The trick is to choose plant species that can tolerate wet soil and high levels of phosphates and nitrogen from fertilizer runoff.  
  21. Rock garden. Not only are rock gardens cool (I am a geologist), but they're multi-functional: you can install them on slopes that are too steep to mow; they add texture/altitude to otherwise flat, boring lawns, they're the perfect landscaping for arid areas, they combine well with water features, and they're great for setting off small-plants in a way that ensures they'll be seen.  Mine, of course, will include geologic specimens - banded iron stones, agates, etc. 
  22. Scent garden. If you enjoy aromatherapy, consider planting a scent garden, full of fragrant herbs and flowers. Choose plants that scent the air, such as roses, as well as plants that release perfume when brushed or crushed, such as scented geranium or thyme. Look for varieties grown for their scent; some modern hybrids of plants such as roses have very little scent at all. Some plants to try in a scent garden include butterfly bush ( Buddleia davidi), nasturtium (Tropaeloum majus),  sweet alyssum (Alyssum marit/mum), creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and  lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). (Source: http://www.gardenguides.com/84223-novelty-garden-ideas.html)
  23. Shade garden.  Shade gardens have their own special type of magic: they're perpetually cool and damp and they smell wonderfully earthy. My own shade garden will incorporate particularly spectacular varieties of hosta and fern, set against a backdrop of rhododendron and azalea.
  24. Shakespearean Garden. Stole this idea from the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington D.C., where they've planted a garden with all the plants mentioned in Shakespeare's plays - at least all the ones they can identify (and that grow in their zone). Naturally, the garden will be arrayed around a bust of the bard on a aged and venerable column.
  25. Single-species garden. There's something scientifically intriguing about gathering together all (or many) of the varieties of a single species in one place. In the case of flowers, the satisfaction is visual as well. Many species of flowers are available in spectacular variations - some naturally occurring, others bred by gardeners - to include rose, tulip, orchid, fuschia, peony, iris, and clematis
  26. Tea Garden. What's better than brewing a fragrant cup of tea? Enjoying a cup of fragrant tea that you grew yourself!  Many herbs are suitable for growing in the garden, including Tea Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora), Jasmine (Jasminum sambac), Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and mint. Grow tea roses for both their beauty and fragrance, and for their rose hips, which make a citrus-y tea full of Vitamin C. (Source: http://www.gardenguides.com/84223-novelty-garden-ideas.html)
  27. Tropical Garden. Though it would require a greenhouse for me to pull this one off, I love the idea of being able to escape our harsh local winters by retreating into my own tropical paradise featuring palms, hibiscus, banana trees, elephant ears, orchids, ferns, and birds of paradise.
  28. Victorian garden.  What I picture in my imagination is a garden filled with all those dainty flowers one associates with the Victorian era: roses, lilies, baby's breath, forget-me-not, bachelor button, carnation, lavender, etc.  What fun it would be to create posies and bouquets with secret meanings for all my friends!
  29. Victory garden. Your standard local vegetable/herb/fruit garden, but with a cool patriotic name, harking back to the days of WW1 and WW2 when Americans were encouraged to plant their victory gardens so as to free up more food for "our boys overseas." Just big enough to supply our family's needs plus some left over for canning.
  30. Water garden. I picture wide, shallow pools filled with blossoming lilipads and water-tolerant plants and populated with ornamental fish. Also lots of frogs to control the inevitable mosquito population.  
  31. Wildflower garden. All the beauty of a local meadow without the thistles. And snakes. An added benefit is that native wildflowers tend to attract native bugs, including swirling swarms of lightening bugs in summer. Magical!

8/19/2015

Book Look - The Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens


It’s been days now since I finished Tale of Two Cities, but still having a hard time shaking it. The opening of the book – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” foreshadows up the conundrum to come – how can a story of so much horror also be a story of so much love, nobility, and self-sacrifice?

I postponed reading the book much longer than I should have because, frankly, I worried for my emotional well-being. Having barely survived the death of Little Nell, I wasn’t sure I had the intestinal fortitude to handle a Dickens novel set during the horrors of the French Revolution. The inescapable irony, of course, is that great love/nobility/sacrifice can only exist in the midst of horror. And so it is in this riveting, heartwarming/heartbreaking tale of (with apologies to The Princess Bride) “true love” in all its forms – selfish, platonic, filial, romantic, unrequited.

As I expect most folks already know, the tale centers around a triumvirate of characters – the beautiful, virtuous Lucie Manett, her psychologically fragile old father Doctor Manette, and Charles Darney, an honorable young French nobleman who has moved to England in order to renounce any association with the atrocities of the Revolution. And since this is Dickens, they are kept company by a bakers dozen other brilliantly imagined and realized characters, from the coarse but faithful Crusher to the stolid-businessman-with-a-heart-of-gold Lorry, from the ambitious French revolutionary DeFarge to his ghastly wife Madame DeFarge, from self-aggrandizing lawyer Stryver to perhaps one of Dickens’ most tragic characters, the self-destructive university student Sidney Carton.

