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
Engineering

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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review: The Man Who Made Lists

The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madnesss, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus
Joshua Kendall
Biography

The Man Who Made Lists wants to be Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman. It isn't. It would probably settle for being Everything Explained That is Explainable. It isn't that, either. Joshua Kendall spends way too little time on the Thesaurus itself. He spends way too much time on psychoanalyzing Roget, frequently on the flimsiest of evidence. At various points he tells us not only how a conversation went, but what expressions were on people's faces or even what they were thinking. Since there are no end notes, there's no way to know on what basis (if any) Kendall makes these assertions. Buried in the end matter, however, is this:
Though all the scenes are based on actual events, in several instances, where primary source material was lacking, I offered my best approximation of specific details.
"Based on actual events," huh? 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Book Review: Song of the Vikings

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths
Nancy Marie Brown
Biography, history, mythology

When I reviewed the author's Ivory Vikings, I ended with this comment:
I don't know that I'd be in a rush to read another non-fiction book by Nancy Marie Brown. On the other hand, if she ever publishes any translations of those sagas, I'm there.
Song of the Vikings isn't quite that, but it's the next best thing: the story of how the sagas and myths came to be written down, and the biography of the man who did the writing. It's a subject that play's to Brown's strengths (hugely evocative writing, a sense of place and time, deep knowledge, passion for the subject) and largely avoids her weaknesses (a lack of intellectual discipline).

There are excerpts from the myths themselves, which are nicely done. There's also a good character portrait of Snorri Sturluson, "the Homer of the North"--a sobriquet which is richly deserved, as a vast chunk of what we know about Norse paganism comes from his writing. He was no neo-viking himself: fat, gouty, duplicitous, funny, learned, ambitious, and perhaps a bit greedy. That, if anything, makes him more comprehensible and more sympathetic to us.

In contrast, the weakest parts of Song of the Vikings are about what a true viking would consider important: fighting. Brown tries mightily to make sense of the dense, generations-long series of feuds and counter-feuds, raids and revenge, politics and war that characterized Iceland and Norway in the middle ages, but she doesn't pull it off. (It's a small-scale echo of the absolute spaghetti that characterized the dizzying interrelationships of the classical Greek city-states.) To be fair, putting this history into a coherent story would be hard for anyone.

Finally, any fantasy lover owes a big debt to Snorri Sturluson. Brown does a nice job tracing the later influence of the Norse Eddas, particularly regarding J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. To read Song of the Vikings is to catch a glimpse of the troll-haunted, giant-ridden, bleak, and beautiful world of our collective imagination. I wouldn't recommend the book to everyone, but if you're interested in the roots of fantasy literature or in Iceland or in the Norse myths it's worth checking out.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Yet More Exciting Publishing News

Go here.

Yes: my old pal B.S. is having a short story published. He's more than earned it. He's been working hard at writing stories, taking it seriously, developing his craft. I've had the privilege of being among his alpha readers from the beginning. He started out good and he's getting better.

P.S. But don't forget this.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Book Review: Blade of the Samurai

Blade of the Samurai: A Shinobi Mystery
Susan Spann
Mystery

Pretty much the same as the first book, except that Father Mateo has even less to do.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Book Review: Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire: The Making of Winston Churchill
Candace Millard
Biography, history

It's time for the truth to come out: Winston Churchill was, clearly, not a real person. "Churchill" was dreamed up by adventure-story writers. No doubt there was an actor hired to play the role at various points, but the fact remains that "Churchill" and his adventures just aren't credible.


Consider what we're asked to believe. The Churchill character supposedly
  • Was born in a palace;
  • Came under fire on his 21st birthday, during the Cuban War of Independence;
  • Fought in Afghanistan and Egypt;
  • Participated, at age 24, in perhaps the last great cavalry charge in military history;
  • Wrote a best-selling book about his adventures;
  • Went to South Africa as a war correspondent, was captured, and escaped (the subject of Hero of the Empire);
  • Became a Member of Parliament at age 26;
  • Switched political parties, and subsequently switched back;
  • Was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty at age 30;
  • Learned to fly an airplane before World War I;
  • Championed the daring and controversial Gallipoli campaign;
  • Took the blame when the commanders in the field botched it;
  • Took command of an infantry battalion on the Western Front;
  • Spent six months in trench warfare, coming under shell- and machine-gun fire;
  • Helped initiate and pushed vigorously for the development of the tank;
  • Became one of the world's greatest speechmakers by overcoming a congenital lisp;
  • Led his country to victory when it stood alone and under threat of invasion by a triumphant evil dictator who effectively ruled all of Europe and planned to conquer the world.
Seriously?

