Happy Halloween

Trick or Treat!

I promise not to give out Mary Jane’s or Necco wafers, or worse. Healthy snacks.

I’m quite overwhelmed by seeing the sidewalks of Centre Street in Jamaica Plain crowded with children aged 0 to 16 in costume, trick-or-treating at the local businesses. Our own street is crawling with children as well. This is great to see. There was never this much Halloween activity in Somerville. Of course we’re here with the lights out because we don’t have any candy. But next year we’ll have our little guy to put in a clever costume.

Newton Streets and Sidewalks had a nice thought about Halloween being America’s Walking Holiday. There’s also a big Halloween Bike Ride in JP tonight, something else I will have to participate in future years.

I’ve never been too good at costume ideas nor execution, but here are 5 memorable Halloween costumes from my youth:

  • Ghost with a pumpkin head – this was based on my favorite Halloween decoration and was a lot of fun to bring to life even though the wire frame of the pumpkin head was awfully poky to my own head.
  • Leprechaun – a natural for an Irish-American youth with rosy cheeks and an Irish name. I did trip and tear my green pants before the night was over though.
  • Vampire – I put my natural widow’s peak and sharp incisors to effective use.
  • Linus – for a college party I dressed up as the Peanuts character I identify with most. If only my big sister were there to play Lucy.
  • Mime – my friend Jenae always hosted the best parties, and once did a great Halloween fete with an Alice in Wonderland theme. For some reason I went as a mime, which gave me a good excuse to go to a party and not be chatty without being called a wallflower.

Boo! Happy Halloween.

An edit at the witching hour:

Just for fun I’ve scanned in photos of me in my Halloween costumes from various years. Sadly, the really cute ones of me as a child are at my Mom’s house.

Me as a Gumby from Monty Python


Me as Linus Van Pelt


Me as a mime

Scary, huh?


Book Review: Odalisque by Neal Stephenson (Book 3 of the Baroque Cycle)

Quicksilver (2003) is the first of three volumes in the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, itself made up of three books. I may be wrong, but the cycle seems to me to be a fictional account of the beginning of the modern period in history and the Enlightenment. Each of the three books in Quicksilver focuses on an aspect of the changes wrought in Western civilization at this time. “Quicksilver” focuses on natural philosophy and the scientific revolution, “King of the Vagabonds” is a story about the birth of modern commerce and business, and “Odalisque” is pure politics. It is in fact the story of revolution in all possible meanings of that word – political, social, and scientific. Daniel Waterhouse describes it best in this contrast of revolution with rebellion:

No, rebellion is what the Duke of Monmouth did, it is a petty disturbance, an aberration, predestined to fail. Revolution is like the wheeling of stars round the pole. It is driven by unseen powers, it is inexorable, it moves all things at once, and men of discrimination may understand it, predict it, benefit from it. – p. 810

In Odalisque, there is much political intrigue. Daniel Waterhouse serves in an intimate capacity in the court of James II but works to undermine his reign.  Meanwhile, Eliza serves as a spy at Versailles for William of Orange.  Together they help bring about the Glorious Revolution but not without much personal cost.

It was nice to have Daniel Waterhouse and Eliza in the same book.  They even meet although in a somewhat anticlimactic manner for the reader who has been following their stories for hundreds of pages.  Sadly Jack Shaftoe does not appear in this book although his brother Bob plays a crucial role.

My favorite parts of this book involve historical characters, and while Stephenson probably made these things up, I like to think they are rooted in historical fact.  The first is that William of Orange enjoyed sand-surfing along the beach, and was even ambushed while doing it.  The second is when the fleeing James II, unrecognized by the general populace, gets beaten up in a tavern.

Now I’m a third of the way through The Baroque Cycle.  I’m enjoying the reading immensely and look forward to the next volume.

Red Sox are the 2007 World Series Champions


Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox on their sweeping victory over the Colorado Rockies to win their second World Series title in four years. It’s always nice when the home team wins. Things were different this year from 2004. That year Susan and I watched the game at a pub in Somerville and even though the Red Sox swept the Cardinals, that final game still felt very tense. The weight of history was on everyone’s backs, even a couple of interlopers from Connecticut and Michigan. This year since we’re on on the baby clock we listened to the game at home on the radio. The final game had an air of inevitability to it, but I’m sure was still a joy to the many young players on the Red Sox and long time fans who had many years of disappointments got to double their pleasure.

It is disappointing that the World Series was not more exciting from a pure baseball standpoint. One has to give a lot of credit to the Rockies for their exciting stretch drive, come-from-behind win over the Padres in the Wild Card playoff, and unprecedented 7-0 streak through the National League divisional champion series. As a National League partisan, I bristle at any suggestion that the NL Champions are of a lesser caliber, even when they were swept. I think it’s just that the Red Sox were just that good, the best team in baseball this season, and the deserving World Series Champions.

I also have to give credit to the great Rockies’ fans who cheered and chanted right to the end of game #4. That kind of spirit is actually what drew me to Mets fandom, since once-upon-a-time Mets fans would chant “Lets Go Mets” (unprompted by the PA) even when the team was down in the late innings. Judging by this September, I guess if the Mets had made it to the World Series this season and found themselves in the same circumstances as the Rockies, Shea Stadium would be full of booing and expletives shouted at the Mets. It’s nice that the spirit of “Ya Gotta Believe” lives on somewhere. Here’s another Mets’ fan view from Faith and Fear in Flushing.

