February 25, 2005

The Garden in the Machine, Claus Emmeche

Subtitle: The Emerging Science of Artificial Life

Note to self; see The Computational Beauty of Nature and An Introduction to Genetic Algorithms instead. "...il faut cultiver notre jardin ..."

ISBN: 0691029032

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London Labour and the London Poor, Vol.2, Henry Mayhew

In some trial works near the metropolis sewer water was applied to land, on the condition that the value of half the extra crop should be taken as payment. The dressings were only single dressings. The officer making the valuation reported, that there was at the least one sack of wheat and one load of straw per acre extra from its application on one breadth of land; in another, full one quarter of wheat more, and one load of straw extra per acre. (p. 415)

This followed by a description, precise to the names of streets and ponds, of where the sewers of London were going to be constructed. I think many of the neighborhoods were among London's good ones, at the time of construction, which is rather a reminder of the stench in which mid-Victorian luxury must have lived. The poor south side of the Thames had less political pull and naturally worse drainage, and as this book was being written plans for its sewerage were incomplete.

The civil engineers are not much named, which is a pity, as they had bold hearts: the size and fall of the system was great enough that one major line was to go over the river Lea, while another went forty-seven feet under the river at the same place; eventually the lower was to be pumped up to meet the first (two steam-engines were needed, so three were specified) and... well, not applied to agriculture:

"the level of the inverts of the parallel sewers will be eight feet below high-water mark, and here it is intended to collect the sewage into a reservoir during the flood-tide, and discharge the same with the ebb-tide immediately after high-water; and, as it is estimated that the reservoir will be completely emptied during the first three hours of the ebb, it may be safely anticipated that no portion of the sewage will be returned, with the flood-tide, to within the bounds of the metropolis."

Mayhew does optimistically point out that since all the refuse will be collected in one place, it could the more easily be sold if a market for it was finally established.

No link or citation; I picked this up proofreading at Distributed Proofreaders. Eventually the result will be available at Project Gutenberg, but it's a large book in small type and isn't going through the system very quickly...

There is a decent chance that WorldCat can find you a copy in a local library.

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February 24, 2005

The Porcelain Dove, Delia Sherman

Five-sixths of the way through this book, one knows that a grand fairy-tale adventure is happening far from the narrator; the foreshadowings were clear, the conditions were met, the pages compress. But the narrator is bespelled in an isolated castle, and the book has been so strongly in her voice that one wouldn't want a Odysseus-at-dinner told tale intruding. What happens instead is that a small theater group appears, notices nothing of the odd enchantments and madnesses in the castle, and performs, or transmits, the adventure itself, with the narrator in the audience narrating to us. It works like clockwork, like a Vaucanson duck, like the storytelling gestures in a ballet.

The whole story is built from odd parts fit neatly together; the event is a cursed noble family, cruel and decadent, and the balance between the damage the curse finally does them and the rescue their least member achieves. The story is told by a lady's maid who grew up on the Paris streets, who has heard fine speech most of her life but isn't a précieuse, who lives by the pleasure of aristocrats but knows why the peasants hate them. The remote family castle is 'really' in the timeless high medieval era; but the curse hits them as the French Revolution hits Paris. The lady's maid Berthe both loves and hates her mistress, who she has served since they were both girls; the sublimation of anger, and dependency, and romantic love, and parental love into that single relationship is fascinating.

ISBN: 0525936084

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The 27th Kingdom, Alice Thomas Ellis

A novel of great middlebrow worth, with observation of character and subtle points about the use of virtue in the sublunary world; but also the background half of any Terry Pratchett novel set in Ankh-Morpork. No, really; there's Mrs. Cake and an abbess saving the world from a saint; mutually rebounding interests of class and race; and Greebo, slightly. Is this all London, or all England, or what?

And yet in the course of whatever passes for time in Heaven and Hell, all would be resolved, since the good deserve that the bad should be forgiven, the nature of goodness being to love.

It's not that I think this is a bad or pretentious novel; but it does point up how much Pratchett is a moralist.

ISBN: 1559212500

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Pirates of Pensacola, Keith Thomson

Why pirates? I should read the Dave Barry pirate novel, he's probably resonating to the zeitgeist. Or v.v., by now.

