altThe Power of Mathematical Visualization by James S. Tanton (The Great Courses)

We are loving our Great Courses Plus subscription. We leapt right in with The Power of Mathematical Visualization, and I recommend it enthusiastically.

The great physicist, Richard Feynman, used visualization extensively to understand problems. Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures, suggests we may be too hasty in trying to prevent and cure autism, since mild forms ot Autism Spectrum Disorder, at least, lead people to different and possibly important ways of thinking. But what about the rest of us, who are neither geniuses nor autistic (nor autistic geniuses)?  Visualization is still a powerful and fascinating way to think about math, from basic arithmetic to esoteric and high-powered concepts.

Back when The Great Courses was called The Teaching Company, the course format was primarily a talking-head lecture, perfectly suited for audio-only listening in the car while commuting to work. Many of the courses still work well for that, but the company has grown and expanded considerably, not just in content but also in format. The Power of Mathematical Visualization includes plenty of diagrams, images, and physical demonstrations.

James Tanton is an engaging teacher. He does spent a bit too much time complaining about the unhelpful ways he was taught math in school, but I soon learned to forgive and ignore that. His enthusiasm for math is infectious. You can watch the introductory lecture on YouTube, if you want to check it out.

Here's a picture of the course contents. (Click for a larger image.)

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I'd recommend this course to anyone, including all our grandchildren. Certainly the oldest three could get a lot out of most of the lectures. The six-year-olds, being especially interested in math, are also good candidates. Even the younger ones would benefit from at least being in the same room while others are watching. You never know what they are absorbing from their surroundings.

James Tanton has another series on The Great Courses Plus, called Geometry: An Interactive Journey to Mastery. Would I ever have picked that one out of their long list of topics that are at first glance much more interesting? Not likely. But we're watching it now, because Tanton is such a good presenter, and so far it's as intriguing as Visualization.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 10, 2017 at 6:09 am | Edit
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altThe Stranger in My Genes by Bill Griffeth (New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2016)

The New England Historic Genealogical Society has been pushing its new book for quite a while, and I've mostly been ignoring it. I love the NEGHS, especially its treasure-filled library in Boston. But I mostly—perhaps wrongly—associate them with dusty old tomes, the value of which lies in the bits and pieces of genealogical information that can be gleaned from them. The Stranger in My Genes is NOT that kind of book. The NEHGS very wisely published the first chapter in their American Ancestors magazine, and I was immediately hooked.

The book I was in the middle of reading (okay, barely started) is H. D. Smyth's Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. It was a gift for my father from his parents on his 24th birthday, and currently sits on my bookshelves with his other books on the immediate post-Hiroshima period. It is also nearly 300 pages of dense technical writing, so when The Stranger in My Genes became available at our local library (I had requested that they add it to their collection), it's small wonder I jumped at the diversion.

Part genealogy, part mystery, and part cautionary tale, this soul-searching human-interest story is also beautifully-crafted. What's not to like?  Both Porter and I read it in a day. That's not to say it's short or simple; we just couldn't put it down.

I won't say much about the story itself to avoid spoiling the mystery. Author Bill Griffeth, an amateur genealogist, received a big surprise when comparing his DNA test results with his cousin's: they weren't related. Where that led is the subject of his book, and illustrates well the risks and benefits of genetic testing.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 13, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Edit
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altMain-Travelled Roads: Six Enduring Stories of the Midlands of Americaby Hamlin Garland (originally published 1891)

Main-Travelled Roads is the kind of book an English teacher might have assigned me, though none did. In my school days I would have probably hated it; now I merely find it depressing. It's well-written; I can't deny that. And the stories of unrelenting poverty, toil, and hopelessness in farm life probably provide a good balance to a santitized, Little House on the Praire-style perspective. But neither view tells the whole story, and if stories of deprivation and misery have been popular among English teachers for decades, that only explains why I didn't learn to like literature and writing until after I left school.

But it gets me one book closer to reaching my 95 by 65 Goal #63: Read 26 existing but as yet unread books from my bookshelves.  This puts me at 21.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 4, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Edit
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altInto the Atomic Age: A Plan of Action for Canada Now edited by Sholto Watt (Montreal Standard Publishing Company, 1946)

This, the fourth of my father's collection of early post-Hiroshima books (see here, here, and here), is as fascinating as the others, although the fascination has less to do with atomic energy and atomic bombs than with the immediate post-war culture.

The Greatest Generation was, in a word, terrified. For the scientists who developed the Bomb itself, the politicians attempting to address the consequences of its very existence, and those whose business was social and political commentary, these were "what hath Man wrought?" times, just over a century after Samuel F. B. Morse's famous telegraph transmission.

In 1946, The Standard, a Canadian national weekly newspaper, published a series of essays on the subject of atomic energy. The contributors were diverse, from military men to scientists to politicians to prominent men from a variety of fields, whether or not they bore any relation to atomic energy. (Contract bridge, anyone? Ely Culbertson was one of them.)

In the early years of my adulthood, I remember hearing people express great fear that we were headed towards a "one world government."  They were suspicious of the United Nations, and viewed every international agreement through the lens of how it might affect our national sovereignty. I confess I gave them little respect, because I saw not a shred of evidence that anyone was interested in forming a unified world government.

But I was young. Even if I did grow up with "duck and cover" drills in elementary school, and spent time pondering the feasibility of building a fallout shelter in our backyard, I was blissfully ignorant of the politics of it all. Almost to a man, the writers of these essays were convinced that the only alternative to nuclear annihiliation was for all nations to give up their sovereign rights to an international government—either entirely, or "only" in the right to maintain armed forces and to wage war. The United Nations was brand-new in those days, and much hope was expressed that it would become the entity that would rule the world.

Fear makes people do crazy things, and put up with crazy things done by their leaders. It wouldn't surprise me if more freedoms have been lost through fear than through outright conquest. Fortunately for us, the one-world-government crazy idea never made it off the ground, though we've certainly lost plenty of freedom through fear—the Patriot Act and the bailout of companies "too big to fail," for example.

Be that as it may, here's a sampling of what people were thinking 70 years ago in response to what they perceived as the world's biggest threat. Text in bold is my own emphasis.

The picture of the next war thus becomes one of surprise, of sudden and unannounced aggression, of an “anonymous war,” in which the aggressor leaves no traces, mobilizes no armies, proclaims no hostilities.” A city might explode one night, another the next. In one night, a flight of rockets might demolish 20 cities and kill 40 million.

“This is the one-minute war of the future,” the scientists state. “This is the war that will be hanging over the heads of the nations of the world when all have possessed themselves of atomic explosive and sit in fear and trembling, wondering when their neighbor—or a country on the opposite side of the globe—may press the fateful key. … This picture is not projected a century or even half a century into the future; it is a possibility five years from now, a certainty in 15.”

To every man and woman it may be said with certainty that to secure a world authority is now part of the business of personal survival.

The more deeply one ponders the problems with which our world is confronted in the light … of the implications of the development of atomic energy, the harder it is to see a solution in anything short of some surrender of national sovereignty.

We are afraid that the understanding and sympathy that binds us together may not be as strong as the conflicts of national interest and the dark hates that threaten to separate us. Atomic energy in itself does not endanger us. It is the possible use of atomic energy by persons and nations motivated by hate that causes our fear.