Inevitably, our young lovers Charles and Lucie end up in the hands of the Revolution, whereupon I headed for the tissue box, foreseeing the tragic end. But because this is Dickens (again), I should have expected that the tragedy would be a complex thing: that heroes would turn out to be flawed, that villains would turn out to be less heartlessly villainous as they may at first have appeared, and that otherwise ordinary people would turn out to be capable of extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice. As in many other Dickens novels, the author doesn’t shy away from realistically portraying the cruelty and brutality of which human society is capable. Some of the people and scenes depicted in this tale are simply appalling. And yet, somehow, Dickens always manages to pilot us through the morass to a place where human decency ends up triumphing over all the obstacles set against it.

Am not sure why Sidney Carton doesn’t get the press that other literary greats – Gatsby, Ahab, Heathcliff, Atticus Finch, etc. – have garnered, because I feel like he more than deserves a spot in the pantheon. Be that as it may, he’s definitely earned a spot in my list of great characters in literature, and whether or not he’s enjoying the far, far better rest he wholeheartedly deserves, I know I’m a far better and richer person for having met him and for allowing Dickens, once again, to whisk me away on an unforgettable journey

8/08/2015

8/07/2015

Climate Change's Tipping Point: 10 Feedback Loops That Explain Why It May Be Closer Than We Think


A feedback loop is any initial process that triggers a change that in turn influences the initial process.  The feedback loop is considered "positive" if it increases or enhances the initial process, "negative" if it lessens or negates the initial process.

In the case of climate change, there's nothing "positive" about positive feedback loops.  For those folks out there who weren't paying attention in 7th grade science, the earth is a very delicately balanced system of systems. Any disruption in one system (in this case, the carbon cycle) inevitably inpacts other systems - sometimes in ways that are easy to predict, other times in ways that are freakishly complex.  This is the main reason scientists can't tell us how quickly climate change is going to happen: while they have a pretty good handle on how much carbon dioxide we humans will be producing in the future, they really have no idea of the extent to which feedback loops - some already identified, some only just now being studied, some yet to be discovered - are going to exacerbate and hasten global warming.  What they can, and are, telling us, however, is that the more they learn about feedback loops, the more frightening the climate change prognosis becomes.

Without further ado, following are some of the more significant positive feedback loops scientists have thus far identified, a list that I'll continue to add to as new research becomes available.

  1. Warmer temperatures will cause people to use more air conditioning, the emissions from which will hasten climate change.
  2. Melting icecaps will result in less reflective surface on earth (an effect called ice-albedo), causing the earth to absorb increasing amounts of heat, which will hasten climate change.  
  3. Melting ice forms rivers of water that erode through the glacier over/through/under which they flow, further hastening the melting rate of glaciers. Fewer glaciers = less light-colored surface to reflect light = faster climate change (per #2)
  4. Droughts will cause more forest fires, the smoke from which will hasten climate change.  Oh - and ash from the fires will cause the earth to darken, which will cause the earth to absorb more heat (see #2), which will also hasten climate change
  5. Everyone knows that trees photosynthesize during the day (absorbing carbon dioxide & releasing oxygen - GOOD!) then during the night hours use the energy they've created to grow and do other tree business (absorbing oxygen & releasing carbon dioxide - BAD!).  Recent research suggests, however, that when trees become too stressed - because of excess heat, for example - they reduce the amount of time they spend photosynthesizing and increase the amount of time they spend using energy ... which returns carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will hasten climate change
  6. Cold water does a better job of retaining dissolved gasses than warm water.  At ocean and freshwater temperatures increase, they will release stores of dissolved methane and carbon dioxide, which will hasten climate change. The converse of this is also true, by the way - as ocean waters warm, they will be able to absorb smaller amounts of carbon dioxide than in past ... further hastening climate change.
  7. Enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane are stored in tundra permafrost. As permafrost ice melts, quantities of methane and carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere, hastening climate change. Oh, and warming temperatures are causing a "baby boom" of microbes that are degrading the permafrost even more swiftly, further hastening climate change.
  8. Most people are aware that, when it comes to slowing climate change, more trees is a good thing because they absorb carbon dioxide during the process of photosynthesis (#5). What many people don't remember is that during the process of photosynthesis trees also release excess water vapor in a process known as transpiration - evaporation of moisture from trees.  Interestingly, most of the rain that falls in rainforests such as the Amazon isn't actually produced by evaporation of groundwater but by transpiration. Therefore, as droughts kill trees in the rainforest, even more severe droughts are triggered due to reduced transpiration, which will kill more trees ... hastening climate change
  9. Warm temperatures hasten the decomposition of vegetable matter (ex: peat), which will increase the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere, thus hastening climate change
  10. Warmer temperatures cause more evaporation, which causes more water vapor to enter the atmosphere. Alas, water vapor is a greenhouse gas, so this will hasten climate change.

