SCIENCE INK by Mary Roach and Carl Zimmer

A kind of fun book about the tattoos that the science-obsessed get, along with a short explanation of the particular science which the artwork represents, and often a little blurb about the person with the ink and why they chose that particular representation.

I am not much of a fan of tatoos, and have none myself, so my opinion on the various art isn’t worth a bottle of ink.  Some of it looks lovely, and some of it is awful, and some of it makes me go why?, but basically, if you like tattoos, and mostly what you have seen on your friends and family and the folks at the rock festival or the local bar run to eagles, hearts, snakes and such, you will enjoy seeing the creativity here.  Physics equations, the entire solar system, the world at a glance, Cambrian fossils,  huge quotes from famous scientists, vaccine tree, danger signals, motors, crystal radio parts, and a New Yorker cartoon, just a few of what people hold dear enough to themselves to want to have it permanently etched on their person.

People have tats of stuff I never even heard of:

The Fourier Transform
the Dirac Equation
the Lazarus Taxon
Taylor’s Sine
Cantor’s Theorem
the Zermelo-Fraenkel with Choice axioms of set theory
Infinity Laplacian

Here’s some stuff I learned:

In 1939, French mathematician named Nicolas Bourbake, published one part of a multi-volume work called Elements of Mathematics.  Bourbake called for a symbol for the set that contains no elements in it, and proposed a circle with a diagonal slash to represent “la partie vide”.

Nicholas Bourbake, it turns out, was himself an empty set.  In the 1930’s a group of French mathematicians started meeting to write a new mathematics textbook. They decided that they would publish their work not under their real names but as a single pseudonym – Nicholas Burbaki.   The name came from an old mathematician who called himself Nicholas Burbaki, but who turned out to be another student who put on a fake beard and spouted nonsense.

and more

Tattoos are not a recent thing.  Tattoos are etched deep in our species.  The body of a 5300-year-old-hunter was found in the Austrian Alps, and his freeze-dried skin sported a number of tattoos.  Tattoos are preserved on other mummies from ancient civilizations from the Scythians of Central Asia to the Chiribaya of Peru.   Two hallmarks of Homo sapiens are decoration and self-identification.

You can find more books by Mary Roach just by plugging in her name in the search window here on the blog.

 

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A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE by Lawrence Block

We have now arrived at number nine in the Matt Scudder detective series.  Set in NYC in the late 80s, the noir series give us a fine look at the life and times of that period in the Big Apple Core.

I skipped number 8 in the series, because it was about an old adversary of Scudder and his quasi-lady friend, the happy hooker, who comes back looking for them for revenge.  I usually don’t care for this plot line where the protagonist is the target, so I said meh, and moved right ahead to number nine.

So here we are in the ninth offering, written in 1991, when cell phones were still only a gleam in Apple’s eye, and you needed a quarter for a pay phone.  Matt is still sober, still attending AA meetings daily, and still friends with The Butcher, a man of surprising philosophy, but yet willing to kill for a buck.  Strange bedfellow.  Even Scudder doesn’t understand why he feels a friendship for this guy.

One evening Scudder is handed a VHS tape (yes, I TOLD you it was the 80s or early 90s), of The Dirty Dozen, by a fellow meeting attendee, who begged him to watch it that night.  Scudder watches it, and finds, 10 minutes into the film, that it changes to a home movie of a sex, torture and murder of a young man by two masked adults.  Yep.  A snuff film.  Holy patoly!  Where did the guy get this?  He says he got it from a local video rental store.

A visit to the shop reveals that the tape apparently came to the shop in a batch of about 30 other vids which a landlady had confiscated from the apartment of a film buff loner who was murdered in an alley.  She was trying to recoup some of the back rent.  The owner had no record of her name, or of the owner of the films, nothing, so basically it was all a dead end, and Matt gave up the investigation as hopeless.

Months later, at a boxing match in a remote, run-down area of the city, where a local cable company was trying to create a small local boxing franchise, Matt and his Butcher friend were there to see a young fighter.  Scudder sees a man with a young guy, who makes a gesture reminiscent of that snuff film, and Matt gets pondering on it, and becomes sure it was the same masked guy in the film, and the leggy gal who parades around the ring with the sign advising the round number was the woman in the film.

He goes back to his investigation with more vigor and creativity, and  of course, things progress.

MEANWHILE …. don’t ya just love meanwhiles?   Meanwhile, the reason he was actually at this boxing match was for a case he was getting paid for.  A cable company executive was attacked with his wife in his apartment building, and the wife was brutally sexually assaulted and murdered.  He was cleared of any suspicion, at least on the books, but the cop who headed the investigation just had a gut feeling about it, but there was zero evidence, so he had to give it up.  Matt is approached by the brother of the dead woman, to investigate, because the brother is also sure the husband did it.