The establishment of this world government must not have to wait until the same conditions of freedom are to be found in all three of the great powers. While it is true that in the Soviet Union the minority rules, I do not consider that internal conditions there are of themselves a threat to world peace. (Albert Einstein)

That one is evidence, as if any more were needed, that intellectual brilliance and practical sense do not necessarily reside together.

The scientists give us five short years in which to save ourselves and the world…. Five years in which we must build out of the present infant United Nations organization a world government capable of outlawing wars and the causes of wars. Five years in a world in which, from the dawn of Christianity from which our own democracy stemmed, it took nearly 2,000 years for our democracy to develop. Five years in which to project ourselves 1,000 years in maturity, in understanding, in social development.

But not to worry. The public schools can fix the problem.

I am optimistic enough to think that, with success in the intermediate and short-term period, we have a margin of twenty years in which to work. The long-term programme, the twenty-year programme, is the establishment of world government under principles of law, justice and human freedom. Such a world government cannot be imposed by force. It cannot be successfully negotiated by the statesmen of the nations of the earth. The plain fact is that world government requires as its foundation a moral and psychological sense of world community, and that foundation does not exist. To impose or to negotiate world government under existing conditions of prejudice and hate would do nothing more than set the stage for world civil war. The minds and hearts of men are not yet prepared for a world of law, justice and mercy.

We in North America are not prepared. Too many men despise women. Too many women despise their servants. Too many white men despise black men. Too many Christians despise Jews. This lack of sympathy and respect extends not only across group lines, but also within the groups themselves.

I feel that with twenty years to spare, the moral and psychological foundation for world peace can be laid. The hope is not that hundreds of years of history, tradition and custom will automatically and suddenly change their direction. The hope lies in the fact that it takes only a period of about a dozen years to implant a basic culture in the minds of a man—the period of childhood between the age of two and the age of 14.

The following may sound absurd now, but I know for a fact that Kodak built a special bomb-proof facility in Rochester, New York so that they could continue to manufacture paper in the event of nuclear war.

Drastic changes in defence measures would be called for, including the abandonment of all large cities, the decentralization of communications and the placing of all important factories far underground.

Not everyone was all gloom-and-doom. Some were downright science fiction in their ambitions.

The world-shaking discovery of atomic power, the greatest since the discovery of fire, can have only one of two end-results: either the unparalleled shattering of our civilization through atomic blasts, or an unparalleled era of peaceful science and mass happiness.

We have now within our grasp the means for creating an abundant life for all peoples of the world. Even before the development of atomic energy this was true, but now that we have tapped this tremendous new source of power, perhaps within half a century all nations can be raised to the same economic level occupied by the most advanced nations today.

There has never before been a discovery equal to that of atomic energy. The greatest discoveries of the past have advanced the material aids to humanity but a few years, but the forward move in the development of atomic energy must be measured in centuries. It can open the door to an age of plenty without revolution or war. It can make equality of opportunity a reality in our day. It can give the backward areas a chance to reach equality with others.

Some were downright nuts.

Why go slowly shepherding great liners through the locks on either side of the Culebra Cut when you could readily use atomic energy to blast a sea-level canal from ocean to ocean? (You would, of course, have to arrange for the temporary evacuation of all the population of the canal zone, but that, in these days of mass transfers of population, is perhaps not impossible.)

How many people realize that we could alter the entire climate of the North Temperate zones by exploding a few dozen or at most a few hundred atomic bombs at an appropriate height above the polar regions?

As a result of the immense heat produced, the floating polar ice-sheet would be melted; and it would not be re-formed. It is a relic from the last Ice Age, and survives today because most of the heat of the sun is reflected from its surface.

If it were once melted, most of the sun’s heat during the polar summer would be absorbed by the water and raise the temperature of the Arctic Ocean. Ice would form again each winter, but it would not cover nearly so large an extent as now, and would be thick enough to be melted in the succeeding summer.

As a result, the climate of Scandinavia would become more like that of Southern England, and the climate of Southern England would become much like that of Portugal.

As usual with all grandiose projects, there are snags.

Thus with the northward movement of the warm temperate and cool temperate zones, the arid zone would move too; and the countries which had the prospect of being turned into the Sahara of the future might reasonably object!

Perhaps it would be best to begin in a small way, by melting a small chunk of the ice-sheet with the aim, say, of slightly ameliorating the climate of Nova Scotia and Labrador, and seeing what happened elsewhere, before attempting anything further.

And we think we have climate change problems now.

Some writers had a better grasp of political realities than others.

We should do well to take stock from time to time of our original purpose in establishing the UNO [United Nations]. What was that purpose? The commonest reply perhaps would be, “To preserve peace.” For many years statesmen have been in the habit of saying, “The greatest interest of our country is Peace.” They have said that usually with complete sincerity and in bad confusion of thought.

For it is not true.

Any nation which suffered invasion would fight if it could. That is to say, it would sacrifice peace for the purpose of defending its national independence. Which means that we do not put peace first; we put defence first: the right to existence, national survival. And no international organization can succeed if it ignores this truth that defence, security, the right to life, must in the purpose of men come before mere peace. We could have had peace by submission to Hitler and Hirohito; we refused it on those terms.

But that brings us to the question: “What is defence? What rights of nations must an international organization defend if its purpose is to be fulfilled? Russia declares that its rights of defence must include “friendly” governments in the whole of Eastern Europe. What precisely does “Friendly” mean? More than once Russia has described Switzerland as “unfriendly and semi-Fascist.” On one occasion Russia refused participation in an international conference on aviation because Switzerland was included. If each nation is to claim in the name of defence conformity with its own special views to the extent which Russia seems to claim that conformity, a workable international organization for collective security is going to be extremely difficult to establish.

No kidding.

Despite the book's small size, there's a lot more to Into the Atomic Age, from following a spelunker deep into a cave in search of a place to set up an underground factory, to the convincing argument that there is no effective way for international inspections to prevent a country that has nuclear energy from also being able to make nuclear bombs. I wish those who negotiated our treaty with Iran had read this book.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 29, 2016 at 7:10 am | Edit
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altEarly Tales of the Atomic Age by Daniel Lang (Doubleday, 1948)

My father was employed by General Electric his entire career, but much of his work was actually done for the federal government. As a child, I was never very curious about what he did when he "went to work," which was a good thing, since he usually couldn't talk about it. Much later, I picked up glimpses, as when we were visiting the Franklin Institute Museum in Philadelphia, and he casually pointed to a (formerly) top-secret military jet in the Aviation exhibit, saying "I helped build that plane." And when he revealed that the maps and information that "The Customer" had provided for my sixth-grade project on Ethiopia actually came from the CIA.

In his early years, he worked on the Manhattan Project, hence the number of books in his library (now mine) on Hiroshima and what was called the Atomic Age. This one is fascinating on several levels.

First, and this is of no little importance, Daniel Lang writes very well. I no longer take that for granted. He could make any subject sound interesting.

Second, it provides perspective on our own time. Here is a well-known, respected, seasoned writer for the New Yorker magazine, in an age generally considered much more concerned with civility and politeness than our own, casually using phrases like "the Japs" to refer to our then-enemy, "girls" when talking about female employees, and "the lady of the house has no servant problem, because Spanish maids from Santa Fe and Indian maids from the pueblos in the Pojuaque Valley are both available and efficient," when speaking about life in Los Alamos.

