Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review: The Hours Before Dawn

The Hours Before DawnCelia Fremlin
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ –

This was an unexpectedly enjoyable and well-crafted book. It was scary and suspenseful but also funny. And it did not disappoint at the end. Many of the award winners I have read recently start out strong, with a great and original idea, but then falter. This one does not have a super-original plot, but it was engrossing and satisfying right up to the very last sentence.

The book takes place in 1950s London. The main character is Louise, a harried housewife and mother with a new baby who can never get enough sleep so she is constantly tired and making mistakes and losing things (including her baby). To earn some extra money, she and her husband take in a boarder who appears to be a mild-mannered schoolmistress but who becomes more and more sinister throughout the story.

I love the way Fremlin writes, very matter-of-fact-ly; she is sympathetic to Louise and her family but also shows their faults. She has surrounded Louise with neighbors and "friends" who constantly gossip and criticize and offer advice, but who never are actually any help. Among the "friends" are some "progressive" mothers who advocate the latest in child care, which in the '50s apparently means being as uninvolved as possible and leaving it up to your neighbors to feed and entertain your children.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cars of the 1970s: 1972 Ford Pinto

My parents bought this car new in 1972, I think.  Three-door hatchback, yellow, with a black interior, just like the one in the photo. List price $2,303.

This was my mom's car for getting around town. I remember noticing as a kid that the automatic transmission gear selector was on the "floor" (actually it was on the transmission hump) instead of on the steering column. Same with the parking brake, a hand-operated lever between the two front seats instead of a foot pedal.

According to How Stuff Works, our 1972 Pinto would have come with a 2.0-liter single-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine and a three-speed Cruise-o-Matic transmission.

The alternator failed once, just after we had left town on the way to Grandma's house. Other than that I think my parents were pretty happy with this car.

Fortunately, we never got rear-ended.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States)James M. McPherson
Awards: Pulitzer Prize
Rating: ☆☆☆☆ –

I first heard about this single-volume history of the Civil War, part of the Oxford History of the United States series, from Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog. I was primed to plunge in because I had just finished Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic, which was given to me years ago by loyal commenter Alex and which I only recently got around to reading.

Some things I learned from Battle Cry of Freedom:
  • The idea that some high-minded defense of "States' Rights" was the cause of the Civil War is laughable. The issue was slavery: the right to expand slavery to the territories so as to preserve the power of slave states in the Congress and Electoral College. For instance, in the case of the Fugitive Slave Law, the South all of a sudden didn't care so much about states' rights: it wanted the federal government to overrule state laws and enforce property rights on slaves who had made it to the North.
  • Prior to the Civil War, women were not seen as fit to serve as battlefield nurses. Clara Barton and others made believers out of the generals.
  • There were several abortive efforts by southerners to invade Mexico,  Central America, and Cuba in order to add more Slave States to the union.
  • Diplomacy. Lincoln absolutely had to keep Britain and France out of the war. His Secretary of State, Charles Francis Adams, played a key role here, along with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union victory at Antietam.
The best part of the book is the first 300 pages, which feature an extensive discussion of the domestic politics of the 1850s, and the role of westward expansion in fueling the sectional conflict. Once the war started, I found the discussion of military tactics deadly boring. I understand that this is a moral failing on my part.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book Review: Red Mars

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy)Kim Stanley Robinson
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Red Mars is super-great, hardest-of-the-hard science fiction. It is the first book in Robinson’s Mars trilogy and it follows the experiences of the first hundred colonists on Mars through their first few decades of settlement.

The “First Hundred” settlers were all carefully selected for their technical expertise, diversity of skills, and psychological profiles. They trained together for years in Antarctica in preparation for setting up the first permanent Martian colony. After landing on Mars, they begin setting up living quarters, transportation systems, greenhouses, and power plants.

Every detail is totally realistic – the heated pressure suits they have to wear on the surface; the different types of structures they build as homes; the machines that extract ores and elements from the air and rock; the lichens that some of them develop to start oxygenating the atmosphere.

The colonists’ inevitable arguments and power struggles are equally believable. The longer the First Hundred stay on Mars, the more they separate into the “greens” who want to terraform Mars to make it livable for humans, and the “reds” who want to keep Mars as it is.

Meanwhile, as each colonist is trying to create their own version of utopia on Mars, Earth is dangerously overpopulated and in serious economic trouble. The multinational corporations on Earth who funded the original colonization effort now naturally want to exploit Mars’s resources for Earth’s benefit and start sending up more people to do so. Many of the residents of Mars need the corporations’ support to do their work but even many of the more Earth-friendly are resistant to this complete exploitation.