7/19/2015

Book Look - Howard's End, by E.M. Forster


Nothing much happens in the first half of this E.F. Forster novel, set in Edwardian England. That is, there’s a lot of intellectually self-conscious conversation about art, culture and philosophy by two well-to-do sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlagel, and a bit where their path crosses with a considerably less well-to-do gent named Leonard Bast, a clerk in an insurance office who is trapped by poverty, class and an unfortunate marriage into a much more subscribed life, but who aspires to something more poetic. It’s when their lives become entangles with the lives of the nuveau-rich Wilcox family, the tenants of Howards End, that things start becoming more complicated.

Literally, Howards End is a pretty country house, neither plain nor ostentatious but – as they say in the fairy tale – just right. Symbolically, it represents a simpler, more stately world in which people understand the importance of remaining connected to the land and family. Because this novel is, at its core, a story about an England in transition between two value systems: agrarian vs. modern. The characters, in one fashion or another, wrestle with the values and ethics of the “new world” in which they find themselves, trying to forge a balance between old values and modern principles.

It’s not just poor Mr. Bast who aspires to something he can never achieve. Pretty much everyone in this book possesses the same fatal flaw. Helen nurses a socialist vision of a world in which the poor are provided equal access to education, wealth, and achievement. Mr. Wilcox, a successful “new money” aristocrat, wants to believe his England a “progressive” world in which efficiency and capitalism reign triumphant. Margaret wants the man she has fallen in love with to be worthy of her love. One by one, each of them is destroyed (or nearly destroyed) by their witting/unwitting self-delusion.

About the only person who doesn’t nurse allusions is Wilcox’s first wife, a lingering representative of English yeomanry who senses her breed is dying away but who, unlike her husband, understand the substance and integrity of the principles that are being sacrificed to the gods of business. Howards End is her ancestral home, and as long as she lives, she serves as the roots that keep her family grounded. It is when she passes and her family embraces rootlessness that everyone comes to grief, in the way that all 19th century novels seem to do, with disillusion and disgrace eventually resolving into unhappy equilibrium. In the case of Howards End, everyone realizes that they have been betrayed by self-delusion and that, as the first Mrs. Wilcox understood all along, it’s the connections we make to land and family that sustain us.

This isn’t the easiest read. The pretentious intellectualism of the first chapters is off-putting; then, later, it’s hard to stand by and watch the characters advance relentlessly towards their own destruction. But I found the themes of the tale worthy, the characters interesting, and Forster resolves the tale in an ending that isn’t unremittingly bleak, which is more than I can say for other novels of this period and genre.

7/17/2015

30+ Works of Classic Literature Paired With the Perfect Dessert

Because the only way to make a great book better is to pair it with something sweet.

Like wine and cheese, however, it's important to plan your pairings in advance, to make sure they complement each other. 

Here are some of my suggested pairings:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn + apple pie.  Both are great American institutions.
  2. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland + pineapple upside-down cake.  Nothing is as it should be!
  3. Animal Farm + animal crackers.  How docilely they march off to their fates
  4. As I Lay Dying + pecan pie.  Nuts and booze - two things you often find in combination.
  5. The Big Sleep + oranges.  So much pulpy goodness!
  6. Crime & Punishment + fruitcake.  Two things seeped in tradition but way too dense to actually consume.
  7. Don Quixote + plum pudding.  Unappetizing upon first appearance, but suspended inside are treasures of great worth.
  8. Grapes of Wrath + pound cake.  Sustaining but never quite satisfying.
  9. Great Gatsby + sorbet.  So bright, so beautiful, so tempting; then it melts and you realizes it was never anything but sugar water and food coloring.
  10. Gulliver's Travels + Jello.  All sorts of nasty surprises suspended inside
  11. Frankenstein + glazed doughnut sundae.  Some combinations are just too dangerous to exist.
  12. Inferno + baked Alaska.  It's all fun and games until suddenly you find yourself in flames.
  13. Little Women + shortbread.  Simple but highly satisfying
  14. Lolita + lollipops.  So innocent; so alluring!
  15. Lord of the Rings + doughnuts. Beware all rings of power.
  16. Madame Bovary + fresh cherries.  Glistening, gaudy and oh, so tempting ... until you realize that they come with pits.
  17. Moby Dick + blackberry pie. As dark and bitter as Ahab's soul
  18. The Portrait of Dorian Gray + meringue.  The fantasy of perfection is sustained only so long as no one comes too close, whereupon it self-destructs and turns to dust.
  19. Pride & Prejudice + tea cakes. Obviously!
  20. Robinson Crusoe + breadfruit.  Filling, but not much nutritional value.
  21. Scarlet Letter + Twinkies.  Because all of us have a shameful secret.
  22. Scoop + ice cream sundae. As if the ice cream weren't good enough, it's topped with all kinds of delightfully gaudy sauces and sprinkles.
  23. Sophie's Choice + a box of chocolates.  Choosing just one means leaving all the others behind, and you'll never know if you made the best choice.
  24. The Importance of Being Earnest + bonbons.  Every glittering witticism is like a zing of exquisite chocolate.
  25. To Kill a Mockingbird + shoofly pie. Because you shouldn't dismiss something until you've walked in it's shoes
  26. Treasure Island + rum cake with orange icing. The orange icing is to ward off scurvy
  27. Tropic of Cancer + chocolate éclairs. You know it's all about the naughty bits.
  28. Ulysses + raw coconut.  A touch nut to crack, and after you've gone to all that trouble you're still not sure it was worth it.
  29. Vanity Fair + key lime pie.  No matter how much whipped cream you pile on top, it can never quite disguise the sour bitterness at the core.
  30. War & Peace + mincemeat pie.  All meat; no pie.
  31. Wuthering Heights + raw blackberries.  It's the thorns that make them so desirable