Setting that side, I had high expectations for Hero of the Empire. Candace Millard's previous two books (The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic) are both terrific. Her biographical niche is to isolate a crucial point in the life and/or death of an important figure, explain why it was important, use it to illuminate the biographee's character, and make the whole thing into an exciting and informative story.

I'm happy to report that Hero of the Empire delivers on all fronts. It's exciting. It's action-packed. It's well-researched. It's beautifully written. If the actual events of the escape weren't exactly the stuff of fiction--no tunnels, no masquerading as the enemy, no chase scenes--they were surely thrilling enough to those who were in the middle of them, and Millard brings that to life. (Admittedly she's relying somewhat on Churchill's own memoirs, which are inclined to minimize neither the drama of the situation nor Winston's own part in it.) 

There was even a genuine "Wanted: dead or alive" notice for Churchill, with a reward of £25--Churchill was already politically and symbolically important. His subsequent response was that the reward was too low.





Go read Hero of the Empire. It reads like an adventure novel, with the added bonus that it really happened.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

It's MORE Official!

Anyone remember this?

Here's the proof, hot out of the mailbox.


This is the January/February issue. It will probably be on sale on or around December 21st.

The printed version that's isn't quite my original submission, but it's extremely close. I spotted a couple of small editorial substitutions and one minor infelicity. Needless to say, I am heartbroken and outraged and convinced that my dignity has been stolen and . . . oh, wait, none of that's true.

The Ellery Queen website shows the links to order the digital version of the magazine from Amazon, B&N, etc.--or to subscribe to the physical edition, which no doubt would thrill the editor. There are still a few old-school vendors that carry physical copies, including the iconic (but endangered) Out of Town News in Harvard Square and (hooray!) the much-loved A. J. Hastings in Amherst.  It looks like you could also order single issues online from Magzter

By the way, two people deserve special thanks.

One is, of course, my wife. I know that sounds conventional, but it is literally true that there is no significant part or plot point or development in "The Adventure of the Disguised Passenger" that I didn't talk over with Robin.

The other is the lovely and talented Mr. Steve Hockensmith, who:
  • Gave me the inspiration in the first place;
  • Permitted me to shamelessly steal appropriate characters he'd created;
  • Read the manuscript and gave it his seal of approval; and
  • Suggested a suitable publication/editor.
Important shameless co-promotion! Steve is going to be bringing back his "Holmes on the Range" series. And he's going commando—i.e., self-publishing. Please support him when he does.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Of Beards and Men

Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair
Christopher Oldstone-Moore
Sociology, history

[Warning: long and long-winded.]

Of Beards and Men is a humanist book in empiricist clothing. While it is indeed a "history of facial hair," it's also an academic's thesis about the meaning of facial hair. Oldstone-Moore says as much explicitly: "The most significant myth to be set aside is the notion that changes in facial hair are the meaningless product of fashion cycles."


When I call Of Beards and Men an academic's thesis, you might infer a certain . . . turgidity . . . of writing. Happily, that's not true in this case. The book doesn't have the level of levity and wit that one might expect from the title, but it's written in clear plain prose that's no trouble to read. The scholarship and research are excellent, and the illustrations are particularly apt. On the empiricist side, I have no quibbles.

Nor do I quarrel with the general thesis. Beards and shaving represent two different kinds of masculinity: "The clean-shaven face . . . has come to signify a virtuous and sociable man, whereas the beard marks someone as self-reliant and unconventional." That's a plausible high-level assessment, although it would be a stretch to apply it to every individual case.

Oldstone-Moore gets himself into a hairier (hah!) problem when he gets down to brass tacks, though. For one thing, this is a tremendously skewed volume. It could have been subtitled "The Revealing History of Facial Hair Among Western Cultural Elites." There's no mention of Africa, no mention of India, no mention of the Far East.

