September 28, 2003

Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson

I would like a great deal more philosophy, Natural or otherwise, and alchemy in this. The description of politics and cultural change is okay, the picaro adventures have trotted over a quantity of Europe and promise more continents still, but that's deep-mined territory. Technological history, and the maze of personal preferences sorted into perverse historical dependencies; that's what I look for in Stephenson.

I might have been wrongfooted by having been reading Dumas and Behn and Hakluyt in the last few weeks. The older the books are, the more my sense of the past as different from the present (not just a subset of our stuff and knowledge) is tied to its styles of rhetoric and composition. Quicksilver uses a few orthographical flourishes to seem Olde, "phant'sied", "Barock", etc.; but then the Sublime Porte is called Constantinople, not even Stamboul or Istanbul, which seems odd from a character who has lived in the Palace there. Possibly I'm wrong about when the, oh, power of naming moved West. Possibly this was an attempt to remain readable to some slightly other audience. More formal, arcane sentences, that's what I think it needed; the ones that sound as though the author is convinced he is or should be writing in a language with coherent but different grammar. Latin as an honor, Greek as a treat, physics as a weapon.

The main female character is more active (esp. in the sense of 'moves the plot') than the ones in Cryptonomicon, and she certainly gets more narrative time - I nearly said "screen time"; the constant harping on how wonderfully sexually appealing she is¹ is probably what exasperates more people into the "nerdboy masturbatory fantasy" description². Not that I think no-one should write or read or enjoy books with sexy female characters, but the continuing absence of non-sexy female characters - among so many interesting nonsexy male ones - is an anomaly in the distribution.

One notices that sort of thing, I hear, when looking for secret messages in a text.

I don't think any of the Natural Philosophers afflicted with stone in the urinary tract referred to it as 'calculus', although a reference to 'calculus'¹¹ on the teeth is made. Upcoming pun, or did I miss it?

Big old prop to Braudel in the intro, which is of course Just and Right; and I have a cookbook in my reading queue that is an even more thorough homage (in that it means to improve on the master).

ISBN: 0380977427

¹ Did the culture of the time make it impossible for a woman to do anything without using Feminine Wiles? Why, no. Consider Christina of Sweden and Caterina de Erauso. For that matter, there may have been a considerable history of armed women in Bohemia.

² Through Crooked Timber, indirectly. Possibly from someone else who thinks it started with Cryptonomicon; Y.T. in Snow Crash is not merely sexy but sexual, much more an actor, not an object; and the heroines of The Big U even more so.

Given that progression, maybe the real lesson is that the puppet female characters are what sell to the mainstream more than they do to math nerds. And, I should reiterate, there's a good argument that Eliza is a real character, not animated filler. (Am I looking for the term "NPC"? I fear so.)

¹¹ stone, cf. 'calcinate', or calculations with pebbles on an exchequer

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September 24, 2003

The Principal Navigations...of the English Nation, v14, America pt. 3, Richard Hakluyt

Hereabout they found two riuers of a reasonable bignesse, vpon the banks whereof grew many vines bearing excellent grapes, and great groues of walnut-trees, and much flaxe like that of Castile: and they shewed our men by signes, that behinde those mountaines there was a riuer about 8. leagues broad, but they could not learne how neere it was: howbeit the Indyans made demonstration that it ran towards the North sea , and that vpon both sides thereof stood many townes of so great bignesse, that in comparison thereof those wherein they dwelt were but small hamlets. [Sidenote: Perhaps this Riuer may fall into the Chesepiouk bay, or into the great lake of Tadoac.]
After he had receiued all this information, the said Captaine returned toward the prouince of Zuni, whither he had sent his said companions: and being arrived there in safety, hauing trauailed vpon a very good way, he found in the same place his 5. companions, and the said father Frier Bernardin Beltran, with the souldiers which were determined to returne, as is aforesaid, but vpon certaine occasions were not as yet departed: whom the inhabitants had most friendly treated, and furnished with all things necessary in abundance as afterward likewise they vsed the Captaine, and those that came with him, comming foorth to meete them with shew of great ioy, and giuing them great store of, victuals to serue them in their iourney homewards, and requesting them to returne againe with speed, and to bring many Castilans with them (for so they call the Spaniards) to whom they promised food sufficient. For the better performance wherof they sowed that yeere more graine and other fruits, then they had done at any time before.
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September 23, 2003

The Growth of Victorian London, Donald J. Olsen

Olsen ascribes most of the pleasures of London, the built environment, to the work of the Victorians. In so doing, he spends much time defending the suburbs, particularly the richer ones with varied architecture. He often makes the argument that anything still as enjoyable as the Victorian suburbs were and are is in itself good.