Corporate representatives eventually build a space elevator to make it easier on ships making the trip between Earth and Mars. The elevator consists of a giant cable stretching from Mars’ equator to the hollowed-out shell of an asteroid which has been captured and moved into geosynchronous orbit above the surface station. Passengers and cargo use elevator cars to go up and down the cable between the moon and the surface; ships only have to dock at the moon and don’t have to burn fuel to get in and out of the atmosphere.

The elevator is great for commerce and immigration. But to many of the Martians, it symbolizes all that is bad about the direction Mars is going. Eventually, the anti-corporate resistance organizes a revolution, which is unsuccessful and leads to the corporations taking over Mars, but during which they are able to bring down the space elevator. The collapse of the elevator is beautiful – tremendous slow-motion destruction on a gigantic scale.

To complicate the Earth-Mars conflict, a group of doctors on Mars develops treatments which can prolong life by hundreds of years and they start giving the treatments to their fellow colonists. They keep this secret as long as they can, but eventually Earth finds out. This causes chaos on Earth; some want to keep the treatments exclusive, knowing that giving them to everyone would only worsen the population problems, while others say that the treatments are a human right and should be available to everyone, paid for by their governments.

Regardless of what happens to the Earthlings, the age treatments were great for me, because they mean that some of the original First Hundred colonists can live long enough to see the fruits of their labors in Robinson’s fantastic later books, Green Mars and Blue Mars.

UPDATE 2/13/10: Added paragraphs about the tension between Earth and Mars, the space elevator, and the age treatments.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where Would a Do-Gooder Do the Most Good if a Do-Gooder Could Do Good?

This is a question that I have been asking myself on and off for my entire adult life. Alex Tabarrok asks the question (originally posed by one of his readers) on his blog. The answers from the various commenters are interesting and for the most part refreshingly free of cant.

This strikes me as the right kind of question do-gooders and would-be do-gooders should be asking themselves, even if it is impossible to come up with the correct answer in a reasonable amount of time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mitigating the Tragedy of the Commons

Vernon Smith explains on Forbes.com how Elinor Ostrom, one of the two Nobel Economics Prize winners, focuses on the surprising success that various groups of people over the years have had in avoiding the "tragedy of the commons." She indicates there may be a way around this age-old resource management problem which involves neither pure privatization nor pure socialization.

Missing Manny

It's pretty clear to me that the departure of Manny Ramirez in July of 2008 is the one change that, more than any other, turned the Red Sox from a World Series champion into an also-ran.

In addition to his ungodly hitting ability, Manny provided a type of playful attitude that I think is sorely missing from the current squad. I do love the intense players, like Pedroia, Youkilis, and Beckett; and the quiet players, like Lowell. I am less enamored of the automatons like Bay and Drew. Papelbon does have his cut-up moments, but they tend toward the the out-of-control frat guy mode, which gets old quickly.

I maintain that 2004 doesn't happen without the inanity of former St. Paul Saint Kevin Millar. And Manny's "whatever" attitude after the Sox were down to Cleveland three games to one in 2007 was also a welcome relief from the gray-sky New England scowl that was on everybody else's face around here.

I do understand that Manny's off-field behavior was getting to be intolerable, and that it was beginning to ooze onto the field (refusing to play, claiming injury), and that he didn't really want to be here. I guess we have to assume that Terry Francona and Theo Epstein did everything humanly possible to get him to shape up. But I have to say that I miss the guy. I will be rooting for him to get a chance to beat the Yankees in the World Series.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Cool New Travel/History Blog

Here Is Where: The little-known places where different historical things really happened.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Toys of the 1970s: Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle

Received this for Christmas, 1974 or 1975. Place Evel on the cycle, and the cycle in the red launching apparatus. Turn a crank (hidden from view in this picture) to get the rear wheel on the cycle spinning, then release the bike, which zooms across the floor. Note that Evel comes complete with his regal cane.

Some Super-8 footage of the toy in action, shot by the Vasquez family:

This toy, in mint condition, now sells for $350.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Book Review: The Quantum Rose

The Quantum Rose (The Saga of the Skolian Empire)
Catherine Asaro
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ☆ – – – –

The initial idea and most of the first half of this book were pretty good. The book was billed as "romantic fantasy" which made me skeptical from the start but it won a Nebula so I was willing to try it. The first half takes place on this rural, backwards planet but you eventually learn that the planet was seeded by a highly technological empire that is monitoring and interfering from afar. Which was all cool. But halfway through the book the main character gets taken off her rural homeworld and it turns into a space story and a mass-uprising adventure a la Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. It's like the author is trying to combine Asimov and Clarke and Stephenson and doesn't do any of them very well.

Also the main character is the classic madonna/whore, impossibly perfect, unbelievably beautiful and kind and generous woman who can't make up her mind about anything and yet everyone still loves her. By the fifth or sixth time that some woman was described as having hair in curls that tumbled to her waist I wanted to slap the author.
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