Book Review: The Secret Family

The Secret Family: Twenty-four Hours inside the Mysterious Worlds of Our Minds and Bodies by David Bodanis spends one day in the life of a typical suburban family – mother, father, teenage daughter, 10-year old son, and baby. The family wakes up, eats breakfast, putter around the house, visit the mall, return home and go to bed. Bodanis focuses on all the details of well, just about everything. Much of this is microscopic — what microbes are crawling around the shafts of our eyebrows, what poison gases are welling up under the sink, what the hell are they putting in our food (big thing with Bodanis that gets huge gross-out points), and what germs are floating around the shopping mall. Bodanis also focuses on our human behavior, the things we do without even realizing it, and what qualities are predictors for that behavior. Technology, how it works, and how we work with it is also one of the many things explicated. Often Bodanis brings in brilliant if esoteric historical connections that are reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections. Each page is filled with fascinating details and this book is well worth the read for a quick insight into everyday life.

Book Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks is a collection of clinical case studies about people with neurological disorders. My one quibble with this book is Sacks’ writing style. He makes every patient speak like the same person in kind of Mayberry “gosh, golly” tone and frustratingly often makes references to chapters later in the book.

That being said, this book is a fascinating study of the things the brain can and cannot do and how that can shape a person’s perception of the world. Examples include:

  • The titular man who mistook his wife for a hat who cannot perceive objects in his immediate vicinity and be able to pick out features but not identify the whole.
  • A former sailor whose memories are frozen in 1945, unable to remember things that happen to him even a few moments later.
  • A woman unable to have awareness of her own body, or a loss of proprioception.
  • A man who cannot recognize his own leg as being part of his body and thus considers it a severed leg laying in his bed (and he falls out of bed each time he tries to throw away the “severed” leg).
  • Similarly, a blind woman with cerebral palsy has an agnosia that makes her think her hands are worthless lumps of clay. Sacks is able to nudge her into using her hands and eventually she becomes a sculptor.
  • A man whose sense of balance is disrupted by Parkinson’s disease and thus he always leans to one side and is not even aware of it. He develops his own special eyeglasses with a spirit level that he can see to adjust how he stands and walks.
  • A woman with visual hemi-inattention who is unable to see anything on her left, or for that matter be aware that there is a left. She has to rotate all the way around in her chair to even see all the food on her plate.
  • Witty Ticcy Ray, a man with Tourette’s who finds that Haldol treatment helps him manage a job during the work week but choses to not take medication on the weekends since it hampers his spontaneity and creativity.
  • A woman who constantly hears the music of her Irish childhood playing loudly, and other cases of people with a radio in their head.
  • A man who killed his girlfriend under the influence of PCP, has no memory of the event, an organic amnesia. After a severe head energy all the memories of the murder return in vivid detail.
  • The visions of Hildegard of Bingen and migraine hallucinations.
  • The son of a Metropolitan Opera Singer is a musical savant, able to recall Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians by heart even though he could not read.
  • Savant twins able to perform mental calculations of numbers and calendar dates with a special attention to numbers that are prime.
  • An autistic man able to draw images with great detail to the particulars.

The book is over 20 years old and seems a bit dated (especially in terms of language we’d consider insensitive today, even if they were medical terms), but I enjoyed learning about the losses and gains that can happen within the brain.

Friday Sillies: AFSCME

Today’s Friday Silly is a 1970’s commercial for the AFSCME union redubbed in a rather colorful manner. I happen to actually be an active member of an AFSCME local and yet I can’t help laughing at this jab at how a typical union member might display his labor pride. Apparently the dubbing for this commercial was done at the time the commercial was made and it’s been floating around on tapes and gag reels ever since.

Be warned that this clip includes profanity and some rather impolite phrases, but taken in the manner intended it’s pretty funny.

Hurrah for the Union!

