Thursday, March 30, 2006

Pets and their people solving mysteries, Berenson style

kw: book reviews, mystery, animal fiction

The Cat Who series by L.J. Braun leads the pack when it comes to animals that solve mysteris for their humans. The various series by Agatha Christie set the standard for mental thrillers that a sharp reader can figure out just ahead of the estimable H. Poirot or Miss Marple.

Laurien Berenson's Melanie Travis mysteries are replete with animals, mostly show dogs, that lend color but few clues. They are instead meant to provide cover, as the swirling silks of a magician, that help her hide the clues in plain sight. Without very diligent mental discipline, the reader gets the point just behind Ms. Travis—or whatever her married name is, in the lastest. And, where would Melanie be without her Aunt Peg?

That latest, Raining Cats & Dogs, is an enjoyable romp. Melanie is doing her best to compete in any arena where her aunt hasn't already dominated the field. So she begins training recently retired Faith (her champion Standard Poodle) in an Obedience class. This is not your ordinary "heel, roll over, play dead & shake hands" class. Many class members are seriously into getting their dog certified at various levels of competitive Obedience.

As a side project, many of Melanie & Faith's new classmates go to a retirement home to provide a couple of hours of companion dog service to the residents there. Of course, not all is well, neither in the class nor at the retirement home. These people have been together 'way too long, and it shows.

A tone I notice in the book, is that the scattered action—looking for a bigger house for a blended family that includes five full-size Poodles, getting used to a very new marriage, sharing a kid with an ex-spouse (fortunately, very amicably)—is justly suited to the Boomer and X generations. While my life has been on the quiet, conservative side, very many of my age-mates and their grown children seem to live in a maelstrom. I suspect that they won't just die when their time comes, they'll be pulled apart by the social whirl.

The thread I was able to unravel, was Melanie contriving to have a cat visit the woman who doesn't like the dogs. A satisfying touch. Otherwise, I was simply led down the garden path as the story unfolded. Matches my life...

Monday, March 27, 2006

Bridges are old hat...I have a continent for sale...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fraud, deceit, history

Michael Farquhar loves a wicked tale. Just look at his former titles: A Treasury of Great American Scandals: Tantalizing True Tales of Historic Misbehavior by the Founding Fathers and Others Who Let Freedom Swing and A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors. With his new book, A Treasury of Deception: Liars, Misleaders, Hoodwinkers, and the Extraordinary True Stories of History's Greatest, Hoaxes, Fakes, and Frauds, he takes in new territory. While many scandals of the past involved widespread deception, the new book focuses on the deception itself, in a run of events where the scandal element was less prominent, and the cleverness, or heinousness, of the deciver(s) was primary.

In the seventy chapters and four appendices, we find P.T. Barnum, the unabashed "Prince of the Humbugs"; Ben Franklin and Edgar Allan Poe's delightful hoaxes (though Poe was chagrined that a near-unknown at the New York Sun out-hoaxed him); wartime tricks—some that probably saved freedom—and great excapes; and the most evil lies of recorded history. It was a relief to come off that last category with lighter fare: royal wannabe imposters and practical jokers (though on a scale few of us could pull off).

Reminds me of a prank my brother (among many, many others no doubt) and used to pull with a friend or two, in the early 70s when jewelry for guys became widespread. They'd agreed on some basic signals, and so would dress like slumming royalty, walk around in a place like Venice (Calif), stall near a likely group, and "discuss" things in a phony language. Then one would turn to someone nearby and ask the time, in a bad accent. Usually, they could, with hints and plenty of "translation" with a member or two who feigned no English, convince some folks they were a prince or two from "Lower Slobbovia" or somewhere, with a couple body guards.

On a different note, at the beach we'd sometimes play catch with an invisible ball. Each had a paper lunch bag, to be used as a mitt. Holding it right, you could snap your fingers and make it hop noisily, as though a ball had dropped in. We made great catches, and put on quite a show. Exhausting in short order, so we never did it for long.

