Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Roslindale, Massachusetts

Business Idea

The Immaculate Concepcións: Cleaning service in which all the housekeepers are named Concepción.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Book Review: Doomsday Book

Doomsday BookConnie Willis
Awards: Nebula & Hugo
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


There are many books I have enjoyed a lot. There are a few books that rise into a special category where I am completely sucked into the world of the book; where while I’m taking a break from reading it, at work or whatever, I’m still thinking about the characters and what just happened and what will happen next; and where I read more and more slowly because I don’t want it to end. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was like that for me, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Doomsday Book was one of these too. I just loved this book.

This book has some of the same characters as Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog. It is also a time-travel story set in England and involves some of the same Oxford historians, but takes place several years later.

Kivrin, a graduate student of medieval history at Oxford, goes back in time to the 14th century to do research. Unfortunately, as part of her preparation for the trip, Kivrin helped out an archaeologist digging up one of the medieval tombs near Oxford and caught a 14th-century flu from the buried remains. By the time she arrives in the 14th century, she is delirious with fever. She is taken in by the family of the local lord and they nurse her back to health; she grows attached to them and becomes a governess to their two children.

Kivrin was supposed to be sent back to the 1320s, before the bubonic plague got to England. But there was an unusually large amount of time slippage on the drop and she ended up arriving the year the plague arrived. At first everything goes okay but then, after the appearance of some out-of-town visitors, everyone around her starts dying of the plague.

Meanwhile, before Kivrin had gone back in time, she had already given the flu to several people in current-day Oxford. There is no cure for the flu in the present so the government shuts down all university operations and quarantines the town and Kivrin’s advisor is unable to get to the time lab and rescue Kivrin from the past.

Kivrin’s advisor’s struggles to get to the lab to find her and the small-time bureaucracies he has to deal with are funny in the same way the situations in To Say Nothing of the Dog were. And, at the same time, the plague striking Kivrin’s 14th-century family is horrific. The book was an expert combination of frustratingly funny situations and genuinely moving loss and sadness.

It was the small things about Kivrin’s experiences in the past that made them believable (and made the book particularly great). Her clothing is too bright and too finely woven and her fingernails and teeth are in far too good shape for the Middle Ages. The Old English dialect she had studied turned out to be wrong for the town she ended up in so the first person she is able to communicate with is the town priest, who understands her spoken Latin. The ringing of local church bells is, at first, a way of marking time during the day but gradually becomes a way to communicate how the plague is decimating the surrounding towns.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lester “Red” Rodney, 1911-2009

Dave Zirin pens an inspiring obituary of a sportswriter I had never heard of. Here Rodney recounts to Zirin a conversation with Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella:
“Roy Campanella once said to me something like, ‘Without the Brooklyn Dodgers you don't have Brown v. Board of Education.’ I laughed, I thought he was joking but he was stubborn. He said, ‘All I know is we were the first ones on the trains, we were the first ones down South not to go around the back of the restaurant, first ones in the hotels.’ He said, ‘We were like the teachers of the whole integration thing.’”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New Washington Street

In this view looking northeast from the New Washington Street Overpass in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, the setting sun reflects off of the glass facade of the John Hancock Tower, located about four miles away in the Back Bay section of Boston.

The tracks on the left are used by the MBTA Orange Line subway. The MBTA Commuter Rail and Amtrak use the tracks on the right, with the overhead catenary supplying power to the high-speed Acela trains. The platform on the lower right is part of the Forest Hills stop on the Commuter Rail's Needham Line.

English High School, the oldest public high school in the U.S., is housed in the red brick building on the right, which was originally owned and occupied by the Boston Gas Company. In the distance, the tall building on the left is the Prudential Tower and, next to it, is 111 Huntington, also known as the R2D2 building.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Keith's Word of Warning: Cigarette Sanitation

It is fine to invite Christmas party guests to smoke a cigarette or two on the back porch, and even to then allow them to douse their cigarettes in a cup of water due to "fear of fire," rather than stubbing them out in the terra-cotta saucer that you had thoughtfully provided. But do remember to bring the cup indoors for disposal immediately after the party, lest the cig-choked water freeze into a yellow-gray iceball that is apt to spill out of the cup and onto the kitchen floor, shattering into a million cigarette-smoke-scented yellow-gray ice fragments.

Keith's Word of Warning: Punch Bowls

When preparing a punch bowl of hot cider for a traditional Christmas party, preheat the bowl before pouring in the cider so as to avoid catastrophic bowl failure and a pair of wet, if pleasantly fragrant, pants.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Here They Came A'Wassailing

This evening our very own street was fortunate enough to be visited by The Boston Merry Christmas Caroling Mob, an ad-hoc collection of (really good) singers organized in flash-mob fashion by local artist Joel Sindelar. I was shoveling out our walk after a 10" snowfall when I heard them making their way up the street singing Christmas carols in four-part harmony. It was amazingly beautiful, especially with nearly a foot of powdery snow everywhere. It was like something out of Currier and Ives.

By the time they arrived at our house, I had a pot of hot spiced apple cider and four plates of Christmas cookies (leftovers from the previous night's Christmas party) ready for them. We plied our hardy Yuletide chorale with food and drink in hopes that they would not ransack our house in search of "figgy pudding." Presently, having quaffed and gobbled their fill, the merrymakers moved on down the street to by turns cheer or terrify our neighbors.

Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the DogConnie Willis
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ –

This was the first book I ever read by Connie Willis. It was a complete surprise. I had never even heard of her and here was this fantastic book.

This book is a time travel story. In the story’s present (our future), an English society woman is restoring an old church and is planning a gala for its opening. She wants everything to be exactly historically accurate. So she wangles her way into getting an Oxford historian, Ned, to go back to the Victorian era to recover an extremely ugly piece of art – the bishop’s bird stump – that used to be in the church.