It’s a credit to the Red Sox management and players that they’ve been able to win two championships so close together. They are a well-engineered team that play together well (and yes, also have a lot of money). I think this proves false the snarky comments that the 2006 Red Sox late season collapse was due to the team not keeping many of the veterans of 2004 (also a ray of optimism for fans of a certain team that collapsed in 2007 that 2008 may be brighter). It also is the death-knell to any talk of a curse and “wait ’til 2090” (although maybe the Red Sox can only win championships in the first two decades of a given century). As I wrote at the beginning of the season, the Red Sox from 1967-2003 were not a bad team but a very good team that somehow finished 2nd place to some johnny-come-latelies and suffered unlikely losses when they did make it to the postseason, while during the same period some less consistent franchises won 2-3 championships. I think the laws of probability have caught up with the Red Sox.

More Red Sox coverage:

  • Curt Schilling gives credit to God
  • People who bought furniture at Jordan’s Furniture last spring are getting their money back
  • The victory parade will be Tuesday at noon
    • Jonathon Papelbon will do his victory jig during the parade according to Mayor Menino: “He promised the people he would do the dance,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said today at a press conference at City Hall, “and he will do the dance.” It’s nice that he did not do on the Rockies home field.

And now there’s no more baseball.  It’s always hard to adjust to not having baseball games as part of the daily rhythmn of life.  Rogers Hornsby put it best:

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Movie Review: The Right Stuff

Thanks to Craig for our new Netflix subscription, Susan and I were able to watch one of my favorite movies of all time, The Right Stuff (1983).  I watched this movie repeatedly on cable and VHS as a child and had much of the dialog memorized.  The excellent dialog plus the skillful acting and the wonderful blending of special effects with human interest make this movie for me.  Plus it’s about astronauts, so it’s got to be wicked cool.

This lengthy film can be broken down into three parts.

The first part shows the harbinger of the Space Age with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier.   This was my favorite part as a kid, mostly because Yeager is such an engaging character.  If you read up on what actually happened you’ll learn that like many parts of this movie the facts have been rather loosely dramatized but gets at the gist of things.  I’ve always been perturbed by the reporter saying “the Russians are our allies” even though US-Soviet relations had deteriorated quite a bit by 1947.  After Yeager’s historic flight, we see another flight where he once again sets the speed record to top a civilian pilot before the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.  Young cocky pilots descend on Edwards Air Force Base including Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin)  while their wives nervously discuss the risky lives of test pilots.

Then Sputnik orbits the Earth.   The frenzied Eisenhower administration wonders how the Soviets got ahead of the US and plans on manned missions to space.  In one of the funniest sequences in the movie, two government agents played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer show films of potential candidates for the astronaut corps, but when Ike insists on test pilots Goldblum and Shearer are dispatched on a recruting mission.  First they go to Edwards where they pick up Cooper, Grissom, and Slayton, to Yeager’s ridicule.  Then they watch clean Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) on a tv game show.  Finally they board an aircraft carrier and meet Naval aviator Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn).

The astronaut candidates go through a series of brutal and often bizarre tests in another of the really funny parts of the film.  I especially like the part where Shephard is given a talking to by an Hispanic orderly because of his Jose Jimenez impersonation (all while Shephard has an enema).  Once the seven candidates are selected they are introduced to the media with great hype.  It takes a while for these seven men to gel as a team, but they come together to defend their positions as pilots of spacecraft as opposed to being “astronaut-occupants” of a capsule.  In an interesting sequence the astronauts play the media off the engineers and insist on a redesign of the spacecraft to have a window, a hatch with exploding bolts and manual controls for reentry.  While the exploding hatch plays a big part in Grissom’s mission, it is interesting that the filmmakers chose to leave out that the manual controls proved vital for Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) to return safely to the Earth on his mission.

But Carpenter and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) are only minor characters in this film.  The filmmakers also never mention that Slayton was grounded due to a heart condition but became a respected member of NASA as head of astronaut selection.  And so the film only dramatizes four of the Mercury missions, which is good in the interests of time and storytelling works pretty well.  Each mission has a particular point of tension.  The humorous incident of Sheppard needing to urinate is followed by the harrowing case of Grissom needing to swim to safety after the hatch blows accidentally. Glenn’s historic orbital flight is given a long, heroic depiction underscored by concerns about a faulty heat shield.  The film ends with the launch of Cooper’s flight.  The movie keeps in mind the wives dealing with the stress and the overbearing press corp as well as astronauts on the ground monitoring the missions of their fellow astronauts.

Yeager’s presence is never overlooked in this film and his character acts as kind of Greek chorus to the Mercury program.  In the penultimate scene Yeager is shown testing (and crashing) an aerospace trainer aircraft in what proved to be his last mission as a test pilot.  These scenes are contrasted with the Mercury 7 astronauts being feted Texas-style at the opening of the new NASA space center in Houston.  The Right Stuff asks but never answers, who is the best pilot?  The unsung fliers of experimental  jets or men who sat atop explosive rockets in front of millions of viewers?