Such pranks are fun and pretty are innocent. Many of the lies in the book either cost lives or saved them. We're not talking "little white" variety here. It'll take quite a different book to determine if, when Martha asked, "Does this skirt make me look fat?", George Washington lied. More incentive than hiding a dead tree, d'ye think? do you like your vice? There's plenty in Farquhar's book to go around.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The greatest invention ever (at least for 50,000 years or so)

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, english language, words, logophilia

I can't report such a book without some paraphrases & quotes:
  • Each year about 5,000 new words enter or are coined in the English language. (p40)
  • From H.D. Thoreau: "Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all." (p151, in the chapter Bookmobility)
  • From John Cheever: "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library!" (p156, in A Celebration of Libraries)
  • From V. Alexandrov: "Language is the greatest achievement of culture; poetry is the greatest achievement of language." (p163, in What is Poetry?)
  • Of writing poetry yourself, "The place to begin is with yourself. If your poems are to be sincere, they should be fashioned from the raw material of your experience..." (p167)
  • From A. Quiller-Couch: "If your language is confused, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond. (p 211)

Richard Lederer loves language. His new book The Miracle of Language invites us to read his love-letters to words and language.

This is fond to my heart, as I do also. The earliest memories of my next-youngest brother and myself are of finding a "Table of Alphabets" in our family encyclopedia and spending hours copying letters of the Sumerian, Greek, Amharic and other scripts.

Our careers sprang from this, as he became a calligrapher then a student of language—now a Mayan archaeologist—, while I work with the meanings of words and the relationships among them: in a hierarchy of concepts, "rust" is a species of "corrosion", but does "corrosion" come under "chemical attack" or vice versa...or are they siblings under something greater, as corrosion can involve biochemistry? At a lecture my brother gave on the artwork in the Book of Kells, a wag who knew of my Bible expertise cracked, "M-- and L-- both study the Bible: one the form, the other its content."

Lederer had a choice when he planned his book. He has the expertise to write a lengthy, comprehensive, scholarly tome. He made the happier choice to seek clarity in brevity, and has produced a book of just the right size: broad in scope, enough so to be called comprehensive, yet concise and to the point. Meaty without being overwhelming.

(I am thus reminded of my decades of reading Stephen Jay Gould's books. Very readable, and as a group covering all aspects of natural science. Then, I got a copy of his mammoth The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. 1400 pages! I am capable of reading half a hundred pages a year, with any understanding. So it'll sit on my nightstand until I am at least 80. Should Lederer produce a monster tome, I'd likely give it a go...but so glad this book isn't.)

Lederer is an essayist, a columnist. Many of the chapters in Miracle are from his columns. I love essays. They are polished gems, where a novel is more of an inlaid or mosaicked mural. In them, we hover with him over scenes in which language is used and misused—shown with particular beauty in an essay on George Orwell—, crafted, created, and variously made to pull its weight or pull us down.

He likes to quote others, which made it rather hard for me to find good bites of his own text to present. There is but one in the list of quotes above (it's next to last). His last chapter "Words about words" consists of an introductory page followed by thirty pages of quotes. He calls it "A Gallimaufry for Word Lovers". How can one not love words? Whether spoken or in print, they are indeed, not only "mightier than the sword," but the source of sword and plowshare alike.

Monday, March 20, 2006

You only think you've been cold...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural science

To those who have ever overwintered in Antarctica or Kamchatka, the title above is not directed!

(prescript: I prepared this the 20th, so I am dating it then. I was ready to post it, but went on a trip before I'd copied it into here. Oh, well.)

I note that twelve days have passed without a posting. Blame a combination of my obsessiveness and the writing of Mariana Gosnell. Her book Ice, the Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance is 500 pages of small text. I briefly contemplated posting about halfway through, but a day or two later was far enough long on the second half, that I just forged ahead.

