September 2008

Kurlansky, Mark. Cod. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-14-027501-8.
There is nothing particularly glamourous about a codfish. It swims near the bottom of the ocean in cold continental shelf waters with its mouth open, swallowing whatever comes along, including smaller cod. While its white flesh is prized, the cod provides little sport for the angler: once hooked, it simply goes limp and must be hauled from the bottom to the boat. And its rather odd profusion of fins and blotchy colour lacks the elegance of marlin or swordfish or the menace of a shark. But the cod has, since the middle ages, played a part not only in the human diet but also in human history, being linked to the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic, the Basque nautical tradition, long-distance voyages in the age of exploration, commercial transatlantic commerce, the Caribbean slave trade, the U.S. war of independence, the expansion of territorial waters from three to twelve and now 200 miles, conservation and the emerging international governance of the law of the sea, and more.

This delightful piece of reportage brings all of this together, from the biology and ecology of the cod, to the history of its exploitation by fishermen over the centuries, the commerce in cod and the conflicts it engendered, the cultural significance of cod in various societies and the myriad ways they have found to use it, and the shameful overfishing which has depleted what was once thought to be an inexhaustible resource (and should give pause to any environmentalist who believes government regulation is the answer to stewardship). But cod wouldn't have made so much history if people didn't eat them, and the narrative is accompanied by dozens of recipes from around the world and across the centuries (one dates from 1393), including many for parts of the fish other than its esteemed white flesh. Our ancestors could afford to let nothing go to waste, and their cleverness in turning what many today would consider offal into delicacies still cherished by various cultures is admirable. Since codfish has traditionally been sold salted and dried (in which form it keeps almost indefinitely, even in tropical climates, if kept dry, and is almost 80% protein by weight—a key enabler of long ocean voyages before the advent of refrigeration), you'll also want to read the author's work on Salt (February 2005).

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[Audiobook] Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1915] 2003. ISBN 978-9-62634-286-2.
If you're haunted by that recurring nightmare about waking up as a giant insect, this is not the book to read. Me, I have other dreams (although, more recently, mostly about loading out from trade shows and Hackers' conferences that never end—where could those have come from?), so I decided to plunge right into this story. It's really a novella, not a novel—about a hundred pages in a mass-market paperback print edition, but one you won't soon forget. The genius of Kafka is his ability to relate extraordinary events in the most prosaic, deadpan terms. He's not just an omniscient narrator; he is an utterly dispassionate recorder of events, treating banal, bizarre, and impassioned scenes like a camcorder—just what happened. Perhaps Kafka's day job, filling out industrial accident reports for an insurance company, helped to instill the “view from above” so characteristic of his work.

This works extraordinarily well for this dark, dark story. I guess it's safe to say that the genre of people waking up as giant insects and the consequences of that happening was both created and mined out by Kafka in this tale. There are many lessons one can draw from the events described here, some of which do not reflect well upon our species, and others which show that sometimes, even in happy families, what appears to be the most disastrous adversity may actually, even in the face of tragedy, be ultimately liberating. I could write four or five prickly paragraphs about the lessons here for self-reliance, but that's not why you come here. Read the story and draw your own conclusions. I'm amazed that younger sister Grete never agonised over whether she'd inherited the same gene as Gregor. Wouldn't you? And when she stretches her young body in the last line, don't you wonder?

Kafka is notoriously difficult to translate. He uses the structure of the German language to assemble long sentences with a startling surprise in the last few words when you encounter the verb. This is difficult to render into English and other languages which use a subject-verb-object construction in most sentences. Kafka also exploits ambiguities in German which are not translatable to other languages. My German is not (remotely) adequate to read, no less appreciate, Kafka in the original, so translation will have to do for me. Still, even without the nuances in the original, this is a compelling narrative. The story is read by British actor Martin Jarvis, who adopts an ironic tone which is perfect for Kafka's understated prose. Musical transitions separate the chapters.

The audible.com audiobook edition is sold as a single download of 2 hours and 11 minutes, 31 megabytes at MP3 quality. An Audio CD edition is available. A variety of print editions are available, as well as this free online edition, which seems to be closer than the original German than that used in this audiobook although, perhaps inevitably, more clumsy in English.