6/26/2015

50+ Unanswered Questions in Science


 
Recently read an article purporting to present the 20 Most Significant Unanswered Questions in Science.  So of course I immediately started thinking about all the questions that didn't make the list.  Obviously, every tiny science specialty is going to have its own list of unanswered questions, most of them so content-specific and obtuse that civilians haven't a hope of understanding them.  Even so, a quick bit of brainstorming is all it takes to realize just how much we don't know about even the big things; throw in a quick survey of other articles on the internet, and you get the following list.  What major unanswered questions have I left out? Let me know!  
  1. Unanswered questions about biology/neurology
    1. What is the biological basis of consciousness?
    2. Just how far can we prolong life?
    3. Can cryogenics work?
    4. Are GMO foods safe?
    5. To what extent will we be able to use technology to enhance human functioning?
    6. Can we regenerate body parts?
    7. Why do we dream? What happens when we dream?
    8. How do we store/retrieve memories?
    9. What is "junk DNA"? What does it do?
    10. How did life on earth begin?
    11. Can we eliminate pain? should we?
    12. What caused the Cambrian explosion?
    13. What is intelligence? Just how plastic is the brain? How "fixed" is IQ?
    14. What are the neural causes of mental illness?
    15. What is the evolutionary explanation for homosexuality?
    16. Can we cure cancer?
    17. What organisms remain undiscovered on earth?
  2. Unanswered questions about our earth
    1. How bad will climate change get?
    2. What's going on inside the earth?
    3. What drives plate tectonics?
    4. What causes our magnetic poles to wander (and occasionally reverse)?
    5. Can we control the weather? Should we?
  3. unanswered questions questions about the universe/physics?
    1. How did the universe begin?
    2. Will the universe end?
    3. Is the universe finite or infinite? If finite, how big is it, and what lies beyond?
    4. What is the shape of the universe?
    5. What is dark matter? dark energy?
    6. Is there a universal theory of everything?
    7. Is time travel possible?
    8. Are we alone in the universe?
    9. Will we ever colonise space?
    10. Why hasn't all matter been destroyed by antimatter?
    11. Are there forces that move faster than light?
    12. What are black holes?
    13. Are there additional dimensions? How many?
    14. What does our discovery of the Higgs-Boson portend?
    15. Where do astrophysical neutrinos come from?
  4. Unanswered questions about chemistry?
    1. what's the relationship between weak force and strong force?
    2. How many elements exist? Are elements higher than 137 possible?
    3. Can we make an efficient biofuel?
    4. How do we effectively tap the sun's energy?
    5. Is cold fusion possible?
    6. Are there as-yet undiscovered states of matter?
  5. Unanswered questions about math
    1. Why are prime numbers so weird?
    2. Will all the Millennium Prize Problems ever be solved?
    3. Can everything be explained by math? 
  6. Unanswered questions about technology
    1. Just how smart can computers get?
    2. Can we create sentient technology? Will machines ever become conscious?
  7.  Unanswered questions about metaphysics
    1. Are ghosts real?
    2. Do humans have souls?
    3. Is there such a thing as free will?
    4. Does ESP exist?
    5. Does any rule exist that doesn't have at least one exception?

6/20/2015

10+ Defunct Retail Establishments That I Miss




Figure one of the few advantages of aging is that at least now I'm old enough now to start writing posts about the "good old days." Am starting with a list of retail establishments that were staples when I was a kid but that have since vanished - except that I'll have to use the term "vanished" loosely, as I understand some of these establishments do still exist, though in hugely decreased numbers and typically under new management.  What each store has in common is that they trigger specific memories and emotions - of time spent with my mom, dad, and sister, with families from the old neighborhood, with my grandmoms and granddads, with my best friends from high school, with college roommates, with my husband back when we were newly married, with my children back when they were babies.