Most of all, the subject itself is fascinating. The world stood at the very beginning of a new era, and no one was quite sure what to do with the genie we had let out of the bottle. What surprised me the most was the naïveté, driven by fear, with which otherwise highly intelligent and experienced people, not to mention the general public, embraced the idea of putting one, internationally-controlled organization in complete charge of everything pertaining to nuclear materials, from mining and storage to what research might be done and who would be permitted to do it to who would control any bombs that were made. The United Nations had just been born, in much hope, and people had an almost worshipful attitude toward scientists, who had done this wonderful and terrible deed. An elite collection of right-thinking people could and should rule the world!

The broad fear ... was that by recommending an international monopoly they might be helping to create a Frankensteinian bureaucracy which, once it got going, would threaten this nation's civil liberties as well as its economic system. "But the stakes ... were too high for those men not to overcome the fear eventually. They knew that we would have to pay a price for security."

Although during this time the United States was the only country with nuclear technology, no one expected the monopoly to continue for long. The hope was that international control would keep the world's stock of nuclear weapons down to one or two for research purposes, too few for any country to start anything other than a conventional war. They could never have imagined that the Cold War would stay nuclear-free not because there were too few atom bombs, but because there were too many!

What I liked best about Early Tales of the Atomic Age were the stories of the people at all levels of the Manhattan Project (called "Manhattan District," the Army's term, throughout the book), especially when they coincide with what little I remember of my father's business (mostly trips to exotic places like New Mexico), or with what I've read in Richard Feynman's books.

Herewith a few tidbits:

One of the special headaches for the C.I.C. [Counter-Intelligence Corps] was handling the top scientists. Most of the people the Army was trying to keep quiet didn't actually know what the District wanted to produce. The scientists, however, knew more about it than the Army did. An inadvertent tidbit from one of them to an enemy agent, or even to a patriotic gossip, about the state of our plutonium research or some new idea that had been figured out for our electromagnetic separation process might bolix the works. Nor could the Army afford to fire its civilian geniuses for talking loosely. The nuclear boys wanted very much to co-operate, but, owing to a set of apparently ineradicable habits and eccentricities, they failed valiantly on occasion. "Free interchange of information" had been a lifelong practice with them. They were itching to discuss their work.

Also, they didn't take care of themselves, which disturbed the Army, since it was vital that the scientists stay alive at least until the first bomb was dropped. "Some of the world's lousiest auto drivesrs developed the bomb," a lieutenant told me. He added that they didn't walk so well either. ... Dr. Bohr was quite a jaywalker.... They used to say down in General Groves' office, in Washington, that they could always tell when he was coming to call by the sound of screeching brakes. Bohr was a problem from the beginning. When the British smuggled him out of Sweden in the bomb bay of a Liberator, they had to fly very high on the way to England to avoid being intercepted by the Luftwaffe. The crew put on oxygen masks and tried to put one on Bohr, too. The scientist's head, however, proved to be so massive that it wouldn't go on. The plane landed with its precious passenger out cold.

Why he couldn't have held the mask up to his face, since he didn't need his hands to fly the plane, the author does not explain.

A single shelf holds the library [of the newly-formed Federation of American Scientists], which consists of three books—the "Congressional Directory," "American Men of Science," and a copy of the Smyth Report.

The Smyth Report, a.k.a. Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, is also in my father's library and on my list of books to read. What is notable about the above quote is that Lang apparently thought it needed no explanation to his reading public. Similarly, although he clarifies place names like Los Alamos and Oak Ridge in detail, when he mentions Schenectady, he doesn't even add "New York," as if the home of the General Electric Company should be familiar to every American citizen. (It is to me, but I grew up there.)

U-235 becomes so radioactive if more than a certain amount of it—the critical size—accumulates in one pile that it can kill people in the vicinity and that it also soon becomes useless. Yet there was a time when only a few men working on the project, at Los Alamos and the University of Chicago, knew what that critical size was. Meanwhile, Oak Ridge was producing and storing the stuff. A Los Alamos scientist, visiting Oak Ridge on some unrelated errand, inadvertently discovered that the whole installation was heading for trouble. Possibly violating Army rules, he let his colleagues in on the secret.

That story is told, from the other side, in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Writing in 1985, Feynman still refers to women as "girls.")

These scientists had worked for the Manhattan District on various phases of nuclear research, and the Army, temporarily abandoning its policy of "compartmentalization of information," had recently brought them together to pool their knowledge in an effort to determine whether control of atomic energy could be achieved solely by inspecting plants engaged in developing it.

At that time, this method of control was widely regarded as a likely way out. ... The consultants had a variety of reasons for being skeptical about the effectiveness of plant inspection. To begin with, many of the steps involved in developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes are the same as those required to make atomic explosives. ... [A]lthough an international group of inspectors might systematically check on a nation's atomic plants, the possibility of quickly converting those plants to the production of bombs would remain. ... Inspectors working in countries in which they were strangers might easily be given the run-around. ... Moreover, some inspectors might not be particularly interested in doing a good job and might feel not the least insulted if they were offered bribes....

Oops. Tell me again about that treaty we negotiated with Iran?

I knew that at the end World War II the United States had acquired many high-level German scientists, but I hadn't realized that we also plundered a large collection of V-2 rockets. These were employed for many research projects, military and civilian, after the war.  I'm certain that this was part of my father's work.

Besides the research, a program of educating personnel in the mechanics and principles of guided missiles is under way. ... The make-up of the student body is international. In addition to Americans, the class includes officers from Canada, Britain, Turkey, Chile, Denmark, France, India, Ecuador, Argentina, the Philippines, China, Mexico, Iran, and Guatemala—all countries, it would appear, that are at the moment considered to be among our likely allies.

Oops again. Emphasis on at the moment.

[Many fears, mostly irrational] manifested themselves during the spring of 1947, when there was nothing radioactive anywhere on the [Brookhaven National Laboratory] site [said director Philip Morse]. Then he corrected himself. "I beg your pardon. In May, one of our physicists did send away to the Kix Cereal Company for an Atom Bomb Ring. They give it to children who save Kix box tops. It has just enough radioactivity in it to keep making little sparks. Rather cute."

Note that both the director and the author were concerned about the public's irrational fears of atomic research, not that an American cereal company was sending a radioactive product to children.

Like most men of research, Dr. Green was reluctant to discuss the possible applications of the White Sands data. Military uses, as I expected, were absolutely secret.... Dr. Green did, however, speculate on one general possibility from which a number of other possibilities could flow. This was the idea of an orbital satellite—a missile that would revolve indefinitely around the earth.... At the height of a hundred miles, the G.E. expert remarked, the satellite would circle the world in one hour and thirty-three minutes. He felt reasonably sure that such a satellite could become a reality in perhaps ten years if this country cared to spend the great sums necessary for its manufacture and maintenance. ... Equipped with the right instruments ... a satellite of this sort would undoubtedly improve weather forecasting. ... A satellite ... could serve as a repeater, or relay, station for transmitting programs or messages. ... Dr. Green abruptly ended his speculations. "Pretty soon I'll start talking about trips to the moon," he said, "and you won't believe anything I tell you."