As silly pirate novels go, this is fine and silly. The plot is extra-coherent in the way of slapstick movies, all wet mops guaranteed their day of vengeance. I was charmed that there's a Secret Pirate Cove hidden in an obscure Caribbean island, just as secret valleys are vital to The Island Stallion and Lorna Doone and other fine works; but Thomson has carried his pirate town into the present day and specifies in passing that the dense street trees were chosen to hide the town from aeroplanes.

ISBN: 0312334990

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February 20, 2005

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon

No, I can't possibly comment on Gibbon; "reckless to consult, impertinent to commend", as was said of a different "damned thick square book". I can just keep a commonplace-book of presently apt quotations.

There are some that particularly need context. The Project Gutenberg edition has at least two sets of editorial footnotes, each with useful added archaeological discoveries; the first is also sputteringly devoted to arguing that Gibbon abused eloquence to make Christianity look less moral and successful than it was. The second editor is mostly interested in defending Gibbon from charges of historical inaccuracy; on the point of evangelicism, he says:

It is idle, it is disingenuous, to deny or to dissemble the early depravations of Christianity, its gradual but rapid departure from its primitive simplicity and purity, still more, from its spirit of universal love. It may be no unsalutary lesson to the Christian world, that this silent, this unavoidable, perhaps, yet fatal change shall have been drawn by an impartial, or even an hostile hand. The Christianity of every age may take warning, lest by its own narrow views, its want of wisdom, and its want of charity, it give the same advantage to the future unfriendly historian, and disparage the cause of true religion.

Where the defender of the faith really goes off the rails is in his complaint that Gibbon does not recognize the slowly-ameliorated condition of slaves in the late Empire as the unavoidable result of Christianity. The second editor cites various authorities on the mixed causes of improvement; Adam Smith among them; but completely spikes the argument in one sentence:

Gibbon, it should be added, was one of the first and most consistent opponents of the African slave-trade.

Contextless quotes, following:

...a degenerate race of princes...

(Try that aloud.)

These disadvantages, which now operate in their fullest extent, were formerly corrected by the labors of a numerous people, and the active protection of a wise government. The hills were clothed with rich beds of artificial mould, the rain was collected in vast cisterns, a supply of fresh water was conveyed by pipes and aqueducts to the dry lands. The breed of cattle was encouraged in those parts which were not adapted for tillage, and almost every spot was compelled to yield some production for the use of the inhabitants.

(A footnote, in an extensive argument over whether Gibbon was wronging Christianity by describing the Middle East as agriculturally poor. I find the argument itself bewildering, and I'm sure the old scholarship has been surpassed; but I like the details of "making two blades of grass grow where one grew before". )

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
The situation of the Greeks was very different from that of the barbarians. The former had been long since civilized and corrupted. They had too much taste to relinquish their language, and too much vanity to adopt any foreign institutions. Still preserving the prejudices, after they had lost the virtues, of their ancestors, they affected to despise the unpolished manners of the Roman conquerors, whilst they were compelled to respect their superior wisdom and power.
In the commonwealths of Athens and Rome, the modest simplicity of private houses announced the equal condition of freedom; whilst the sovereignty of the people was represented in the majestic edifices designed to the public use; nor was this republican spirit totally extinguished by the introduction of wealth and monarchy.
The solitudes of Asia and Africa were once covered with flourishing cities, whose populousness, and even whose existence, was derived from such artificial supplies of a perennial stream of fresh water.

More later. I had to decant some bookmarks because I had screenfuls, on my Palm. It is annoying to lose track of who's writing a given footnote, but on the other hand I'm finding Gibbon easy to absorb in measured little doses.

Project Gutenberg text #731; there's also a HTML version, file 890.

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The Circular Staircase, Mary Roberts Rinehart

Rinehart's heroine is thorny and unpleasant, and I expect she was meant to be so when written, although the particulars we object to probably aren't what they were. Rachel Innes is an old maid with money and DAR membership and antique china, and a revolver, which she's willing to fire into the dark (and into the china; or maybe it was only rented china). The plot is on the way from Gothic to noir. (The noir wrongsters are trying to hide behind Gothic superstitions; there's a plotline that springs immortal.) Innes chances onto the adventure and digs in; she's quite a tough old bird, who looks back on her adventures in secret rooms and graveyards with great pleasure:

...from perhaps a half-civilized ancestor who wore a sheepskin garment and trailed his food or his prey, I have in me the instinct of the chase. Were I a man I should be a trapper of criminals, trailing them as relentlessly as no doubt my sheepskin ancestor did his wild boar. But being an unmarried woman, with the handicap of my sex, my first acquaintance with crime will probably be my last.

