September 1, 2010

Sugar borers and self-limitation

I recently finished Bernd Heinrich’s Summer World. You can look back through the Books category here and see that I’ve been a longtime appreciative audience for Heinrich; Summer World was apparently meant as a counterpart to his Winter World of a few years ago, except that where Winter World mainly dealt with how various organisms survived the annual plunge into deep freeze, Summer World is about how they manage the warm season, when most of them expect to do most of their living.

Summer World also includes Heinrich’s most overt opinions yet about the way our own species is living. I dropped a marker in the book when I read this paragraph:

“The sugar borers have achieved, or are held to, something enviable. They are in a world of plenty, so none go hungry, destroy their habitat, or jostle and interfere with each other. Somewhere there is a check on their natural increase, and you can be sure of one thing - that if they could tell us what they wanted at any one time, they would vote to obliterate the forces that hold them in check, the forces that ensure their long-term benefits. And so, probably, would we, if we voted merely on the basis of our individual interests.”

We recently became homeowners, a mixed blessing if ever there was one. If I can find the time to continue posting here, expect a few posts on my attempts to reconcile the expectations placed on the modern homeowner with what I hope is an environmentally responsible approach to life.

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April 11, 2010

Prince of the Marshes

Earlier this week I finished reading Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. I read his The Places In Between a few years ago and liked it enough to want to read this one as well; I started reading it on the plane back from Doha, where I was closer to the spots Stewart describes than I had ever been before, or probably will be again.

As an official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Stewart’s time in Iraq (and therefore his book) only runs through the CPA’s “handover” of sovereignty to Iraqi authorities. Much of the book deals with the selection of and interactions with these authorities, generally people who had spent most of their lives under Saddam. Stewart, whose budget and poorly-defined mandate meant he spent much of his time in Iraq operating as something of a reluctant minor potentate, begins most of his chapters with epigraphs from the books of Machiavelli, and it took some time before I realized that they were meant to apply not to Stewart himself, but to his Iraqi counterparts. Most of them had learned from Saddam that power flows from the barrel of a gun; while Stewart was struggling to provide jobs, infrastructure, and electricity, the Iraqis were insisting that all they really needed was security: more and powerful weapons.

Stewart’s stories are both disheartening and illuminating, as he describes what must have been an incredibly stressful life between well-meant but impossible directives from a Baghdad apparently barely aware of the situations in the provinces and the whimsical “cooperation” of the Iraqi authorities in his districts.

A good example is his casting of the problem of looting. The Coalition was widely criticized for not doing more to prevent looting in Iraq following the collapse of Saddam’s government. Stewart points out that in many cases military commanders had to decide between putting soldiers in harm’s way, accepting casualties and possibly even deaths, not to mention possible civilian deaths, to protect (for example) office equipment (in the offices of a Coalition-backed governor), with the alternative of keeping their soldiers safer but risking a breakdown of civil security.

Reading Stewart won’t make us understand Iraq or what we’re doing there. (Part of the problem, he suggests, is that we keep changing our minds about the latter.) It might help us understand the degree to which we still don’t understand Iraq.

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February 28, 2010

Kitchen without fear

I’ve been reading John Thorne’s Mouth Wide Open recently. Thorne has apparently built his reputation on presenting himself just as he is, because he fears nothing in terms of subject matter. (He often mentions his love for offal, for example.) Last night he had me laughing out loud as he described how he ate a croissant which he knew for a fact was at least five months old, and suspected may have been as much as a year older than that.

And why it was good.

That is not precisely why I am currently using the slow cooker to cook pork in a pool of root beer. But it is why I feel willing to write about it.

(The comments to online recipes always amuse me. They almost always follow the same pattern: “I loved this recipe, here’s how I changed it.” Sometimes the changes create an entirely different recipe. One of the comments for this one read, “I used beer instead of root beer.”)

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November 11, 2009


I used to scoff whenever I read someone referring to “retail therapy” after some semi-traumatic incident.

However, after today’s frustrating GPS experience (which essentially burned most of the daylight hours available for caching), the next item on my list was picking up a book I had ordered at Market Block Books. (For the record, that book would be William Kennedy’s O Albany!.) And I have to admit I left with what might be more accurately described as a stack of books.

I even forgot to use the Booksense gift card I have.

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December 14, 2008

The Unredeemed Captive

I am fascinated by the history of the places I live, if only because it shows the many connections between the small world I move around in and the larger outside world. This is why, on a recent used-book raid, I picked up a copy of John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive.

The Unredeemed Captive starts out telling the story of John Williams, the popular and influential minister in the frontier town of Deerfield, Massachusetts. Williams and most of his family were captured during the 1704 raid on Deerfield by French-directed Indians from Canada, sometimes known as the “Deerfield Massacre”. There was a skirmish some thirty years before, at a nearby waterway since known as Bloody Brook, and dozens of incidents up and down the river valley during the “French and Indian Wars”. In this raid, 48 residents of the town were killed and 112 taken captive, with 140 left “alive at home.”

Williams’ wife was killed on the journey back to Canada; Williams and four of his children were eventually released and returned to New England. Two other children were killed during the raid. It is the seventh child who turns out to be of principal interest to Demos: Eunice Williams never returned to New England to live. She “forgot” what English she had known (being barely old enough to talk at the time of the raid) and was adopted into an Indian tribe near Montreal, where she chose to stay for the rest of her relatively long life.

Here’s where things get even more interesting to me: the town where Eunice Williams lived out her life was called Kahnawake by Demos, but was given other spellings elsewhere, and I realized that Kenneth Roberts’ Rabble in Arms, one of my favorite books over the decades since I first read it, passed a chapter in “Caughnawaga”, an Indian town near Montreal. Roberts’ characters, who would pass through in spring of 1777, describe several Williamses among the town’s residents, a nod towards Eunice (who had only one living grandson, however, but was still alive herself along with two daughters in 1777). They also described an elderly “Mr. Tarbull” who told them he had been captured in Groton, and Demos often mentions a pair of “Tarbell” brothers from Groton who lived in Kahnawake.

That was one connection. But it wasn’t until I reached the section dealing with King George’s War that I realized that Ephraim Williams Jr., who gave his name to a particular college northwest of here, was one of Eunice’s cousins.

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October 22, 2008

Knowing your market

I did some internet research on one of the regulars at our lunchtime soccer games when I worked in Pennsylvania. He’s doing decently well these days (evidenced by the fact that he has his own domain, and one of the descriptions under his name was “TV Personality”).

While looking through his publication history, I noticed that one of his cookbooks, which has my favorite cookbook title ever (A Man, A Can, A Plan) has sold over half a million copies.

I’m trying to figure out if this is good (men cooking) or bad (lowest-common-denominator cooking).

Now Playing: Wake Up Call by Peter Case

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September 7, 2008

The Last Town On Earth

This morning I finished reading The Last Town on Earth after starting it on Friday, probably the quickest I’ve read a novel in recent years (excepting times when I’ve been sitting on planes and have read multiple books straight through, sometimes without benefit of bookmarks).

I don’t know how much attention this book got when it was new and I don’t know if everyone else has read it; I do know that I bought it at a used bookstore in my hometown while shopping for plane reading (obviously, I overstocked) because Nicole brought it over to me, pointing to one of the short excerpts of newspaper reviews on the back and saying, “See that? That was me.”

I’d read a relatively dry history book about the first World War last winter, and I appreciated this quite different approach tremendously. Since I finished it, I’ve read several online reviews faulting the author’s writing style, but I didn’t really notice that. What I did enjoy greatly was the premise: during the 1918 flu pandemic, an event curiously under-discussed in our national histories, a town attempts to protect itself by imposing a reverse quarantine: nobody goes in or out, to keep the flu out. It sound like a grand idea, but like all abstract policies it really gets interesting when they have to actually put the concept into practice.

So many of the conflicts which come into play have echoes in today’s world: capital vs. labor, isolationism vs. engagement, pacifism vs. militarism, civil rights vs. fear and power, or when an individual’s duty to family, community, country or humanity conflict with each other.