Now, I can usually polish off a quarter million words in six to eight hours of reading time. Not here. The author's prose is not difficult, though it is quite straightforward and less lyrical than that of many nature writers. She writes well, but the book is so packed with ideas and information that I could read but a few pages at a time, then had to think a while.

The halfway point in the book was a seductive point to pause—if I had done so—because of a shift in the narrative. Of the 36 chapters, the first 16 present ice where it is found: capping seas, lakes, and streams; glaciating continents (at the moment, two) and high mountains; and in permafrost. The next seven chapters show how plants and animals, including humans, are impacted by ice. Five more focus more on ice in our work and play, then seven on more places ice is found: the air and space. Finally, a chapter on ice ages and a closing one on life at the north end of Lake of the Woods.

I've had a love-hate relationship with the stuff. Born in California, I saw snow only after a family move to Utah. There I learned to ski, and found I am no good at it. I did better at lunch-tray tobogganing, which I learned at college in Ohio. I also learned to ice skate, and love that, though I rarely do so any more. Now that I live on the edge of the ice belt, outdoor skating places are typically far away, and "rinks" are too costly. The eight years I lived in South Dakota were quite fun. Snow was not plowed; when it is -20°, snow is like sand. You pack it down and drive on it. Further south, snow is too close to its melting point to be safe to drive on. Thus, the ubiquitous sand-n-salt trucks, and the prevalence of body shops to repair the rust on your car.

The uniqueness of ice on Earth is that, of all the common solid materials, it alone exists close to its melting point. I imagine if Venus were a little hotter, granite would behave a little more like ice does on earth...with a big exception. Ice is the only common solid that is less dense than its liquid.

Aside: the next-most common solid that expands on freezing is the semimetal Antimony. Where ice expands 9% in volume Antimony expands about 1%, which makes it a perfect alloying element for type metal in hot-type machines such as the old Linotype™. That little expansion makes the metal squeeze into every cranny of a type slug so the letter is very clear.

I imagine if the temperature were near 1000°C (1800°F), granite mountains would creep and flow the way glaciers do. What they would creep upon is another matter. Basalt, I suppose, which melts another 600° or so higher.

To me, the most beautiful form of ice is windowpane frost. In Utah, we didn't have storm windows for our bedroom windows, so there was often a swirl of frost catching the rays of the rising sun of a winter morning. Second most beautiful, snowflakes. During the South Dakota years, I was a Geology student, and carried a hand lens all the time. I kept it on a lanyard so it would stay cold, and during November or April snows (December to mid-March, the little snow that fell was powder), I'd look at the flakes that fell on my dark blue parka. Exquisite!!

In Ice, Gosnell explains how these beauties form by direct freezing from vapor. No liquid phase occurs. Conversely, ice in stiff clothing on the clothesline in winter evaporates directly to the chill winds, and you know the clothes are dry when they become supple. While we often dry clothes that way, a quick tumble in the clothes dryer with some Bounce, or a touch of a warm iron, makes them so much nicer to put on!

We also find animals that can survive freezing, mainly because ice tends to form between cells rather than within (saltier there), so the cells evaporate much water to the growing ice while they shrink and stiffen. A frozen insect or frog is not in much danger from the freezing, but from dehydration if too much water is withdrawn from the cells. Those that must live in the coldest climes have efficient antifreezes, some that allow them to survive nearly 100 degrees of frost.
Will we soon get more intimately acquainted with Ice? Are we at the end of an Interglacial episode? Most science indicates that is the case, but the author mentions a few studies that argue it will be another 10,000 or 20,000 years until the US, northern Europe, and southern Africa are glaciated again. The more we learn, the more there is to learn. This is particularly true about Ice.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Law of Unintended Consequences at work

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, natural history

Many years ago, when I lived in Anaheim, I got up extra early, before first light. Just before beginning my morning shower I opened the window above the tub. The night was very dark and very clear. I could see a few stars. I got the hot water going, and when I next looked out a minute or two later, I saw steam forming in the air outside the window. In seconds, the whole area was socked in with a coastal fog.