So natch we Gentle Readers are becoming sure, since we are veterans of hundreds of detective fiction plots, that the two stories will somehow come together.  And yes, of course they do.  As the detective friend of Scudder says,

What did you tell me coincidence is?  God trying to maintain His anonymity?

I, for some reason, really liked this one, in spite of its truly gruesome plotline.  Keeps us mindful that all is not daisies and roses and lambs gamboling in the spring hillsides.  As The Butcher muses

…Your Higher Power, the creative force of the Universe, the Great Perhaps.  That’s what Rabelais called it.  The Great Perhaps.

Perhaps.

 

THE SURVIVAL OF THE PAGAN GODS by Jean Seznec

The gods of Olympus died with the advent of Christianity – or so we have been taught to believe. But how are we to account for their tremendous popularity during the Renaissance?  This book offers the general reader a multifaceted look at the far-reaching role played by mythology in Renaissance intellectual and emotional life. After a discussion of mythology in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Jean Seznec traces the fate of the gods from Botticelli and Raphael to their function and appearance in Ronsard’s verses and Ben Jonson’s masques.  [Official blurb.]

This wonderful book was written in 1940, long before Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,  which I talked about here.   The conclusion implicitly, if not explicitly, reached in The Survival of the Pagan Gods is the same as in Gaiman’s work:   they are still around, …. but nobody cares.   Well, no, that is wrong.  It is not that nobody cares, it is that no one actually worships them anymore, the poignant point made in American Gods.

What is clear is that the Ideas which the ancient gods of Olympus represent continue on, and during the middle ages were turned into Virtues and allegories.  The ancient gods changed wardrobe over the ages, appearing as personages in the then modern dress, but during the Renaissance, the wheel of cosmic fortuned made a complete turn, and the gods once again appeared in their original forms.

Seznec has shown that the Olympian gods, and the earlier spirits of field and spring, did not die with the advent of Christianity, but lived on. His work traces the process in which they were already transformed during Late Antiquity, whether embedded within history as transfigured former human beings in the Euhemerist view that was embraced by Christian apologists. or given planetary roles as astral divinities in the worldview of astrology and magic or allegorized as moral emblems. They survive in pictorial and in literary traditions and among the common people went underground to feature in folk culture, took on strange new guises and were transformed in various ways, their myths recast to suit some of the mythic saints of Late Antiquity. Their imagery permeated Medieval intellectual and emotional life. The transformed mythology re-emerged in the iconography of the early Tuscan Renaissance, with new attributes that the ancients had never imagined, and enjoyed tremendous renewed popularity during the Renaissance. [Stolen Copied from Wikipedia.]

I really enjoyed this book.  It is full of illustrations of the works discussed, and makes it easy to follow the transformations of the gods through their various guises and re-emergence again in the Renaissance.

I just wanted to add that the idea of the ancient Pagan deities still living on is delightfully explored in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.  I talked about two of them here and here.  So perhaps these days we are no longer creating sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings of the ancient gods, but they continue to live on in literature.

 

THE CITY AND THE STARS by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke, in case you never heard of him, was a British science fiction writer, science writer and futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, and television series host.   He was a co-writer of the screenplay for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Clarke was a science writer, who was both an avid popularizer of space travel and a futurist of uncanny ability. On these subjects he wrote over a dozen books and many essays.  He was awarded a number of Hugo and Nebula awards, which along with a large readership made him one of the towering figures of science fiction. For many years Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were known as the “Big Three” of science fiction.

The City and the Stars takes place one billion years in the future, in the city of Diaspar. By this time, the Earth is so old that the oceans have gone and humanity has all but left. As far as the people of Diaspar know, theirs is the only city left on the planet. The city of Diaspar is completely enclosed. Nobody has come in or left the city for as long as anybody can remember, and everybody in Diaspar has an instinctive insular conservatism. The story behind this fear of venturing outside the city tells of a race of ruthless invaders which beat humanity back from the stars to Earth, and then made a deal that humanity could live—if they never left the planet.

In Diaspar, the entire city is run by the Central Computer. Not only is the city repaired by machines, but the people themselves are created by the machines as well. The computer creates bodies for the people of Diaspar to live in and stores their minds in its memory at the end of their lives. At any time, only a small number of these people are actually living in Diaspar; the rest are retained in the computer’s memory banks.

All the currently existent people of Diaspar have had past “lives” within Diaspar except one person—Alvin, the main character of this story. He is one of only a very small number of “Uniques”, different from everybody else in Diaspar, not only because he does not have any past lives to remember, but because instead of fearing the outside, he feels compelled to leave. Alvin has just come to the age where he is considered grown up, and is putting all his energies into trying to find a way out. Eventually, a character called Khedron the Jester helps Alvin use the central computer to find a way out of the city of Diaspar. This involves the discovery that in the remote past, Diaspar was linked to other cities by an underground transport system. This system still exists although its terminal was covered over and sealed with only a secret entrance left.