The author doesn’t have an axe to grind or a message to preach (although I can see from the way I’ve phrased the list above that perhaps I do); he creates characters who are human, gives them principles (or at least motivations) and puts them in positions where they’re forced to act on that basis. It was an interesting experiment, and I think made interesting reading for that reason alone.

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August 5, 2008

Wait, he was still alive?

Is it bad that my first reaction to learning that Solzhenitsyn died on Sunday was to think, “Didn’t he die a few years ago?”

I hope they don’t make me return my degree for not knowing that.

The only Solzhenitsyn I ever read was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is in fact a very impressive piece of history. It’s history, though; as literature, it doesn’t stand up to, say, Master i Margarita or Less Than One in my mind. I have to admit his reputation for pedantry and preaching kept me away from most of the rest of his work. My closet-slavophile grandfather had a copy of the first volume of The Red Wheel.

Now Playing: Give It All Away (Reprise) from Bang! by World Party

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July 22, 2008

1936 on the reading list

I don’t have any illusions about the level of scrutiny the Chinese government is likely to give my visit to Beijing (that is, very little). I’m unlikely to revisit the experience one of my colleagues had, in 1980, of returning to his hotel room to find the KGB searching his suitcase. (He was asked to sit and wait while they finished, if I recall correctly.)

That said, I am trying to figure out what level of care to apply to my laptop, since it seems possible that my hard drive could be scanned, and I’m definitely paying attention to the books I bring. I’ve had some real liberal-thought bombshells suggested to me, but the two paperbacks I know will be in my bag are slightly more subtle; they both deal with the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The parallels between the two Games held by recently-reclusive powers using the Olympics as a coming-out party are not hard to see. (Though apparently the Germans made it more of a party than the Chinese are ready for.) Certainly there are plenty of differences between Germany 1936 and China 2008. But there are plenty of similarities. I’ve picked up Louis Zamperini’s biography (I mentioned him a few days ago) and in Portland the other week, in Powell’s, I picked up a copy of Jeremy Schaap’s book about Jesse Owens, Triumph.

They make a decent case against boycotts, standing together, but they also don’t paint the hosts in a rosy historic light. I’d love to see the PRC make their case for taking them away from me; they’re not directly critical or dangerous to them in any way, only in their oblique implications.

Any similar titles I should be picking up? Note that paperbacks are heavily favored for long plane rides.

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May 15, 2008

The Runners' Cookbook

[Cover Image: The Runner's Cookbook]

I doubt there are more than three people reading this who aren’t already aware that The Runner’s Cookbook was published last weekend. (I’ve placed the apostrophe differently in the title of this post for reasons which will become apparent.)

I’ve been a reluctant and grumpy consultant to this whole process, as A discovered that nine years of working in the publishing industry does not mean that I can provide an intelligent explanation of things like “bleed.” Mostly I tried to stay well out of the way. She’d been looking forward to the publishing date with the idea that once the book was produced and published, the work would be over, but instead the past week has been a whirlwind of email (to be expected when you send email to nearly everyone you know), a few telephone interviews, and all sorts of unanticipated questions. (This is not unlike her discovery that collecting all the recipes, which involved contacting about 250 top-level runners, was not in fact the hard part of the production process.)

How, for example, do you make the book available at running stores, who (a) don’t generally order books through “normal” channels (if everything goes well, the book will be available on Amazon one of these days, but running stores tend not to have accounts with Ingram), (b) want to buy the books at a discount (with the printer taking a fixed amount from every sale, whose share does that discount come from?) and/or (c) even while meaning well, can’t close the gap in knowledge between what A knows and what they know about how this could work?

I told her the other day that like any course you’d take in college, she’s learned some things through the process, but she’s also learned a slew of other things she never knew she didn’t know, and might not have wanted to bother with if she had.

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May 14, 2008

The Snoring Bird

I haven’t been reading as much since we started CMI, so finishing a decent book is half triumph (I found the time to plow through it!), half disappointment (now I need to find time to get traction on another one.)

Last night I finished Bernd Heinrich’s pseudo-memoir, The Snoring Bird actually much more a biography of his father than a memoir. Heinrich occupies about a foot and a half of my bookshelf, since I read his A Year in the Maine Woods shortly after graduating from college. He found his way into science by pursuing his own curiosity and questions, and he’s made his way as a writer, I think, by bringing readers along the same trail of questions (but without, of course, requiring them to follow every single false trail he did when tracking his own answers.)

The Snoring Bird is the story of Heinrich’s father, who was a soldier on the losing end of two World Wars, but also a leading scientist in an obscure niche of biology (the taxonomy of a certain order of parasitic wasps) and a well-known “collector” of specimens for museums when that sort of thing was still done. It also tells the incredible story of the family’s flight from western Poland across Germany ahead of the advancing Red Army, and their eventual emigration to the USA.

On finishing the book, I was motivated to pull out another Heinrich I’ve had on the “to read” pile for a while, The Thermal Warriors. This one is a lot closer to Heinrich’s own professional work, including actual equations for the heat generated by a flying insect. (Most of his other books tend to shy away from including equations in the text.) It’s similar to The Snoring Bird in that it introduces a fascinating subject and leads you through it, but different in that the subject is somewhat less personal.

But with the perspective of The Snoring Bird, knowing what led Heinrich into his field and how he found his own way in biology, there’s a new background to his discussion of wasps and bumblebees. His investigation of insect energy economies (and, eventually, raven intelligence, long distance running, and other topics) was part of the tides that bore biology away from his father, who completed his life’s work in relative obscurity, struggling to find peer-reviewed journals which would publish type descriptions of wasp species.

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April 8, 2008

Overloaded shelves

Last weekend I spent some time rearranging the bookshelves. When the books got here, they were simply unloaded directly on to the shelves as they came out of the boxes; this process not only put them in a more coherent order (which matters only to me) but gave me a chance to unpack three more boxes of them, and to weed out two boxes to move along. (Even at that, some of the shelves in the bookcase are loaded two-deep, with cheap paperbacks hiding behind the more showy hardcovers. I know what’s in there. And still, the computer books are in another bookcase in the basement, and there’s at least one, maybe two more boxes labeled “books” down there as well.)

“Move along” means different things in different contexts. I found about fourteen books, mostly textbooks, worth listing on Amazon, and I’ve sold seven so far. Another, larger box will be donated to the League of Women Voters book sale on the Common in May.

This morning, as I was sending a Discrete Math textbook off to Alaska, the clerk at the Post Office commented on my frequent package-sending, and I described what I was up to. She sighed and said she had a hard time parting with her books, but her husband said she had too many and she had to start paring down the shelves. I mentioned Reader to Reader and she lit right up. “That sounds like a great idea,” she said, and pulled out a sticky to note the name, thanking me for the tip as I left.

So I feel like I’ve given away more books than just my own already—or perhaps, that I gave a lot of gift books, yet kept all my favorites on the shelves.

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December 27, 2007

Bookshelf of fame

I noted a few missing ravens a few weeks ago, but Heinrich is still in the news. I got a press release today about his induction into the American Ultrarunning Association hall of fame… and for Christmas I got his latest book.

Heinrich’s a role model of doing many things well. I can’t say that I’d go in for all his interests, but I’m impressed at how well he’s balanced them all.

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October 14, 2007


Last night we went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a sequel to the 1998 movie (how often do movies wait nine years for their sequels?) which deals with, among other things, the early stages of English exploration of North America. Sir Walter Raleigh blows in to court to seek funding for his colonization of North America (a quest one of his nephews would continue quite near where I grew up) and proposes to name the entire region “Virginia, for our Virgin Queen.” Elizabeth smirks a bit and ripostes, “If I am to marry, will you rename it Conjugia?”