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Crichton, Michael. Timeline. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0345-46826-0.
Sometimes books, even those I'm sure I'll love, end up sitting on my bookshelf for a long time before I get to them. This novel, originally published in 1999, not only sat on my bookshelf for almost a decade, it went to Africa and back in 2001 before I finally opened it last week and predictably devoured it in a few days.

Crichton is a master storyteller, and this may be the best of the many of his books I've read. I frequently remark that Crichton's work often reads like a novelisation of a screenplay, where you can almost see the storyboards for each chapter as you read it, and that's certainly the case here. This story just begs to be made into a great movie. Regrettably, it was subsequently made into an awful one. So skip the movie and enjoy the book, which is superb.

There's a price of admission, which is accepting some high octane quantum flapdoodle which enables an eccentric billionaire (where would stories like this be without eccentric billionaires?) to secretly develop a time machine which can send people back to historical events, all toward the end of creating perfectly authentic theme parks on historical sites researched through time travel and reconstructed as tourist attractions. (I'm not sure that's the business plan I would come up with if I had a time machine, but it's the premise it takes to make the story work.)

But something goes wrong, and somebody finds himself trapped in 14th century France, and an intrepid band of historians must go back into that world to rescue their team leader. This sets the stage for adventures in the middle ages, based on the recent historical view that the period was not a Dark Age but rather a time of intellectual, technological, and cultural ferment. The story is both an adventurous romp and a story of personal growth which makes one ask the question, “In which epoch would I prosper best?”.

Aside from the necessary suspension of disbelief and speculation about life in the 14th century (about which there remain many uncertainties), there are a few goofs. For example, in the chapter titled “26:12:01” (you'll understand the significance when you read the book), one character discovers that once dark-adapted he can see well by starlight. “Probably because there was no air pollution, he thought. He remembered reading that in earlier centuries, people could see the planet Venus during the day as we can now see the moon. Of course, that had been impossible for hundreds of years.” Nonsense—at times near maximum elongation, anybody who has a reasonably clear sky and knows where to look can spot Venus in broad daylight. I've seen it on several occasions, including from the driveway of my house in Switzerland and 20 kilometres from downtown San Francisco. But none of these detract from the fact that this is a terrific tale which will keep you turning the pages until the very satisfying end.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The explanation for how the transmitted people are reassembled at the destination in the next to last chapter of the “Black Rock” section (these chapters have neither titles nor numbers) seems to me to miss a more clever approach which would not affect the story in any way (as the explanation never figures in subsequent events). Instead of invoking other histories in the multiverse which are able to reconstitute the time travellers (which raises all kinds of questions about identity and continuity of consciousness), why not simply argue that unitarity is preserved only across the multiverse as a whole, and that when the quantum state of the transmitted object is destroyed in this universe, it is necessarily reassembled intact in the destination universe, because failure to do so would violate unitarity and destroy the deterministic evolution of the wave function?

This is consistent with arguments for what happens to quantum states which fall into a black hole or wormhole (on the assumption that the interior is another universe in the multiverse), and also fits nicely with the David Deutsch's view of the multiverse and my own ideas toward a general theory of paranormal phenomena.

Spoilers end here.  

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Veronico, Nicholas A. Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, [2001] 2002. ISBN 978-1-58007-047-8.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, launched in November 1945, with its first flight in July 1947 and entry into airline revenue service with Pan Am in April 1949, embodied the vision of luxurious postwar air travel based on the technological advances made in aviation during the war. (Indeed, the 377 inherited much from the Boeing B-29 and was a commercial derivative of the XC-97 prototype cargo aircraft.) The Stratocruiser, along with its contemporaries, the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-7, represented the apogee of piston powered airliner design. This was an era in which air travel was a luxury indulged in by the elite, and passengers were provided amenities difficult to imagine in our demotic days of flying cattle cars. There was a luxury compartment seating up to eight people with private sleeping berths and (in some configurations) a private bathroom. First class passengers could sleep in seats that reclined into beds more than six feet long, or in upper berths which folded out at nighttime. Economy passengers were accommodated in reclining “sleeperette” seats with sixty inches seat pitch (about twice that of present day economy class). Men and women had their own separate dressing rooms and toilets, and a galley allowed serving multi-course meals on china with silverware as well as buffet snacks. Downstairs on the cargo deck was a lounge seating as many as 14 with a full bar and card tables. One of the reasons for all of these creature comforts was that at a typical cruising speed of 300–340 miles per hour passengers on long haul flights had plenty of time to appreciate them: eleven hours on a flight from Seattle to Honolulu, for example.