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This time we tried a few new things, but made a point of revisiting some favorites.

Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2

FOURTH VISIT

Greenhouse Guru Mini San Marzano Tomatoes. Almost everything at the Festival is overpriced, but this is the only one I'd call an out-and-out ripoff. I was hoping for something fresh and tasty, you know, like a real tomato. This was a small bag of the kind of tomatoes I can get any day (for a much better price) at Publix. On top of that, they had been refrigerated.

Chocolate Studio Ghirardelli Chocolate Raspberry Torte. It was every bit as good as it sounds.

Canada "Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle-Butter SauceOne of my favoritesYou have to special order if you want it to be cooked rare, but it's worth itPLUS, I had gone ahead to grab a table, and when Porter found me he was bringing not only the filet but a small cup of hideously expensive but delicious apple ice wineHe was spoiling me....

France Boeuf Bourguignon: Cabernet Sauvignon-braised short Ribs with Mashed Potatoes, AND Soupe à l'oignon au Gruyère et CognacOld favorites that are too good not to indulge in both.

Belgium Belgian Waffle with Berry Compote and Whipped CreamAnother well-worthwhile repeat.

Craft Beers Piggy Wings: Fried Pork Wings with Korean BBQ Sauce and Sesame SeedsThis must be what you get when pigs flyThe pork was small, fatty, and bony (like a true wing), but the barbecue sauce was good.

China Sichuan Spicy Chicken. Everything at the Chinese kiosk sounded delicious, but I remembered how good the chicken was. If we return before the Festival is over, maybe we'll try something different.

We also visited the Ghirardelli booth twice this time. It's a little disappointing that the sample chocolate square is always milk chocolate caramel instead of a chance to taste more of their many, different, delicious varieties, but it's hard to complain about chocolate caramel.

For all the times we've visited EPCOT, we'd never done the Soarin' Around the World ride, so we remedied that deficiency. In contrast to most of the new rides at the theme parks around here—and despite the dire "lawyer warnings"—Soarin' does not bounce you around and slam you into the sides of the car. It only lifts you a bit into the air; the awesome effects are all from the movie that nearly surrounds you. Nor did it make us queasy at all, though it was nearly impossible to avoid flinching at some of the apparent close calls as we soared around the world, from the Matterhorn to Sydney Harbour to the mighty Iguazú Falls. You can see the ride, sans special effects (which included scents), here.

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be inside the EPCOT fireworks show?

Soarin' was the highlight of the non-food part of our visit. The other rides, Spaceship Earth (no longer sponsored by AT&T) and Journey into Imagination with Figment (no longer sponsored by Kodak), are but pale shadows of their former selves. I've included the YouTube videos for those of you who grew up with the better shows, so you can see what you're (not) missing.

Spaceship Earth is especially disappointing, as the poetry has completely gone out of it. The attraction opened two years before we came to Central Florida, and we've seen many revisions through the years.  Walter Cronkite knew how to tell a story; this is probably the version our kids remember best.

But my absolutely favorite was the one before Cronkite's. I can find no video online (this was in the early 80's, after all), but you can see some pictures and most of the text at Walt Dated World. I've extracted the text below so you can compare the language with the prosaic (boring) lecture-style of today.

Narrator: Where have we come from, where are we going?  The answers begin in our past. In the dust from which we were formed, answers recorded on the walls of time. So let us journey into that past, to seek those walls, to know ourselves and to probe the destiny of our Spaceship Earth.

Narrator:  Now, suns reverse, moons re-phase, let us return to ancient caves where first we learn to share our thoughts-and to survive.

Narrator:  Where are we now?  It is the waiting dawn where vast things stir and breathe. And with our first words and first steps, we draw together to conquer the mammoth beast. It is the dawn of a new beginning, the dawn of recorded time.

Narrator:  On cave walls we inscribe our greatest triumphs, a growing record of our deeds, to share with others so they too may greet tomorrow's sun.

Narrator:  Ages pass and more walls rise in the valley of the Nile. Man-made walls of hieroglyphics. Then with new symbols, we unlock our thoughts from chiseled walls and send them forth on papyrus scrolls.

Narrator:  On fine Phoenician ships, we take our scrolls to sea. Real scrolls simplified by an alphabet, eagerly shared at distant ports of call.

Narrator:  Deep in the shadows of Mount Olympus, our alphabet takes route, flowering with new expression. Hail the proud Greeks: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. The theater is born.

Narrator:  North, south, east, and west, all roads lead from Rome, a mighty network reaching across the land, welding far-flung garrisons into a growing empire.

Narrator:  Glorious Rome, until consumed by the flames of excess. Imperial Rome, lost in the ashes of darkness.

Narrator: Far from the dying embers, Islamic wise men preserve ancient wisdom and weave a rich network of new knowledge linking east and west.

Narrator:  In western abbeys, monks toil endlessly transcribing ancient wisdom into hand-penned books of revelation.

Narrator:  At last!  A new dawn emerges. The dawn of the Renaissance-and a wondrous machine performs as a thousand scribes. Now for all: the printed word.

Narrator:  Our books fuel the fires of the Renaissance. It is a time to discover anew the worlds of poetry and philosophy, science and music. As our minds soar, our hands find new expression in the flourishing world of art. Behold, the majesty of the Sistine ceiling.

Narrator:  The Renaissance: a beacon through the mists of time, guiding us to a new era. A time of invention and exploding communication.

Narrator:  With each day come more paths, more ideas, more dreams, and we build new machines: computer machines that think, that store, sift, sort, and count, that help us chart our course through an age of boundless information.

Narrator:  With these machines comes a wondrous new network of communications, a vibrant maze of billions of electronic pathways stretching to the very edge of space.

Narrator:  Poised on the threshold of infinity, we see our world as it truly is: small, silent, fragile, alive, a drifting island in the midnight sky. It is our spaceship. Our Spaceship Earth.

Narrator:  Now our Future World draws near -and we face the challenge of tomorrow. We must return and take command of our Spaceship Earth. To become captains of our own destiny. To reach out and fulfill our dreams.

Woman:  GPC report. Odyssey is complete with position home. 

Man:  Can you switch to manual payload?

Woman:  No problem. Manuel payload is activated. Signal from command execution. 

Man:  Roger. Are you getting video? 

Woman: Affirmative. Delta camera is on and tracking. 

Narrator:  Our journey has been long. From primal caves we have ventured forth traveling the endless corridors of time seeking answers to our tomorrow. With growing knowledge and growing communication, we have changed our lives, changed our world.

Narrator:  From the reaches of space to the depths of the sea, we have spun a vast electronic network linking ourselves as fellow passengers together, on Spaceship Earth.

(Ride vehicles pass by several TV screens.)

Narrator:  Today our search for understanding is unbounded by space and time. Vast stores of information, knowledge from everywhere, standing ready at our beck and call to reach us in an instant. With our great network, we harness our knowledge, give it shape and form to serve us, to help create and communicate a better awareness of ourselves, and our world.

Narrator:  Ours is the age of knowledge, the age of choice and opportunity.