Raleigh paints a picture of a “New World” largely peopled by savages without kings of their own, tempting Elizabeth to reach for empire, but he was speaking with his own agenda. On the trip to and from Stuttgart, I chewed through Charles Mann’s 1491, which promises in its subtitle “New revelations of the Americas before Columbus.” One of these “revelations” is that some recent estimates place the population density of America before Columbus significantly higher than that of Europe, at least in some sections of South and Central America, a picture somewhat different from Raleigh’s. Even the area around present-day Boston had, 100 years before the Pilgrims arrived, a dense enough population that the various groups often tried to push others away to gain more space for themselves.

Mann seems to find his subtitle problematic, and admits that many of the “revelations” he delivers date back to the 1960s or earlier. But, he points out, many high school and college texts are still being printed which paint a portrait of the Americas prior to 1492 which is now under attack, if not flat out wrong. The picture of pre-Columbian America which most of us are taught today was created by the dominant (Western) culture out of ignorance, mis-reading of the evidence, and attempts to avoid the realities of their own effects on the continent. The picture of the Americas as thinly populated, for example, largely ignores the horrific epidemics of illnesses common in Europe but unheard of in America, which killed (depending on whose reports you believe) as many as nineteen in every twenty Indians before the Europeans were able to get established on the continent, let alone take a census.

Mann tries to steer clear of accusations, finger-pointing, and blame-assigning. He picks out a few scholars who he considers responsible for the mischaracterization of entire continents, but generally finds them mistaken rather than malicious. More than anything else, he prefers to put some kind of scale on the kind of cultures we (a collective, global “we”) have lost in the collision of continents five hundred years ago, and the result is actually quite fascinating.

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July 7, 2007

The things you can hold in a book

I’m pulling books off the shelves in my old bedroom at my parents’ house. Most of them are going to a used book store run by the local library, but I’m finding some interesting stuff.

For example, a hardback copy of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. There’s no publishing date, so it’s not clear what edition of the book this is, but there is a bookplate inside the cover which indicates that it belonged to my grandfather’s uncle Harry. The inscription before the title page is so faded it’s barely readable, but it appears to say, “Harry from Grandma, December 25, ‘93”. (That would, of course, be 1893.)

My great-great-uncle would’ve been 22 in 1893, so it’s a reasonable guess that the woman who bought this book for him was born in the 1830s at latest.

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June 29, 2007

I should try this recipe

The stand-by of the desert traveler, however, is tea—not the emasculated and emaciated beverage of civilization, but a potent black brew made from one handful of tea and sugar in equal proportions, placed in a small pot having a capacity of perhaps a pint of water. This is boiled and the bitter-sweet liquid is served in tiny glasses holding about two ounces.

Two glasses of this drink will imbue the user with remarkable vitality. He becomes wakeful, watchful, and eager for the journey. The effect is exhilarating without being intoxicating. This desert tea is an acquired taste; but once the Bedouin beverage habit is formed, it is very difficult to go back to the pallid tea of civilization….

From “Crossing the Libyan Desert” by A. M. Hassanein Bey (1889-1946) in Worlds to Explore: Classic Tales of Travel & Adventure from National Geographic

Now Playing: St. Peter from Wholesale Meats And Fish by Letters To Cleo

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May 2, 2007

Swimming Across

I recently read Andy Grove’s (yes, that Andy Grove) memoir, Swimming Across. It’s an interesting book, but not necessarily one I would give an unqualified recommendation to.

The “problem” is that what made Grove remarkable was his career at Intel, and this book is about everything but that. There is, of course, plenty that was remarkable about Grove’s life; after all, he was born a Jew in Hungary in 1936. In the span of life covered by this book, Grove and his family were threatened by Hungarians (since the Hungarians avoided German occupation by allying themselves with the Nazis against the Soviet Union, his father was sent to the Russian front as part of a forced-work battalion, and barely survived,) Nazis (who occupied Hungary after all, late in the war,) and Russians (first sweeping out the Nazis, then returning to put down the “Hungarian Revolution” in 1956.)

The two things I found most remarkable were Grove’s taste in literature—he was a great fan of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series—and his honesty when he finally fled Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution. Asked repeatedly in Austria and elsewhere if he had participated in the revolution, he said, truthfully, no, I just marched in a few demonstrations. And the questioners were always shocked: all the other Hungarians they had talked to had claimed participation. Grove said nothing at the time, but he vents some anger here: if all those who had claimed to had really fought, he thought, we would have won, and I wouldn’t be here!

Grove notes that one of his motivations for writing the book was to preserve the stories for his grandchildren, and the tone of the book is indeed reminiscent of a tale being told for middle-school students. There’s not a lot of subtlety, and it’s very easy to skim. While that made for fast reading, I also found it made it harder for me to immerse myself in the story.

Now Playing: Joey from Bloodletting by Concrete Blonde

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February 12, 2007

The Places In Between

I recently finished Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, which is a sort of travelogue of Stewart’s walk, in the winter of 2002, from Herat in western Afghanistan to Kabul in the East.

When I read a book like this, a “one person’s adventure” sort of story, I hope that I’m going to take something away from the story that I didn’t know before. I’ve read a few books which don’t reach this level at all—one about a young girl sailing around the world (mostly) solo which was barely about sailing at all and more about the various mechanical difficulties she had with her boat, and a few Antarctic-type books which can be boiled down to, “It was so cold it hurt.”

I think a lot of the sales Stewart’s book is enjoying (I’ve seen it cover-out in a few bookstores, so it’s evidently popular) are due to people hoping or expecting to learn a little bit about the current state of Afghanistan; the cover photo of Stewart setting out from Herat with the curious company of two gunmen and an extraneous relative certainly does carry some political implications. I did learn quite a bit along those lines; one of Stewart’s messages is that most of the policies the developed world has adopted towards Afghanistan demonstrate a lack of understanding of the way the country works, blinded either by well-meaning ignorance or an arrogant “neo-imperialist” desire to re-mold the country’s culture closer to that of Europe and America.

But there’s a lot more than that. Stewart followed the path of the 16th-century Afghan leader Babur when he made his own return to Kabul from a visit to Herat; the book is liberally sprinkled with excerpts from Babur’s diary, reflecting on what has changed and what has not in the intervening five hundred years. (More hasn’t changed than has.) I learned about the ancient Ghorid empire and its capital, the Turquoise Mountain, one of the very few empires in recorded history which sprung from a mountain culture instead of the agricultural plains. (The Ghorid state was eventually erased from the earth by Genghis Khan, and at the time of Stewart’s walk the actual location of the Turquoise Mountain was unknown to the outside world.)

Apart from a few specific criticisms, Stewart offers little in the way of political commentary, but it is clear from his observations that the “problem” of Afghanistan is deeper and more complex than simply removing the Taliban, mouthing platitudes about the Koran, and attempting to impose a Western-style democracy with civil rights and universal suffrage. Why we opted for another war of convenience when we’re so far from figuring out what we’ve wrought in Afghanistan, I’ll never really understand.

The title comes from Stewart’s method of navigation from village to village. Without carrying detailed maps (which he feared would bring suspicion that he was a spy,) Stewart would ask in each village for the names of the villages and head men between there and his next significant destination (e.g. Bamiyan.) The villagers would list places they had never seen, with walking times which grew progressively less accurate as the distance from their home increased, but this was how they knew how to get anywhere else—through a list of the places in between.

Now Playing: Secret Handshake from Green Eggs And Crack by Too Much Joy

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January 11, 2007

How briefly I knew you

As a Christmas gift, I got a copy of Bradford Washburn’s autobiography, Bradford Washburn: An Extraordinary Life. I’d never heard of Washburn before, but as it turns out, I’ve enjoyed his work; among other things, Washburn ran the Boston Museum of Science for 41 years, starting from a tiny institution in downtown Boston and doing the organizing and fundraising that created the landmark building on the Charles River which I remember visiting (via the T!) on a visit to my Cambridge-resident aunt when my age was in single digits.