Do any of these establishments pluck at memories of your own? What stores/restaurants remind you of your own "good old days"?
  1. Cargo Furniture.  Who didn't love Cargo furniture? It was boxy, uncomfortable, incredibly heavy, and practically indestructible.  Plus it was all magically sized so that you could stack it to create awesome Cargo wall units, cubbies, and nooks. Definitely not intended for the formal living room, but terrific for kids' rooms, family rooms, beach houses, and dorm rooms.  I also credit Cargo for, if not technically creating, then popularizing the loft-above-desk model for kids' rooms, which revolutionized the business of stuffing multiple children in tiny rooms. I can't be sure, but I suspect the furniture's indestructible nature may be the reason the store folded.  Once you bought the stuff, it didn't need replacing for, like, 200 years.
  2. Discovery Zone.  There has never been nor ever will be again an indoor playground as awesome as Discovery Zone.  You could take your kids there in the middle of winter and read a book while they wore themselves out climbing, sliding, swinging, and immersing themselves in ballpits the size of Olympic swimming pools. Okay, so I'm pretty sure they were breeding grounds for every bacteria known to mankind, but you know what? Try being trapped in a house with a few preschoolers for a week of below-zero temperate days in a row and tell me it wasn't worth the risk.
  3. Drug Fair.  Remember when going to the drug store was an event? You went for the shopping and then stayed for a burger and milkshake at the ubiquitous little diner tucked in the back of the store - the one with spinning stools set at intervals along a formica lunch counter with catsup in squirt bottles, napkins in glinting stainless steel dispensers, and straws in a glass apothecary jars.  Never mind that the menu only had about 10 meals - deciding between the burger, the grilled cheese, the hot dog platter or the BLT was serious business!
  4. Farrells.  This ice cream parlor chain had a Gay '90s theme - think women with tiny waists, big bustles, and straw hats perched on bicycles with improbably big wheels while chaps in striped suit coats stand by, gaping appreciatively.  Cleverly, you entered through a candy shop stuffed with every confection imaginable - from cotton candy to gumdrops to yards of taffy in every imaginable color; a fantasy come true if you were a kid, though I realize now this must have been a parental nightmare.  I believe they served a basic dinner menu, but the only reason you went there for the ice cream, preferably with 20 of your closest friends so you could justify purchasing one of their grotesquely enormous ice cream creations - troughs filled with 20, 30 or 40 scoops of ice cream, then topped with plastic zoo animals or pinwheels or lit sparklers, served up by teams of waiters who hoisted your ice cream trough high in the air as they raced down the aisles singing and shouting.  Inevitably, no matter how fast they raced, most of the ice cream melted before you could eat it, forming a kaleidoscopic goo at the bottom of the trough that left everyone in your party feeling vaguely sick as you exited the restaurant, a nausea that was inevitably enhanced by the overwhelming smell of all that candy as you departed.  But, ah, what a nostalgic nausea!
  5. Hechingers.  For a long time growing up, I thought of Hechingers primarily as that store where my dad spent his weekends.  The homey stenciled logo appeared all over my dad's workshop, on everything from work aprons to wooden paint paddles.  Later, living on my own, I came to appreciate Hechingers as that place you went to when you didn't know how to do something around the house.  Sure, they'd sell you the tools you needed to do the job. But the reason you went was to talk to Joe (or Bill, or Phil), who'd spend as much time as it took to walk you through each step of the process, possibly even scribbling the steps on the back of a packing slip so you wouldn't leave anything out.  Don't even try that at Home Depot or Lowes.
  6. Hot Shoppes.  How I miss cafeteria-style dining!  The excitement of picking out your tray and then piloting it along gleaming stainless steel rails through food nirvana.  First, those delicious, steaming trays of comfort food - pot roast and meatloaf, Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, liver and onions, corn on the cob, green beans swimming in bacon!  Followed by row after row of gleaming glass shelves laden with gelatin-based deserts, pudding parfaits, and every imaginable variety of pie.  All consumed in the comfortable confines of a bright orange booth with water rings on the formica left behind by genuine glass glasses of ice water, continually refreshed. I'm telling you now, no menu can ever hope to replace the sheer sensory slendidness that was the Hot Shoppes cafeteria line.
  7. Luau Gardens.  Yours may not have been called Luau Gardens, but you know what I'm talking about.  Remember that small neighborhood dive with tiki-themed interior decorations and a faux Polynesian menu that was actually Chinese?  Alcoholic drinks in fake coconuts, a big mural of tropic islands on the walls, and an oversized menu with page after page of dishes you'd never heard of but that all seemed exotic at a time when home-cooking meant combining meat, vegetables, and condensed soup into a casserole dish?  I miss when a family dinner out felt like a foray into the exotic South Seas, Disney style.