I recalled this as I read of a tern flying through the boundary between moist, rising tropical air and colder air above, suddenly initiating cloud formation, which grows into a storm front. This is the opening sequence in the chapter "Set in Motion," of Threads from the Web of Life: Stories in Natural History by Stephen Daubert; the book is illustrated by the author's brother, Chris Daubert. Threads contains sixteen such vignettes and lifeline narratives for some of the creatures involved. To each chapter is appended technical notes on the science behind the stories and a list of references.

The stories span sizes and times, from protozoa to whales, from subsecond twitches to geological eras. Of the latter, the chapter "Sea Green" presents the Ascension Island population of green sea turtles, that migrate thousands of miles farther than their species-mates; they seem to be following a genetic program that developed millions of years ago, when the Atlantic could be swum across in a matter of hours. Ascension has remained an above-surface portion of the mid-Atlantic ridge, while the coast of Brazil was pushed a couple thousand miles to the west by sea-floor spreading. The chapter ends on a Rachel Carsonesque note, when a turtle, having survived migration from Ascension to Brazil to feed, eats some plastic flotsam that will likely kill it.

The author's avowed purpose is to present dramatized narratives that demonstrate some surprising results of ecological study. This he does in fine style. His inner agenda also becomes clear; nearly every story shows the adverse effect of the hand of man, from whaling as the likely cause of the near-extinction of condors to the replacement of most of America's "little brown sparrow-type birds" (my expression) with chestnut-sided warblers, a result of agriculture first, then of the destruction of American Chestnut trees by an introduced fungus—warblers thrive in disturbed forest and will not live in intact forest.

This other agenda does not bother me, it encourages me; we need to be saying these things. We need to be bold enough to say that we are saying these things. No subterfuge is needed.

The stories themselves are enchanting. I knew squid sometimes jump to arc over the water; I didn't know that some can jump thirty feet high and 75 feet long, that they do so by using their water jet mainly in air! Or that they are such artists with light. I knew about the cenot├ęs of Mexico; I had college friends who went "potholing" in some of them over 1,000 feet deep. I didn't know they form a ring centered on the Chicxulub crater.

These stories benefit from the "fictionalizing" approach Daubert uses. They are too good to leave to dry fact.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Making things fit together, for a century.

kw: musings, evolution, development

I've been thinking more about The Plausibility of Life by Kirschner and Gerhart. Vertebrate limb development amazes me. There are bones, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, nerves, lymph vessels, and skin. At least these seven systems, maybe more. Whatever size you are, they all fit together (nearly always).

Consider two alternatives (there are likely more). Firstly, that there is some collection of genes that control the development of each of these seven systems separately, seven sets of "this is how big to get" genes. Secondly, that one of the seven has its "how big to get" genes, and the other six each have a set of "how to fit yourself in" genes.

In the first case, suppose a mutation happens, and a child is born with the instructions, "make the forearm muscles 10% longer"? That arm would be just useless. Suppose instead, it were, "make the humerus bone 20% longer"? All the other tissues would either fall short or tear apart during growth of the larger bone.

The second case clearly is better, but which is the master? The experience of some teens provides a folklore clue: growing pains. Many youngsters get pains in their legs during a growth spurt. They are muscle pains, and the muscles are stretched and sore for a number of days until they catch up.

As a matter of fact, the bones are the master. Only they have a set of "how long to get" genes, while other tissues may have "how wide" genes, but otherwise are programmed (genetically) to respond to chemical signals that inform the cells they need to grow faster or to slow down.

Stretch a muscle many times, and it will get longer. Longer muscles need more blood and lymph flow. Lack of Oxygen causes blood vessels to sprout more capillaries, and increased flow in small vessels causes them to enlarge. Similarly, Oxygen saturation beyond a certain point causes some capillaries to degenerate and be re-absorbed. This is the reason you can condition yourself with exercise, but lose condition rapidly when you slack off. Similar signals promote growth of nerves, lymphatics, and so on.