Now she’s back in Maine, and I’m the one who’s the pretext for Boston visits by my nieces. I read Washburn’s biography in about a week. He doesn’t discuss the museum much, but that wouldn’t make much of a biography anyway; instead, he writes about climbing Mt. Washington at age 11 (he later made maps of the mountain; I suspect we used one when we climbed it last summer,) growing up in Cambridge and New Hampshire, learning to fly, and his many summers on expeditions in Alaska. Washburn logged several “firsts” in Alaska, but he was more interested in technique and technology—trying out winter weather gear for the Army, learning new cartographic techniques, and applying new photographic technology to both artistic and cartographic photography of the mountains. He noted with some amusement that even though it is claimed that the University of Alaska doesn’t give honorary degrees, he had one. (He also had honorary degrees from my current University and my brother’s college.)

And within a few weeks of finishing the book—and noting that Washburn was born in 1910, so he had reached a pretty advanced age even at the time of writing it—I find his obituary in the Globe. It seems somehow backward to me that, in the space of three weeks or so, I should review all of such a long life—as though it was playing at double speed, or something.

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December 2, 2006

Reading for others

“Nazar” asked in the comments to “Someone else’s reading” how to get involved, since I didn’t post a link to the sign-up and reading list page. I explained there that there are a few reasons why I don’t feel comfortable posting that link, one being the so-far limited community which is easily handling the reading list, and another being potential copyright issues.

But if you’re interested in contributing the audiobook community in a way that reaches a significantly wider audience than this little project, I recently heard about LibriVox.

I would say, “started using and love,” but I’m not in a phase of my life where I’m a big audiobook consumer right now. (There was a time when I was driving a lot, to home and on weekends, radio along the way stank and I didn’t have an iPod. At that time, checking out the unabridged audiobook of I, Claudius (13 CDs! I can’t remember how many cassettes it was, but it was a lot,) from the Emmaus Public Library was a triumph.)

LibriVox is a community which collects, copy-listens and distributes public-domain (or otherwise legally distributable) audiobooks for free. There’s a lot of good (albeit mostly old) literature in the public domain, so there’s a lot that can be read for them. Audiobooks like this are available to everyone, of course, but most appreciated by people with vision problems. If you’re interested in contributing your time to a project by reading, consider them.

Now Playing: Amber, Ember, Glow by Saxon Shore

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August 31, 2006

In the shadow of the dam

I’m developing a taste for an odd sub-branch of non-fiction: industrial disaster histories. Yesterday I finished In the Shadow of the Dam, Elizabeth Sharpe’s book about the collapse of the Williamsburg reservoir and subsequent disastrous flood in the Mill River valley. The dam and its reservoir were created (along with two still-extant dams on the West Branch of the Mill River, in Goshen) to provide a more constant supply of water to the many water-powered mills and factories in the villages downstream.

I’ve mentioned this flood before, in the context of a drive up Route 9 to ski at Notchview, but when I was training for a marathon in 2002 nearly all of my long runs were done in and around the Mill River valley; most of my runs of sixteen miles or longer would include sections in Florence, Leeds, Haydenville, or Williamsburg. I know the sites of each of the memorials placed for the victims of the flood (starting in 1999, an amazing 125 years afterward,) and I know the villages themselves pretty well.

What I didn’t understand until I read the book was how much the flood changed them. It’s one thing to imagine rising water flooding a town and sweeping away things not anchored down; it’s another to consider the water tumbling, rather than flowing, down the valley, carrying an immense amount of wreckage and scouring the stream bed (and many sections which weren’t stream) down to bedrock. Some mills weren’t rebuilt because their sites simply didn’t exist anymore; the entire village of Skinnerville, between Williamsburg village and Haydenville, essentially ceased to exist.

As a result of this, it’s not really easy to stand in downtown Haydenville, for example, and imagine how the flood changed things; you can just find the places where the flood didn’t reach, and the places where everything has been built since 1874.

So the closing images are among the most striking ones, where Sharpe tells what it’s like to drive up the river valley today. She mentions the acres and acres of debris spread on the meadows between Leeds and Florence, and how, in the 1970s, a large piece of machinery began working to the surface on a fairway of what is now the Northampton Country Club; it was from one of the upstream mills, but a century later, nobody could tell which one.

Probably the most famous building involved in the flood is open to the public. The Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke includes details about how the house was renovated in its lifetime, and how the city acquired it for the museum; it doesn’t mention that the house originally stood in Skinnerville. His factories swept away by the flood (and a foot of muck deposited on the ground floor of his house,) factory owner (and stockholder in the company which built the Williamsburg dam) William Skinner relocated his family and his business to Holyoke. He also had his house carted there, where it stands on a hill, well clear of trouble should the immense Holyoke dam go the way of the Williamsburg reservoir.

Now Playing: You Dreamer from Why The Long Face by Big Country

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August 8, 2006


I admit it: I took the library for granted. So much of what I do (so far) is available online, I didn’t really explore what was available through the University library.

On Friday, though, somebody at MPOW pointed out that through the library website, I could link into Safari Books Online, which bills itself as an “electronic reference library for IT and programmers.” It might be easier to explain that they have a near-complete line of O’Reilly books, plus several other tech-book publishers (I found all of Julie’s books, for example,) available as browser-readable text.

So instead of riding down to Quantum Books in Kendall Square and coughing up $100 for an array of JSP and XSLT titles, I could have accessed all of them and several others on the topic through the library. Yesterday I was comparing my hard-copy O’Reilly XSLT book (Tidwell) with the New Riders book on the subject (Holzner) on Safari; they both covered the topic I’m beating on (the key() function) slightly differently, and it’s been invaluable to have both perspectives. (Of course, the stylesheet still doesn’t do exactly what I want, but let’s not split hairs.)

I was so excited about this, I sent email to Professor α who, last spring, had set up a custom “Safari bookshelf” for our web programming course rather than assign books for us to buy. I pointed out that they’re all available free through the library if he really wants to cut down the cost-per-book for such courses. I think now he’s plotting how to assign fifteen books for his next class and not require the students to buy any of them, so I suppose I should apologize to the undergraduates I pushed to take Comp 20 in the fall.

Now Playing: Penny Look Down by Decibully

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July 17, 2006

Base knowledge

I get unnecessarily intimidated by the thickness of certain tech books. Unnecessary because a lot of books are obligated to spend a chunk of pages introducing concepts I’m already familiar with.

Take, for instance, this JSP book I’ve been picking up. I’ve spent maybe two hours, total, on the book, but I’m well past halfway through. Why? Because I skipped the chapter introducing me to HTML, the half-chapter on database normalization, SQL, and installing MySQL, and skimmed all the reviews of coding in Java.

Now Playing: One Down from Ben Folds Live by Ben Folds

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July 7, 2006

The Lobster Coast

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been reading Colin Woodard’s The Lobster Coast, another birthday present from the aunt who has been directing my non-technical reading for several years now.

Woodard starts out looking like he’s writing an ethnography of lobstermen, but he’s not; the territory has been covered before, and well, he says, citing examples. Instead, he provides a survey history of the development of the Maine coast, including the political machinations behind its sporadic waves of settlement in the 17th and 18th centuries and the struggles with the “Great Proprietors” in the years after the American Revolution, and how these factors combined to develop a state-wide distrust of anything and anyone “from away.” (Yes, we really do use that term.) As an example: one of the motivations behind Maine’s eventual secession from Massachusetts to become its own state was the behavior of the Boston merchant class in the War of 1812: while British troops occupied eastern Maine as far as the Penobscot River, calls to the Governor of Massachusetts for aid went unheard; in fact, the Governor was sending emissaries to the British garrison in Halifax asking if the British would offer military assistance to Massachusetts if they seceded from the Union! In the years after the war, this sort of behavior was the fuel for calls of separation which were eventually agreed to by Massachusetts (which thought it might have an easier time electing a government it liked if the “ornery” Maine voters had their own state.)