Oddly, on the way, he made their Victorian inhabitants seem less and less charming. The social and aesthetic argument he returns to again and again is that the Victorian taste is individualist, for variety and specificity and self-expression, and that the changes in experience that a suburb-and-city life provides on a daily schedule are wonderful.

But most of the houses built were really very like each other, by his own admission, and although he argues that that was 'only' to save money, he admits that they were popular. The Victorian impulse to make things distinct also wanted to put them in a hierarchy of value, especially anything involving class, and the suburbs practically invented class segregation:

Why England, for centuries one of the freest and most open of European societies, should have become by the twentieth century the one most obsessed by class is a question to which no satisfactory answer has yet been given. Whether or not the social geography of Victorian London helped to further that obsession, it certainly reflected it.

And, on inspection, most of the evidence that individual expression was the goal of architecture is from builders' and architects' professional journals. Obviously they gained profit and professional status by making this claim. It seems to me that the inhabitant only wanted the new style when it had been approved; a great many of the nonprofessional statements are not about style, but about how important it is to keep anyone poor from living near anyone richer, even if the poor are decent and their housing isn't being replaced.

Really, compared to shoving everyone below you on the social ladder further down, attempts to climb up after the rich look benign.

Classification, family sentiment, and a combined envy and scorn of the French turn up as often as individualism. All were concerned in the insistence on houses instead of flats. In a flat, one might—even a lady might—pass someone of a different station on the stairs. Nor did they allow Panopticon oversight of one's servants. Olsen quotes Builder, vol. xxxiv (1876) p.291:

The most important of these [objections to living in flats] is perhaps the manner in which the servants of all the families inhabiting the same house are lodged together in the upper or mansard story, with a separate entrance from the street, and thus entirely apart from all supervision from their employers except when actually on duty.¹

All the rooms, numerous even if they had to be tiny, provided each member of the family room for self-development, or maybe presented a hierarchy of power and privacy and propriety. I can believe it depended on the family as much as the architecture. I still like the fact that Oliver Sacks' large Edwardian childhood house had two piano rooms, so people could practise in clashing musical styles. Still, I'm not convinced that it was an innately good impulse, or even usually a benign one.

One essential suburban quality, repellent to its detractors, cherished by its inhabitants, is that of make-believe, the denial of the economic basis of its existence, the exclusion of other classes and of any sort of manufacture, the relegation of essential trades to segregated back streets. ... The most successful suburb was the one that possessed the highest concentration of anti-urban qualities: solitude, dulness, uniformity, social homogeneity, barely adequate public transportation, the proximity of similar neighborhoods - remoteness, both physical and psychological, from what is mistakenly regarded as the Real World.

Mmmm. Condemned out of his own mouth again, I think. If the city depended on the suburb the way the suburb did on the city, or if I thought the image of the perfect, pretty, moral life were not used to transfer actual power from the poor to the rich, then it would not matter what was Real. But the Victorian suburbanization depended, as ours does, on always selling people the outside ring, which gets more depressing and cheaper specifically because suburbs leapfrog past it. What it liked it destroyed. Some neighborhoods and ex-towns were luckier or better planned, but on the whole it's still beggar-thy-neighbor.

I wish I were more familiar with London, the author assumes it. I was amused by his explaining that the Victorians thought of railways what 1970s Londoners thought of motorways (although, of course, the Victorians thought of roads with horses and bicycles on them, and the 1970s had seen both rail and autos.) Apparently the thing about traffic is that no successful city has ever built its way out of it (so we might as well walk).