Friday Sillies for Halloween

First you need a jack-o-lantern.  When I was in grad school one of my classmates was an expert carver of anime pumpkins.  I don’t know much about anime but I do admire the skill and artistry of her carving.  My favorite pumpkin though still has to be the Melvil Dewey pumpkin (second from the top) she made for our cataloging class.

Next you need a costume.  How about sexy mustard?

Note that there is naughty language in this clip:

Happy Halloween!!!

Book Review: Clara’s Grand Tour by Glynis Ridley

Clara’s Grand Tour (2006) by Glynis Ridley is quite simply the delightful tale of a rhinoceros and her travels in Europe in the Eighteenth-Century. I learned about Clara on my trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles where her portrait was the centerpiece of an exhibit of paintings by Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

Clara was a young Indian rhinoceros purchased in 1741 by Dutch sea captain Douwemout Van der Meer who then transported her to Europe. For the next 17 years, Clara and Van der Meer traveled across Europe, often in a specially designed wagon, and occasionally on a barge along the River Rhine. I don’t know if the pun would work in Dutch, but Ridley makes no mention of Van der Meer advertising her as a Rhine-oceros on these occasions.

At any rate, Clara was the first live rhinoceros in Europe for centuries and she attracted crowds wherever she traveled including royalty, philosophes, and artists. Ridley credits Van der Meers advance notice posters as the first multi-national advertising campaign. Similarly, Clara created a cottage industry in memorabilia from commemorative medals to high-class decorative arts in her image. Paris and the court of Louis XV were swept up in rhinomania with Clara inspiring fashions and fads. The king himself though balked at the cost Van der Meer asked for purchase, so Clara did not get to retire in the menagerie at Versailles.

Clara died on tour in London with the location of her remains now unknown, and Van der Meer faded from the written record. During her time, she helped redefine the image of rhinoceros for Europeans familiar with myth and scripture regarding unicorns and Behemoths. Her gentle nature contradicted that legend that rhinoceros and elephants are mortal enemies who will fight to the death. Similarly, Clara captured in art provided the first real image of the rhinoceros to a society reliant for centuries on Albrecht Dürer’s image of a rhinoceros in armor. On a total tangent, I love how things in my life totally overlap so that while I was reading this book this image appeared in my Bloglines in this post on Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog (where it’s used for an analogy about social networking tools).

I enjoyed this book despite the fact that Ridley writes in a dry academic style. Her constant hedging on what she has reasonable proof to be accurate is distracting. Similarly, she constantly refers to images of which only a few are included in the book, and they are packed in the mid-section of the book not with the text that describes them. Still, how could you not like a book about a rhinoceros traveling across Europe, especially with details like her love for oranges and tobacco smoke?

Library Trick or Treat

In preparation for Halloween, here’s a nice bag of links about libraries.

First, a trick: The headline of The New York Times article Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web (by Katie Hafner, October 22, 2007) is very misleading. Jessamyn West at librarian.net puts it best in her post Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web, really?:

Quick quiz: when you read a headline like the one in the New York Times today Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web do you think that the libraries involved are

a) sticking up for free access to information
b) prohibiting free access to information

If you continue to read the article you will learn that it is actually option a):

Several major research libraries have rebuffed offers from Google and Microsoft to scan their books into computer databases, saying they are put off by restrictions these companies want to place on the new digital collections.

The research libraries, including a large consortium in the Boston area, are instead signing on with the Open Content Alliance, a nonprofit effort aimed at making their materials broadly available.

The cynical side of me feels that The New York Times is supporting big business at the expense of libraries and the Open Content Alliance. As I learned at the Boston Athenaeum lecture last winter, many libraries have simply given away material to Google and others only to learn that Google doesn’t care about library ethics and open access. They want to sell a product, which is all fine and good, but you just can’t expect libraries to continue to give up their resources. I applaud the Boston Public Library and other participants in the Open Content Alliance for sticking to the ideals of librarianship and attempting to extend free access to information for all.

Now for a treat, a more positive article in the Boston Globe, Libraries Move With Times, Discover Niches (by Anna Badkhen,October 22, 2007). Traditional libraries are not so traditional and not so quiet and offer circulation of music and movies, community events, and gaming.

“We are not your grandmother’s library,” said Kimberly Lynn, president of the Massachusetts Library Association. In the era of waning readership and Internet search engines, libraries in Massachusetts and across the country are shifting their resources and expertise to areas once unthinkable. Gone are the hushed bibliothecae of yore where even an occasional irreverent clicking of a heel prompted furrowed brows of disapproval.

The modern-day library, Lynn said, is a community living room-cum-reference clearinghouse, with some digital gaming sprinkled in.

“It’s a zoo,” Lynn said. “It’s chaotic. It’s not getting quieter.”

Library circulation in Massachusetts grew by a million copies between fiscal years 2005 and 2006, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. But the growth is not necessarily because people are borrowing more books.

Nothing here is really new to those of us who already know that libraries rock, but it’s still good to see good press. A big part of the future (and present) of the library is social networking and there is a New OCLC Report on Social Networking called Sharing, Privacy, and Trust in Our Networked World which I haven’t read yet, but should be worth reading. Of course, there’s a lot about Web 2.0 and the future Semantic Web that we librarians still don’t understand. The Goblin in the Library takes a humorous look at the web’s future in Web X. The apparent winning definition of Web 3.0/Semantic Web is in the comments by the way:

The code will reach out and grab what it needs on its own – from any source available, regardless of format – without needing to be told to search for this or that.