Woodard also presents an economic history of the coast, noting the poor farming conditions which led coast settlers to fishing for survival in the spectacular fisheries of the Gulf of Maine. He describes a cycle of exploitation where technology opened up new means of harvesting particular species which were then fished to near collapse, prompting the fishermen to move on to other species. He also provides some explanation for the lobster fishery, the one stock which has yet to collapse and, thanks to some awareness of the disasters which have met other species, may yet survive.

I was particularly interested in Woodard’s explanation of the Maine native’s mistrust of people “from away.” I inherited this mistrust myself (which can lead to interesting self-image situations considering that with my Massachusetts license plates, I myself am now “from away,”) but it’s always been something of a knee-jerk reaction. (My family has been in Maine for more generations than I can easily count, but we’ve largely been ship-builders, mill-owners, and traders, rather than fishermen and farmers; I can’t claim much kinship with the fishing community, though I went to school with them.)

Woodard isolates the issues, including income disparity (Maine, historically, has been among the poorest states in the country, seldom suffering much in economic depressions because their economy doesn’t have much room to go down,) and outsiders’ disregard of the existing community and its traditions. Waterfront property on the coast is vanishing, bought up by part-time residents who, in turn, have driven the price of the land up beyond what families who may have been on that land for generations can afford. Clammers and other “diggers” find themselves fenced off of water access they need to maintain their income by “No Trespassing” signs; Boothbay lobsterboats are operated by lobstermen who commute to the expensive harbor from as far up-state as Augusta, where they can afford housing. People are coming to Maine, in other words, looking for some kind of community and escape from the rush of the cities they left behind, but in the process they’re unconsciously destroying the very things they thought they were pursuing.

And it’s not even that simple; often the development that comes along is welcomed by the longtime residents, and it’s the recent transplants who are resisting it. Different people in my family have mentioned, at different times, how some transplants want to move to Maine, then freeze it the way it was when they first came and keep anyone else from coming in once they have their piece.

It’s a fairly depressing viewpoint, but one I’m hard put to argue with. Woodard has an article in the July issue of Down East Magazine detailing two such developments in my own home town, one of which bought out nearly all of one of the fishing villages that dot our peninsula and replacing it with polished new houses, most of which, one remaining resident notes, are “dark all winter.” What are the landowners supposed to do, though? Turn down good offers for land they may no longer be able to afford keeping?

My state is going somewhere, and like James Stevens, the Boothbay landowner quoted extensively in The Lobster Coast, I doubt that when I die, the state will be anything like the place where I grew up. I hope there’s a way to make it a place that’s still good to live.

Now Playing: Everytime from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

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July 5, 2006

Explorer's House

I think when my aunt gave me a copy of Explorer’s House: National Geographic and the World It Made, she had in mind some level of history of exploration, or travel writing, but that’s not what the book is. At its core, it’s a history of an idea, and on another layer, it’s a story about magazine publishing.

Oddly enough, I can find something like that pretty fascinating, and it didn’t hurt that of my colleagues in my magazine days, one came to RW from National Geographic, and another went to NG some time after I left RW. So I found some explanation for the bizarre stories I’d heard, like an entirely separate department for “legends”—that is, a completely different editorial crew handling photo captions, and only photo captions. Considering the page space NG spends on photography (and it turns out they spent decades living on the photographic and photo-printing cutting edge,) it makes a lot of sense.

And then… imagine four generations of the same family running the same magazine? Wouldn’t happen nowadays, not by a long stretch.

Now Playing: Words Fail You from Five Stories by Kris Delmhorst

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April 26, 2006

No Knight

A link on A’s new site tells me that Ron Bellamy at the Register-Guard has the (public) explanation for my foreword-less copy of Kenny Moore’s Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. Knight likes the book; it’s Rodale he’s having trouble getting along with.

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April 21, 2006

The road not taken

I had a chance, briefly, to talk to John Brant in the press room on Monday. Improbably, we didn’t need an introduction; if I were in his position, I would have had a short conversation with this person whose face I remembered but name I didn’t. He asked what I was up to nowadays; I told him how much I liked Duel in the Sun. He seemed disappointed when I told him I was studying CS and not journalism. “We need young running writers,” he said, so I self-deprecatingly mentioned some others.

On Sunday, A found another of the track writers I have a lot of respect for signing another Rodale book at the expo: Kenny Moore and his new book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. I didn’t know the book, a biography of the coach who brought Moore himself to prominence (4th place in the 1972 Olympic marathon, and an American record in Fukuoka in 1970,) was even available due to some interesting permissions issues, but there it was.

She bought me a copy, and it wasn’t until Monday evening that I looked inside the cover and saw it signed.

To a colleague on the road, and sitting terrified before a blank page.
Kenny Moore

Damn. Of course, A reports that he was initially confusing me with another track writer with whom I have significant name overlap. (Needless to say, I have a signed copy of that book as well.)

I’ve put down the John McPhee I was reading, and I’m three or four chapters deep in Bowerman now. It’s everything I’d hoped for: a true biography, and an interesting one, not just a running book.

Now Playing: Check It Out from Play by The Nields

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April 14, 2006

I don't talk about politics


I bought a slew of books to go to and from Japan, some of which were worth the time (Under the Banner of Heaven, by John Krakauer, which made me forget how sick I was on the flight over, fascinating and in some ways frightening,) and some not so much (Faithful, by Stewart O’Nan and Steven King, which I kept expecting to get better, but it never did—not even at the end.)

One which for some reason amused by brother tremendously when he saw it on the stack was Dark Tide, by Stephen Puleo. Dark Tide is, I think, the only book to tell the story of the great Boston molasses flood, a favorite story (if a disaster can be “favorite”) of many in this area (particularly in the North End, where it happened.) There are all kinds of anecdotal tales of the flood, and a Schooner Fare song:

In the morning it was forty-two
Molasses vat split clean in two.
Two million gallons covered the bay
Twenty-six people drowned in the flood that day.

One of the points Puleo makes in the book is that the massive molasses tank was sited in the North End because at the time, the bulk of the local population were Italian immigrants living in tenements. The Italians took a beating in those days; most weren’t citizens and stayed out of local politics (Boston’s Irish population was only just beginning to amass political power,) many traveled back to Italy seasonally, and few learned English. It didn’t help that the radical anti-war movement (opposed, at the time, to World War I,) and the violent Anarchist movement were largely Italian-led; hundreds were deported.

Because the Italians weren’t represented in local politics, there was nobody to resist the placement of the tank in a busy area. After the disaster, Puleo points out, Boston’s Italian community took a greater interest in learning English, becoming citizens, and entering politics (by voting, at a minimum): essentially, assimilating, but also taking up political power. The current speaker of the Massachusetts House has an Italian name, for example.

While I was reading that, I was hearing radio reports about the immigration demonstrations this week. About how, for once, there were demonstrations in opposition to proposed government policy which were coherent, direct, and stuck to a single message.

The proposed immigration bill isn’t (yet) a bizarre and sudden disaster which kills dozens and injures over a hundred more. But I wonder if it might have the unintended effect of motivating an immigrant community to enter the system formally (learning English, gaining citizenship however possible, and voting as a bloc.) And, potentially, changing the balance of power.

Like I said, I don’t talk about politics much. But the possible parallel seemed worth mentioning.

Posted by pjm at 10:26 PM | Comments (0)

March 26, 2006

Rivalries in print

(I wrote this in an airport yesterday…)

I plowed through two books on vacation which turned out to be more alike than I’d expected. Duel in the Sun, by John Brant, tells the story of the 1982 Boston Marathon, when Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley ran “in each others’ pockets” for the last nine miles of the race in a duel so hard-run that Salazar wound up in the hospital and neither ran as well again. The Perfect Distance, by Pat Butcher, is a British book about the early-80s rivalry between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe which led to numerous world records, three Olympic gold medals and more lesser medals than bear thinking about.