Other subjects: the wide variety of intentions and results from the noble and foundational estates, which kept ownership of the property and could (didn't always) control what was on it, through 99-year building leases and 21-year repairing ones. The poor are always with the argument, though they don't say much nor is much said about them. They finally escaped the slums when the railways were ?required? to provide workingmen's fares - at 5.30 AM the trains into town were cheaper than for the 9 AM office commuters. Not clear whether this was for the benefit of the poor, or because there couldn't otherwise be any workers living in reach of London's massive needs. All sorts of private enterprise for infrastructure, sometimes possible because of the huge contiguous estates, very frequently bankrupt before finishing.

¹ Heaven forfend.

ISBN: 0 14 055182 4

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Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis, Walter Jon Williams

I understand the urge to write more Patrick O'Brian novels, because I would certainly like to read more, but this is either too far from or too close to the source.

Williams' connections-and-seniority Navy is in a practically Nilotic alien empire, which has conquered many a race, convinced most of them to live by its sclerotic rules, and then died of ennui or existential despair or something. I found it jarring to have the human uniforms sound so Nelsonian. At least the space tactics use three dimensions.

It might be less of a pastiche and more of an thought-experiment in subsequent books, as the dread empire falls apart. (Added later: And it's not so bad at deriving consequences from hypotheses that I don't want to read the next ones - it just has hypotheses I consider barely less silly than an alien empire that venerates Elvis impersonators.)

ISBN: 0-380-82020-X

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Wobble to Death, Peter Lovesey

Short, 'fair' mystery set in an improbable corner of Victorian England. The 'wobble' is a kind of sporting event, a six-day cumulative distance race (on an indoor track). 'Pedestrian' refers specifically to one who walks for sport (everyone walked, after all).

Also read Mad Hatter's Holiday, same author, same detective, set in Brighton, not quite as good (or characters less appealing).

ISBN: 0 14 00 5557 6

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September 21, 2003

Madame de Pompadour, Nancy Mitford

Pompadour was a long-term mistress of Louis XV of France; Louis XV was stuck with the court set up by his great-grandfather Louis XIV; France was therefore stuck with a government run far too personally. Mitford makes a case for Madame de Pompadour being personally a charming woman, and one who wanted to see the country run well and worked hard to help do so. Still, an education heavy on playwrights and singing did more to make her likable to her king than useful to her country.

He [Louis XV] grew up to be a charming man and an intelligent ruler with a high sense of duty, loving and, for many years, loved by his people. But the machinery by which he was expected to govern was long since worn out, and neither he nor his counsellors had the genius to devise anything better. He knew that something was wrong somewhere, but he was for ever caught in the terrible web spun by his terrible ancestor.

The "terrible ancestor" is Louis XIV, great-grandfather of Louis XV, and the terrible web is the centralization of power and status in the court. Mitford repeatedly has to remind us that an aristocrat of the period, however beautiful his or her estate, would wither if exiled from court - literally; they generally became either very fat or very thin, and departed life rather quickly. She didn't get across to me why this should be so, although some of the force must have been the closed society judging itself on its own rules, and another part the luxury of a court that had a state department of Les Menus Plaisirs.

Oddly, the king at the top of the closed society was not cut off from non-aristocratic France. Madame de Pompadour was born a bourgeois with scant noble connections, and iffy banking ones. She was probably first noticed by the King when driving her carriage to follow his hunt; the affair came to a point at the balls celebrating the Dauphin's marriage, where anyone arriving properly dressed was admitted. Fortunately her elocution and grace were enough to make her acceptable at court; she seems to have been kindly to almost everyone, though not always tactfully so, especially to the poor dull Queen.

Also, of course, she was devastatingly pretty in an age that loved prettiness. Not beautiful, nor was she sensual; it seems she always found sex exhausting enough to damage her health, and maybe never liked it, and anyway she had a long reign as his official mistress and obvious comforter after she and the King stopped committing adultery. Her great talents were also prettifications: she sang and acted well enough to support rôles by the great writers of the day; she designed lovely comfortable little houses, with little home farms; she commissioned artworks made of fragile pretty precious materials. Hardly any of this survives, as Mitford explains (with late-English-aristocrat regret).