  8. Lums.   Lums was one of those dim, faux Tiffany-lamplit family eateries that served everything in baskets, from BLTs to fried clams.   Why did food used to taste better just because it was served in baskets?  I don't know why - it just did.  Plus they used to serve something called a beer-steamed hot dog, which haunts me to this day.  A great regret of my life is that the Lums franchise disappeared before I was old enough to enjoy one of these intriguing delicacies. 
  9. Shakees.  Another gay '90s-themed restaurant - what was our fixation with the gay '90s back in the 1960s?   (Perhaps because there were still people alive with nostalgic memories of the time period?)  You entered the pizza eatery through gorgeously colorful bottle-glass doors, which swung open to reveal long tables, suitable for parties the size of whole neighborhoods, which was good because back in those days whole neighborhood actually did things together, like go out for pizza.  Inside, the restaurant featured old-timey "gag" signs in gay '90s fonts (ex: "Musicians will work for beer"), checkers boards, a player piano with scrolls you could insert yourself (but that always seemed to be playing The Yellow Rose of Texas when you arrived), and sometimes a live ragtime band in striped vests and boater hats performing such classics as Shine on Harvest Mood and Sweet Adeline.  But the coolest feature by far, if you were a kid, was the a big picture window through which you could watch the staff throw the pizza dough up into the air and see the cooked pies popping out of the "finished" end of the pizza oven.  Endless hours of fun!
  10. Thom McAn.  Nothing used to torture a foot like a new pair of Thom McAn shoes!  I will forever associate the store with hard-sided plastic or leather shoes that never yielded so much as a millimeter to comfort, no matter how often you wore them.  To ensure that you purchased just the right size - that is, exactly one half size smaller than you actually needed - the highly trained staff would center your stockinged foot in the middle of this metallic measuring contraption with sliding bars that would have been intriguing if it weren't so formidable and uncomfortable.  After removing your foot, the employees would stare so knowingly and confidently at the numbers that it never occurred to my mom that their measurements could be in any way wrong.  Which is how I spent the early years of my life perpetually limping back and forth to school and church.
  11. Tower Records.  So many long afternoons spent thumbing through album covers, trying to figure out the best investment for my $7! Should I go "tried and true" - perhaps something safe by Chicago? Or opt for pop - perhaps the latest Abba release? Or risk something a little harder - The Rolling Stones, Boston, or Styx? Or really get daring and buy something based solely on its album cover art or a sample or two available via earphones at one of the store's "listening stations"? Kids growing up today with ready access to iTunes will never appreciate the pressure we felt back in the days when music came in albums, of which you knew maybe 2-3 cuts if you were lucky and so had to buy the rest on spec.
  12. Waccamaw Pottery.  It was disorganized, cheesy, and often dirty, but that's what I loved about this "catch-all" store of factory remainders.  The primary draw was row after row of dishware and glassware, all unboxed and only very cursorily sorted, heavy on those brown-glazed soup bowls that were de rigeur back in the 70s.  But beyond these aisles was where the fun began, for you never knew what you'd find: plastic flower arrangements for cemeteries, lawn flamingoes, ceramic pots large enough to house grown trees, candles in hideous colors, remaindered towels and bed linens in equally hideous colors, baskets, random clay animals, grotesquely tacky holiday decorations .... 
  13. Woolworths.  Ah, Woolworths!  Is there anyone that doesn't nurse nostalgic memories of this classic neighborhood five & dime?  This was the only store that we didn't complain about getting dragged to when we were kids; in fact, mom used to have to bribe my sister and I with milkshakes at the soda counter just to get us to leave.  And no wonder - what kid wouldn't be enthralled by row after crowded row of eye-catching merchandise, from toys in bright boxes to colorful fabrics on spools, from penny candy to bins heaped with buttons, from shelves straining with ill-sorted books to that marvelous pet section where you could buy fish for a nickel, painted turtles for 50 cents, or a pair of parakeets in a cage for less than $10?  Best of all was coaxing your mom into taking you in December, when the entrance to the store was transformed into a Christmas wonderland, complete with glowing plastic Santas and snowmen, towering piles of boxed holiday ornaments and tinsel, and tins of holiday cookies/candy.  To paraphrase a certain Kansas native: Wooworths, I think I miss you most of all.
  14. Zany Brainy.  A toy story devoted to stocking only toys with educational value?  Talk about a concept designed to inspire righteous awe in parents and dread in children!  Not that the store didn't carry some toys that were actually fun to play with - those wood train sets that reliably enthrall toddler-aged boys, for instance.  But most of the toys - stacking rings, musical instruments, pull toys - were too old-fashioned to appeal to today's youngest generation.  Plus everything cost at least $25, at a time when you could buy the game Monopoly at that "Other Toy Store" for, like, $5.  Which probably explains why this store went belly up: in the end, fickle children will inevitably choose cheap Star Wars action figures over wooden peg toys, Eyewitness books, and even dolls with historically accurate backstories.  And though it's tempting to blame them for their lack of maturity, we all know we were the same way when we were kids too.