I first discovered Brant when I was working at RW and he was a senior writer there. He also writes fairly regularly for Outdoor Life and Men’s Health, but I remember him for writing the stark and striking articles about the California high school cross-country team built largely from migrant workers’ children, or the explanation of the crisis in public school P.E. and its connection with childhood obesity rates. Duel in the Sun grew out of an RW article, but it doesn’t read like a magazine piece. Brant interweaves narrations of the race day, the race weekend, along with both athletes’ histories and their lives after the marathon. Salazar, who came to Boston as the two-time defending NYCM champion, struggled for the next decade with health problems that curtailed his training; Beardsley, who suffered a career-ending injury within months, slid into an illicit addiction to prescription painkillers after a farm-machinery accident.

Both are still active in the sport, Salazar as a coach (I spoke to him briefly in New York in February about one of his athletes, Adam Goucher,) and Beardsley as a speaker and overwhelmingly nice guy. 2007 will be the 25th anniversary of the “Duel in the Sun,” and you can bet much noise will be made at the marathon; they make a point of bringing back the champions celebrating five-year anniversaries of their wins.

Brant never mentions the actual result, though he mentions the winning margin, two seconds, and quotes both athletes saying, “As far as I’m concerned, there were two winners.” You need to check the cover to see which one is wearing the laurel wreath (Salazar.)

Butcher follows this example in The Perfect Distance, emphasizing the rivalry itself over the results. Unlike the one-day clash between the favored Salazar and the outsider Beardsley, the Ovett/Coe rivalry spread over half a dozen years—though, as Butcher often laments, the pair only raced each other seven times in eight years, and four of those races were Olympic finals. Coe and Ovett ushered in the era of professionalism in track, of rabbited record attempts, and perfected the art of “ducking”—that is, avoiding showdown races which might change them from two Number Ones to a One and a Two.

They also, by Butcher’s account, by themselves managed to hold Western interest in the Moscow Olympics (where Ovett won Coe’s specialty, the 800m, and Coe won Ovett’s, the 1500m,) and launched a golden age of middle-distance running in England. The heyday of the rivalry, between the Moscow and Los Angeles Games, is where the book crackles—Coe’s nine-day tear of three world records, for example, or Ovett’s “backwater” races and week-on-week record trading. Butcher is the track correspondent for the Financial Times, among others, and he’s a resourceful and determined reporter. He includes interviews with significant rivals, and outlines past rivalries between milers, even to the point of interviewing the great Swedes, Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg, who ran thirty-five match races during the Second World War (Sweden was neutral) and lowered the mile world record from 4:06.4 to 4:01.4.

What’s less easy to follow is Butcher’s bouncing back and forth between Coe and Ovett in the early parts of the story, comparing their development so closely that at times it’s difficult to tell which athlete he’s telling us about. Also unlike Brant, Butcher is unafraid to make himself a character in the story—and, as a correspondent at the time, he was—sometimes simply to disclose his own biases and potential agendas, but sometimes simply waving at us as if to say, “I was there!” Brant is so unobtrusive that when he mentions Salazar meeting a reporter for an interview on the Nike campus, we almost forget that the reporter must have been Brant himself. (Butcher also slips by naming Salazar as the Boston champion in the year of Rosie Ruiz, when that was actually a Bill Rodgers year.)

Duel in the Sun, I think, should be required reading for anyone who follows marathoning. The Perfect Distance (which we got, I think, by ordering it from, though it appears to be available through the mothership nowadays,) will make entertaining reading mainly for hardcore track geeks like myself.

Posted by pjm at 5:17 PM | Comments (0)

September 6, 2005

Book prices

I walk both sides of the textbook-pricing fence.

See, for the last four years I’ve been employed by a textbook publishing company. You know, those evil profiteers who pump up the prices of their books by including extra, supposedly unnecessary CD-ROMs and study guides in order to charge top dollar for the same old book. In fact, I was technically in the ancillaries department: the ones who produced the extra CD-ROMs, websites, etc. etc.—which are actually part of an arms race between publishers trying to convince professors to “adopt” their book over the others.

I also heard the complaints (whines?) from students protesting that publishers produce new editions too frequently in an effort to squash the used-book market. Sometimes that’s true; sometimes (as is often the case in the sciences) one needs a new edition to catch up with the science.

At any rate, my salary from four years on the Dark Side is subsidizing my gradual student lifestyle, thanks. So I can forgive them a good bit.

Now, however, I’m on the other side of the price tag. I’m trying to assemble all the books for the classes I’ve registered for, and it’s really a headache.

First, I’ve become a fan of the used book. This partly happened this summer, when I was selling excess books to avoid moving them. Also, I recently read an article in the NYT which pointed out something Amazon discovered when they opened up to used books: a healthy used market makes customers more willing to buy new. So I’m contributing to the healthy used market.

Second, in my time in night school, I developed an antipathy to college bookstores. They tend to feel like ripoffs when I stack up all my books and plop down my credit card. So, I start online.

Saturday, I cruised the course websites, built a book list, and opened windows on B&N and Amazon. I discovered a few years ago that a B&N Membership will really pay off if you’re buying textbooks (the 10% discount pays for the membership inside a semester) but Amazon’s used market is bigger and more competitive. So I shopped each book on both sites, built two orders, and submitted them.

The catch with online book orders is delivery time. I may be past the add-drop period before I have all my books. It’s impossible to tell when they’ll actually arrive, because the predicted arrival times are so cautious, but the forecast dates are pretty scary. I’m planning a lot of library time for reserve reading. I also whiffed completely on one book, ordering the wrong title from the right author; I’ve resubmitted that order.

Fortunately, my Monday-Wednesday courses only meet once this week, which gives me some time to get things together. However, next semester I need to either (a) start earlier, or (b) figure out an efficient way to hedge the arrival times, like shopping a physical bookstore first, or (c) some combination.

Posted by pjm at 4:53 PM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2005

В Русском Доме

Yesterday morning I dropped off the last set of give-away books before moving. It was a bunch of books from my Russian library, some text-in-translation stuff and some actual Russian I brought back from my summer in Petersburg. I’m keeping quite a lot, but I’m also getting realistic about my odds of actually cracking some of these books ever again. Instead, I left them at the Russian department office to be put on the shelves of my one-time dorm, the Russian House.

The department secretary warned me, as I dropped them off, that books in the Russian House “tend to walk.” They were happy to get them, because the library shelves were apparently relatively bare, but I’m pretty sure some of the translations, at least, are assigned texts in some classes. They’re likely to be permanently adopted by students.

This is fine, in my view. I’d toyed with the idea of putting some kind of labels in them (“A gift from…”) but on further thought, decided that my goal here wasn’t to create some kind of bibliophilic self-memorial; my goal was to take the books off my shelves and put them in the hands of someone who could read them or otherwise make use of them.

I didn’t go so far as to create labels that read, “Steal this book!”

Posted by pjm at 3:02 PM | Comments (1)

July 18, 2005

Used book update

I hinted last week that I was putting used books on Amazon. They make it relatively easy to sell your used books, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do in all cases.

The catch is that Amazon charges a commission of $0.99 plus 15% of your sale price. So if you sell a book for $1.00, Amazon’s commission is $1.14, and you’re actually $0.14 in the hole. They do give you a shipping credit of $2.26, and that’s where the margin actually appears: mailing the average paperback book by the USPS’s “media mail” rate costs about $1.24. So there’s about dollar to play with there on most books. Half of that goes to packaging; I get padded envelopes from Hastings for $0.52, but I suspect many used-book sellers have more efficient (cheaper) packaging operations. Also, depending on what your level of urgency is, you might find it worthwhile to clear just a nickel on particular books in order to get rid of them. For me, if that’s as good as I’m going to do, I’d rather donate it.

So what I did was wade through the stack of books, putting in the ISBNs and seeing what the current lowest price was for each one. I set an arbitrary break point of $1.50. If the current lowest price was under that (and many were as low as $0.01), I put it back on the “give away” stack. If it was higher, I set a price between five and ten cents lower than the current low price, and listed it. I wound up listing somewhere around a quarter of the give-away stacks for both A and I, and if you saw my list at its height, you’d probably be a bit shocked right now at how many we’re giving away. (I’m keeping about five times even that number—unfortunately for moving days, I have a pretty big library.)