Ned has already been on several successive trips back in time retrieving objects for this gala and he is going a bit nutty (time travel takes a lot out of you). As part of this current assignment, which he is none too happy with, he meets up with eccentric Victorian characters including a dotty Oxford professor, a group of women obsessed with séances, a curmudgeonly aristocrat with a collection of exotic fish, and the aristocrat's flighty daughter whose cat keeps eating the fish. He also keeps bumping into other historians, one of whom is on an odd mission of his own that cannot be revealed to Ned (or the reader) for fear of screwing up history and thereby screwing up the present.

With all this, it would be easy for the book to be slapsticky but it isn’t. The eccentricities of the wealthy aristocrats and the behavior of the historians and her description of Victorian decorating styles are hilarious but the characters are also sympathetic and appealing and the story is suspenseful.

This book only made me want to read more of her writing. Luckily there is much more.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Brand New Pair of Red Socks

Lackey: He's a complainer. After the Angels were swept by the underdog Red Sox in the 2008 ALDS, he said, "The best team lost." But he is a great pitcher, in the big ol' doughy tradition of Clemens and Schilling.

Also happy with the acquisition of Mike Cameron. I'd like to see Cameron in center and move Ellsbury to left.

I'm not sad to see Jason Bay go. He's not a bad player, but so boring and... well, Canadian. (Though I love Canada as a country: a big, continental, settler society with universal health care and a parliamentary legislature.)

(Both images from Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, December 14, 2009


This kitten has two mal-formed hind legs, so he has to hop around. He relies on his strong front legs to hoist himself up on furniture and so forth.

Of course, he doesn't understand that there's anything wrong with him, and he's a very spirited cat.

Money, That's What I Want

BPS RESEARCH DIGEST: People think that money affects happiness more than it really does
The study worked by asking people what their own income and happiness levels were and then asking them to estimate the happiness of people on lower or higher incomes than themselves. The participants' estimates of the happiness of people on high incomes was largely accurate, but they massively underestimated the happiness of people on lower incomes. The picture was the same in a second study that asked people to estimate how happy they'd be if they earned more or less than they really did.
The results of this study strike me as plausible. This has implications for politics on both the left and the right.

Lefties tend to overestimate the immiseration of the proletariat.

And free-market types on the right tend to over-estimate the incentive effect of additional income, especially when traded for free time.

Hat tip: Patrick Appel at the Daily Dish.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Centre Street

Book Review: The King of the Rainy Country

The King of the Rainy CountryNicolas Freeling
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ – –

This book is a detective story along the lines of Raymond Chandler, but it takes place in Europe. The main character, Van der Valk, is a police detective from Amsterdam who gets assigned to track down an eccentric millionaire who has run away from home. Throughout the book Van der Valk endeared himself to me by referring to Philip Marlowe and James Bond and other detectives that he felt he should be like, but wasn't. The story involves a lot of competitive skiing and car chases through the Austrian alps, west across France and finally down to the western border with Spain.

I liked the story a lot but it was a struggle to follow sometimes with all of the author's European 1960s-era historical and literary allusions. I read it with Wikipedia at hand and it was quite an education. I didn't know that bleach was originally called "eau de Javel," after the town where it was first invented, or that "blackwater" is an awful complication of malaria that brings on chills and jaundice. I learned that the gentian flower can be used to flavor liqueur and that Lethe is the name of the river of forgetfulness in Hades. I also got to learn all about the "Incident at Mayerling," an 1889 murder-suicide scandal involving the heir to the Austrian empire, and about an infamous bloodbath of a battle that was fought in the French town of Malplaquet during the War of Spanish Succession.

It's a fun read, but be prepared to pull out the encyclopedia.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Quick Question

Why does John McCain, the guy who decided that Sarah Palin was qualified to be President of the United States, still get to go on the teevee to talk about foreign policy?

Book Review: Barrayar

Barrayar (Vorkosigan)Lois McMaster Bujold
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ☆ ☆ – – –

I never really got caught up in this story. It had too many echoes of The Quantum Rose for comfort.

This is one of the early books in Bujold’s Vor Saga. The main character, Cordelia, is a practical, modern-minded Betan starship pilot who marries a Barrayan Vor count who becomes regent to the five-year-old emperor. There is a coup by another Vor count and a subsequent war, during which the "feisty" Cordelia breaks into the usurper count's palace and kills him.

For me, there was too much of the fantasy world of flashing eyes and swirling skirts and unbendingly loyal manservants/armsmen and calling people "Milady." Cordelia was always drawing criticism from the backwards Barrayans with her modern Betan views and then of course always turning out to be right.

One interesting twist is that her baby gets damaged with nerve toxin during a terrorist attack and has to be gestated in a uterine replicator. He has to have bone re-calcification treatments and is always frail but becomes a hero on his own nevertheless.

Saturday Night Soundtrack

I discovered the Feelies in '88 through a college friend with their album Only Life that had a great cover of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On". They really sounded like the Velvets to me, but unlike Lou Reed and John Cale, these guys looked kinda nerdy, which I thought was great.

This is their first album, Crazy Rhythms. It was reissued this year, and it's a great record! There's a little bit of everything in there - some Television-style jams, Velvet guitar sounds, and lyrics that would make David Byrne jealous.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Second Biennial Grainfield 5K

View Grainfield 5K in a larger map

Sponsored by the Grainfield Athletic and Zythophilia Society

Grainfield, Kansas
11:00 a.m. Sunday, November 29, 2009
Conditions: 50º F, N wind at 15 mph

Official Results

1. The GrZA 20:16
2. Doktor Käseblock 26:05
3. Cthulhu, Destroyer of Worlds 30:15
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