Two Random Tours Through History

I recently finished two books that took different and interesting approaches of presenting history.  The first, Pop Goes the Weasel by Albert Jack, uses nursery rhymes as a guide through British history.  Actually, the intention is to delve into the origins of the very common nursery rhymes we all learn and subsequently teach our children.  But, given that so many of them are rooted in historical fact, it ends up being quite the whirlwind tour of history.

For example, Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used in the English Civil War in the mid 1600s.  It was used to great effect to keep the Parliamentarians at bay, until the tower it was housed in was destroyed, sending Humpty to the ground, where it was useless.  Or Baa Baa, Black Sheep being about a tax on wool, where, as is typical, the working class got stiffed in favor of the business owner and the church.  Or the Three Blind Mice being three bishops upon whom Queen Mary I took revenge when she ascended to the throne for their role in persecuting Catholicism during Edward VI’s reign.

The book is written such that the story behind each rhyme is independent of the others. As such, some of the style does get a little tedious, as Jack introduces each one in a way to try to pique the reader’s interest that becomes repetitive.  But, as a reference, it is a great way to organize things as you can easily go back and reread about any given rhyme with ease.  Not all of the origins of these rhymes are overly convincing, as Jack himself points out as he explores alternative theories about each one.  My only real issue, however, is that there are no references or citations that document where the theories came from.

Not being a British history buff, I still enjoyed learning about all of these dark episodes in British history (as it does seem most of these seemingly innocent rhymes have their origins in the dark recesses of regicide or other equally murderous plots.  It does make me wonder how differently the book could have read if the rhymes were used specifically as tools to guide us through British history.

Which brings me to the second book, American Connections by James Burke. I first encountered Burke during my first year as a Vandal.  If you’ve never been exposed to his unique approach to history, Burke draws connections between people and things to highlight the links between them, the interconnectedness of the people, events, and inventions that drive history.  In American Connections, he uses the Founding Fathers — all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — to make connections through history to our own times.  As an example, take Thomas Jefferson –> Cesare Beccaria –> Jean-Baptiste Joseph Delambre –> James Macie –> David Brewster –> Dr. John Bostock –> Dr. John Elliotson –> Dr. James Esdaile –> Karl von Reichenback –> Gustav Fechner –> Ernst Mach –> Wilhelm Ostwald –> William Ramsay –> Harold Edgerton –> Jacques Cousteau –> side-scan sonar –> USNS Littlehales –> National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration –> Littlehales renamed Thomas Jefferson (if you are interested in what all of these people have in connection, you’ll have to read the book).

Burke does an admirable job of taking us from 1776 to our modern times through these connections.  Along the way, he makes some interesting observations about society at the time and the progress of, for example, scientific knowledge (people like Mach and Ostwald were very important for several branches of science).  As he goes through the chains of people connecting one another, he has an odd fascination with their sexual behaviors.  Besides making it clear which were homosexual (possibly to highlight the role that homosexuals have had in history?), he also touches on people who had very let’s say active sex lives, with many loves.  I wonder if this is because he thought it would spice up the story (which it certainly does, at it seems everyone was engaging in three- or foursomes or were nymphomaniacs) or if it was simply easier to connect people with others through these “hubs”, these people who knew (in more ways than one) so many others.  I suspect it is a bit of both.

Near the end of each chapter (focused on a different signer), it felt like Burke copped out a bit by connecting to some big corporation or some big organization and finding someone who worked for that group as his final link.  It just felt like he stalled a bit, not finding anything more direct.  It also felt like something that he could always do to make that final link, it was just a question of how long he wanted to go until he got there.  However, it is a minor quibble.

Overall, his approach is a very entertaining one through American and British history.  Not that I would retain much, as names and places are thrown about with abandon, but the overall richness stays with you.

Las Conchas from our bedroom window

The Las Conchas fire started yesterday around 1PM and already has burned about 50,000 acres.  Consider that the Pacheco Canyon fire, just north of Santa Fe, has been burning for 10 days and has only burned about 10,000 acres gives you an idea of how fast this one is going.  And, consider that the Los Alamos area had a huge fire just over 10 years ago in the Cerro Grande to understand how tense things are around here. The Cerro Grande fire took about one month to be fully contained and burned about 48,000 acres by that point (the Las Conchas fire officially has burned about 43,000 acres as of this writing).

We had a pretty good view of the developing fire from our bedroom yesterday.  Here are some photos from late afternoon-early evening when the fire had “only” burned about 5,000 acres.  We woke up this morning to a dusting of ash all over everything.