Narrator:  Tomorrow's world approaches, so let us listen and learn, let us explore and question and understand. Let us go forth and discover the wisdom to guide great Spaceship Earth through the uncharted seas of the future. Let us dare to fulfill our destiny.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, October 31, 2016 at 9:31 pm | Edit
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One of the perks of having an annual Disney pass is the ability to make the spontaneously suggestion, "Do you want to go to EPCOT for lunch?"

Continuing from our list of food experiences

THIRD VISIT

New Zealand Steamed Green-Lipped Mussels with Garlic Butter and Toasted Breadcrumbs, and Seared Venison Loin with Wild Mushroom Marsala Sauce and Kumara Dumpling. I passed on the mussels, but Porter said they were delicious. The venison was as well, though he said it was not as good as the venison he had in New Zealand itself, being less flavorful. Most of the food at Disney is made more bland than it should be.

Australia Grilled Sweet and Spicy Bush Berry Shrimp with Pineapple, Pepper, Onion and Snap Peas. Good, with more spice than I've come to expect from Disney, probably too much for our friends who like their food mild.

China Sichuan Spicy Chicken. Delicious!  Definitely too spicy for our friends who prefer their food mild.

South Korea Korean-style BBQ Beef with Steamed Rice and Cucumber Kimchi. Good, but nothing special, and far too mild. I would have said the salad was cucumber slices with a dash of vinegar—hardly kimchi.

Japan The shaved ice is becoming a tradition. Because we've had the tangerine flavor twice, we tried cherry this time. Good, but tangerine is still the best. Of cousre we had the sweet milk sauce; I need to figure out how to make that at home.

Belgium Belgian Waffle with Berry Compote and Whipped Cream. Delicious!  Surprisingly, the concoction was not too sweet, which made it delightful.

Morocco Kefta Pocket: Seasoned Ground Beef in a Pita Pocket. Very good.

France Boeuf Bourguignon: Cabernet Sauvignon-braised short Ribs with Mashed Potatoes. Porter voted this even better than Canada's Filet Mignon (see previous post). Good as it was, I disagreed, and had planned to reassure myself on that point, but...

Canada Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup served with a Pretzel Roll. By the time we had eaten our way to Canada, I was too full to appreciate the filet, so we chose the bacon-y cheddar soup instead. It was very good, but next time I'm saving room for the beef.

As we made our way to the park's exit, we stopped by the Festival Center's Ghirardelli booth to top off our meal with some complimentary chocolate.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, October 13, 2016 at 5:09 pm | Edit
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We're not finished, I hope, with our visits to EPCOT's Food and Wine Festival, but someone asked which were our favorites, so I'll make my answer into a review, albeit one that will need updating.

This annual event at EPCOT is not for the epicure who can find cheaper and more authentic ethnic food nearby. This is Disney, after all, and thus the food is more Americanized that we would like. But for us—living here and having annual passes—it's a delightful way to enjoy many little tastes of different foods. Not having to pay for admission and parking makes us feel more free to spend what amounts to a lot of money for the quantity of food consumed.

Our procedure for getting the most out of our tasting experience is to order one item at a time from each kiosk, and share it. The portions are very small, so we can eat from many countries before running out of appetite. At those prices ($4-$8 per taste) there's no temptation to eat when we can't truly appreciate the food.

So far there has been nothing we didn't like, though some dishes were more impressive than others. In the list below, assume we liked it unless I note otherwise. If it was really special, I'll note that, too.

FIRST VISIT

Ireland Irish Cheese Selection Plate: Irish Cheddar, Dubliner, and Irish Porter.

Belgium Beer-braised Beef served with Smoked Gouda Mashed Potatoes.

Japan Tangerine shaved ice with sweet milk topping. It's basically a glorified snow cone, but delicious and just right for a hot day. The "sweet milk" topping costs an extra dollar, but is the reason we bought this in the first place, having fallen in love with sweet milk ice cream on our visit to the real Japan.

SECOND VISIT

Hawai'i Spicy Tuna Poke with Seaweed Salad and Nori Rice. It left me craving one of those big chunks of raw tuna they celebrate with in Japan.

Canada "Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle-Butter Sauce. The beef was delicious and tender, though hardly the "rare" we were told it would be. The wild mushrooms and the truffle butter were fantastic.

France Soupe à l'oignon au Gruyère et Cognac. Awesome. We're coming back for this a second time, though all of the offerings at France look delicious and will need to be sampled.

Brazil Pão de Queijo (Brazilian Cheese Bread). Okay, but not worth buying again. The bread was good, but the cheese bland.

Belgium Belgian Waffle with Berry Compote and Whipped Cream. Delicious!  Surprisingly, the concoction was not too sweet, which made it delightful.

Morocco Spicy Hummus Fries with Cucumber, Tomato, Onions, and Tzatziki Sauce. It seems disingenuous to call these "fries."  "Fried hummus" would have been more accurate. But they were good.  Morocco is always one of our favorite places to eat at EPCOT.

Japan Reprise of the tangerine shaved ice with sweet milk sauce. The days are still hot in Florida. There are other flavors, but the tangerine is so good....

We travelled counterclockwise around World Showcase, but stopped eating mid-way around. We'll have to go the other way next time, and catch the many countries we had to walk reluctantly past.

We did, however, stop at the Festival Center on our way out of the park, for the free samples of Ghirardelli chocolate.

Now I'm hungry just writing about it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 5, 2016 at 8:21 am | Edit
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altEmber FallsThe Green Ember, Book II by S. D. Smith (Story Warren Books, 2016)

It was with a heroic effort I refrained from reading Ember Falls until this week. I'd received an advance copy because of supporting its publication on Kickstarter, and when it arrived I nearly drooled on it, but I had decided to wait until I finished some other books—not more important, but important in a different way—and also so that I could reread the other two books in the series: The Green Ember, and its prequel, The Black Star of Kingston. It had been almost exactly a year since I'd read them, and I figured I'd enjoy Ember Falls more with a little refresher.

But finally the day came, and Ember Falls was mine to devour. It didn't take long, even though I refused to let myself stay up all night to finish it. I'm not that crazy. And in any case the story didn't end: I'm already panting for Book III.

Not that the ending of Ember Falls is unsatisfactory, but it isn't an ending.

Pretty much everything I had to say in my review of the previous books applies here, so I'm going to quote a big chunk of it. At the end I'll add some Ember Falls-specific comments.

The Green Ember is just a story. It's not a lesson, it's not a sneaky vehicle to teach you something. It's just a story. But I believe in the power of stories. — S. D. Smith

I also believe in the power of stories, whether from a book, a movie, a video game, or any other medium. Even at my age I must be careful what stories I let myself experience, because I'm so vulnerable to their effects. By now most of you know what's coming, my definition of a good book, slightly paraphrased: A good story inspires me to be a better person. These are good stories, not at all in a syrupy way, but shot through with reality, life, action, and beauty.

It was a little jarring at first to wrap my head around the idea that the rabbits have both human and rabbit physical characteristics. That is, they are fully capable of using their front paws as hands (e.g. wielding swords, making stained glass windows, knitting), while their hind legs are rabbit-style powerful weapons. But it didn't take me long to get over it.

Let's see, what do I like about this book, other than its positive impact and the fact that I was immediately entranced and didn't want to put it down?