What has really surprised me is how quickly I’ve sold as many as I have. A textbook I listed didn’t stay 24 hours. For a sample, I bought ten envelopes on Sunday morning; on Sunday evening, I had nine of them packed for shipping. I currently have more orders to ship than I have envelopes. In the not-quite-week since I started, I’ve sold seventeen books to sixteen people, from Maine to Guam to Puerto Rico. Total value of the transactions is over $100; my margin is a little less than 60% from Amazon, and I think I’ve paid another 20% to 25% in shipping fees and packaging. So you’ll see that I’m not making a business out of this. Maybe it will buy me a textbook or two in the fall; maybe it will buy A dinner.

Even if I wanted to keep it up, the inventory is highly perishable; once I’m out of books, I can’t get more. Anyway, I can’t leave things on sale until they sell. In the week before the move I will close all the listings and move any remaining books back to the “donate” pile, and find them a home elsewhere.

Posted by pjm at 8:10 PM | Comments (0)

March 20, 2005

Beaten with a stick

Today, while I was off in one of the more depressing regions of Massachusetts, I was hit by The Stick. I almost deleted the email unread until I realized that it was from the Scoplaw, whose actual name I’d not been familiar with.

I don’t usually do these things, because I usually throw enough of my reading, listening, etc. in that both of my regular readers know what’s on. Besides, my rate of reading has slowed dramatically in recent years. I blame five soul-rotting years in the magazine industry. Anyway, read on (extended entry) for The Stick, and go back to Scoplaw for the, er, “history.” (I like the name. Reminds me of a relay baton. Stick!)

Continue reading "Beaten with a stick"

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February 10, 2005

The Corrections

In light of the (bizarre) snowstorm currently plastering Western Massachusetts (we got rain in lieu of the first ten forecast inches, and the initial coating came down in inch-wide clumps) the airline has preemptively cancelled our flight out tomorrow morning and rescheduled us two hours later.

This allows me to shift the planned swim tonight to tomorrow morning.

When updating our arrival time for the rental car reservation, my rate was somehow reduced, so we’re saving a few bucks.

In the bag for plane reading: Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. I am betting on a raft of emails correcting this cheap hack’s usage after I finish.

Posted by pjm at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

December 1, 2004

Hen Frigates

Hmmm, can I write a post while I wait for this CD to finish?

I recently finished Joan Druett’s Hen Frigates, a book about the wives of merchant sailors in the 19th century who sailed with their husbands. (A “hen frigate” was a jargon term for a ship with the captain’s wife aboard.) I remember this book being on my to-read shelf in Pennsylvania, so I’ve been carrying it around for a while; it’s about time I made it through.

The jacket promised “Passion and Peril,” but I don’t know that we ever really get it. Druett works extensively with primary sources; she read dozens of journals and hundreds of letters written by seafaring women. However, she organizes the book by topic, which means that at best we get snippets of each woman’s tale; I found it nearly impossible to keep track of which women went with which husbands and which ships, since fragments of their stories were distributed among the multiple chapters, and often the same paragraph would reference multiple women.

Of course, the journals probably didn’t provide much in the way of story lines by themselves. But I found that this “survey method” didn’t really get me involved with any of the characters. The look at the past was most interesting, though, and one surprise was the magnitude of Victorian morality’s role in women’s place on shipboard. I didn’t feel like I wasted my time, but I’m not sure I’d go back and re-read it.

Now Playing: Bone Of Song from Hello Starling by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 5:10 PM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2004

Some things never change

I’m re-reading another book—Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts, a hardcover first edition which was my tangible inheritance from my paternal grandfather. Roberts was strongly opinionated, to the point of being caustic, and bowed to no sacred cows; to my knowledge, he was (and probably still is) the only American writer to write a historical novel about the American Revolution from the perspective of a Loyalist, (“Tory,”) Oliver Wiswell, apparently the only one of his books which Down East Books is not keeping in print. His argument at the time was that a great many of the colonies’ best and brightest had chosen to remain loyal to the King and, in many cases, had suffered for it, so there must have been some merit to their case.

At any rate, when I opened Lydia Bailey I was stunned by the opening paragraphs, which (with some updates) are as true now as when Roberts wrote it, and as they presumably were when his narrator, Albion Hamlin, started his tale (which took him from Portland to Boston, Haiti, and Tripoli) in 1800:

I’m not over-enthusiastic about books that teach or preach, but I may as well admit in the beginning that my primary reason for writing this book was to teach as many as possible of those who come after me how much hell and ruin are inevitably brought on innocent people and innocent countries by men who make a virtue of consistency.

All the great villains and small villains whom I met so frequently in the events I’m about to set down were consistent men—unimaginative men who consistently believed in war as a means of settling disputes between nations; equally misguided men who consistently believed that war must be avoided at all hazards, no matter what the provocation; narrow men who consistently upheld the beliefs and acts of one political party and saw no good in any other; shortsighted men who consistently refused to see that the welfare of their own nation was dependent on the welfare of every other nation; ignorant men who consistently thought that the policies of their own government should be supported and followed, whether those policies were right or wrong; dangerous men who consistently thought that all people with black skins are inferior to those with white skins […] And I know that any nation that cannot or will not avoid the dreadful pitfalls of consistency will be one with the dead empires whose crumbling monuments studded our battlegrounds in Haiti and in Africa.

Posted by pjm at 9:07 PM | Comments (0)

August 31, 2004

Life at These Speeds

The reason I wrote about re-reading last week was that on Thursday I picked up a book I hadn’t touched since I interviewed the author two years ago. Life at These Speeds by Jeremy Jackson was pretty startling the first time I read it, a running book that wasn’t about running, that wasn’t about what some runner wished their running had been like or what some non-runner thought running was like.

This reading, I am being reminded of something I noticed last time, which is how Jackson’s characters talk to each other. They all talk like intellectual college students, but it’s a front; they still act like high school kids, trying to be knowledgeable adults but hurting each other because they don’t really know what they’re doing. Kevin Schuler, the narrator, is like an uncomfortable dream, a spectator in his own body, watching himself as he does things that he knows, somewhere, are poor choices, fighting something in his own head that he doesn’t understand. Jackson absolutely nailed that aspect of adolescence; I didn’t like Kevin because I wanted to be him (though there were moments) but because I remember when I was him.

Minus the van crash that kills all my teammates, of course. And the state-record track times.

This time I focused more attention of Schuler’s “coach” (who seldom gives him much advice, or needs to,) Gregory Altrabashar. Despite his perpetually put-upon bearing, he appears to be the only one who understands just what’s going on from the start, as when he says to Kevin after nearly every race, “Kevin, did you do this for you?” Kevin seems to be deriving no joy from his racing, chasing something he can’t catch, yet when he is forced to stop racing for a year he becomes physically ill, insomniac and even more detached than he had been before.

A problem Jackson had to face was the primary difficulty of centering a novel around running. There must always be a climactic race, even in a biography, and there are really only two ways to conclude that race. It has to be well written to make it worthwhile. The closing race in Once a Runner is so real I once checked my pulse while reading it (120); Jackson found an entirely different way of handling the problem in Life at These Speeds which, unfortunately, I can’t share without ruining the story.

If nothing else, it’s worth skimming the book for the absolutely surreal names Jackson comes up with for his supporting characters, like Altrabashar (which I’m sure I’ve misspelled) or Kevin’s teammate, Boblink Crustacean (which sounds like a Googlewhack, but isn’t, partly due to the book.)

Now playing: Can’t Make a Sound from Figure 8 by Elliott Smith

Posted by pjm at 8:59 AM | Comments (5)

July 27, 2004

Hackers and Painters

Yesterday at PT I finished Paul Graham’s book, Hackers and Painters. Maybe I’m particularly receptive to non-fiction due to my high levels of John McPhee lately, but I was very impressed with Graham’s book.