The class bias is forgivable when talking about ancient Sumeria. It's less forgivable by the time we reach the European Middle Ages. There are a good many period images of people who were not churchmen. For example:
Look! Some bearded peasants, some non-bearded peasants! Almost as if beardedness is an individual choice, or even the meaningless product of fashion cycles. For that matter, even kings get short shrift; Oldstone-Moore barely touches on the nobility, whom you'd think would be significant in any discussion of beard-as-masculine-signifier, even though their shaving habits changed markedly over the period.

It's not that Oldstone-Moore doesn't have written evidence. He does, and it clearly shows that some people started thinking differently about beards at some points. His error is to assume that the difference in thinking prospectively caused a difference in behavior. It's just as likely that the difference in thinking retrospectively reacted to a difference in behavior.

The problem becomes especially obvious in the 19th century. Oldstone-Moore's arguments tend to suffer from the fallacy of reversibility. A case in point is his assessment of the Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who published an 1829 anti-beard rant. Of Beards and Men would have it that facial hair was radical--so radical that even a fire-breather like Garrison couldn't stomach it. But if Garrison had published a pro-beard rant, I'll bet anyone a dollar that Of  Beards and Men would have explained that facial hair was radical--so radical that it could only appeal to a fire-breather like Garrison. Heads, facial hair was radical; tails, facial hair was radical.

Then we get to the contention that "It was no mere coincidence that the era of beards [in the mid-19th century] corresponded closely with the emergence of the women's movement." Beards, according to Oldstone-Moore, represent a kind of masculine backlash. As women pushed into traditionally male preserves, men got hairy as a defensive measure. This is a classic reversible argument. No matter what happened to women, men, or facial hair, you could explain it equally well:


Long BeardsShort Beards
Women Gaining Power"Male facial hair was an attempt to assert masculinity in the face of a threat.""The growth of shaving reflected the increasing acceptance of feminine norms in the public sphere."
Women Losing Power"Male facial hair reflected the increasing dominance of the untamed and unfeminized male.""Men's beards were not required, because the disempowerment of women did not require a further assertion of masculinity."
Once you've posited that hirsuteness is an expression of masculine identity, in other words, you can find "evidence" for your argument no matter what's actually happening.

Among us soul-less reductionist left-brained narrow-minded empiricist types, there's a test for this sort of thing. Namely, you take your hypothesis and you make a falsifiable prediction. In this case, Oldstone-Moore's hypothesis would prima facie seem to predict that the 1910s and 1920s, with women's suffrage (and associated causes, such as temperance) a vigorous and ever-strengthening and occasionally even violent force, men should have felt even more threatened and grown even more luxuriant locks in response. Only . . . well . . .
Woodrow Wilson
Calvin Coolidge

Herbert Hoover
(Images hosted at biography.com)

So there's room for considerable debate about the humanist side of this book. On the other hand, that's what a humanist book is for. I think Of Beards and Men gets some things quite wrong, and I wish it had gone outside its very narrow geo-social worldview. All the same, it was a decent read and it gave me some things to think about--including, specifically, the parts where I disagreed. That's a win in my book.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review: Claws of the Cat

Claws of the Cat: A Shinobi Mystery
Susan Spann
Mystery

I picked up this book because one of my closest friends had good things to say about the author. Not about her work--about her practical advice. Also, I'd seen Spann's books in the library and been cautiously interested. Interested, because of the setting: 16th century Japan. Cautious, because of the setting: writers of historical mysteries have an unfortunate tendency to blather on about the "historical" while short-changing the "mystery".

Inevitably, I wound up comparing Claws of the Cat to the last mystery I had read, Original Sin. With no disrespect intended to Susan Spann, P. D. James was a better writer. With very minor elisions, Claws of the Cat could have been a young-adult novel. There's very little strong descriptive prose in Claws of the Cat, and nothing much in the way of mood. The characters are, at best, two-dimensional: defined by a single attribute (you could label them the Angry Son, the Fearful Entertainer, and so on) and not straying far from that. One of the two principal characters, the Jesuit Father Mateo, is used mainly as a plot device--he asks the questions that his Japanese minder can't ask for social reasons. 

Having said that, while I'm not likely to read any more P. D. James, I am likely to read more Susan Spann. I read for entertainment, and Spann is entertaining in a way that James isn't. She plays the game fairly and provides value for time invested. The setting is handled well. The pacing is good. The mystery is mysterious. The solution is satisfying.

Susan Spann may get better over time; she seems to take her craft seriously. I'm willing to find out.