Wednesday, November 28, 2012

H has become a most ominous letter

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on earth and was given a beautiful container which she was told never to open. But, of course, her curiosity got the better of her and when she opened it all the evil inside escaped into the world. When she tried to close it the only thing left was the Spirit of Hope. Pandora was afraid she would be punished, but Zeus didn't because he knew it would happen from the beginning, and so Hope was released as well.

It's easy to see the parallel to the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit, but is there a modern parallel as well? Brian VanDeMark makes a comparison to the beginning of the nuclear age in his book Pandora's Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb. Instead of simply retelling the story of the Manhattan Project or the subsequent nuclear arms race, VanDeMark focuses on nine men who were involved in it: Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, I. I. Rabi, Niels Bohr, Edward Teller, Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, Robert Oppenheimer, and Hans Bethe. Some were theoreticists whose insights paved the way, others were instrumental in refining the uranium and plutonium, and others put it all together in the mountains of New Mexico. All were incredibly brilliant men who changed the world.

Many of them had been forced to leave their European homelands by the threat of Nazism and found a welcoming community in America of fellow scientists and thinkers. Physics in those days was a mostly theoretical exercise with little practical application. But when it became known that Nazi scientists were working on splitting the atom to unleash its destructive power, the Manhattan Project was born with a goal of developing an atomic bomb first. But it wasn't just the threat that drove them; it was also the opportunity of a lifetime to pursue an intense professional curiosity.

But for some, seeing the devastation wrought on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused anxiety over their work, even describing it as a "sin." They understood their willing role in developing the bomb, but were conflicted by the obvious fact that it had indeed ended the war. Some argued for international control of the bomb and warned of an arms race, but not all. When international negotiations failed and the Soviet Union successfully tested their own atomic bomb (using information gained by espionage) some again lent their talents to the race to develop even bigger thermonuclear weapons, which used atoms of hydrogen – the hydrogen or H bomb – and release hundreds of times the destructive energy of the bombs dropped in WWII.

VanDeMark's praise of authors like Richard Rhodes and Robert Dallek made me wonder if this would simply be another book condemning the U.S., but I was surprised at how fairly he treated the subject. And he shows a talent for bringing the story to life in an exciting way that emphasizes the moral dilemmas of the time and the questions the physicists faced, and that there were no easy answers. There wasn’t just a tremendous amount of research that went into the book but a lot of thought as well. I thought it was both interesting and readable, and it’s one of those books that didn’t get the kind of attention it deserved. (Incidentally, the title of this post comes from a little poem written by Edward Teller for his children.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012 (in Arizona)

The holidays are so much more fun when you have family around to share them with.  Two years ago we were in Utah and celebrated with my family but last year we went camping since we had no family staying in town (and took some good friends along).  This year, since Poppy and Danny just bought a house, the whole family gathered in Arizona.  So some flew down from Washington and Utah and the rest of us drove from California.

Now, if you know Jamie, you'll know she loves to decorate.  And even if we're driving to another state she likes to have the table decorated nicely in her style.  So, not only were we hauling her china and silver (and some of Poppy's), we also took table cloths, candlesticks, nice glasses, fresh flowers for centerpieces, 2 folding tables, and 6 chairs Poppy wanted.  Jamie also bought 4 new restaurant-style chafing dishes to serve from so it could all stay warm.  (Yeah, you try cramming all that stuff in the van and avoid any broken dishes or glasses without freaking out!)

But it turned out fantastic!  And the food was incredible (of course).  The weather was beautiful and we set up the table in the back yard. 

A very kind neighbor let the kids ride his horses (and my girls were in heaven!). 