The structure within the library is also evolving. I particularly liked this article from Walking Paper about the North Plains Public Library in Oregon: creating a flat library and the culture of maybe. As noted in the comments this is an egalitarian attempt to get past job descriptions and into job duties while working toward collaboration.

Instead of a Culture of No, I’m aiming to create a Culture of Maybe. You might not be surprised that employees really appreciate being able to discuss library issues without fear of judgment or other negative reactions. Here are some ideas for creating a Culture of Maybe.

Encourage collaboration. Collaboration needs to be at the core of how things are accomplished. It isn’t just a method of working on discreet projects, but rather an complete way of communicating and acting. Challenges to this include staff involvement with many aspects of library service, some of which might be outside their traditional area of interest or expertise. (At the NPPL it is very apparent that we>me. The group does a fantastic job of brainstorming and refining ideas.)

Listen to everyone. This doesn’t mean that everyone is always right, but it does mean that their ideas deserve consideration. Staff need to know that presenting ideas that don’t get put into practice is not an indication of poor performance and that they won’t be penalized in any way for doing so.

Let natural talents develop. People are happy when they can do what interests them. People do their best work when their happy.

Make people responsible. This is not about being able to blame someone if things go haywire. It is about letting people know what they’re responsible for and that their actions have a direct impact on the operation of the library. If employees see the direct impact they have, they’ll be more likely to take pride in what they’re doing. An essential part of this is providing the freedom and resources to allow people to actually do their job.

Set deadlines and stick to them. All of this free flowing conversation and discussion is great, but it must result in something. Decisions should rarely be final, however. An initial deadline and a secondary evaluation point can be set, the latter providing another opportunity for reflection, reevaluation and refinement.

This article and the model proposed was also discussed at length on the Uncontrolled Vocabulary podcast for October 3rd.

After all this discussion of change in the library, you may just want something to read. Librarian’s Place recommends Sex, Drugs, and Bombs: Confessions of a Librarian (that definitely sounds like my workday in a nutshell). If that’s too grown up for you, Random Musings from the Desert collated Children’s Books to Check Out. 3 of the 4 books appear to have librarians as the heroes, or at least the good guys. The last book is about evil librarians (yes, I can assure you that evil librarians do exist). If you want to read something that has nothing to do with librarians at all, Judge a Book by its Cover lists Titles That Took Some Thought (which are actually books with absolutely awful titles). If you click through to the post on Ironic Sans that inspired this list you will see that I actually played a part in creating it of which I’m inordinately proud.

New Boston Bicycle Zine

Yesterday, while getting a picnic lunch at Canto 6 I picked up issue #1 of Boston Bicycle Reflector a cute little ‘zine for bicycle commuters. I’m not sure who put this together but it has articles with tips on biking to work, commentary on Mayor Menino’s bicycle initiatives (see the comments in this post for more), and my favorite was a piece called “Picking on Bikes” by Jeffrey Ferris which lists the many social stigmas against bicyclists.  I’m not alone!

There’s a website for Boston Bicycle Reflector but it’s just a placeholder for now.  Searching the web, I found only two other references to this publication: a Flickr photo of Issue # 1 (see, I told you it was cute) and a blog post on Joe’s Amazing Technicolor Weblog.  I hope to see more of the Reflector in the future.

The Red Sox Win The Pennant

Congratulations to the home town team (and hey now that I live in Boston proper, they are my home town team) on winning the American League pennant.  In their usual Red Sox manner they went down 3 games to 1 to the Indians before coming back to win it all (and you can see that I called it last Wednesday on Universal Hub).  After 7.5 innings of tense baseball action, the Sox stripped away all the drama and pounded the Indians 11-2.

Curt Schilling gives credit for the series win to Josh Beckett, the MVP of the series.

Greg at Faith and Fear in Flushing pays tribute to the Cleveland Indians as worthy postseason players.

Now the Red Sox take on the Colorado Rockies who haven’t lost back-to-back games since about a week before the autumnal equinox (not to mention haven’t even played a game in over a week).  This should make for an exciting series which is desperately needed in this 2007 postseason of sweeps (excepting of course the ALCS).

I’ll be rooting for the Sox of course as my home town team, my favorite American League team, and 2nd-favorite team overall. I also want to the Red Sox win because of all the commentary after 2004 that said that they wouldn’t win again until 2090 and that they failed in 2006 because they got rid of their best players (as if Johnny Damon, Derek Lowe, and Kevin Millar were the only ones who could win a championship).  It was as if even though they broke the “curse” talk of the curse wouldn’t go away.  I’d like to see the curse die once and for all.  There are no curses in baseball.

Let’s go Red Sox!

Book Review: Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe

Outside Lies Magic : Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (1998) by John R. Stilgoe is a book that encourages the reader to become an explorer observing everyday things in everyday places. I learned about John Stilgoe and this book from MetaFilter. The book isn’t so much a textbook for becoming an explorer, Stilgoe says that exploring must be done not taught. Instead its a series of observations connected in a James Burke fashion.

Basically Stilgoe wants us to get out and walk or bike and look at the world around us.