  • The primary protagonist is a strong female character. I've mentioned before how I grew up with books that made me embarrassed to be a girl, and nearly always identified with the male characters instead. Here's a female character who can think, fight, nurture, worry, and push herself beyond her limits. 
  • This rabbit heroine is named Heather!
  • The secondary protagonist, Pickett, is highly intelligent and mathematically talented, and his gifts don't make him a freak, but rather a valuable asset in the community.
  • Due to his young age and the trauma in his life, Pickett has some dangerous emotional issues. The wisest rabbits in the community don't seek to make him "normal," but instead help him find healing through becoming more, not less, himself.
  • This is very much a medieval rabbit world. They fight with swords and arrows—and feet and just a little bit of gunpowder. They make clothing by hand. Skills are learned through apprenticeship. Somehow chivalry and honor and high callings fit better in a medieval-themed world, as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis amply demonstrated. Even George Lucas filled his high-tech future with swords and knights.
  • The rabbit community values, supports, and praises excellence in every good endeavor, from cooking to fighting to building to storytelling. The end of the rabbits' world seems imminent, yet they emphasize the importance of the arts, and value doing the work of ordinary life extraordinarily well.

Ember Falls did not disappoint. I'll admit that of the three books thus far, it's not my favorite.  That would be The Green Ember, because it shows more of the beauty of ordinary life done well. Ember Falls is clearly a middle book, necessarily darker and more filled with battles. (You all know how much I dislike battle scenes.)  There are wonderful moments, definitely: goodness, truth, and beauty still pierce the darkness. But sometimes life is hard, calling for courage, loyalty, sacrifice, wisdom and forgiveness to shine more brightly than in happier times.  At this Ember Falls succeeds abundantly.

I'm still very pleased with the way Smith handles his female characters. They are determined, and strong as steel, yet gentle and nurturing. If I have one complaint it is that Pickett, the young genius, hasn't yet been allowed to use his mathematical abilities for anything more than an extraordinarily good sense of spatial relations. But maybe that's necessary in war—and I am glad that Smith breaks the stereotype that associates mental gifts with clumsiness and lack of common sense.

Bring on the next book!  Bring on the next Kickstarter appeal. I'll be there.  #RabbitsWithSwords


This is my 100th post for the year. Apparently I'm pretty consistent. Last year I wrote my 100th post on September 21.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Edit
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Saturday is baking day, and I was just taking the first sheet of chewy M&M cookies out of the oven when Porter came into the kitchen and announced, "If we can get there in 40 minutes, we can catch the $6 showing of Sully."

I judged I could get the second sheet baked while cleaning up the kitchen and getting myself ready to go, so I thrust it in the oven and got to work, putting the remainder of the dough in the refrigerator to be baked later. (I had originally written simply, "for later," but there are those among my readers who would suspect me of setting aside the dough to be eaten raw. That has been known to happen.)

We arrived at the theater in time to sit through 20 minutes' worth of ads and previews that convinced me there was nothing I wanted to buy and no more movies I wanted to watch.

But I certainly am glad I watched Sully.

There's a wee bit of bad language, but nonetheless I highly recommend the film for our older grandchildren. The true story of the 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" is awe-inspiring, and very well crafted. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time despite already knowing the outcome. I understand the filmmakers were a little hard on the National Transportation Safety Board for dramatic purposes, but otherwise I believe the movie is true to the facts.

I walked out of the theater with renewed appreciation for the value of experience, practice, and preparedness. For what it takes to be an asset rather than a liability in an emergency situation. And for always knowing the nearest exit and where to find your life vest, even if you've heard the spiel a thousand times.

As others warned us, don't leave without watching the credits.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, September 24, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Edit
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altHiroshima: The Unforgettable Account of the Event that Opened the Atomic Age by John Hersey (Bantam Books, 1946)

The paperback copy I read shows an original price of twenty-five cents; the pages are darkened and some are coming unbound. Hersey was the Pulitzer prize-winning author of A Bell for Adano. Hiroshima was his next book, arising from his experiences in Japan. (Our bookshelves also hold another of Hersey's many books, written forty years later: Blues. Based on Hiroshima, I've moved Blues higher up on my reading list.)

The story—actually, a compilation of stories from several survivors of the bombing—is not surprisingly very similar to the events in Hiroshima Diary, but from other perspectives and enough difference to make it worth reading both.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, September 2, 2016 at 9:00 am | Edit
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altHiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6 - September 30, 1945 by Michihiko Hachiya, M.D., translated and edited by Warner Wells, M.D. (University of North Carolina Press, 1955)

Dr. Hachiya was at his home in Hiroshima when the Enola Gay flew over. Critically injured, he somehow made his way to his hospital, which was only a few hundred meters away. The diary chronicles his experiences as observer and victim, patient and doctor, human being and Japanese citizen. I recommend this book highly. Even though my copy is from 1955, Hiroshima Diary is not hard to find, even in Kindle form—though the Kindle version is surprisingly pricy for an old book.

Nobody said it better than William Tecumseh Sherman: War is hell. Even when it's necessary, even when it's the most merciful option, there's no getting around that point. And even if we believe that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to less suffering than a protracted war would have, it's good to take an up-close-and-personal look at the collateral damage.

Hachiya's description of the wounds, the burns, the heat, the lack of essential supplies, the incessant rain, the filth, the flies, the fear, and the grief-stricken cries could be from almost any war or natural disaster. Unique to Hiroshima, however, was the great unknown. The horror of a city suddenly gone. Except for a very few hulks that had been well-constructed buildings, Hiroshima was just gone. Even to a people accustomed to bombs and destruction, there was nothing like this. Doctors stitched up wounds and treated burns, but what was it that caused the skin to blotch and the hair to fall out?  Why did people without a burn or a wound suddenly sicken and die?  I was reminded of the years of the Black Death, when large numbers were dying a horrible death, no one knew how to treat or prevent it, and anyone who stayed or came to help feared he was signing his own death sentence.

Reading Hiroshima Diary is a good exercise in seeing "the enemy" as human beings with the same loves, joys, concerns, fears, and hopes that we have. The same virtues of self-sacrifice, kindness, concern for others, generosity, and patient suffering.

And, lest we make the opposite mistake of idealizing the victims, they have the same vices, too.

Following the news that Nagasaki had been bombed, a man came in ... with the incredible story that Japan had the same mysterious weapon, but until now, had kept it a strict secret and had not used it because it was judged too horrible even to mention. This man went on to say that a special attack squad from the navy had now used the bomb on the mainland of America.... If San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles had been hit like Hiroshima, what chaos there must be in those cities! At last Japan was retaliating! The whole atmosphere in the ward changed, and for the first time since Hiroshima was bombed, everyone became cheerful and bright.

Crime, too, became a problem: from Jean Valjan-style stealing to keep a loved one from dying, to "mere" selfishness, to unspeakable abuse of power.

What a sorry spectacle, I thought, to have such ugly behavior added to the burden of people already crushed by defeat. The ruthless and greedy were ruling the city whereas never before had there been such need for unselfishness and good breeding.

The old proverbs: "Justice is strength" and "Better is character than birth" were no longer applicable. At least they were not adhered to. It seemed to me that the discipline of education was effective only during peace time when there was law and order. Character cannot be improved by education. It reveals itself when there are no police to maintain order. Education is a veneer, a plating. Educated or not a man exposes his true character in times of stress, and the strong win. The proverbs invert and strength becomes justice, and birth more important than character. Force then rules the country.