Mitford's writing is light and charming, good at explaining the unspoken that 'everybody knows' and breezily asserting the unlikely - The Princess of Hesse Rhinevelt would have done very well if her mother had not been in the habit of giving birth alternately to daughters and hares. It's all a prettification of minor pleasures; the Continental wars that made way for the English empire, laid out as personal struggles between potentates mostly related to each other; unbelievably ornate parties, some of which came off; improbable minor characters, like the comfortable and luxurious exiled King of Poland.

United Europe has seldom been so nearly realized as it was after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748. The King of England was a German, the King of Spain was French. The Empress of Austria was married to a Lorrainer with a French mother, the King of France was half Italian and his Dauphin was half Polish with a German wife. ... During the last campaign of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1747 ... it so happened that none of the generals engaged was anative of the country for which he fought. ... the peace...left Europe divided by allegiances into two halves, the Austrian Empire, Russia, England, Holland and Sardinia, against France, Spain, the Two Sicilies, Prussia and Sweden; since it would clearly be an unprofitable venture for one of these halves to make war on the other, a long peace might have ensued, had it not been for a new factor. America and Asia were now entering into the calculations of statesmen. The English, who were determined to possess as vast an Empire in these continents as possible, were very anxious to keep their only rivals, the French, fully occupied in Europe while they acquired it.

Mitford, Nancy. Madame de Pompadour, New York: Random House, 1954.

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September 19, 2003

Twenty Years After, Alexandre Dumas

'Your Majesty will remember having seen, when playing in Fontainebleu Park or in the courtyards of Versailles Palace, the sky suddenly overclouded, and having heard the sound of thunder?'
'Yes, certainly.'
'Well, that thunder-clap, however much your Majesty wished to go on playing, said to you, "Go indoors, Sire; you must."'
'Certainly, Monsieur; but then I have been told that the thunder is the voice of God.'
'Well, Sire;' said d'Artagnan; 'listen to the clamour of the people, and you will see that it is very much like the noise of the thunder.'

Dumas' political sympathies in his novels are, as David Coward the editor of this edition details, incoherent, esp. compared to his political sympathies in real life. Actually, they are consistent with always being For the side with the best costumes.

ISBN: 0-19-283074-0

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September 15, 2003

The Natural History of a Garden, Colin Spedding, Geoffrey Spedding

On being, or becoming, a naturalist; looking at exactly what's in one's backyard, and then working out to the principles that even a slug or a twist of goosegrass demonstrates. The author leaves trashcan lids on his lawn to encourage little animals to nest - voles, snakes - so it's more about seeing as much of an ecology in one place as possible, than about gardening in the usual command-and-control sense.

The author is English; there's a section on American gardens, but the specific drawings and histories are English. Much of it is devoted to using a real outdoors to teach children to begin to be naturalists.

Algebra was once the "binding and the cancelling out"; naturalism starting from a wealth of data, like this, is too; seeing what all the ants have in common, and also how the species differ.

ISBN: 0-88192-578-0

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The Emperor of the Moon, Aphra Behn

Scar. The Lunary Physicians, Sir, call it Urinam Vulcani, it calybeates every ones Excrements more or less according to the Gradus of the natural Calor.--To my Knowledge, Sir, a Smith of a very fiery Constitution is grown very opulent by drinking these Waters.
Doct. How, Sir, grown rich by drinking the Waters, and to your Knowledge?
Scar. The Devil's in my Tongue. To my Knowledge, Sir; for what a Man of Honour relates, I may safely affirm.
Doct. Excuse me, Seignior-- [Puts off his Hat again gravely.
Scar. For, Sir, conceive me how he grew rich! since he drank those Waters he never buys any Iron, but hammers it out of Stercus Proprius.

Ah, Restoration humor.

Like Cyrano, joking about going to the Moon - who first?

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September 10, 2003

Derailed, Joseph Vranich

A summary of how badly Amtrak has failed the interests of passenger rail; some plausible reasons why; and a slightly outdated argument for its piecemeal privatization. Vranich has worked for Amtrak, likes trains generally, is a high-speed-train proponent.