And on Friday we all went to an old cowboy town (for tourists, of course), complete with a staged gun-fight.  It was fun, although it felt a little odd driving around that desert landscape while listening to "Frosty the Snowman" and other Christmas music on the radio.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Friday, November 9, 2012

"Boil 2 quarts of milk with a large piece of orange peel"

Thomas Jefferson has always been one of the more enigmatic founding fathers for me. I don't necessarily agree with his politics but the aspects of his life that interest me most are his interests in science, gardening, and food. As an outspoken advocate of states rights, he nonetheless engineered one of the greatest overreaches of Federal power with the Louisiana Purchase, and then sent Lewis & Clark exploring with instructions that included bringing back new and edible plants. As ambassador to France Jefferson seemed more interested in the food and wine that so generously accompanied Paris social life, even bringing along one of his slaves to take cooking lessons.

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell looks more closely at this time he spent as ambassador. Slavery was illegal in France and James Hemmings could have simply claimed his freedom, but Jefferson made an agreement with him that he would free him after he had taught another slave the art of French cooking (no such agreement was made with Sally Hemmings, who came to France to care for Jefferson's daughters).

The French have never been slouches when it comes to food fashions. From the sumptuous, lengthy, and extravagant meals of the aristocracy came a new sensibility and awareness of food that the aristocratically-minded Jefferson lapped up. And not only did he ship home olive trees, grape vines, and cases of the finest French wines and champagnes (Jefferson made champagne popular in America), he also brought back dishes like macaroni and cheese, french fries, and creme brulee, which were later served at Monticello and the White House during his two terms as president. (He even smuggled some Italian rice, but it didn't grow well in America.)

This is not an in-depth history of Jefferson's meals, and the slave James Hemmings plays a very minor role. Instead Craughwell fills in information about the foods that were popular in America and France at the time and explains how the French excesses (including food-related) influenced the French Revolution. And this sort of background history that is often glossed over in many history books is what makes this one interesting. Likewise, I enjoyed the short appendixes discussing the kinds of foods grown in Jefferson's gardens and his fascination with wine. And Jefferson did eventually grant James Hemmings' freedom, but it took six years and some complaining from James before it happened.

But foodies looking for details about Jefferson's dinner table or James Hemmings’ recipes may come away with more historical background than actual information. I suspect the kind of mundane stuff like what was for dinner simply wasn't thought important enough to be recorded and become part of the historical record (this was in the days before sharing such information on Facebook became fashionable). There are a number of pictures of letters and documents - some in Jefferson's hand - showing his notes and some of the recipes, but they're difficult to read. Still, the book was kinda fun and short, but for a more detailed look at his gardens I recommend Andrea Wulf's Founding Gardeners. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Steve Jobs Must Be Crazy

I was just reminded of a movie I saw when I was a teenager, The Gods Must Be Crazy.  It was a low-budget movie made in Africa (with lots of natives and looking VERY low-budget).  Some friends had said it was very funny so when my cousins suggested going to a movie one weekend I mentioned it.  If you've seen the movie you know it starts out looking like a documentary - and I was definitely getting the Evil Eye - but soon enough everyone was laughing like crazy.

If you've forgotten it begins with a small plane flying over some African Bushmen when the pilot tosses a coke bottle out the window.  It lands unbroken nearby and seems to be an amazing gift from the gods.  It can hold water, is hard enough to mash roots, and can even make music when you blow across the opening.  The problem was that the gods had only sent one, and everyone seemed to want it at the same time which led to fights.  When they tried to throw it back to the gods it fell on a child's head and injured him.  (Click here to see that scene.)

So, why was I reminded of this movie today?  We have an iPad which is very useful.  It can be used much like a computer and the kids love using it for their "homework" (which seems to be listening to music, watching videos, and playing games).  But the gods were careless and only sent one, leading to regular fights because everyone wants to do their "homework" on it at the same time.  The kids can't even keep a straight face when they say they need it for "homework," which apparently can't be done on one of the other computers in the house.