6/19/2015

Book Look - The Maid's Version, by Daniel Woodrell


Don't be fooled by the modest length of this novella. This is no light read; rather, it's as dense as a Christmas pudding, stuffed to groaning with sweetmeats and pickled things and familiar but unsettling tokens, then drowned in something bitterly alcholic and set recklessly ablaze for our consumption.

The book's synopsis seems to promise a work of Southern noir, an expose of the mysteries and secrets surrounding a horrific 1920s dance hall fire that devastates a small, insular southern town. But this book is character- rather than plot-driven, an expose not so much of - a crime? an accident? an act of love? an act of vengence? - as an exploration of how complex prejudices, motivations, and relationships within a community spin a web so tangled and inescapable that a tug upon one strand has unforeseeable and often tragic consequences upon the whole.

Before too many pages have passed, the alert reader will realize that Woodrell isn't like other storytellers. One becomes used to authors "tidying" their material - arranging events in chronological order, emphasizing important details, omitting insignificant events - the better to aid their readers' comprehension. Real life, in contrast, is anything but tidy: information gets dispersed erratically, if at all; critical details are omitted or pass unrecognized; and distracting red herrings abound. Woodrell's storytelling technique mimics this latter style, which I gather some readers have found off-putting but which I found fascinating. The result is that one is constantly having to cast aside preconceived notions, question biases, and reevaluate assumptions.

All of which makes this dense going, but well worth the labor if you're willing to set aside your preconceived notions about what this book "should be" - a formulaic Southern gothic - and accept it for what it is - a much more genuine, and in many ways infinitely more tragic, exploration of the tangled webs - spun by generations of poverty, pride, aspiration, humilitation, hope, despair, class, race, love and loss - that our untidy, unruly human hearts inevitably weave.

5/19/2015

Book Look - An Autumn Sowing, by E.F. Benson


This is the rather melancholic tale of a prosperous businessman in the "autumn" of his years (50s) realizing that all he has to show for his life are a silly wife, a preposterous daughter, a grotesquely-decorated house, business acquaintances, and a library full of books that hint at a world of beauty, grace and provenance that he covets even as he resigns himself to accepting that it is beyond his reach. Until a young woman enters his life, and he suddenly discovers himself "sowing" both the passion and pains of love.

I'm not entirely convinced the author, E.F. Benson, knew what he wanted to accomplish in this novel. The first few chapters of the book read as relatively standard period satire, skewering such familiar targets as silly wives, self-important priests, and social castes. Somewhere along the way, however, a funny thing happens: Benson appears to develop a certain fondness for his businessman protagonist Keeling - perhaps because poor Keeling at least aspires to passion, or perhaps because Keeling possesses the good sense to fall in love with Norah, Benson's sensible and appealing female lead. Whatever the reason, the novel gradually transitions from satire to sentiment, finally resolving into a climax that's a muddle of both.

Despite the novel's thematic inconsistency, however, I can't find it in me to be too critical. The fact is, I enjoyed Benson's comfortable prose, I found the main characters to be authentic and sincere, the satire was entertaining enough, and if the ending is a bit of a muddle, at least its a decorous muddle, sullied neither by cloying solicitude nor misogyny. An Autumn Sowing may not be an "improving" sort of book; on the whole, however, I felt its merits more than outweighed its flaws.

5/08/2015

A Thousand Words - The Peter's Projection Map

No - this isn't an image that's been squished out of shape by too much dragging and dropping.  It's the Peter's Projection Map, a map that accurately portrays the relative sizes of the continent.  It corrects for the huge distortions of continent size/shape necessitated by the Mercator Projection map, which is great for navigation but not so great for accurately portraying what the earth actually looks like. 

Go ahead and enjoy being freaked out as you realize just how small Europe is - and just how vast China is!  Also, remember how big Iceland was on the map your teacher posted in the classroom? Just try finding it here ...!

SOURCE: http://education.ed.pacificu.edu/bailey/resources/courses/methods04/533home.html


Now, google "West Wing - Cartographers for Social Equality" for a clip of how the fictional characters of the TV show West Wing greeted the suggestion that the U.S. adopt this version of the world map.