From power lines on creosote-treated poles (apparently unique to America) to

rural free delivery post boxes to

commercial strips to

the frontage road and overpasses of the interstate (much is hidden by the road side) to

Main Street (or our approximation of a past that never existed and how there function was guided by fire insurance) to

Motels and rest areas (places travelers rarely look at in the rush to get to sleep or get back on the road).

We can learn much about how a place came about and how we are connected to the earth and each other. I don’t always agree with Stilgoe’s sometimes snobbish political take on the world, but I enjoy his writing and hope I can become more of an explorer.

Quite coincidentally, this book ties in well with the previous book I read The World Without Us, although this veers to the opposite tact of observing the world with us. Even better companions to Outside Lies Magic are these two books which I’ve read and enjoyed previously:

Book Review: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us ( 2007) by Alan Weisman is a book length exploration of what the earth would be like without human beings. Long story short, a whole lot better off. Weisman investigates the question by recreating what the world was like without humans, what has happened since our evolution and spread, vignettes of places that humans have abandoned for one reason or another, and theorizing what would happen to the world should we vanish. Weisman puts forward unlikely scenarios of how our species could vanish: a human-only virus, alien abduction, or the rapture. In all likelihood there is nothing that could wipe out the human race will leaving the rest of the world untouched. And since some of Weisman’s world without us scenarios demonstrate the unholy terror that will be unleashed by the things we’ve created without us there to manage them, perhaps it will be better if we stick around and try to figure out how to fix things up.

Here’s a quick summary of scenarios of Earth without her most invasive species:

  • Białowieża Puszcza forest in Poland and Belarus, the only old-growth forest remainig of what once stretched across Europe. Here animals like bison may still thrive if the border fence that prevents their breeding is removed.
  • Destroying a home is easy. Just cut an eighteen inch hole in the roof and then stand back.
  • A vision of New York City without us begins with the subway tunnels flooding. The freeze/thaw cycle breaks up roads and concrete and makes foundations crumble. Ailanthus trees take root everywhere. Fires break out and spread unchallenged. Expansion joints on bridges get clogged and the bridges collapse. Central Park will revert to marshland. Bronze statues and stone buildings will last the longest of human artifacts.
  • The western hemisphere once had a great number of megafauna such as the giant sloth. Weisman believes that overhunting by prehistoric peoples brought their end. As evidence he points out that only on Africa where animals and humans evolved together are there still large mammals afoot.
  • In Africa today, grazing animals are unable to migrate freely and thus overgraze land which turns it to desert. Parks surrounded by agriculture create two competing environments that don’t work together well. The plague of AIDS is starting to erase the human population and changing age-old settlement patterns.
  • Seaside hotels on Cyprus remain abandoned, overgrown, and crumbling since the war in 1974 between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The Green Line, a no man’s zone between the two warring sides preserves remains of once-human habitats.
  • The sturdy remains of the underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey may be a long-lasting remnant of past (and future?) human habitation in a world without us.
  • Plastics do not biodegrade and may end up outlasting our species by millennia. They break down into smaller particles where they will continue to be a hazard to creatures and plants of the sea. Worse, today in the North Pacific Gyre is today a floating trash dump of plastics run off from land and carried to these doldroms where the trash accumulates.
  • The expansive “city” of petroleum refineries and chemical plants covering hundreds of square miles between Houston and Gavelston in Texas. This is one of those places that without human intervention is something of a time bomb that would explode and may never be cleaned up by natural process.
  • The world without farms. Rothamsted in England is a place where research in agriculture has been conducted since the mid-1800’s. This includes the Broadbalk and Geescroft Wildernesses where land has been allowed to simply revert to nature. Another place where the woods are regenerating is New England!
    • “Unlike almost anywhere else on Earth, New England’s temperate forest is increasing, and now far exceeds what it was when the United States was founded in 1776. Within 50 years of U.S. independence, the Erie Canal was dug across New York State and the Ohio Territory opened — an area whose shorter winters and loamier soils lured away struggling Yankee farmers. Thousands more didn’t bother to return to the soil after the Civil War, but headed instead into factories and mills powered by New England’s rivers — or headed west. As the forests of the Midwest began to come down, the forests of New England began coming back.” – p. 147
  • The fate of ancient and modern wonders of the world. 6 of the 7 ancient wonders are already gone with the pyramid at Khufu rapidly eroding. The Chunnel and the Panama Canal are equally doomed with human care, but Mount Rushmore will prevail.
  • The Korean demilitarized zone, like the Cypriot Green Line, is a place devoid of human presence where nature has rushed in to fill the void. Unfortunately, human encroachment on each side of the DMZ has prevented it from becoming the protected space some hope it to become.
  • Birds coexist with humans although many species have been wiped out by us as well (the dodo, the passenger pigeon, et al). Without us they would still collide with radio-transmission towers and power lines which kill millions of birds each year, at least until those things collapsed from inattention. The common housecat also slaughters songbirds for sport and without human care would continue to do so in places where cats would never have existed naturally.
  • Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps. You don’t really need to read this book to imagine what would happen to them in a world absent humans. Oddly, Chernobyl shows an example of wildlife returning to the land abandoned by people after the disaster there. Still, it’s hard to believe the world would recover so easily if all 400+ nuclear power plants melted down simultaneously and contaminated the earth.
  • The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement are people who’ve sworn to not reproduce and simply wish to convince everyone to voluntarily let our species die out. Reading their arguments they actually seem to have a point and are at least convincingly not crackpots.