Amtrak hasn't worked for anyone, doesn't like its customers, and is a proponent of redefining 'high speed trains' to get Amtrak more funding. I summarize, but even though I really like riding trains, riding Amtrak hasn't given me reason to distrust Vranich's tables of damning data.

Vranich's proposed solution is all about privatization, and looks a little scruffier now than it did in 1997 when this was published. As he wrote, Japan's railways had had wildly profitable privatizations in the '80s but were suffering as Japan's depression took hold; likewise for some examples about airline profitability as private ventures - which are a bit less convincing after the post-boom's airline closings, national airline subsidies, bailouts. Also, Britain's privatized rail isn't a gonfalon of glory for the process. So I would worry that the very good results reported during the economic booms depended on the booms.

A much more interesting argument, which Vranich adumbrates but does not, I think, ever say, is that train travel is now valuable because of cities. (He's so Northeast-Sprawl-centric that he may think it goes without saying. Even there, surely there's been some change in the popularity of train lines as the urban centers they were built with decay and regrow?) The death and tortured sort-of strangled-by-Amtrak-and-highway-authorities rebirth of rail in the States lines up very well with the death and rebirth of our cities.

The romantic view, and Amtrak in some unhealthy combination of romance, dog-in-the-manger, and Congressional pork, think of 'real' trains as long-distance trains. Japan and Europe have their glorious high-speed trains, which can compete with air travel. At, oh, an hour of plane flight, merely fast trains are competitive. (With longer security checkthroughs on planes, trains get another little edge.) But what makes a medium-distance train trip competitive with air between Seattle and either Portland or Vancouver, BC is not the shorter lines, or the roomier seating, but that I live in the city in Seattle - and am usually visiting the city itself at either end - and the trains pick me up and drop me off where I want to be. The airports are all to heck and gone; Portland's is convenient because they -- built a train.

Train travel also depends on the trains being even vaguely on time: Vranich's book explains that the long-haul train that goes all the way to California is under Amtrak's control, which is why it's almost-but-not-quite-dependably late; the BC-Seattle-Portland one is as much as possible a state endeavor, and is much nicer and more reliable, except when the long-hauler comes through and bollixes it up.

When the cities are really both ends of most travel, e.g. BostonNewYorkPhiladelphia, also increasing parts of California, commuter rail comes into its own, and obviously nothing carries as many people - thinking about London and New York reminds one that the subway and the elevator were equally needed to achieve those densities. There's something of a balance between the annoying non-privacy on the train, and the ability to do something other than drive. I like transit because I can't think about anything deeply while driving, not without becoming a total danger to myself, others, street trees. So driving is lost time, where the bus and walking aren't. The lagniappe that may finally get lots of people onto commuter rail is, as Brad DeLong remarked, WiFi access.

The routing problems are still hard, where two systems have to share rails or switchpoints. One of the oddities of Britain's privatization, it seemed to me, was to break the system into regional carriers - and then claim they were supposed to compete with each other, as though a trip from City A to City B could substitute for a trip between other cities. As with air travel, the interesting specialties are more likely to be between really different kinds of travel; private varnish scenic cruises, executive express commuter trains, seasonal car-carrying trains to and from snowy regions. All of these are likely to share some tracks with each other and with the freight trains.

Any train-ignorant computer nerd at this point is thinking, "Okay, packet switching protocol, collision algorithms - I guess we need collision avoidance algorithms - Shannon, innit? Model me something with competing trains over common lines, and tell me how to isolate the variables they're really bidding for - speed, reliability, ability to run really long trains. Cool problem." The freight companies have clearly solved some of it w.r.t. covering repsonsibility and costs for the tracks themselves - as the brownout over the Northeast showed this summer, that can be a hard problem in deregulating.

Nothing so specific in Vranich's book. I must go look.

ISBN: 0-312-17182-X

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September 09, 2003

Grass for His Pillow, Lian Hearn

I liked this better than the first book. The two main characters are in the middle of grand, operatic trouble, and are becoming operatic characters. Since their rôle models died of operatic behavior, they are thinking quite hard about what to do, but still do what Narrative Force requires. Good trick.