We are the same in virtue and in vice—and yet different, too. I understand Hachiya's anger and frustration with the Japanese army, which he (and apparently many others) faulted for driving the Emperor into war, as well as for general abuse of the public. What I, as an American, don't get is their absolute adoration of the Emperor. And not him only, but even his picture.

A visitor interrupted my meditation. He was an employee in the General Affairs section of the Bureau who had had the grave responsibility of protecting the Emperor's picture in case of emergency. He was on a streetcar which had just reached Hakushima when the bomb exploded. Making his way through the darkened streets and around fallen houses, he managed to reach the Bureau ahead of the fires. His first act on arriving was to run to the fourth floor where the Emperor's picture hung and pry open an iron door behind which it was kept. With the assistance of Messrs. Awaya, Oishi, and Kagehira, he carried it to the chief's office and discussed with Mr. Ushio what should be done with it. After much discussion it was decided the safest place would be the Hiroshima Castle, where less smoke appeared to be rising than elsewhere. Thereupon, the picture was placed on Mr. Yasuda's back and with Mr. Kagehira in the lead, Mr. Ushio guarding the rear, and Mr. Awaya and Mr. Oishi covering the flanks, they made their way to the inner garden of the Bureau and announced they were going to take the Emperor's picture to a safer place. Two or three times they repeated:  "The Emperor's picture will be transferred to the West Drill Field by the Chief of General Affairs!" Those among staff and patients who heard this announcement bowed low and the procession went out through the back gate. Suddenly, it was realized they had forgotten the Communications Bureau flag, a part of the ritual necessary when the Emperor's picture was moved from one place to another, so Mr. Awaya was chosen to go back for it. Before he could return with the flag the party was threatened by fire and went on without him. At the castle entrance they explained to a soldier the purpose of their mission and asked the nearest way to the drillfield. The soldier told them the field was threatened by fire, so they changed course and went in the direction of the Asano Sentei Park. Reaching the dikes of the Ota River skirting the part Chief Ushio got the picture across to a safer place.

During its flight, the party encounered many dead and wounded, as well as soldiers near the barracks, the number increasing as they neared the dikes. Along the streetcar line circling the western border of the park they found so many dead and wounded they could hardly walk. At one point it became impossible, so great were the masses of people around them. The party shouted, "The Emperor's picture! The Emperor's picture!" Those who could, soldiers and citizens, stood and saluted or bowed. Those who could not stand offered a prayer with hands clasped. Miraculously, the crowd opened and the picture was borne triumphantly to the river's edge!

"Oh, it was magnificent!" Mr. Yasuda exclaimed. "When I gave the Emperor's picture to Chief Ushio and when the chief got in a boat someone unaccountably provided, I was desolate. An officer drew his sword and gave orders in a loud voice for the crossing and in response all the officers and soldiers lining the river bank stood at attention and saluted. Civilians stood in line and bowed."

One more thing, for those of you who have or have considered stockpiling supplies, from food and water to weapons and ammunition, in case of dire emergency:  have you considered cigarettes? Farthest thing from my mind. But nothing has convinced me more of the addictive properties of nicotine than this, written just 17 days after the bomb fell.

Mr. Shiota was our manager and for several days had been back at his post. When he was able to walk, one of the first things he did was to show up with two bags, each of which contained fifty packages of cigarettes. Where and how he got them I will never know, but you can imagine our surprise and delight. ... For a while, we kept the packages on display the better to enjoy this unexpected bounty. Throughout the hospital habitual smokers drew a breath of relief. Why, a good, strong, working man could do more work with a pack of cigarettes. By the same token, the efficiency of our student helpers could be measurably increased. We could do anything as long as we had an abundant supply of cigarettes. This luxury had become exceedingly scarce in Hiroshima because of its value in barter.

In the ruins of Hiroshima money was valueless and cigarettes took over as a medium of exchange.

Perhaps nicotine addiction is not so widespread at this time, but is there something else—small, easily transported, and not prone to spoilage—that might be a useful form of currency in a situation where money has lost its value?  It's worth thinking about.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 24, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Edit
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altMark and Livy:  The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him by Resa Willis (Atheneum, 1992)

Mark and Livy was a gift from a friend, who thought I might be interested because Samuel Clemens' wife was a Langdon. As it turns out, we are not related through the Langdon line—unless our common ancestor was back in England and in the 17th century or earlier. The book sat on my shelves until my 95 by 65 project (goal #63) encouraged me to pick it up.

I was going to say that Mark and Livy does not meet my primary criterion for being a "good book":  that it inspire me in some way to become a better person. On reflection, however, I realized it has left me with a determination (which needs to be won repeatedly) to be less judgemental of others, especially those of other times and cultures. There are so many advantages we take for granted here and now—and how easy it is to believe that our good characteristics are the outflow of our good character, and not simply because we are not in pain!

Samuel and Olivia Clemens lived in the latter half of the 19th century. They died years before antibiotics were available. They didn't even have aspirin. Common vaccines had yet to be developed. Diphtheria took the life of the Clemenses' firstborn when he was not yet two—as it did so many children of the time. Headaches could last for weeks, and infections linger for months. In an age of great medical ignorance, treatments were often worse than the diseases. It is now known that even three weeks of remaining in bed does terrible damage even to healthy bodies, but at that time bed rest was the go-to cure for everything. As a teenager, Olivia was kept in bed for two years. Even mental exertion was considered harmful and to be avoided as much as possible.

No wonder so many middle- and upper-class women of that time suffered from a malaise sometimes called nervous prostration. With careers and mental stimulation mostly closed to them; with cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, wet nurses, nannies, and tutors doing all the meaningful work around the house; and with every illness sending them into darkened bedrooms, deprived of most human contact (visitors, even beloved husbands, put too much strain on the system)—they were bored out of their minds. And out of their health much of the time as well.

Some things never change: Doctors blamed the problem on the demands of modern life:  "...the fast ways of the American people, with their hurried lives, late hours, and varied excesses, wear upon the nervous system of all, especially that of sensitive, impressible women."

Should I be condescending over Mark and Livy's susceptibility to every quack and crackpot philosophy that came down the pike?  Needs must when the devil drives.

For more about health and medical care in the 19th century, don't miss The Luxury of Feeling Good from The Occasional CEO, coincidentally published this morning.

Langdon Clemens, the couple's firstborn son who died young, was considered sickly all his life. He was born a month premature and never seemed to be healthy. It was diphtheria that killed him in the end—it killed many who were otherwise healthy—but the book gives no clue as to what caused him to be "sickly."  What struck me, however, was that he was considered "slow" in his development. Perhaps he was, but I'm not convinced by the concerns that he wasn't walking by nine months, nor talking when he was "almost a year old"!  What did they expect in those days?  And of a preemie who started life a month behind?

Here's a fun fact:

Livy and Clemens felt the need to get away [from Hartford's summer heat]. In July they left for New Saybrook, Connecticut ... where all could enjoy the cool winds off Long Island Sound.

New Saybrook?  Old Saybrook I know well enough!  But New Saybrook?  Where on earth is that?  Here's a hint:

...they lodged at a hotel called Fenwick Hall....