Oddly it seems that humanity’s greatest achievements (skyscrapers, etc.) are the least permanent, while trash, plastic, and oil — the detritus of civilization — are the most permanent.
There’s a lot more in this book which makes for a thoughtful, sometimes depressing, but always fascinating read.

A couple of quick library funnies

The Modesto Bee runs another installment of “Ask. Mr. Library Man.” Highlights include:

Q: Dear Library Man, since you’re a dude and a librarian, should we call you a “guybrarian”?

A: New words, often called “neologisms,” are coined all the time, and some become official dictionary words. But “guybrarian” is just embarrassing. Let it go.

Q: Yo, Librarian, are you sure “library science” is a real science?

A: Good question. As in the examples military science, political science and creation science, when the word “science” appears in the name, you know it’s a real science. “Sciences” such as chemistry and biology are subject to doubt.

Turn the Page returns after a long absence with a Library Security Advisory System. “We have a situation here,” heh, heh, heh.

Book Review: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Children of God (1999) by Mary Doria Russell is the sequel to The Sparrow, but unfortunately in its great ambition fails to live up to its predecessor. Russell introduces a flurry of new characters and overlapping plotlines that make the novel more confusing than complex, and then tries to resolve them all in a way that feels contrived. The strength of The Sparrow is its characters but I don’t feel that the new characters are developed as well. Particularly three Jesuit priests who are Lakota Sioux, Afrikaner, and from Belfast just seem to conveniently tied in with the issues of genocide, partition, and apartheid that occur on the planet of Rakhat. That there is not one, but two idiot savants who mystically show the way to God just seems too much for me.

On the plus side, is still a fine yarn and a good read. There’s a lot of reflection on civilization, spiritual matters, and humor as well.  I particularly like the part where Emilio Sandoz mistakes the Pope for a research assistant.

Children of God picks up where The Sparrow left off. Emilo Sandoz having confronted his past and begun healing leaves the priesthood but agrees to work as a linguist/translator for the Jesuits. He meets and falls in love with Gina, a cousin-in-law of the Father-General, but before they can marry he’s shanghaied into going on a return mission by Gina’s gangster ex-husband Carlo. I found Carlo another poorly developed character and an unbelievable deus ex machina means of getting Emilio back to Rakhat.

Meanwhile on Rakhat, a revolution is taking place spearheaded by the stranded Earth woman Sofia Mendes and outlaw Jana’ata Supaari VaGayjur (we do get a good explanation of what Supaari’s motivations were for basically selling Sandoz in to sexual slavery in the first book). With their greater numbers the Runa are able to overthrow the Jana’ata and create an uncomfortable new society.

Alternating across the time divide with flashbacks and flash forwards it all comes to gather rather to neatly in the end.  Still worth reading if you liked the first book.

Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier

10 years before Sputnik, and 60 years ago today, Air Force test pilot Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than Mach 1 and break the sound barrier. This is one of my favorite historic events due to my pre-adolescent obsession with The Right Stuff which lead me to read Yeager several times as well as make multiple visits to The National Air & Space Museum (where the Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” is on display) and read everything I could find about aviation history.

A conservative military man like Yeager is a strange hero for a peacenik liberal like myself, but hey, Chuck Yeager is just that bad ass. And he’s a great story-teller too. He even has his own website.

MetaFilter and Bad Astronomy each provide tributes to Yeager on this anniversary.

Here’s the scene as depicted in The Right Stuff:

Concert Review: Peter Mulvey at Club Passim

Craig, Susan and I caught the first performance of Peter Mulvey at Club Passim in Cambridge on Thursday night. Peter Mulvey is a great singer/songwriter folk musician from Wisconsin who also has ties with Boston where he used to perform in the MBTA stations. Susan & I were fortunate enough to catch him recording his cover songs album Ten Thousand Mornings at Davis Square Station but the songs we saw recorded didn’t make it to the album. We’ve also seen him perform at various venues around Boston usually with his friend David Goodrich as well as in the trio Redbird with Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucalt.

Mulvey is an excellent introspective songwriter and a talented guitarist. This may be the first time we’ve seen him perform all alone, and despite it being just him and his acoustic guitar, it sounded like an entire band was playing. This was especially true in the number he opened with “Wings of the Ragman” where if I couldn’t see it with my own eyes I would swear there were at least two guitars playing.

In addition to an excellent performance, Peter Mulvey is a great storyteller. Last month he toured Wisconsin on bicycle towing his guitar on a trailer behind him. One day on his journey he came upon a very defensive redwing blackbird who flew straight at him and bounced off his helmet. He also told a story about finding something in his basement that ended with this brilliant quote: “Disorder in my basement, that’s not misery, that’s America!” (NOTE: both Craig and Susan heard “water” not “disorder” but I like my version better).