The woo-woo skills of the Lost Prince are less annoying because he spends much of his time among people who have as many. On the other hand, (plot spoiler)he turns out to be descended from at least two powerful houses! Predictable, when I'm annoyed by it; in keeping with its literary tradition, when I am more forgiving.

ISBN: 1-57322-251-8

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September 08, 2003

Politics, 1841 and - forever?

MANAGER.--Of course, then, the Tories will take office----?
PUNCH.--I rayther suspect they will. Have they not been licking their chops for ten years outside the Treasury door, while the sneaking Whigs were helping themselves to all the fat tit-bits within? Have they not growled and snarled all the while, and proved by their barking that they were the fittest guardians of the country? Have they not wept over the decay of our ancient and venerable constitution----? And have they not promised and vowed, the moment they got into office, that they would----Send round the hat.
MANAGER.--Very good, Mr. Punch; but I should like to know what the Tories mean to do about the corn-laws? Will they give the people cheap food?
PUNCH.--No, but they'll give them cheap drink. They'll throw open the Thames for the use of the temperance societies.
MANAGER.--But if we don't have cheap corn, our trade must be destroyed, our factories will be closed, and our mills left idle.
PUNCH.--There you're wrong. Our tread-mills will be in constant work; and, though our factories should be empty, our prisons will be quite full.
MANAGER.--That's all very well, Mr. Punch; but the people will grumble a leetle ii you starve them.
PUNCH.--Ay, hang them, so they will; the populace have no idea of being grateful for benefits. Talk of starvation! Pooh!--I've studied politicaI economy in a workhouse, and I know what it means. They've got a fine plan in those workhouses for feeding the poor devils. They do it on the homoeopathic system, by administering to them oatmeal porridge in infinitessimal doses; but some of the paupers have such proud stomachs that they object to the diet, and actually die through spite and villany. Oh! 'tis a dreadful world for ingratitude! But never mind----Send round the hat.
MANAGER.--What is the meaning of the sliding scale, Mr. Punch?
PUNCH.--It means--when a man has got nothing for breakfast, he may slide his breakfast into his lunch; then, if he has got nothing for lunch, he may slide that into his dinner; and if he labours under the same difficulties with respect to the dinner, he may slide all three meals into his supper.
MANAGER.--But if the man has got no supper?
PUNCH.--Then let him wish he may get it.
MANAGER.--Oh! that's your sliding scale?
PUNCH.--Yes; and a very ingenious invention it is for the suppression of victuals. R-r-r-roo-to-tooit-tooit! Send round the hat.
MANAGER.--At this rate, Mr. Punch, I suppose you would not be favourable to free trade?
PUNCH.--Certainly not, sir. Free trade is one of your new-fangled notions that mean nothing but free plunder. I'll illustrate my position. I'm a boy in a school, with a bag of apples, which, being the only apples on my form, I naturally sell at a penny a-piece, and so look forward to pulling in a considerable quantity of browns, when a-boy from another form, with a bigger bag of apples, comes and sells his at three for a penny, which, of course, knocks up my trade.
MANAGER.--But it benefits the community, Mr. Punch.
PUNCH.--D--n the community! I know of no community but PUNCH and Co. I'm for centralization--and individualization--every man for himself, and PUNCH for us all! Only let me catch any rascal bringing his apples to my form, and see how I'll cobb him. So now --send round the hat--and three cheers for PUNCH'S POLITICS.

Punch, Jul-Dec. 1841.

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Across the Nightingale Floor, Lian Hearn

This would have been perfectly plausible as a fantasy novel, but I doubt it would have had anything like the dreamy reviews it got as "Fiction". The plot has been standard for at least seven hundred years (rural orphan becomes noble warrior); the author has the good sense to steal from the best originals, and openly refer to the inimitable; and the writing is fine.

But... why on earth is there a secret Tribe of born assassins who can make themselves invisible and project second selves? And why does the hero have to be one of the best ones? Tokugawa-period politics was plenty interesting without. The rural orphan would be even more impressive if he didn't have the free deluxe extension set of powers from Month Two. Oh, well, this is a grudge I have against much of the pop entertainment of our day.

The high-medieval tragic romances, with swordfights, are just the thing.