Eventually, the protagonist, Alvin, finds a space ship which is still functional, buried outside Diaspar. He manages to retrieve it, gets his friend from Lys, and travels into deep space. They encounter Vanamonde, a being of pure intellect, with whom the friend, being telepathic like other Lys people, can communicate and bring him back to Earth. From him the truth of history finally emerges.

I was somewhat disappointed.  It felt dated, and its tropes and themes seem, from the vantage point of 2018, now rather overdone, but in 1956, when this was written, this was hot stuff.   Some interesting ideas, as there always are, even in the most dated of science fiction.  But I am still glad I read it.

THE FIVE RED HERRINGS by Dorothy S. Sayers

Another Lord Peter Whimsey mystery, this one written in 1931.  It is in the period before Whimsey marries Harriet.

It is set in Scotland, during “that madcap period between wars that marked the death of an overt class system and heralded the beginning of an insideious one”, where Whimsey is up for a spot of fishing, along with ever imperturbable Bunter, his ‘man’.  It is set in the area of Kirkcudbright, which is an area just chock full of artists and fishermen.

One of the artists/fishermen is  Campbell Quick, an unpleasant, quick tempered chap who has battled with just about everyone at one time or another.  Well, after drinking and fighting with a fellow artist one night at the Gatehouse pub, he is driving home, and falls into a reverie, stops his car on a sharp turn of the road, where he sits until another motorist almost runs into him, and gets out of his car to remonstrate with the man.

Fast forward to the next morning, where Campbell the Belligerent is found dead in the burn, his easel and still-wet painting on the banks.  Looks like he may have stepped back to get a perspective on his work and tumbled into the stream, banging his head on a rock.

Well, of course, since this is a detective mystery, we Gentle Readers all know it was not an accident, and so it is proved, and the whole rest of this overly long tale is about finding which of the seven other artists he has fought with might be the doer of the deadly deed.

Since it is set in Scotland, all the local folk talk with a heavy Scots accent, which is terribly cute the first few pages,

‘Juist tummled intae the burn,’ replied Mr. Murdoch, ‘an drooned himself, by what they say.  The pollis’ll be up there now tae bring him doon.’

and tedious and annoying thereafter for the remaining 400 pages.

You know how in mysteries there is always some rehashing of the clues, and some speculating on who what where, to remind the Reader of the clues and pad out the pages.  Well, this one hinges on time tables of trains and ferries and amount of time it takes to bicycle from one place to another, and it is churned over repeatedly and again, and characters even make schedules and time lines and frankly I was losing my will to live.

The denouement was lame, as in,  “Well, I killed him tis true, but I didn’t murder him.  It was an accident.”  Yeah, that kind of lame.  Whimsey was annoying, too, instead of quirky and eccentric, and all in all, it is a whole lot of hours I will never get back.  However, there were a couple of good lines, so I will give you those:

“I don’t mind betting this is the most popular thing Campbell ever did.  Nothing in life became him like the leaving it, eh, what?”

Sir Peter is on his way to the crime scene.

It was a marvelous day in late August, and Whimsey’s soul purred within him as he pushed the car along.  The road from Kirkcudbright to Newton Stewart is of a varied loveliness hard to surpass, and with a sky full of bright sun and rolling cloud-banks, hedges filled with flowers, a well-made road, a lively engine and the prospect of a good corpse at the end of it, LoRd Peter’s cup of happiness was full.  He was a man who loved simple pleasures.

Cheerio, pip pip, and all that.  We’ll have a good chin wag at a later time.

THE SPACESHIP NEXT DOOR by Gene Doucette

This was a delightful ‘sci fi’ …. and I use that term loosely ….. story about a small space ship which lands in some fields in a rural old mill area of Massachusetts,  and then …….. does nothing.  It just sits there.  For three years.  The government comes out to investigate, the army sets up shop to keep watch, a whole bunch of UFO nuts  believers park their RVs along the side of the road across from the fenced off space ship and beam their amazingly large arrays of digital equipment on the area, and then…. everybody goes back about their own business.

The protagonist is 16 year old Annie, so that makes this a YA, but not really.  Well, sort of.  Annie’s mother and father have split, her mother has cancer, and Annie is pretty much on her own, and brightens her days by knowing everyone and keeping tabs on all the doings in the small town. She has a BFF, a shy, retiring home-schooled girl whom no one seems to be able to remember.  Everybody likes Annie.  WE like Annie.

