Going, going . . .

Only a couple more weeks before my first published story will be gone from newsstands forever. Get it while it's still gettable!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Good Literary Cause

I don't normally use this blog to promote crowd-funded projects. However, the Kickstarter that includes Sean's forthcoming story--which is a fine one, by the way--is nearing the end of its run. Please do consider tossing them a few bucks.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: Justinian's Flea

Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
William Rosen
History, biography, science, medicine

Every so often I read a book that reminds me of why I love reading. Justinian's Flea is like that. This book has

  • Good, clear, engaging writing
  • Battles
  • Eye-popping characters
  • Novelistic tension
  • Informative, accessible science
  • Ideas, ideas, ideas!
I can't not love it.

William Rosen deserves special acclaim for having made Justinian's Flea into a thrilling story. It's not just a history of the sixth-century plague . It's an account of why it mattered. You have Justinian, arguably the last great Roman emperor, struggling heroically to restore his patrimony. He and his brilliant general Belisarius begin the reconquest. Great buildings go up. The laws are reformed.

And all the while, in the background, creeping closer, is the flea--the flea that carries the Yersinia bacterium.

Rosen doesn't fall into the single-cause fallacy of history writing. Nonetheless, he's surely onto something when he locates the Plague of Justinian at the hinge that marks the dissolution of the Roman world and the first genesis of ours. To paraphrase Justinian's Flea: between AD 536 and AD 552 the city of Rome changed hands five times. At the beginning of that time, it was still recognizably the city of the Caesars. At the end, it was recognizably the city of the Popes.

The best-known fictional treatment of the period is Robert Graves's Count Belisarius. For genre readers, L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall is a classic set in Ostrogoth-ruled Rome.

In non-fiction, Justinian's Flea overlaps somewhat with Jared Diamond's well-known (if slightly overrated) Guns, Germs, and Steel. Rats, Lice, and History (Hans Zimmer) and Plagues and Peoples (William H. McNeill) are both very fine books with a larger-scale viewpoint. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Best of Ellery Queen

The Best of Ellery Queen: Four Decades of Stories From the Mystery Masters
Frederic Dannay, Manny Lee

A collection of short stories. Amusing but slight.

Loosely related: I've read a couple of Susan Spann's historical mysteries lately. She gives good advice.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review: The Book

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time
Keith Houston
History, books

The Book is a very good paean to, naturally, the book as physical object. Keith Houston chooses a clever and sensible arrangement. Rather than simply starting with cuneiform and moving forward, he traces the story of each of the book's components: the page (papyrus, parchment, paper), the text (writing and type), illustrations, and form. That turns out to be a dandy way of bringing together several separate but interrelated information streams.

Houston occasionally lapses into witticism of an notably English vintage. If you like this sort of thing, it's amusing; if you don't, it's merely arch. Other than that, his writing is good, his descriptions are clear, and his subject matter is first-rate.

Mark Kurlansky's Paper, for all of its lapses into highfalutin' nonsense, covers related topics. Also of interest: Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf (about how books have been stored) and Simon Garfield's Just My Type (fonts).

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Book Review: The Dream of Reason

The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance
Anthony Gottlieb

The Dream of Reason is a very good, very readable, non-technical overview of the mainstream of Western philosophy. It doesn't contain anything that would surprise a student of the field, and it doesn't really invite the reader to get to grips with the really hard problems. It does, however, provide a very readable (and sometimes very witty) overview over who the main thinkers of antiquity were, what they thought, and especially how their thoughts related to one another. 

It's fairly evident that Gottlieb is more an Aristotelian than a Platonist. He tries to be fair, but he obviously likes Aristotle--with his ideas of carefully observing nature, as opposed to abstract reasoning about the true nature of things--a little bit better. A consequence of this is that he goes out of his way to absolve Aristotle of the various charges leveled against him by later critics. (Really, he's fairly generous to most of his subjects; he focuses more on what they got right, or at least what they did right, than on their numerous mistakes.) That's fine by me.

I wouldn't have minded a little more detail about the post-Aristotelian schools. The Middle Ages, as well, get decidedly (and undeservedly) short shrift; here I think Gottlieb is leaning too much on the conventional view of the Church as suppressor of knowledge. Overall, however, this is a really good read for anyone who wants to learn about the subject. It doesn't demand any specialist knowledge, nor does it descend into the pedantry or tortured prose that characterizes a lot of philosophical writing. If it's not quite the material of a popular best-seller, it's as close as a book of this sort is likely to get.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Holiday Bliss

Biscuit and Robin. (Robin is the one in glasses).
Cat Yin+Yang.

Happy New Year to my many loyal readers.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Book Review: The Grid

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future
Gretchen Bakke

This is a really interesting book about a hugely important and largely invisible subject. It's full of ideas that should make you stop and think. A trivial example: pretty much every single watt of electrical power you are using right now--battery power excepted--was something else a fraction of a second ago. It was a lump of coal or a gas flame or a gust of wind. Electricity, unlike (say) water, is consumed the instant it's used.

That makes the electrical grid an extraordinarily daunting piece of infrastructure. In Gretchen Bakke's argument, the grid that we have is a historical accident: centralized power production was not designed in, it just happened (for business reasons more than technical ones). More to the point, The Grid is an extend argument for rethinking the grid--specifically, for decentralizing it, for making it possible to use power near where it's generated, and for making the whole thing much more resilient.

The argument seems to me to be a good one. Some of the ideas in here are really clever. (That Tesla roadster isn't just a vehicle; it's a battery, meaning it can be used to store energy that's generated during the 90% of its life when you're not driving it.) How well some of these notions will work in practice is a harder question, and how to get there is harder still. At minimum, some people need to think very very hard about incentives--there are far too many horror stories about perverse incentives in The Grid--and probably come up with some kind of massive multiplayer simulation. 

The Grid isn't for anyone who thinks engineering and engineering policy are intrinsically boring. Other than that, I'd recommend it widely. It's well written, it's not too technical . . . and it's important.