What's annoying now is her racism and her unkindness to her companion. The racism, as is frequent, does absolutely nothing for the plot, and doesn't match the actual behavior of characters in the story; Thomas Johnson is no more nervous and superstitious than any of the servants. While he's alive, Innes mocks him (in narration, not dialogue) with jets of stereotyped bile; once he's dead, he earns praise for being a moral person; much of his morality has been loyalty to his employers, who are dubiously worthy, so this grudging respect has no redeeming value for an egalitarian. (There is one thing that left me curious; is the Methodist minister who she condescendingly, but openly, admires, black or not? If he is, her treatment of him is probably unusually respectful. If he isn't, why does he officiate at African Zion Church? Do they not have a pastor of their own? It is a tiny town.)

The classism of the whole thing is inescapable anyway. Innes' unlikable character may be what keeps it readable now; she doesn't even expect to be liked, only to be respected for her considerable force of personality and inheritance.

Project Gutenberg text #434

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February 19, 2005

The Great Hedge of India, Roy Moxham

This is a hunting-through-libraries story, and a lost-history story, and it's all about a hedge (though not, alas, really a hedgerow), and there's useful medical knowledge in it and supporting evidence for one of the nastier indictments of imperialism. I am disposed to like any of these, and the parts were put together featly and neatly. It's a tremendous shame that the book doesn't have more pictures, but Roy Moxham keeps a website which does.

The story is Ozymandish; the successive British powers in what are now India and Pakistan extended the occasional salt taxes of previous regimes to a profitable and murderous degree. They couldn't afford to build a wall between the salt-bearing and salt-lacking regions, but they ran extensive patrols and eventually built a hedge 2,300 miles long, broken by customs forts. The hedge lasted for at least a decade (the tax much longer) but then vanishes from the records. Moxham came across a reference by chance and spent years of spare time in London archives looking for the evidence of where it had been. He did find it mapped. Apparently one of the lessons is that 12,000 men and some vast funds were not really very large, in the scale of the records of India.

He also went several times to look for the remains of the hedge itself. This is a good hook for a travel story, as the search for the hedge could cover (on foot)a transect of India, especially the less-rebuilt parts; and requires talking to the village elders, a few of whom remembered the hedge, but mostly not. It's gone. The right-of-way was used for roads; where the right-of-way was lost, the fields are ploughed; much of it was dry thorn woven across desert; and the species involved aren't especially long-lived. (This last is a sad surprise for enthusiasts of temperate hedgerows, which are so long-lived that 'Hooper's Rule' is a useful estimate of a hedgerow's age in centuries.)

The wonder of the Internet, and of amiable fellow enthusiasts, and of public-domain books, has also turned up an aside of a few paragraphs in an autobiographical account of the 1857 'Mutiny': in a night-ride between forts, the strange light on the horizon is the Customs hedge, burning. Well, no wonder it was gone so quickly.

The tax lasted long enough for Gandhi's peaceful revolutionaries to defy it, of course. Moxham did another round of research on the salt tax; a little bit on the public-power-for-private-gain that encouraged the English to extend it, some on the collusion of the rich in India who preferred the salt tax to an equal-income sugar tax, which wouldn't have hurt the poor as much. There were certainly people in India and England objecting strenuously to the tax and its cruelty, who left estimates of the damage it was doing. There's an interesting medical digression on how much salt we need and what happens when you don't have enough. There's not a lot of evidence on the first, except in the logistic plans of armies; but salt loss is one of the ways dehydration kills you, and we do know something about that. Thing one, you don't crave salt when you need it; your body keeps losing water to maintain your salinity, sometimes through nausea and diarrhea. Very probably death from salt loss was sometimes mistaken for infectious disease; certainly each made the other more lethal. Thing two, one of the main symptoms is listlessness. One doubts the tax was intended to make the poor apathetic, but one also doubts that the apathy wasn't useful to the taxers.

The other unbearable salt tax was in France, the famous gabelle; as in India, it was so expensive that peasants in some regions couldn't give their animals salt licks, which only made their farms poorer. Some communes successfully revolted against it, but it lasted off and on until 1946.

As a gloomy convergence, the French salt tax seems to have started as a national (war-funding) tax and then been captured and farmed for private profit; the East India Company picked up the idea in their private-enterprise stage, and the British Empire ran with it.