When the ship first lands, she sees it come down, and approaches it with some friends.  They run away, she goes near it and lays her hand on it, surprised to find it not hot.  Hmmm.  Another person reports it to the local sheriff, a lot of activity ensues, but still the spaceship does nothing.

After three years, a special government official shows up in town, and after unsuccessfully trying to pass himself off as just another reporter looking for a new story angle, he finally hires Annie to take him around and introduce him to people who might have some information he is amassing.

Of course, eventually, something DOES happen, and it is all pretty nifty.  Now, don’t get all excited.  This is not Isaac Asimovc stuff.  Just a fun sci story that although offering us some pretty interesting ideas, doesn’t really take itself too seriously.   I was a little disappointed in the pretty improbable ending, though…. oh, wait!  What am I saying?  We’re talking about a  story about a space ship, a spaceship which produces zombies using fodder from the local graveyard, a friend who is actually an alien who has robots masquerading as her parents, …  and I am concerned about an improbable ending?  Yeah.  Lost my mind there for a minute.

Fun read.  Since its tagline is Sorrow Falls #1, I am assuming it is or will soon be part of a series.  But I am done with Sorrow Falls and Miss Annie whose dialogue actually DOES seem improbably witty for a 16-year-old.  I have my own UFOs to investigate, right here in Sunny Mexico. Probably military maneuvers ….  not Mexico’s military, but the secret crap of the USA’s military …. but it is fun to think there might be a sentient being who took a wrong turn at Neptune and ended up flying over the Sierra Madres, trying to orient the lousy map he picked up at his last fuel stop on Ganymede.

OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE by Lawrence Block

Number 7 in the Matt Scudder mystery series, this one written in 1989.  Yep, we are still in the era where he makes phone calls from pay phones and lives in a residential hotel for cheap, and actually has a real honest-to-goodness phone in his room. I have decided he is a very Zen kind of person.  He earns just enough to live on and sporadically support his kids, he doesn’t go looking for cases, they all just come to him, his possessions in his hotel room are minimal, he has no car, and he tries to do good.  What more can we ask of life?  Well, we can ask more, we all do, don’t we, but perhaps we shouldn’t, since studies show that happiness is not in possessing things, but in possessing interests and being interesting, and being interested in something.

In this volume, Scudder has been sober for three years, and a Subaru dealer from Indiana has hired him to find his missing daughter,  would-be actress Paula Hoeldtke.  She seems to have moved out of her rooming house room, leaving behind only the sheets and the telephone answering machine.  Her parents haven’t heard from her in several months and can’t contact her, so the dad comes to the city, where he is directed to Matt Scudder to kind of nose around and see what he can come up with.

Meanwhile, a fellow AA member whom he met at one of the meetings has asked Scudder to hear his confessions of his failings, which is Step 5 of the AA program.  Scudder agrees, and when he doesn’t hear from him for a while, looks for him, and finds him dead in his room, asphyxiated by a rope tied to his bed frame.  Looks like an auto-eroticism act gone wrong.

In the course of his investigations he acquires a dangerous new lady (she drinks) and a dangerous new friend (they call him “The Butcher Boy,”, both of whom impact his life in different ways.

As reviewer Bill Kerwin writes, this is a typical Matt Scudder mystery: slow as molasses, slim on plot, very grim—and totally absorbing.  Yep.  I do like this series, because although the subjects are often very heavy, it is easy reading.    This one teaches us about Paris Green.  It is the name of a restaurant the protagonists patronize.

“It gets the feel of the place across.  The French atmosphere, and all the plants hanging from the ceiling.”

“Don’t you know what Paris green is?”

“Evidently not.”

“It’s a poison,” she said.  “It’s an arsenic compound.  Arsenic and copper, if I remember right, and that would account for the color.  It used to get a lot of use as an insecticide.  You would spray it on plants to kill chewing insects. They absorbed it and died.  Paris green was also used as a coloring agent.  To color things green.  They used it primarily in wallpaper, and consequently a lot of people have died over the year, most of them children with a bent for oral experimentation.”

How apt for a murder mystery book.  Spoiler:  it has nothing to do with the deaths in this book.  It is just an interesting side note.

The title of the book comes from a conversation Scudder has with a playwrite, who is discussing an ill friend who is too ill to revise his play.  (Remember, this is the 80s.)  The playwrite says to Scudder

“Everyone’s dying.  Have you noticed? …. Do you know what I think?”

“What?”

“The earth has AIDS.  We’re all whirling merrily through the void on a dying planet, and gay people are just doing their usual number, being shamelessly trendy as always.  Right out in front on the cutting edge of death.”

 

OK, now I am sad.

Enjoy your read, and fret not, for there are many more to come in the series.