ISBN: 1-57322-332-8

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September 07, 2003

Slightly Abridged, Ellen Pall

A few days ago I scorned a book for being too like others in its genre. It's a cheap shot at books in any genre; likeness is what collects them. Slightly Abridged makes hay of its differences, though, using them to exercise the expectations.

What it's most like is an Amanda Cross mystery; the series investigator is a well-off, thorny ex-English professor. (Surely this is irrelevant to solving murders, except in the genteel-coy confines of cozies.) They differ in character: Boston to New York, confident to self-conscious, professorial to romance novelist. These differences are well enough represented in the way they solve their mysteries, and since that is the machine of the genre, having it chug out different solutions for slightly different input is a pleasure.

Pall's novel would be a pleasure anyway, mostly for its representation of a cautious and talky new romance. The MacGuffin is interestingly gaudy and plausible in the protagonist's life. A few sentences reminded me of the late Sarah Caudwell, though it doesn't keep up that standard.

ISBN: 0-312-28185-4

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September 04, 2003

The Difference Engine, Doron Swade

Subtitle: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer

The subtitle is subtly wrong. It should be "Quests", plural; Babbage's own, and much later that of Swade and his colleagues at the Science Museum in London to build a working model from Babbage's surviving plans. In both cases, we get as much detail about the search for funding as about the technical challenge. All right, this is important to the history of science: how things get done, how other things are smothered. One Fowler, just after Babbage, came up with a plausible calculator design that wasn't as comprehensive but was much more buildable, probably got no funds because Babbage had poisoned the well.

Nor were Babbage's Engines relevant to the later development of computing, according to Swade himself. The 1991 machine wasn't a reconstruction of a lost piece of the past, it was a reconstruction of a piece of an unlikely and expensive alternative past. But computer-related money was flowing in the 1990s, and there was no little amount of British pride involved, and the thing is lovely in all its precision-machined gleaming parts.

Still, I'd have liked more detail about the parts, more annotated line-drawings of how they fit together, more tables or equations expressing what each stage in the physical machine did. Flip-book illustrations in the corners, for that matter; there was a video of the innards of an Engine at the Museum, a few years ago while the exhibition was still above the fold; not on the website now.

ISBN: 0-670-91020-1

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The Principal Navigations...of The English Nation, v13. America pt 2, Richard Hakluyt

St. Chrisostome, in his dialogue De dignitate sacerdotali, saieth that the mynisterie is a chardge geven by God to teache withoute armes or force, and that the same is no power to give or to take kingdomes, nor to make lawes for the publique governemente.

Somewhere in Hakluyt's compendium; I don't know the context, because this is another nugget from doing DP, but the same person is against the Papal Line of Demarcation.

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September 03, 2003

The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes, Mark Urban

Despite the title, this is principally an account of Wellington's campaign from Corunna to Waterloo, with particular regard to communications among the French, their interception and their decoding.

Interception, and especially decoding and decryption, occupied George Scovell, a professional soldier of no social connections. Wellington did not favor soldiers of no social connections - he thought anyone who wouldn't inherit land couldn't be trusted not to foment rebellion, and preferred dashing cavalry officers who looked aristocratic. During the campaign, Wellington recognized the importance of Scovell's work and Scovell's particular talent for it; afterwards, he denied it. This fit Wellington's anti-popular political career and certainly made Wellington himself look more like a solitary miltary genius.

Fortunately, Scovell - who seems to have been a pleasant man - had made enough friends among the dashing that some of them looked after his career. Not too much is known of him; part of looking after his career was not teaching the skills he had learned during the war. Both depended on his talent for languages. The encrypted messages he teased out were often captured by his Corps of Guides, who were recruited from several armies and all classes, spoke many languages, and had to map not only the enemies' movement but the country they were moving through.

On p. 54, this force is referred to as the Corps of Mounted Guides; in the index, including the entry pointing to p. 54, as the Corps of Mountain Guides. Elsewhere it's Scovells' Guides or Corps of Guides. 'Mounted' seems more likely than 'Mountain'.