If you’ve heard of Paul Graham recently, it’s probably not because of his biggest project, creating the software that would become Yahoo! Store; more likely it’s because of his 2002 essay, “A Plan for Spam” which first proposed the statistical-analysis approach to email filtering used by nearly every modern spam filter.

It’s hard to pigeonhole the book. It’s not about something in particular; it’s subtitled “Big Ideas from the Computer Age,” and that’s pretty much the size of it. Why geeks are unpopular. Why applications are going to move off the desktop and on to web servers, paid for on a subscription model. The difference between “making money” and “creating wealth” and why you can create more wealth in a startup than working for a regular company. A lot of thoughts about programming languages.

It’s not entirely a computer book. There are some bits that aren’t immediately clear if you’re not a geek, but when he does really jargony things (like use “diff” as a verb) he at least provides an endnote. I think I would get more out of the languages section if I knew more about more of the languages in question. If I wanted to peg the level of jargon, I’d put it close to Eric Raymond’s How To Become A Hacker essay; the tone is fairly close, as well.

It’s full of little moments—acknowledging, for example, how chasing a challenging bug can be rewarding, at least for a little while. (I managed to squash one this afternoon which had been on my to-do list for quite a while.)

Most of the essays in the book are also available on Graham’s website, along with some others, but I found the book format much easier to deal with. It’s a good place to look to see if you’d like his style; both it and the book are likely to expose you to some new ideas.

Now playing: Alleluia from The Honesty Room by Dar Williams

Posted by pjm at 3:44 PM | Comments (0)

July 7, 2004

Because no book should go thirty years without a sequel

Well, this should cause some oscillation on the running boards, if it hasn’t already…

Now playing: Come Home from Getting Away With It… Live (Disc 2) by James

Continue reading "Because no book should go thirty years without a sequel"

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June 21, 2004

Operating systems as lifestyles

This weekend I finished Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning… Was the Command Line and picked up Linus Torvalds and David Diamond’s Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary. It’s an interesting pairing, as good as the time I read Murray Halberg’s A Clean Pair of Heels right before Bob Schul’s In the Long Run.

The latter two names, for those who don’t know them, were the 5,000m Olympic gold medalists in 1960 and 1964, respectively. Stephenson is an author (most recently, The Confusion) and Torvalds… well, as the book explains, Torvalds wrote and still maintains authority over the operating system known as Linux.

Stephenson’s book is a tour of a few wild ideas. First, operating systems. Second, that you can put a string of bits on a disk and sell it, and somehow maintain its marketability in the face of free competition. Third… well, operating systems, and Stephenson hits four “major” ones, specifically the matched proprietary rivals MacOS and Windows, the free and powerful Linux, and BeOS. The book is already dated—MacOS has made massive leaps since it was written, and BeOS is defunct—but in the telescoped development of the computer world, it’s important to have some history to properly judge the present. Anyway, Stephenson isn’t completely wrapped in geek-speak; as in his excellent Cryptonomicon, he’s very good at taking representative elements of “hacker” culture and explaining them in a way that makes sense to non-geeks but doesn’t trivialize them. He compares today’s technical culture to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine with the below-ground Morlocks as a technical, book-reading minority running the technical show for the above ground Eloi, consumers of mass culture. He addresses the way different operating systems work in the wider organization of computer systems; how, for instance,

In trying to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three and Linux would not exist.

His main thesis is that the OS is a mediator between ourselves and the infinite complexity of the computer itself, and that the dominance of Windows is not because it’s better or because Microsoft is evil—it’s because American’s are looking for a mediated experience, looking for something Eloi can handle. And that Linux is the OS of the Morlocks. I’ve oversimplified this beyond belief, but it’s very, very interesting. (And it’s a free download from the website I’ve linked above, if you feel like paying for the paper and printing instead of buying a pre-printed version.)

Torvalds’ book is an interesting follow-up, because it reminds me how recently Linux became a viable OS. Its first release was around the time I was graduating from high school, and by the time I was out of college it was starting to run large servers. Now here I am administering three Linux servers and contemplating set-up of a Linux workstation here. (OK, maybe I am a little bored with being the only Morlock in the office.) It’s comic, self-effacing, and unapologetic; though Torvalds and Diamond clearly tried to keep the geek-speak to a minimum, they went over the head of their copyeditor at least twice that I’ve noticed (the ls command for getting a directory listing doesn’t include an apostrophe—what is an l's command?)

Still, Torvalds quotes one of his early postings about Linux: “Do you pine for the days when men were men and wrote their own device drivers?” He can actually make me excited about an idea like doing low-level system code. He describes the flash of feeling he got when the initial assembly-language terminal emulator which eventually became Linux 0.01 first began flashing letters on the screen, and I recognized it. Cool.

Geez. Book reviews, movie reviews. I’ll be doing restaurants soon. (This weekend was the Taste of Amherst. Mmmm, Indian.)

Now playing: This Dreadful Life from Cherry Marmalade by Kay Hanley

Posted by pjm at 9:52 AM | Comments (0)

April 16, 2004

Page 23

I’ve spotted this in a few places, most recently There Is No Cat and Airbag. I tried it for entertainment, and the results were, predictably, entertaining. The idea is to open the nearest book (no, don’t go looking—the nearest book,) open to page 23, find the fifth sentence, and post it.

I find it most amusing that the two above both hit the same book, but got different sentences.

Some of these could be legitimate, perhaps web crawlers creating an index; but when the hits are coming from in faraway Antarctica, it’s more likely that some script kiddie is probing your ports.

From Linux Security Cookbook, Daniel J. Barrett, Richard E. Silverman & Robert G. Byrnes, the introduction to Chapter 2: “Firewalls with iptables and ipchains.” Hey, I’m at work, what did you think the closest book would be? OK, maybe the woodpecker book, or the camel book, or the armadillo book.

Posted by pjm at 10:47 AM | Comments (2)

March 21, 2004

Happy Feet, Healthy Food

I know, it’s been a prolific day for me. I’m putting off doing my taxes.

I got a large-ish package from Breakaway Books in the mail on Friday which I hadn’t been expecting. It turned out to be an advance copy of Happy Feet, Healthy Food by Carol Goodrow, and I remembered Carol asking for my address a few months ago.

Carol is an acquaintance of mine from my days at RW. I tried to help her bootstrap in to the world of running an expanding website, and (she claims) I was often the only one who would answer her questions when quite a lot of the rest of the company seemed to be hoping she would just run her site and keep quiet. I still see her from time to time at events, and occasionally answer a technical question (or, in some cases, help her figure out what her question is, by which point the answer is obvious.)

This book of hers is, like her site, a demonstration of the idea that the best and most effective approaches to some problems can be the simplest. The problem, in this case, is one that we read about regularly nowadays (and, in my case, write about): our national obesity problem, in particular how it starts with our children.

Happy Feet, Healthy Food isn’t a weight loss manual, nor is it a how-to exercise book for kids that might be read once and forgotten. It is a week by week log, encouraging nothing more difficult than regular participation in active, fun things kids already know how to do.

The idea is simple and compelling, so much so that Amby Burfoot (a person for whom I hold a great deal of respect) wrote in his foreword, “This book you are holding is a work of genius.” Get used to being active and eating well when you’re young, and you’re not only less likely to be an obese child, you’re more likely to carry the good habits into the rest of your life.

This book isn’t about any secret or quick fix; it’s about establishing habits. It’s about parents getting outside and doing fun, active things with their kids instead of sitting in front of the television. (Or computer.) It’s subversive. Who knew?

Of course, I don’t (yet) have children, so it may be a while before I have an actual use for the book (other than saying good things about it.) Still, having the copy sitting out on the table makes me feel like a radical, which is pretty strange itself considering how it looks.

Posted by pjm at 8:09 PM | Comments (0)