Here is the complete setlist (songs 6,7,8, 11 & 12 are new songs or older songs I’m not familiar so I’m not sure if the titles are correct):

  1. Wings of the Ragman
  2. Me & Albert
  3. The Trouble With Poets (he improvised some new, clever lyrics about Sylvia Plath into this song)
  4. Abilene (The Eisenhower Waltz)
  5. The Knuckleball Suite
  6. Dynamite Bill (apparenty based on a true story of someone Peter Mulvey’s dad knew. He shared a poetic email from his father about Dynamite Bill)
  7. The Kids in the Square
  8. Mailman
  9. Girl in the Hi-Tops
  10. You and Me and the 10,000 Things
  11. Gasoline (Smell the Future, per Jonathan below)
  12. Instrumental piece (Black Rabbit, per Jonathan below)
  13. Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies
  14. Charlie
  15. The Dreams
  16. 29-Cent Head
  17. Words Too Small To Say
  18. Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad and Far Away From Home
  19. Encore: Our Love Is Here to Stay

I’m only disappointed that he didn’t play “Marty & Lou” because these days, these days I tell you, these days it’s all about the monkeys.

Another Book Meme

I’ve previously posted a book list meme here, but I saw this list on a friend’s blog and thought I should give it a shot.

It’s based on Library Thing, and here’s a description of how it works:

These are the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users (as of Sunday). Bold what you have read, italicize what you started but couldn’t finish, and strike through what you couldn’t stand. The numbers after each one are the number of LT users who used the tag of that book.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (149)
Anna Karenina (132)
Crime and Punishment (121)
Catch-22 (117)
One Hundred Years of Solitude (115)
Wuthering Heights (110)
The Silmarillion (104)
Life of Pi: a Novel (94)
The Name of the Rose (91)
Don Quixote (91)
Moby Dick (86)
Ulysses (84)
Madame Bovary (83)
The Odyssey (83) – read parts for school
Pride and Prejudice (83)
Jane Eyre (80)
A Tale of Two Cities (80)
The Brothers Karamazov (80)
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies (79)
War and Peace (78)
Vanity Fair (74)
The Time Traveler’s Wife (73)
The Iliad (73) – read parts for school
Emma (73)
The Blind Assassin (73)
The Kite Runner (71)
Mrs. Dalloway (70)
Great Expectations (70)
American Gods (68)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (67)
Atlas Shrugged (67)
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a Memoir in Books (66)
Memoirs of a Geisha (66)
Middlesex (66)
Quicksilver (66) – reading currently in process
Wicked : the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (65)
The Canterbury Tales (64) – read some of the tales for school
The Historian : a Novel (63)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (63)
Love in the Time of Cholera (62)
Brave New World (61)
The Fountainhead (61)
Foucault’s Pendulum (61)
Middlemarch (61)
Frankenstein (59)
The Count of Monte Cristo (59)
Dracula (59)
A Clockwork Orange (59)
Anansi Boys (58)
The Once and Future King (57)
The Grapes of Wrath (57)
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel (57)
1984 (57)
Angels & Demons (56) – the dumbest book I’ve ever been sucked into reading page after page
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses (55)
Sense and Sensibility (55)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (55)
Mansfield Park (55)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (54)
To the Lighthouse (54)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (54)
Oliver Twist (54)
Gulliver’s Travels (53) – read the Lilliput and Brobdingnag sections for school
Les Misérables (53)
The Corrections (53)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (52)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (52)
Dune (51)
The Prince (51)
The Sound and the Fury (51)
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir (51)
The God of Small Things (51)
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present (51)
Cryptonomicon (50)
Neverwhere (50)
A Confederacy of Dunces (50)
A Short History of Nearly Everything (50)
Dubliners (50)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (49)
Beloved (49)
Slaughterhouse-Five (49)
The Scarlet Letter (48)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (48)
The Mists of Avalon (47) – started this book twice before realizing that I just can’t stand it
Oryx and Crake : a Novel (47)
Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (47)
Cloud Atlas (47)
The Confusion (46)
Lolita (46)
Persuasion (46)
Northanger Abbey (46)
The Catcher in the Rye (46)
On the Road (46)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (45)
Freakonomics : a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (45)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an Inquiry Into Values (45
The Aeneid (45) – read only a small part but it was in Latin so I get bonus points, right?
Watership Down (44)
Gravity’s Rainbow (44)
The Hobbit (44)
In Cold Blood : a True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences (44)
White Teeth (44)
Treasure Island (44)
David Copperfield (44)
The Three Musketeers (44)

With that done, now I need to move on to the must-see movies list.

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

My second Banned Books Week selection is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) by Maya Angelou.  I’ve heard Angelou speak at a William & Mary convocation, read her poetry, and admired her for a long time but never got around to reading this keystone book until now.

It was worth the wait.  Basically it is an excellent memoir of Angelou (or Margeurite Johnson as she was known) childhood and coming of age living in Stamps, AK, St. Louis, and California.  She and her older brother Bailey are raised primarily by their grandmother whom they call Momma.  A prominent store owner and devout Christian, Momma is a loving and stabilizing influence compared Angelou’s parents who lead glamorous lives but are often distant and irresponsible.  At one point when Maya is 8 they go to live with her mother in St. Louis.  This is a traumatizing time due to Maya’s rape by her mother’s boyfriend and the murder of the rapist by one of her uncles.

The specter of racism hangs heavy over Maya’s life.  The whitefolk live in the whitetown where the whitewind blows.  An inspiring moment in the book occurs at Maya’s high school graduation.  A white superintendent gives a condescending address that deflates all the hope and joy the students have in the occasion.  Then the student speaker is able to restore their pride by leading the choir in singing “Lift Every Voice” (the second time this year I’ve learned about the Black National Anthem after never hearing about it before).  Later in life Maya asserts herself to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.