One of the reasons for Napoleon's failure to hold Spain was his desire to run everything personally. He had promoted merit to great effect as he rose, which was one of the reasons that Wellington suspected meritocracy of being innately revolutionary. Napoleon wouldn't delegate power, though, so while Wellington was invading Spain the French generals there were mostly politicking against each other and against King Joseph, Napoleon's brother. One French officer had the delicate job of taking a letter from Soult, accusing Joseph, to Paris; when there, he discovered that he had to take it to Napoleon in Moscow itself. He arrived there just in time to follow the retreat from Moscow - and he made it back to Paris.

ISBN: 0-06-093455-7

Posted by clew at 10:44 AM | TrackBack

September 02, 2003

Jack Maggs, Peter Carey

Wonderfully disdainful of Dickens and respectful of Dicken's novels, if we can take Oates as a take on Dickens, and I think we can. Someone else, talking about Charlotte M. Yonge, tells me she likes to imagine Yonge's novels if Yonge had had to make her way in California or Australia for a while. I don't know, though, maybe she would have retreated into a defensive shell of more-genteel-than-thou.

Maggs does, values gentility so far above its deserts that it nearly kills him. He reminded me of Agamemnon going to his bath, bull-like, so large and suspicious elsewhere and helpless against duplicity. It's a triple trick for his dialogue: it has to carry his considerable intelligence, without education, and then the huge gap in his street smarts and character-reading both when he's chasing his will-'o-the-wisp.

ISBN: 0-679-44008-9

Posted by clew at 08:43 PM | TrackBack

mast & masticate

Is "mast" in "beech mast" related to the same syllable in "masticate"?

Not that I can find, but there's a funny missing link. The first is an old word of steady meaning in middle and old English, Dutch, High German, back to an OAryan root for 'to be fat, to flow', cf. Sanskrit for 'fat'. The second is from Spanish and French words which may come from the Greek word for jaw. But between those, in the OED, are a couple of mast* headwords having to do with the breast, as "mastalgia", from the Greek word for breast.

I can leap from 'fat & flowing' to 'breast' easily. I don't know enough Greek to guess if their 'breast' and 'jaw' actually are related. The first is rendered μαστος, the second μασταξ, if I'm reading the tiny characters correctly. (There should be a mark like an acute accent over the ο in the first word, but I don't see how to represent that in HTML entities.)

Or, from Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;  

And when the pigs come eat their fill
I guess it's all mast for the grill.

Posted by clew at 08:00 PM | TrackBack

Green Rider, Kristen Britain

I was, alas, mostly reminded of Diana Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and its catalogue of the predictable and incoherent in fantasy novels. There isn't anything seriously icky or totally ill-planned in this one, but there also isn't anything new or surprising¹ and there are far too many sentences that jolt me to a halt. Not worth finishing.

If you like your next fantasy novel to be very *like* other thick fantasy novels, the sentences He was slender like a reed, but not bereft of heft and muscle. At first it was a bit sour, but after a while, she was convinced of its fruity flavor. don't bother you, and you know me, drop by and pick it up.

Updated Sep. 7th, 2003: Also fruity and a bit sour; the Evil Warlord wondering how to get across to his Icy Henchwoman that he finds her attractive. He worries like a stock Corporate Evildoer trying to seduce his CFO despite his paunch and fear of lawsuits. In someone purportedly proud of his murderous, wolf-on-the-fold ancestors, it's risible.

¹ Old clichés shuffled would be fine.

ISBN: 0-88677-858-1

Posted by clew at 07:40 PM | TrackBack

Scorn of the Dutch

From an Aphra Behn play (The Lucky Chance, or maybe The Town Fopp) currently being polished at DP -

Bel. For what, said they, was he hang'd?
Ral. Why, e'en for High Treason, Sir, he killed one of their Kings.
Gay. Holland's a Commonwealth, and is not rul'd by Kings.
Ral. Not by one, Sir, but by a great many; this was a Cheesemonger--they fell out over a Bottle of Brandy, went to Snicker Snee; Mr. Bellmour cut his Throat, and was hang'd for't, that's all, Sir.

Simon Schama's Embarassment of Riches has examples of the disdain aristocrats had for the (wildly successful) Holland of the 17th. c; and here's another.

Posted by clew at 11:38 AM | TrackBack
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