Sweep in South Florida

The Amazin’s continue their winning ways with a two-game sweep of the Marlins which propels them back into first place in the National League East. The second place Atlanta Braves visit Shea for a three game battle for first this weekend (and I will be there for Saturday’s game!)

The Mets tantalizingly toiled with history Wednesday night by keeping alive two streaks. First, David Wright extended his consecutive game hitting streak to 25, a new Met record albeit not a record at all since it spans two seasons. John Maine tried to break the Mets 45-year long streak of no no-no’s by taking a no-hitter into the 7th inning. Alas it was not to be, but at least the Mets gave Maine some run support in a 9-2 whomping.

As Jason of FAFIF writes, the Streak Goes on Forever!

I did not get a chance to watch Thursday nights game, but it was another butt-kickin’ by the potent Mets offense. There still leaving a ton of men on base but that’s okay since they’re bringing almost the same number of men home. Highlighs of the game include David Wright extending his Met-record hit streak to 26 games, Carlos Beltran swatting two doubles and a home run, Jose Reyes legging out his forth triple of the season in only 14 games, Orlando Hernandez striking out 10 batters and the Mets scoring six runs with two outs in the third inning. On the downside, despite striking out the side, Billy Wagner ended the Mets bullpen scoreless streak by allowing a run in the ninth.

Players of the game (I award up to ten points, maximum of 6 points to one player, distributed among the Mets players who had the biggest impact in the game):

18 April 2007
Mets 9, Marlins 2

  • Beltran 3.5
  • Delgado 1.5
  • Maine 2.5
  • Reyes 1.5
  • Wright 1.5

19 April 2007
Mets 11, Marlins 3

  • Alou 1
  • Beltran 1.5
  • Castro 2
  • Green 1
  • OHernandez 3
  • Valentin 1.5

Update on Walk for Hunger 2007

As previously mentioned back in February I will be participating in Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger for the fourth consecutive year in just about two & a half weeks on Sunday May 6. Due to some incredibly generous donations by a handful of sponsors I’ve already reached my original goal. On the one hand I’m tempted to call it day because I don’t like asking people for money and people don’t like being asked for money. But on the other hand I think what if I can just get a few more people to contribute some money? How many more meals can be served to impoverished Bostonians at the Wednesday Night Supper Club or the Haley House? How many more poor families in Massachusetts will be able to have their pantries stocked because of donations to the Greater Boston Food Bank. Additionally, Susan won’t be able to walk this year so it would be cool if I could raise more donations than I normally would.

So I’m asking again. Even if you’re just a casual reader of this blog please consider putting in a few dollars at my personal walk page. Write me an email at liammail at verizon dot net if you prefer to donate by check. 400 emergency food programs in Massachusetts and countless number of our fellow human beings will benefit. You can learn more about Project Bread and the Walk for Hunger online.


Patriots Day

One of my favorite events of the year by far is Patriots Day. Observed on the third Monday in April as a state holiday in Massachusetts and Maine, Patriots Day official commemorates the events of April 19, 1775. On that day, British troops marched from Boston towards Concord in order to seize armaments stored by the defiant colonists and also maybe arrest a few of their leaders. With the word spread to the countryside by riders like Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott, the colonists were ready to meet and face off against the British regulars on Lexington Green. This is where the famous if mysterious “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” was fired. The British troops later encountered more resistance at North Bridge in Concord, and found themselves harassed by colonials as they retreated back to Boston. These events initiated the American Revolution which eventually led to the American colonies declaring and fighting for Independence.

For nine years I’ve sworn to myself I would arise early and go to Lexington to see the reenactment, and for nine years I’ve failed to do so. This year I thought I would get up at 4 am and ride my bike to Lexington (thus not only getting a good ride but also not having to worry about parking), but I have some very good excuses for not doing so. First of all I’ve been feeling sick the past week, spending pretty much all of Sunday in bed. Second, the weather here in Massachusetts has been absolutely wet and miserable and not amenable to bike rides, battle reenactments, nor parades. I felt guilty about not getting out and participating but I found out after the fact on Tuesday that the reenactments and parades in both Lexington and Concord were canceled due to the extremely bad weather. I’m glad I didn’t haul myself out there and find out on the spot.