New Saybrook, it turns out, is an old name for Fenwick!  Here's a bit of its history in a New York Times article from 1995, though it doesn't mention a thing about the best-of-all-Fenwick-houses. Still, it's rather amazing to think that Mark Twain could have walked past where the Maggie P. now stands.

Despite being wealthy enough to vacation at Fenwick, the Clemenses had endless money problems and often lived in Europe because that was less expensive for them. That tells less about Europe than about the difficulties of living up to the expectations of their Hartford social set, I'm afraid. Still, it was fun to read:

Clemens ... walked to the top of the Rigi in the Alps.

We've been there!  We did not walk, however. I wonder from which point he started his hike?

Despite the strictures of the day and her onerous social obligations, Livy found some outlet for her considerable intelligence. The best part of her day was when she felt free to teach their children:

After breakfast and after she had given the servants their orders for the day, Livy and her daughters worked diligently in their schoolroom on the second floor. Their studies included German, geography, American history, arithmetic, penmanship, and English, with some extra diversions of tossing beanbags, gymnastics, and sewing. [The girls were five and seven at the time.] If they finished their lessons before twelve-thirty, Livy read to them. [Clara] at five and eager to please, knew all the answers but often got her questions confused. When her mother asked, "What is geography?" she replied, "A round ball." When asked what was the shape of the earth, she replied, "Green."  

Moreover, Livy was Mark Twain's most important editor, smoothing off the rough edges of the wild writer from the West and making his books acceptable and marketable.

This she far preferred to her social responsibilities as the wife of a famous author and the scion of a wealthy family. (Yes, the Langdons were wealthy—further proof that we're not closely related.)

She increasingly questioned her role as hostess and felt bad because she did.

This is my work, and I know that I do very wrong when I feel chafed by it, but how can I be right about it? Sometimes it seems as if the simple sight of people would drive me mad. I am all wrong; if I would simply accept the fact that this is my work and let other things go, I know I should not be so fretted; but I want so much to do other things to study and do things with the children and I cannot.

In the plus ça change department, do you think we suffer from helicopter parenting today?  The Clemenses kept their daughters close in what today would probably be considered an unhealthy relationship of mutual dependence. Further,

[Clemens] insisted his daughters be chaperoned everywhere they went, and Clara was until she married at the age of thirty-five [emphasis mine].

That makes being on your parents' health insurance until 26 seem almost reasonable.

And still more:  I'll admit I'm weak in history. I knew about the Great Depression, but if I thought of it at all, saw it as an anomaly, a one-time, terrible event. Thus the economic problems we have been having lately have been particularly concerning. I had no idea, until reading Mark and Livy, how common market crashes, panics, and recessions have been throughout history.

Just as John Marshall Clemens never recovered from the Panic of 1837, this panic [of 1893] nearly destroyed his son. It began who knows where but was aided by a drain on the gold reserve by foreign investors who sold their securities and withdrew them in gold from the U.S. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act, allowing gold to be used to purchase silver, further depleted the federal gold reserve by nearly one hundred million. Gold meant confidence. Without either, the dominoes began to fall. The stock market crash eventually took with it 160 railroads, five hundred banks and sixteen thousand businesses. It was estimated by 1894 that 20 to 25 percent of the work force was unemployed. Those with jobs went on strike to get decent wages as there seemed to be no money anywhere. Miners across the nation refused to work. Eventually the Langdon coal mines and Livy's income shut down.

Rich or poor, black or white, first- or third-world, centuries ago or yesterday morning:  our tragedies and our trials, our worries, our hopes, and our joys are more universal than not.

We are humanity.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 15, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Edit
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altOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by H. T. Willetts (Noonday Press, 1991; original published 1962)

This is must reading for the generation that never knew the Cold War.  It's short and quick reading, 182 pages of fairly large print.  Not easy reading, because of the subject (Soviet prison camp life), but although it's a little coarse in places, I'd still highly recommend it for our not-quite-13 grandchild.  Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel prize winner with good reason, though America liked him a lot better when he was criticizing the Soviet Union than when he subsequently criticized the United States.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 12, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Edit
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I started playing with Duolingo back when it was in private beta, though I didn't make it a regular habit for another year or so. I've been pretty regular since early 2014, however, and I think it's great. I've been doing French and German the longest. I'm at Level 24 in each of them, and have finished all the lessons available in French. I had been on track to finish German not much later, but suddenly the German lessons were revised to add a whole lot more material. I'm not complaining, and hope they will do so for the French at some point. For now, I'm still making my way through new German lessons while constantly reviewing the French. I chose French because that's the language I spent 3.5 years learning in school, and German because of our Swiss family. Sadly, Duolingo has no Swiss German lessons, so High German will have to do. High German is more generally useful, anyway, but I do find myself resenting having to type the eszett, which isn't used in the Swiss version of High German but is required by Duolingo.

At some point in 2015 I added Spanish (now Level 13), out of a feeling of obligation. I live in Florida, and that makes Spanish the most practical foreign language to learn. No doubt because I am learning it for duty rather than love, it is my least favorite of the languages. I'm hoping I'll like it more as I get better at it. It took me quite a while to start liking German....

This spring, when we travelled to Venice, I added Italian (now Level 9), just for fun. I'm enjoying it, especially when I note the similarities and differences with Spanish and French. I'm hoping we'll eventually manage a trip with friends to Cortona, where it will be polite to have at least a little Italian.

Am I learning anything? I'm certainly not becoming fluent. (I have yet to figure out how Duolingo does its calculations. It claims I'm 49% fluent in Spanish, a bald-faced lie if there ever was one.)  And even though I practice speaking along with reading and writing, I know I couldn't carry out a decent conversation in any of the languages. Or even a halting, broken conversation.

However, that does not trouble me. What I am doing is increasing my familiarity with the languages, educating my ear and my speech, picking up some grammar and vocabulary, and preparing pathways in my brain for a time when I might have the opportunity to learn in a more interactive situation. I hope that by laying a foundation now, I will make faster progress at that hypothetical time. In any case, it's fun to understand a few things I did not before: When I saw a restaurant named Cena, I recognized the Italian word for "dinner."

It has also been interesting to note changes in my learning as I progress. At the beginning, I made sure to separate my language learning sessions. If I studied French in the morning, I'd tackle German in the evening. Otherwise, I'd get confused. Then suddenly, I didn't. And I really mean suddenly. All at once I could switch between languages with no interval in between. I don't mean that the German word won't sometimes come to me first when I'm working in French, or vice versa, but it doesn't happen often, and it no longer bothers me. The hardest, now, is between Italian and Spanish, because both are new to me and so many words are very similar but not identical.

I do Duolingo both on my laptop and using the app on my phone. The interfaces are different, and each is valuable in its own way. Right now I'm in a routine of using the phone most of the time, because I do my Duolingo lessons as part of my daily exercise (more on that later). For each language I generally do the suggested review ("strengthen") and then one additional lesson (except in French, where I've reached the end). The process is slower on the phone, but since I'm exercising at the same time, that's not a problem. Obviously I can't keep the same learning schedule when we're travelling, but as long as there's an Internet connection available, I can do enough that catching up is not difficult.

It's even more fun to share Duolingo with family members and friends!

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 7:50 am | Edit
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