Old Man With Candy
After a conversation with Warty, I remembered perhaps my favorite scientific biography ever, Oliver Heaviside: The Life, Work, and Times of an Electrical Genius of the Victorian Age by Paul Nahin, and have been giving it a reread. Heaviside is only vaguely known among people in the physical sciences (I only knew the name because of the Heaviside step function in math), but ought to be far better known; for example, what physicists and engineers think of as the Maxwell equations (the foundations of electromagnetic theory) are actually the Heaviside equations. Maxwell’s formulation was clumsy and complex- Heaviside reworked them into a simple but comprehensive set of partial differential equations, the ones familiar to contemporary students and practitioners. His operational calculus laid the groundwork for Laplace transform methods routinely used in circuit analysis. His work solved the massive problems of the nascent telegraphy and telephony technologies and brought us into the 20th century.
But that’s what makes him interesting specifically to geeks. What makes him interesting overall is the sociology associated with him. Unlike most prominent British scientists of the era. Heaviside was a true outsider, born into poverty, and completely self-taught. Moreover, he was an odd personality, and if he were alive today, we’d put him somewhere on the autism spectrum. He had almost no social interactions beyond his immediate family, refused to adopt the manners and mores of the gentlemanly scientists with whom he interacted in scholarly journals, and larded his papers and books with thinly veiled invective and humorous insights (“It is wonderful how little work there is when you know how to do it.” “It is as unfair to call a vector a quaternion as to call a man a quadruped.”). Of course, establishment figures fought to keep this outsider outside, but the sheer power of his intellect swept that aside. Trigger warning: to understand what Heaviside did, some equations will inevitably present themselves. If you’re on the other side of CP Snow’s two worlds, you can skip over them and take my word that what he did was brilliant, significant, and vastly influential. This book is fascinating, a study in sociology and psychology as much as it is about physics, an absolute delight.
I had been meaning to read Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer since it won the 2014 Nebula for Best Novel, but it wasn’t until the announcement of the Netflix adaptation that I finally got around to it. It involves a scientific expedition into Area X, a portion of the southern United States coast that has been inexplicably quarantined by an invisible and deadly barrier with a single, deliberate opening to allow people to explore. Inside, mutant animals and an inexplicable structure beg to be explored. Almost everyone that goes dies or disappears or comes back insane, with amnesia or riddled with strange cancers.
I really have to say, I don’t understand the hype around this book. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really anything groundbreaking or even exciting. It is written in a limited viewpoint from an unnamed and probably unreliable narrator in a journal. In fact, none of the characters have names and are just referred to by their job or functions on the expedition, The Biologist, the Linguist, The Psychologist, etc. In an experiment to find the optimum psychological conditions for an expedition that can both survive and return with some sort of coherent information about the conditions inside the barrier, all the members on this trip are women.
Like much modern music, it seems like VanderMeer took a dozen or so better works, threw them into a blender, and hoped the reader wouldn’t find too many recognizable chunks floating around in the slurry. But I’m good at spotting chunks: There are bit and pieces of Solaris, Roadside Picnic, Rogue Moon and–for the first two–their cinematic adaptations, as well as all the movies and books derived from them (Event Horizon, Cube, et.al,) countless “found” memoirs of the inexplicable, the mind-flaying horrors of Lovecraft and even a solid piece of gristle from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
The movie is a pretty disappointing follow-up to the excellent Ex Machina by Alex Garland. It takes a few things from the novel, but otherwise pretty much ignores it to create a strange mash-up of “The Colour Out of Space” and The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard (minus all of Ballard’s Heart of Darkness overtones.)
I finally passed my exam and have been celebrating by reading exactly nothing–except the dialogue in Persona 5. That said, Mr. Riven and I listen to some podcasts when we’re lifting or traveling. Last week we traveled to Missoula for the USPSA Area 1 Championship. Mr. Riven has been especially delighted with his recent find of the Myths and Legends podcast. It dovetails nicely with his current game of choice–God of War. The writer and host covers a wide variety of, well, myths and legends with a good deal of fairly dry humor and a flair for entertaining. Besides the Norse lore that’s so apropos for God of War, they also cover Slavic fairytales, epic Viking tales, and all of the standard classics: Greek and Roman mythology, King Arthur’s court, mythological beasts, etc. There’s plenty more besides what I’ve listed here, and we greatly enjoyed a lot of the Slavic tales on our trip. Fans of John Wick might also appreciate the stories that include Baba Yaga, who is seems to be equal parts hilarious and terrifying (just like an ancient boogeyman should be).
It came to my attention that my younger brother was not a prog, but is still in college, so I decided to pick up a few books he might benefit given his environment. I got through this one pretty quickly, given Bastiat is pretty straightforward and concise. I also picked up The Road to Serfdom. This one is taking me longer.