Last year I took the commuter train to the more reasonably timed Concord reenactment and parade. If I can find my photographs from last year I will post them here because it was a fun day. Paul Revere’s famous ride is also reenacted annually and its pretty cool because “Revere” passes right near our house in Somerville, stopping at Paul Revere Beverage for a brew. It’s actually a little underwhelming if you’ve been waiting a long time to finally see the single rider accompanied by police escort and a trailer with fresh horses. I have photos of the ride as well that I should dig up.

Update: Concord photo album.  My favorite:

Patriots Day is also the date for the running of the Boston Marathon. This is a great event not just because it’s the oldest regularly scheduled marathon in America, but also because of the effect it has on the local people. Bostonians who are reserved and cranky the rest of the year become extremely outgoing and friendly while watching the race. While world class runners participate in the prestigious marathon, most people are there to watch the ordinary folk who run for charity, for self-esteem, or just for fun. Spectators line pretty much the entire marathon route shouting enthusiastic support for each and every runner who passes by. Runners have said that it’s near impossible to drop out of the Boston Marathon because spectators encouragingly push them back on the race course. Despite feeling a guilty obligation to support the runners in the mini-typhoon, I stayed at home this year for the marathon too.

It’s too bad Patriots Day is not a national holiday. It would be a great opportunity for Americans to learn about our history. It also would be a great break for American worker bees to avoid consumerism for a day and spend time with family, friends, and community. Patriots Day in April would contribute to a nice pattern of patriotic holidays every other month from February to September (Washington’s Birthday — Patriots Day — Memorial Day — Independence Day — Labor Day).

Here are some resources for Patriots Day:

Library News for April

Here’s my latest collection of news and opinion of interest regarding the library.

The World Almanac puts out a call for help to librarians (and includes links to even more librarian blogs than I already read). Having been a compulsive reader of The World Almanac since childhood, I stammer and drool when I hear my help is needed.

Lots of discussion regarding issues regarding the homeless in libraries (hey, the homeless are patrons too!):

ACRLog debates the future of the Reference Desk. I’m all in favor of an hovering reference-o-matic platforms myself.

This doesn’t really have much to do with libraries, although it is a book that will be in libraries, and the coolest website around: No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories by Miranda July.

I totally want to hang this flyer from Tinfoil + Raccoon in my library. I like the Spinal Tap reference especially.

Tame the Web reports on a Looking for a Good Book readers’ service at Williamsburg Regional Library. This warms the cockles of my heart since this once was my local public library and it’s good to see them at the forefront of technology. The two libraries in the system despite their small size have excellent collections. In fact, when I was in college I often found books I needed at Williamsburg Public Library that were checked out or otherwise unavailable at the college library.

Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog has a good tribute to the book, which in itself is an advanced form of technology. Makes sense, after all I have a degree in Library Science to deal with this technology.

As if I needed BBC news to tell me, LIBRARIANS SUFFER THE MOST STRESS!!!!. Circ and Serve has suggestions for how to manage your time and multi-task to help reduce that stress (none of which involve beer kegs at the circ desk).

That’s it for the cruelest month. There are many librarians a-tap-tap-tapping on their keyboards, so I’ll have more to share in the merry month of May.

The Best Bits from Blogs and Broadsheets

As I seem to do about once a month, I’ve collected some tidbits from weblogs and news sources that I found of interest.

MANY OF the world’s most difficult environmental challenges can be addressed and solved by cities. This may come as a surprise to those who think of environmental issues largely in the context of wild places and open spaces. Cities, often congested, dense, and enormous consumers of resources, would not be the place one might first turn for environmental solutions. But in fact, cities are inherently the “greenest” of all places. They are much more efficient in their use of energy, water, and land than suburbs. They provide transportation services in a remarkably equitable and democratic fashion. They may be the best of all places for seniors to grow old. Development in cities helps to save natural areas and open space by relieving growth pressures on the countryside. And cities will, without question, be the pivotal players in fashioning solutions to the growing problem of climate change.