Even in the 1950s “flying was the safest way to fly”, but nonetheless taking to the air was much more of an adventure than it is today, hence all those flight insurance vending machines in airports of the epoch. Of a total of 56 Boeing 377s built, no fewer than 10 were lost in accidents, costing a total of 135 crew and passenger lives. Three ditched at sea, including Pan Am 943, which went down in mid-Pacific with all onboard rescued by a Coast Guard weather ship with only a few minor injuries. In addition to crashes, on two separate occasions the main cabin door sprang open in flight, in each case causing one person to be sucked out to their death.

The advent of jet transports brought the luxury piston airliner era to an abrupt end. Stratocruiser airframes, sold to airlines in the 1940s for around US$1.3 million each, were offered in a late 1960 advert in Aviation Week, “14 aircraft from $75,000.00, flyaway”—how the mighty had fallen. Still, the book was not yet closed on the 377. One former Pan Am plane was modified into the Pregnant Guppy airlifter, used to transport NASA's S-IV and S-IVB upper stages for the Saturn I, IB, and V rockets from the manufacturer in California to the launch site in Florida. Later other 377 and surplus C-97 airframes were used to assemble Super Guppy cargo planes, one of which remains in service with NASA.

This book provides an excellent look into a long-gone era of civil aviation at the threshold of the jet age. More than 150 illustrations, including eight pages in colour, complement the text, which is well written with only a few typographical and factual errors. An appendix provides pictures of all but one 377 (which crashed into San Francisco Bay on a routine training flight in 1950, less than a month after being delivered to the airline), with a complete operational history of each.

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Sowell, Thomas. Basic Economics. 2nd. ed. New York: Basic Books, [2004] 2007. ISBN 978-0-465-08145-5.
Want to know what's my idea of a financial paradise? A democratic country where the electorate understands the material so lucidly explained in this superb book. Heck, I'd settle for a country where even a majority of the politicians grasped these matters. In fewer than four hundred pages, without a single graph or equation, the author explains the essentials of economics, which he defines as “the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses”. While economics is a large and complex field with many different points of view, he argues that there are basic economic principles upon which virtually all economists agree, across the spectrum from libertarians to Marxists, that these fundamentals apply to all forms of economic and social organisation—feudalism, capitalism, fascism, socialism, communism, whatever—and in all times: millennia of human history provide abundant evidence for the functioning of these basic laws in every society humans have ever created.

But despite these laws being straightforward (if perhaps somewhat counterintuitive until you learn to “think like an economist”), the sad fact is that few citizens and probably even a smaller fraction of politicians comprehend them. In their ignorance, they confuse intentions and goals (however worthy) with incentives and their consequences, and the outcomes of their actions, however predictable, only serve to illustrate the cost when economic principles are ignored. As the author concludes on the last page:

Perhaps the most important distinction is between what sounds good and what works. The former may be sufficient for purposes of politics or moral preening, but not for the economic advancement of people in general or the poor in particular. For those willing to stop and think, basic economics provides some tools for evaluating policies and proposals in terms of their logical implications and empirical consequences.

And this is precisely what the intelligent citizen needs to know in these times of financial peril. I know of no better source to acquire such knowledge than this book.

I should note that due to the regrettably long bookshelf latency at Fourmilab, I read the second edition of this work after the third edition became available. Usually I wouldn't bother to mention such a detail, but while the second edition I read was 438 pages in length, the third is a 640 page ker-whump on the desktop. Now, my experience in reading the works of Thomas Sowell over the decades is that he doesn't waste words and that every paragraph encapsulates wisdom that's worth taking away, even if you need to read it four or five times over a few days to let it sink in. But still, I'm wary of books which grow to such an extent between editions. I read the second edition, and my unconditional endorsement of it as something you absolutely have to read as soon as possible is based upon the text I read. In all probability the third edition is even better—Dr. Sowell understands the importance of reputation in a market economy better than almost anybody, but I can neither evaluate nor endorse something I haven't yet read. That said, I'm confident that regardless of which edition of this book you read, you will close it as a much wiser citizen of a civil society and participant in a free economy than when you opened the volume.

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