Amazing. Fewer control mechanisms means fewer genes are needed to produce the limb, and mutations that affect limb size affect it in a way that the limb will still be proportional. Not only so, specialized cells are constantly remodeling bones, responding to any persistent changes in the stresses they endure, and all tissues are renewed and remodeled constantly...and they continue to fit.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Romance of the Open Road, revividus

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, over-the-road driving, trucking

Phillip Wilson doesn't drive bigtrucks because he has to, to make a living. He does so because he wants to. His author's blurb states, that he "served in the U.S. Navy, and has worked in management positions in the construction, utility, and nuclear industries."

Apparently an early retiree, Wilson decided to see the country and get someone else to pay for it. So he took driving school for 18-wheelers, then entered the necessary internship, a five-to-six week stint driving with a trainer.

His new book—and my wildcard choice this time—Driver: Six Weeks in an Eighteen-Wheeler chronicles that training period. During training the new driver is on salary, but the trainer is still being paid by the mile, so the experience gets the newbie used to the contant push, push to roll down the road, to run right up against the legal limit for miles-per-week a professional driver experiences.

Trainers are a special breed. The author confesses freely he'd never do it. They have to endure a lot of boneheadedness from the trainee, to help overcome the fragile rigidity of book learning in favor of rubber-on-the-road experience. But they aren't motivated by altruism. A trainer gets credit for all miles the rig travels, and by driving as a team, the pair can drive about twice as far per day as a lone driver.

Lingo time: We call 'em "truckers," but to one another, they are "drivers." A limited-access highway is a "bigroad," and what we call a "semi" they call a "bigtruck." Who are we? We are four-wheelers. An irritation often enough, usually blissfully unaware of the almost unlimited damage that 80,000 pounds of 65-mph bigtruck will do if you get in its way.

Driving among autos is a frequent worry to a driver who knows he, or she, has much less control of where he is going and how quickly the rig can be stopped if needed, than a four-wheeler. Basically, if you can see a bigtruck behind you, at most any visible distance, chances are if you stop suddenly, just jam on the brakes, someone is likely to die.

Wilson ruminates frequently on such things. He is a conscientious fellow. He is amazed at the appalling obliviousness of many people on the road, and writes, "...I find it difficult to believe that some car drivers drive as much as they do and get no better at it than they are. It seems to me they would get at least fairly good just by virtue of association after a decade or two. But they don't." (p. 151)

The book is written in a picaresque style: Part narration, part stream-of-consciousness, and part soliloquy. The author enjoys changes of season, changes of scenery, and meeting various folks along the way. He ruminates about the dry Southwest, "Like most beautiful things, the desert is dangerous. Beauty is almost always Nature's warning to stay away." (p. 97) A statement at once profound and bitter.

Wilson spent most of the 6-week period in the cab, either driving, riding, or sleeping in the "condo" (double bunk behind the seats). It is a more intimate association than most marriages. He and Trainer are a near-ideal combination of sameness and polar opposite, that makes for a solid working relationship. He came through the experience with a great deal of admiration and fondness for Trainer, but when they parted afterwards, there was no further contact, nor news. A clean break.

Near the end of the training period, Wilson spoke with a retiring driver, about to take his last run. He realized this guy was a library, and asked him, did he have any advice. When the man replied he'd never rolled a rig, never had an accident, never even dinged a fender, Wilson was (silently) amazed. Drive two or three million miles...with such perfection? How? he asked. A pause, "You just have to care," to which Wilson responds, aside to us, it is "the key to a lot of things." (p. 294)

Finally, in the school of "don't do anything you can't undo," he recalls for us the wisdom of one of his instructors: "...a driver can go down a hill too slow many times, but too fast only once." (p. 333) Put that together with "You just have to care," and you can pretty well manage your life.