  • Jerry Lanson writes in the Christian Science Monitor about French hospitality. The French individuals I’ve met have been kind, appreciative and funny so the anti-French bigotry common in the US is especially upsetting to me:

Next to nothing in our experience in France jibes with the stereotype of vaguely amusing, largely annoying, mirror-absorbed Frenchmen. OK, we had to deal once with a surly cab driver who tried to jack up the price of a ride to our apartment. But I’ve faced worse in Boston. Other than that, Kathy and I have encountered no arrogance, no fussiness, no snobbery.

Instead, everywhere we turn, people greet us with a smile and a “Bonjour, monsieur et madame.” Goodbyes are more elaborate – “Merci beaucoup; au revoir,” and then, “bonne journée” or “bon weekend.” People wait patiently while we mangle their language. Often, in a most cordial way, they’ll then correct our mistakes in French. It’s the best way to learn.

The true majority in this country are those, from whatever background, who subscribe to a set of core values – among them freedom of expression, conscience, movement, tolerance of diversity but not of hatred, respect for the rights of others, and responsibility for one’s actions. If most people didn’t subscribe to such principles, then life here would be simply intolerable.

Of course, anybody who has to face discrimination on a daily basis will tell you these much trumpeted values are, in reality, nothing more than aspirations. The challenge, then, is to manifest these ideals in a practical way that is accessible to all.

The Gravity Probe B project was conceived in the late 1950s but suffered decades of delays while other scientists ran tests corroborating Einstein’s theory. It was Everitt’s determination that stopped it being cancelled. The joint mission between Nasa and Stanford University uses four of the most perfect spheres – ultra precise gyroscopes – to detect minute distortions in the fabric of the universe. Everitt’s aim was to prove to the highest precision yet if Einstein was correct in the way he described gravity.

  • Drake Bennet writes about the playground renaissance in the Boston Globe. “When I was a boy we climbed on monkey bars 10 feet off the ground with only a thin strip of rubber between us and the concrete, and I turned out just fine”:

According to psychologists and specialists in early childhood education, to be valuable, play needs to be creative, but there also has to be an element of danger. “Children need vertiginous experiences,” says Mary Rivkin, a professor of education at the University of Maryland. “They need fast and slow and that high feeling you get when you run down a hill. They need to have tippy things.”

If there’s no challenge, no pain of failure, she argues, there’s no learning — and less enjoyment. Indeed, according to Hart, one problem with trying to child-proof playgrounds is that children, trying to make the safer playground equipment interesting, come up with unforeseen and often more dangerous ways of using it.

  • Unlike every blog and news source I read, I do not have a touching, personal tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. Sad to say, I’ve only read one Vonnegut novel and at the time of his death last week I was surprised that he was actually still alive to that point. That was Slaughterhouse Five which I struggled through one summer when I was in High School. Despite being a teenage boy — a key Vonnegut demographic — I just didn’t get into it much. Worse yet, when I took my AP English exam over a year later, I was given a list of books to write an essay and the only book on the list I’d read was Slaughterhouse Five! Thus I wrote an essay about a book I barely remembered and hardly understood. I did not do well on the AP exam as you may imagine (but on the other hand I ended up taking a cool Freshman seminar that met the same requirement in English so all things work out in the end). Anyhow, none of this is to say anything bad about Vonnegut, I just wanted to dwell on my own ignorance a bit. I should pick up a Vonnegut book soon, if that doesn’t make me a poseur.

My favorite of the many tributes comes from Ryan Roderick Beiler on the God’s Politics blog: “Kurt Vonnegut, “Christ-worshipping agnostic’.”