Energy in the US: generation and use

A few weeks back, I attended a “Summit and Forum” for the Office of Basic Energy Science’s (BES) Energy Frontiers Research Centers (EFRCs), a collection of 46 projects that are aimed at developing the fundamental science that will underpin the energy infrastructure and economy of the future.  I am part of one EFRC, the Center for Materials at Irradiation and Mechanical Extremes (CMIME), that is centered at LANL and has the goal of looking at materials under extreme conditions, including those that occur in a nuclear reactor.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is summarized by the figure included here, which is an Energy Flow diagram.  This particular one, found here and developed at LLNL, is for 2005.  The units of energy for each box is in so-called quads, convenient because the total energy produced and used in the US is about 100 quads.

What is most striking about this figure is that more than half of the energy produced in the US is actually lost.  Not necessarily wasted, as some of it is the inevitable loss due to transmission and other factors.  But, much of it is also due to just inefficiencies in our system, in our old grid, and in our poorly designed buildings.  For example, we lose a lot of waste heat in industry which, if captured, could be used to power homes and other businesses.  Further, our grid is as old as there is in the world (a side-effect of being the first country to develop a grid).  China, on the other hand, is developing high voltage state-of-the-art grids that will reduce transmission costs and allow for more efficient use of renewable energy sources.

The other thing that jumps out to me is that renewables account for such a small fraction of our energy portfolio that even if we pushed heavily on them, investing significantly more resources, it will still be a long time before they can make a significant dent in our energy use.  This is one of the reasons I’m pro-nuclear.  I know nuclear has its risks — Fukushima clearly demonstrates that — but it is the only proven non-CO2-emitting energy source we have, the only thing that will help us tackle climate change in the immediate future.  This is not to say that renewables aren’t important — indeed I think they are and that they will be a huge part of our energy portfolio in the future — but they are not a short or even intermediate time solution.  If we, as a society, want to curb green house gas emitting fossil fuels, nuclear has to be part of the picture.  So it seems to me.

Anyways, this figure gives some food for thought and gives a good overview of how our energy is both generated and used.

Zero History by William Gibson

William Gibson just has a knack for taking you to a different world, whether a dystopian future of post-war America or into the marketing frenzy of fashion in contemporary London, he has a way with words that is both foreign but oddly captivating.  The first book of his I read, his classic Neuromancer, epitomizes this: he is throwing around fictional names and brands and events as if they are something everyone is familiar with.  It took me a while to just stop thinking about every name and let myself get absorbed into his universe.  Neuromancer is one of, if not the, first cyberpunk novel, set in a world where humans interface directly with machines, cybernetics is commonplace, and cyberspace is all pervasive (Gibson coined the term cyberspace).

Since then, his novels have actually become less rooted in science fiction and set more in the contemporary world.  This is particularly true of his latest novel, Zero History, which follows a set of characters involved in, of all things, fashion and the development of new brands.  The driver behind the events of the story, Hubertus Bigend, owns an advertising agency and is trying to cash in on the latest fad in fashion: a brand that is so exclusive that it does no advertising, people are just alerted to random shipments.  In the background, though, Bigend has bigger things going on, specifically trying to predict the stock market, get that extra bit of information that will let him predict trends.

The main characters, Hollis Henry and Milgrim, really drive the story forward.  Milgrim is a paranoid ex-druggie who Bigend has helped clean up.  Hollis is a former rock star who does journalism gigs, sometimes for Bigend.  In trying to find the people responsible for this viral fashion marketing campaign, they team up.  While there are no world-scale dangers involved here, the action is just tense enough to keep things moving, driven in large part by Milgrim’s paranoia.  He doesn’t know who to trust and begins doubting not only the people around him, but the things around him too.

Technology doesn’t play the same overriding role it did in earlier Gibson novels, but it is ever-present, especially in how it can be used, in the particular case of Milgrim, to track him around the globe.  Gibson touches on things like locative art (location-specific art that is virtual, you can only see it on your phone/computer), guerrilla fashion, advanced computer algorithms for predicting the stock market, and how just by using your phone or computer you can be easily tracked.

These hit home even more than the more far-off tech that he used in prior novels as this could happen now.  Whatever we are familiar with, whatever we think we know about the state-of-the-art, the fact is that governments, militaries, and corporations have much more sophisticated technology.  Gibson explores this secret world, drawing us in to that world in a way that both entertains and educates us, just a bit.  It’s a world where forces bigger than us are at play, where we are small compared to everything around.  And it is a world that probably isn’t all that different than our own.

Ladybug Marker Holder

I finally busted out some of the tools I’ve been collecting with the hopes of doing some woodworking.  I’m working on a toy tree house for my daughter, something that goes with the doll house she got from her grandma, and when it’s done, I’ll post some photos on here.  I had an extra half-sphere and, inspired by a groundhog I’d seen on another blog, created this.  Nothing too fancy, but starting with half a sphere, drilling some holes, adding a few dowels and small wooden balls, then dremeling some detail, a ladybug emerged.  Lisa then painted it, bringing it to life and giving it character.

I think it turned out great and I’m planning on making some more, though just not ladybugs.  I was thinking a porcupine or a dinosaur might look good.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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