Another great story involves traveling to Mexico with her father, ostensibly to purchase ingredients for a Mexican meal, but really for her father to cheat on his girlfriend.  With Bailey Sr. passed out drunk after a fiesta, the 15-year old Maya decides to drive them back over the border even though she’s never drive a car before.  The results are comical and disastrous.  After a fight with his girlfriend Dolores, Maya runs away and lives in a junkyard with several other children for a month.

What a life and what a start for one of our great writer/poet/teachers, all told in her distinctive voice!  So why would anyone want to ban this book?  For starters, the details of her rape are told in unfiltered terms.  Maya’s life living among colorful characters of St. Louis and San Francisco leads to an acceptance as well of theft and crime in morally ambiguous terms.  Finally, a teenage crisis where she fears she’s lesbian leads Maya to have sex with a boy which leads to pregnancy and teenage motherhood. Obviously these are controversial reasons but certainly ones that I think children today may identify with and learn from as opposed to being sheltered from by banning the books from schools and libraries.

Forest Hills Cemetery Tour

On a lovely Saturday afternoon, Susan and I strutted over to our new neighbor the Forest Hills Cemetery for a historic walk presented by the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and lead by Al Maze. One could tell that Al has a great love for the cemetery and vast amounts of knowledge. Several times he stopped to show us something “I wasn’t even going to talk about” out of enthusiasm. The tour lasted two hours and I don’t think Al even showed us half of what he wanted to.

Photos from the Forest Hills Cemetery Tour

The cemetery is the work of landscape architect Henry A.S. Dearborn and it dates to 1848. Proof that Dearborn preferred Forest Hills to his previous work at Mt. Auburn Cemetery is that he had his parents re-interred (Dorcas Dearborn is Internment #1). Al contends that Forest Hills is a democratic cemetery with the remains of many people with personal success stories who became philanthropists. The cemetery originally was run by the City of Roxbury but after an act of the state government was sold to a private organization for $1.


Highlights of the tour:

  • The cemetery holds 7 works by sculptor Daniel Chester French, more than in any one location other than his home.
  • 3 or 4 pieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany including a large Celtic cross that serves as a grave marker.
  • Terraced walls built of stone without concrete that have withstood 150 years of New England weather.
  • Jesse Gideon Garnett – first woman to graduate from Tufts Dental school and Boston’s first African-American dentist
  • Mt. Warren – home to the final (?) resting place of the extensive Warren family including the peripatetic remains of Major General Joseph Warren, hero of Bunkers Hill, and Dr. John Collins Warren who first used ether as an anesthetic for his patients
  • Marshall Wilder – founder of what was once Massachusetts A&M, later the agriculture school becoming UMass-Amherst and the mechanical school becoming MIT.
  • Francis Cabot Lowell (among many Lowell burials) – father of the American Industrial Revolution, who introduced his ideas of mechanizing mills to Paul Moody and together they built the first mills in Waltham where they made 3 miles of cloth per day
  • The walk ways were once lined with iron railings, but they were patriotically donated to the war effort in the 1940’s (although Al says the director of Forest Hills wanted to get rid of them anyway to make it easier to mow the grass).
  • Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (aka Dr. Zak) and Susan Dimock – fascinating women who entered the field of medicine in the 1800’s when it was rare for women to become doctors.
  • Karl Heinzen – a German revolutionary in 1848 who then went to Louisville, KY to work for abolition before finally settling in Boston.
  • Lucy Stone – a suffragist who inspired and then was overshadowed by Susan B. Anthony, also an abolitionist with William Lloyd Garrison. She married Henry Blackwell after a prenuptial agreement and was one of the first women to keep her own family name (other women who did so were called “Lucy Stoners”). She was the first person cremated at Forest Hills Cemetery.
  • Trees that still stand from the time the cemetery opened are called witness trees, since they’ve “witnessed” the entire history of the cemetery. They are few and far between due to age and environmental changes.
  • Samuel Pierpont Langley – father aviation who studied at Boston Latin, taught at the US Naval Academy, assisted at the Harvard Observatory, and served as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He tested several flying machines he called “aerodromes” which failed but were later proven to be aeronautically sound designs. He died nine days prior to the Wright Brothers first flight and was eulogized by his friend Alexander Graham Bell.
  • Pauline Agassiz Shaw – educator, social reformer, and reorganizer of the Boston school system. She founded numerous kindergartens, nursery schools, and settlement houses. The North Bennet Street School still operates in the North End. Daughter of famous naturalist Louis Aggassiz who married Quincy Adams Shaw (who traveled with historian Francis Parkman). Col. Robert Gould Shaw was their nephew.
  • The absolute highlight of the tour, Al discovered that among the graves of the May family (relatives of Louisa May Alcott), was the grave of William Dawes. Gasp! Dawes is not buried in Kings Chapel as everyone thought. The discovery even earned Al a spot in an article in The Boston Globe (February 25th, 2007). He also read a poem by Helen Moore about the less famous ride of William Dawes.

The cemetery is beautiful, historic, and the connections among the people buried there are amazing. I can’t wait to take the rest of the tour if Al offers it again next year. Although, I think Al’s tour of Forest Hills Cemetery never ends.