5/04/2015

40+ secular messages of condolence




I have unfortunately reached the time in my life when writing condolence cards is becoming a regular necessity.  This is made all the more difficult by the fact that I don't affiliate with any particular religion, so many of the conventional/reliable expressions of sympathy (ex: "I will keep you and your family in my prayers") are inappropriate.  Have been adding to the list of sentiments below from some years now; only just occurred to me that others might be sharing my difficulties and appreciate the fruits of my labors.
  1. I/we were shocked/saddened/grieved/devastated to learn of the passing of ____________
  2. My/Our heart/hearts are heavy/filled with sorrow at the news of ________'s passing. 
  3. I/we want you to know that we/I are so very/terribly sorry to hear about the passing of _____________. 
  4. Word’s cannot express the sadness/sorrow/grief we feel for you as you deal with the death of ____________.
  5. I/We grieve the passing of such a _________* person (*remarkable, admirable, kindhearted, talented, admired, unforgettable, fun-loving, funny, wonderful, well-loved, lovely, sweet, gentle, generous, honorable, respected, caring, hardworking, strong, energetic)
  6. I/we will miss _________ too.
  7. I/we extend to you my/our love/heartfelt sorrow/deepest condolences at this difficult time
  8. My/our hearts adn thoughts go out to you at this difficult time.
  9. My/Our most sincere condolences.
  10. Thinking of you and your family as you prepare to celebrate ________'s remarkable life and the memories you shared.
  11. Thinking of you and your family in this time of sorrow.
  12. Keeping you in my/our hearts and thoughts during this difficult time.
  13. Mourning the passing of ____________ with you.
  14. May the heartfelt consdolences and sympathy of those who love you bring you comfort during this painful time. 
  15. May you be consoled by the fact that __________ was cherished by those who were lucky enough to know him/her, and will love on in their memories.
  16. May fond memories of ________ bring you comfort during this difficult time.
  17. May the care and love of those around you provide comfort and peace to get you through/help you endure the hard/difficult/painful days ahead.
  18. I/we wish you serenity and peace during this difficult time
  19. May he/she rest in peace.
  20. The loss of someone dear to us is never easy, but may you take comfort in the fact that you are surrounded by people that love and care for you.
  21.  _______ will live on in the hearts and memories of the people who, like us, loved/admired/respected him/her.
  22. It was an honor/privilege/blessing to have known such a remarkable/admirable/kind/gentle person.
  23. _________ will truly be missed by all of who knew him/her.
  24. If never seems fair, but death is often the greatest relief for the suffering.
  25. I/we send my/our love and sympathy in hopes that they will be of some comfort to you.
  26. Losing someone we love is never easy, but the gift of having  known ________, of having been fortunate enough to share his/her life, is a blessing that even death cannot deprive us of.
  27. If there is comfort to be found in this difficult time, perhaps it is in knowing that _________ (1) lived a long/rich/remarkable life; (2) is finally relieved of their suffering; (3) finally rests in peace.
  28. May you find comfort in the fact that _____________ will be remembered with love and respect by those they have left behind.
  29. Wishing you peace to bring comfort, courage to face the days ahead and loving memories to forever hold in your heart.
  30. Hold tight to memories for comfort, lean on your friends and family for strength, and always remember how much you are loved.
  31. After the tears have dried and the goodbyes have been said, the memories we've shared with our loved ones continue to live on, providing comfort/remembrance/reassurance.
  32. The knowledge of impending death does not lessen grief, only places it on hold for a while.
  33. Today and always, may loving memories bring you peace, comfort, and strength.
  34. Our time on this earth is short, sometimes far too short, but no life leaves the lives of those that have loved them unmarked.
  35. "What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes part of us." -Helen Keller
  36. "Grant but memory to us, and we lose nothing by death." -Whittier, My Summer with Dr. Singleton
  37. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. ~Kahlil Gibran
  38. Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind. ~William Wordsworth
  39. Like a bird singing in the rain, let grateful memories survive in time of sorrow. ~Robert Louis Stevenson
  40. Unable are the loved to die. For love is immortality. ~Emily Dickinson
  41. There are no goodbyes for us. Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart. ~Gandhi
  42. "For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity." - William Penn
  43. "Death leaves a heartache no one can heal/love leaves a memory no one can steal." - anonymous
  44. "It is not length of life, but depth of life." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
  45. I know I can’t make your pain go away, but I want you to know that (1) a kind voice and sympathetic ear are only a phone call away; (2) I'm here with a shoulder or an ear or anything else you need; (3) your friends and I will be taking care of ___________ for the time being, in hopes of relieving you of at least one burden.
  46. I know that the hurt won’t go away when the cards and casseroles do. Remember I'll still be here for you
  47. As the days and weeks pass, and as you return to life's routine, may you continue to feel comforted by the love and support of family and friendship.

4/19/2015

Book Look - Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh


Like Ethan Frome and Age of Innocence, Brideshead Revisited features sympathetic but heartbreakingly human protagonists, possessing both grace and flaws, placed in a setting rife with rigid societal/religious constraints and then forced to choose between societal/religious conformity or personal happiness. I keep hoping the protagonists will choose personal happiness, but they never do.

This novel features a trio of perhaps the most charismatic and tragic protagonists in literary history: gay, tormented Sebestian Flyte, his beautiful sister Julia, and family friend Charles Ryder. In Age of Innocence, it’s the rigid constructs of society that eventually bruise and break the characters. In this outing, Catholicism is the wall against which each character, one after another, tragically dashes themselves: first, Sebestian’s father, trapped by Catholicism in a loveless marriage; next, his heartbreakingly fragile son Sebastian, trying desperately to repress his homosexuality; after that Julia, who tragically discovers her love for Charles after she has married another; and finally Charles who, though a non-believer, is swept up by the tide of Marchmont tragedy and himself broken.

All of which would have you thinking of this story as rampantly anti-Catholic, except that Waugh was himself a convert to Catholicism and, accordingly, ensures that each character, though deprived of earthly happiness, ultimately rescues their hope of ultimate grace. Even Charles, the skeptic and non-believer, has by the end of the tale begun to pray. Which, I suppose, is meant to provide consolation of a sort, though not enough to keep me from tearing up throughout the final chapters.

Provided you can deal with all the tragedy, there’s much in this novel to admire and, yes, to love. The writing is gorgeous. The evocation of period is brilliant. And each of the three protagonists is hauntingly memorable – especially Sebestian, whose transformation from dazzlingly charismatic schoolboy to gentle but ravaged alcoholic adulthood is wholly riveting.

You know how some books don’t seem particularly notable at the time but as the years pass you come gradually to comprehend their wisdom and insight? I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books, and that Waugh’s insights into faith, duty, loyalty, morality, beauty, friendship and love are destined to haunt me for years to come.