I don't seem to have summarized Late Victorian Holocausts, by Mike Davis. Davis and Moxham cover similar ground for the famines in India during British rule, Moxham with less intent to pin down blame but nearly as much success. To summarize the former, it was repeatedly the practice of England to conquer/buy up enough of a nation to put wholly on the market systems that had been mixed; say, mixed market, subsistence, religious, and (feudal) welfare food systems. In fat years, this was not too hard to impose, as most people profited from (e.g.) a train system that took spare harvests to the ports for sale. In lean years, the harvests still went to the ports, millions upon millions of people starved in the lanes, pestilence followed famine, and at the end the merchants and capitalists owned most of the land. This happened over and over. There were apologists explaining that the savages would be even worse off without exposure to market forces: the historical evidence that this is not so is pretty strong: water-systems and granaries were systematically encouraged to fail by people who could profit in good or bad markets.

Davis' book has two strong connections to current political debates, because not only does it describe a vicious use of globalized trade, but the first lethal force was always terrible weather; usually ENSO wierdness that caused flood or drought or both. Farming requires predictable weather even more than it requires any particular weather, something that makes it difficult for me to be sanguine about even mild predictions of climate change.

ISBN: 1841192600

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February 14, 2005

The Fool's Tale, Nicole Galland

Many melodramas rely for their action on our sympathy with obstinate stupidity: Keep the Aspidistra Flying, for instance. Tragedies relieve this burden of sympathy by making it unimaginable for their hero to behave differently. The Fool's Tale imposes that degree of limitation; it's obvious early on that retribution will occur, but it would be inhuman for the characters who rush to meet it to act any other way.

Better yet, the form of the retribution is obvious only in hindsight, and all the gritty medieval details are given as plain realism, so the retribution is all the more shocking when it finally looms up.

If I think about some of the dialogue as translated medieval Welsh, it gets less convincing. I don't remember anachronisms of matter, only vocabulary. Of course, all that really means is that it's not like the Oxford or Penguin translations of Welsh and medieval poetry I've read, and I don't actually complain that a modern writer isn't imitating Jowett. There probably isn't a plausible prose for popular historical fiction.

I was reminded of Dorothy Dunnett's The King Hereafter, the one novel in which she isn't debilitatingly worshipful of her hero.

ISBN: 0060721502

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February 10, 2005

The Guardship, James L. Nelson

The current fashion for pirates is either puzzling or an amazing testament to Johnny Depp, don't know which. The pop-scholarly arguments that pirate councils had significant non-racist or proto-democratic power structures don't convince me often, but they do leave breathing-room for historical revisionism. And through that narrow gap, that hawse-hole of believability, climbs this swashbuckler in which a mostly-reformed pirate beats annoying Tidewater gentry at their own games. He has the help of freed slaves, a woman with a past, and an ex-schoolteacher, so's there's something for everyone.

It isn't just twee Flynnery. There is a great deal of grim material in the dawning 18th c., on land as well as at sea; and it's not clear in this first novel whether the reformed pirate will pull it off. The gore and cruelty is battled against more than it's wallowed in.

There should be more sailing; maybe the sequels have it.

ISBN: 0380804522

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Mawrdew Czgowchwz, James McCourt

Deliberately wordlessly, Merovig Creplaczx approached Mawdrew Czgowchwz, now seated near Carmen in the shadows. Throwing out his shapely, manicured right hand—a hand accustomed neither to refusal nor to too much in the way of tender requital, the perfect hand for his purposes heretofore (Mawdrew Czgowchwz thought of Tristan, the man)—he offered a challenge: to take hers. She took his in one svelte parry.

This should be annoying, a whole novel like this, but the rocky writing is polished to terrazzo throughout. Besides, the characters make no claim to sympathy or even reality, being New Yorkers and of the opera; the manner and drama they claim, they achieve.

Presumably there's a lot of roman à clef for those who knew the 1970s opera scene, but the characters are at least a century old--

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

--well, not very solitary, except when center stage. Anyway, it isn't The Third Policeman but it's more cheerful than The Poor Mouth.

ISBN: 0940322978

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My Life As A Fake, Peter Carey

I admire the construction and ambiance, the extravagant setting and reserved admissions, of this novel; but I never really enjoyed it. It isn't quite a tragedy and it isn't quite a moral tale, and I neither liked nor disliked the characters enough to be drawn into their torments of each other.

I might file it next to A Pound of Paper, which I also couldn't quite get into, for their shared theme of literature as an escape from provinciality.

ISBN: 0375414983

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