  • I also have nothing to say about Don Imus (who I loved to listen to when I was young, but he ceased to be funny about 20 years ago), but I think David Byrne has some of the best insight of read on the issue: There are no rules.
  • Speaking of which, you may have noticed that I rarely have anything to say about the popular junk news stories of the day. Robert McHenry hits the nail on the head in On Current Events on the Britannica Blog. It includes the following piece of wisdom that’s worth remembering:

“A good current event is one that has at least three reasons for appearing in a future history book.”

Beer Review: Narragansett Beer

And now a traditional New England beer courtesy of Charlie’s Kitchen.

Beer: Narragansett Beer
Brewer: Narragansett Brewing Company
Source: Draft
Rating: ** (6.0 of 10)
Comments: Once upon a time, Narragansett was the beer of New England, and many a Red Sox game was accompanied by a ‘Gansett. This was before my time but I have a fondness for historical regional brews like Narragansett, Rheingold, National Bohemian (which is swill), Old Style, Olympia, and Yuengling among others. These beers weren’t always good but did have a knack for clever ad campaigns and creating regional identity as opposed to the homogeneity of the big commercial breweries.

A lot of these legacy beers are coming back although some of them only as a line of one of the commercial breweries. On the one hand it’s nice to have a link back to American brewing history, but on the other hand who knows what swill they’ll put in a bottle to tap our nostalgia?

Narragansett fortunately is a reestablished brand with New England ownership and the help of a former brewmaster, so we can at least breathe easy that new ‘Gansett will be like old ‘Gansett. But that doesn’t mean it will be good. Surprisingly, it is good. It has a clean, crisp flavor with a nice tangy aftertaste. It looks like a good foamy, deep yellow pilsener. In short, a solid basic beer. Maybe not top notch, but it has a good summer flavor to it that would go well with a ball game.

Win, Loss, Rain, Rain, Sweep

I had a lot of extra time to review the Nationals series but didn’t use it and then let the whole next series slip by. In my defense, that series against the Phillies was only one game, but the Mets win last night means they got a sweep.

I don’t have much to say about these games since I only saw the Friday the 13th match-up with the Nationals, and that intermittently since my internet connection kept crapping out for some reason. In that game the Mets were able to rally for a come-from-behind 1-run win thanks to and RBI pinch-hit single by Julio Franco. While I sipped beer on Saturday, the aging, declining Orlando Hernandez showed his age and decline by allowing 3 home runs in a loss to the lowly Nationals.

On Sunday, rain, wind, and other assorted April misery prevented play of the series finale in New York. The rain followed the Mets to Philadelphia canceling the game there on Monday night. Two days of rest must have built up some pent-up aggression because the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Mets returned to clobber the Phillies in the City of Brotherly Love. Moises Alou had his first two home runs of the season in the 8-1 victory. Young David Wright also tied the Mets record by hitting in his 24th consecutive game.

I should have better Mets news in future posts as I’m watching tonights game against the Marlins as I write. I also will see the Mets in person for the first time on Saturday.

A quick Red Sox note: I saw part of the Red Sox loss to the Blue Jays last night. Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched well but the Sox only managed to score a measly run in the 2-1 loss. Matsuzaka appears to be getting the poor run support that Pedro Martinez used to get with the Red Sox.

13 April 2007
Nationals 2, Mets 3

  • Delgado 1.5
  • Feliciano 1
  • Franco 1.5
  • Heilman 1
  • Pelfrey .50
  • Reyes 1
  • Schoeneweis .50
  • Valentin .50
  • Wagner .50
  • Wright 2

14 April 2007

Nationals 6, Mets 2

  • Burgos 1.5
  • Chavez .50
  • Delgado .50
  • Easley .50
  • Green 1.5
  • Schoeneweis .5
  • Smith 1.5
  • Valentin 1.5
  • Wright .50

17 April 2007
Mets 8, Phillies 1

  • Alou 3
  • Beltran .50
  • Castro 1.5
  • Feliciano .50
  • Glavine 1.5
  • Green 1
  • Reyes 1
  • Valentin 1