I also bought The Federalist Papers since I never read them. I have to admit, I don’t like Hamilton. I can deal with his arguments droning on, taking several pages and multiple essays to convey–I’ve read boring stuff before. I simply find a lot of them ineffective, and he does not always adequately explain why something regulated by a state might be bad but it is totally okay for the federal government to do it. It might be my biases as a former federal employee, and seeing ineffective, incompetent implementation of seemingly simple tasks for several years. I do realize I should try to decouple that when reading a historical document. I found myself flipping through Hamilton’s essays and finding the next one Madison wrote as his seem better thought out. In all, it leaves me wondering if the natural born clause in the Constitution was intentionally written to keep certain assholes from being president, a certain asshole named Hamilton.
I just started (and then finished in swift order) To Sell Is Human by Dan Pink. As a business owner I have to spend time selling, and I’ve hated it for years, which is why I was so delighted to discover this book which explains how to sell without feeling like a sleezeball backed up with case studies.
I am now reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg as my habits need some major work. There are habits I have that are good, others that are bad, and others that just simply aren’t serving me in the best way.
I would like to recommend three short story collections. First is American Housewife by Helen Ellis. These are great little vignettes. My two favorites are “The Wainscoting War” and “My Novel Is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax.”
The second is Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson. I love her short stories. She is probably familiar to most as the author of The Lottery. She also wrote The Haunting of Hill House. I read that in one sitting when I was fifteen. It was a hot, August day and when I finished, I was in a cold sweat. I’m still not sure why, but that book creeped me out like no other.
The last is Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold by various authors. Most are based on old tales, but with a modern twist. They are dark, creepy and sometimes funny.
I’ve just started reading Bad Things Happen (David Loogan Book 1) by Harry Dolan. I’m enjoying it very much so far. It’s a noir-ish mystery, which I love in books and film. If it stays true to the promising beginning chapters, I’ll most likely pick up the rest in the series.
Also reading several vegetarian and vegan cookbooks. I’m getting a little tired of the same old plain stuff I’ve been eating during my 60 day 100% plant-based window (in which I’m trying to cement the practice), and need to mix it up some. Highly recommended: The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook: A Fresh Guide to Eating Well With 700 Foolproof Recipes from America’s Test Kitchen. 250 or so of these recipes are vegan. I’ve cooked from this before and everything just works. I’m thinking about putting a post together with brief reviews of several others, if there is any interest.
And, last, but certainly not least, a quick read through Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening: How to Grow Nutrient-Dense, Soil-Sprouted Greens in Less Than 10 days by Peter Burke has inspired me to begin growing soil-raised sprouts in the house. I love that I’ll be able to do so next winter!
I finished Mark Lawrence’s latest, Grey Sister. Its probably his least best work, and still better than almost anything out there in the SF/F genre right now. It definitely ends on an Empire Strikes Back note, so I expect the third one to really kick ass. I read John Conroe’s latest collection The Demon Accords Compendium, Vol. 1. I give it a B. I think that universe has mostly run its course. And then Exam Ref 70-532 Developing Microsoft Azure Solutions because this Azure shit is hot and I need to keep my LinkedIn profile popular. Azure is fun and I wish I was 23 and single and could spend 2 or 3 nights a week messing around in it for 3-5 hours at a time.
STEVE SMITH READ ABOMINABLE BY HOOMAN WRITER DAN SIMMONS. ABOMINABLE LONG BOOK BUT SHORT ON HOT YETI ACTION; STORY ALL MOUNTAIN CLIMBING AND NAZIS! STEVE SMITH FIND HOOMAN SIMMONS AND STEVE SMITH SHOW HIM WHAT ABOMINABLE REALLY MEANS!
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail: I have a confession to make. Travelogues make me bitter; I was miserable thinking about how little I’d traveled while watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty…on a flight to spend a week in Berlin and Prague on my own for New Years, and was bitter *both* times I saw Under the Tuscan Sun (some of you are too young to remember when airlines just played one movie at a time)…while flying back from a month in Rome with side trips through the Tuscan countryside. So I reaaaally shouldn’t have read this delightful travelogue about hiking the AT because his motivations felt familiar and the adventure sounds absolutely awful, but doable.
Happy Dreams: This novel, about a peasant who moves to the city to be a trash picker, was a constant aggravation and a struggle to read, but I’m glad I kept chipping away at it. Toward the end of the novel I ended up caring about the characters even if their behavior still grated deeply. The author’s afterward really should’ve been the intro. Once I understood where he was coming from the entire story came together as beautiful in its grind.
Macbeth: A Novel: Audible had it on sale, and it was read by Alan Cumming. I’d never read it or seen the play (unless you count THRONE OF BLOOD), and I figured Cumming reading Macbeth would be awesome…except it’s not Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it’s Macbeth: A Novel. I kept thinking it didn’t *seem* very Shakespearean, and then looked into a it a bit and was annoyed.