So when I walked in the house tonight after work - in a fairly good mood - I was surprised at how quiet everyone was.  (This sometimes means mom got mad, but when I asked I was told that nothing was wrong.)  However, in less than five minutes a fight over the coke bottle - I mean, the iPad - had erupted resulting an instant loss of the peace and quiet and everyone being mad.  Of course, I was blamed for all this since I had asked why it was so quiet.

Stupid Steve Jobs.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Reading YA

Even though most readers of YA (young adult) fiction aren't actually young adults, I'm still a little embarrassed to admit that it's really what I prefer. Maybe part of the reason is that it's more reliably cleaner than grown-up fiction (I hate to say "adult" fiction since that seems to be another hot genre that many adults might be embarrassed to read in public). And maybe another part is a lingering fondness for the books I loved so much as a kid. Regardless, here's a few I've received from Amazon Vine lately.

In Summer at Forsaken Lake by Michael D. Beil, twelve year old Nicholas Mettleson and his younger twin sisters have been sent to spend the summer in Demming, Ohio. It's a different world from NYC, but "Uncle Nick" – who doesn't have a TV – turns out to be really nice and soon he's teaching them how to sail on the lake. Nicholas makes friends with a girl named Charlie who can throw a curve ball no one can hit, learns how to ride a bike, and discovers a secret compartment in his room with an unfinished movie called "The Seaweed Strangler" that his father was making when he was 14 years old and spending the summers there. And although the "mystery" about their father and the seaweed strangler drives the plot along, it's really more of a sentimental and old-fashioned story about growing up and spending the summer away from parents and home. It's not a thrill-a-minute adventure, but instead charms with an easier pace and a beautiful setting that will make kids wish to spend summers in a place like Forsaken Lake. And it's the kind of book I loved to get lost in as an 11 or 12 year old.

Immortal Lycanthropes by Hal Johnson, on the other hand, reminded me of I Am Number Four with its heavy emphasis on a plot-driven action story and some mystery mixed in. Myron Horowitz is an especially ugly kid who was found wandering a country road looking more like hamburger than an 8 year old. Multiple surgeries saved his life but left him horribly disfigured and an unusually small and stunted 13 year old as well as a favorite target of bullies. But when one particularly brutal bully picks on him in the school cafeteria something happens that leaves his attacker a bleeding mess and Myron unconscious and naked on the floor. It turns out that Myron is an "immortal lycanthrope," and "lycanthrope" refers to more animal/human shape-shifters than just wolves. (So, a were-bear, a were-moose or even a were-mouse is also a lycanthrope and in this story there is one for each mammal species and they're immortal – sort of.) Yeah, I know – this sounds like another rip-off of the recent trend in teen books since Twilight, and this one suffers from an especially uncreative title. But if you liked series like Percy Jackson or I Am Number Four you might enjoy this one. There are a few mild profanities and a couple of juvenile comments of a sexual nature, but the violence was more restrained than I expected. It's not a great book – the ending is abrupt and the narration is too smart-alecky – but it was kind of fun and might be mildly entertaining for older kids.

And finally, Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #1: Professor Gargoyle by Charles Gilman appears to be aimed at fans of the Goosebumps series. The book cover is what originally caught my attention – a 3D picture which morphs from the dour-looking Professor Goyle into the demonic Professor Gargoyle – but the story isn't quite as creepy and unsettling as the cover might suggest. Because of school redistricting, twelve-year old Robert Arthur finds himself starting the school year at the brand new Lovecraft Middle School. Unfortunately, the only familiar face he recognizes is Glenn Torkells, a bully who's dogged him for years. But in addition to the state of the art technology, the school has a few quirks like rats in the lockers on the first day, an enormous and labyrinthine library with a secret room, and teachers who aren't quite what they seem. At about 160 pages it's a short and easy read but it includes real life issues like dodging bullies and making new friends. I'm not familiar with all the references to the horror novelist H. P. Lovecraft, but I caught the fact that Robert is named after the original author of one of my most favorite series as a kid (as well as the reference to one of my favorite movies, "Poltergeist").