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Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution

Another great book for your reading pleasure and edification… 🙂 This one’s about how Benedict Arnold transitioned from being a hero of the Revolution to its almost-successful betrayer, and thereby earned the dubious distinction of having his name become a synonym for traitor in American English.

That story is worth the read in its own right. But along the way Philbrick colors in a lot of Revolutionary history that I was unaware of, and which explains a bunch of things. For example, why didn’t the American Revolution devolve the way the French Revolution did a few years later, with Committees of Public Safety, the Terror and the rise of Napoleon? Answer…it started down that path (gulp), with witch hunts dragging people who didn’t express enough support for the Cause out of their homes. In fact, Philbrick asserts that part of the reason it didn’t go further was because of Benedict Arnold turning traitor, which gave enough people pause to remember Franklin’s observation “we must all hang together, or we shall all surely hang separately”.

I also enjoyed reading about how Washington repeatedly put the Revolution in danger by trying to foment “one glorious battle” to defeat the British…failing miserably every time he tried. Which eventually forced him to overcome his naturally aggressive instincts (he was an upper-crust, self-made Virginian, after all) and switch to a war of attrition, and let the nascent United States hang on long enough for the French to make it not worth England’s while to keep the colonies (England made far, far more money off of its Caribbean possessions, which France’s entry into the conflict put immediately at risk, than it did off of the 13 colonies combined).

Which is not to denigrate Washington. Real character, and genius, IMHO, is not in having amazing gifts (or at least not just having amazing gifts), but learning how to surmount the limitations we are each born with, whatever those may be. That’s what made Washington the guy we named our national capital after.

Definitely worth picking up.

East Meets West

I just finished reading a pair of wonderful books, 1491 and 1493, both by Charles Mann. The first, 1491, is an in-depth survey of the history and civilizations of the Western Hemisphere prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and what happened to the folks who had been living here after that event. I found it riveting, and chock full of things that I either had no knowledge of whatsoever, or whose significance I hadn’t fully appreciated earlier.

For example, the “virgin forest” described by early colonial settlers appears to have been the result of intensive farming by the native Americans. As also appears to be the case with the Amazon rainforest. The reason neither was appreciated by the Europeans was because there was little or not tradition of “farming” trees in Europe, and diseases to which the original inhabitants had little resistance spread in advance of the wave of colonization, killing off as much as 95% or 96% of the inhabitants. I cannot imagine what the impact of that extinction level event was to the previously-thriving cultures, which, like the Europeans, had no understanding of how bacteria and viruses cause disease, let alone how to combat them.

1493 focuses on the global paroxysms that resulted from that first contact, as Western Hemisphere crops — and pests — flooded the world, along with Inka silver destabilizing both European and Asian societies. 

Definitely worth reading.

Std Dev X * Std Dev P >= h / 2

Today, in Gregory Benford’s book The Berlin Project, I came across the first quantum mechanical dirty joke I’ve ever seen (it’s no doubt an oldie, but, hey, I never actually studied quantum mechanics).

It’s attributed to Enrico Fermi:

Poor Werner Heisenberg! When he finds the right position, he loses his momentum. And when he has the energy, he doesn’t have the time.

I find it a grand commentary on the human condition that one of the most profound and subtle products of the human mind — quantum mechanics — can be the basis of dirty jokes :).

Sacramento, Here I Come!

This is admittedly a shameless piece of self-promotion. OTOH… it’s way cool, and I’m both excited and proud to have been chosen for this role (thanx, Congresswoman Speier!). I only wish my vote would have been part of electing the first woman President of these United States.

Electoral College Daily Post

Follow-up Daily Post Article

Riding After

I went for my second motorcycle ride in about eight months yesterday. The hiatus was due to a fairly bad accident (seven broken ribs and some bone in my upper back), punctuated by getting my bike back from the shop last October. It was much easier to repair the bike than it was to patch me up!

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It’s Official!

Years ago, when we adopted our dog Diego, we were told by the pound that he was “70% Pomeranian”. We never quite knew what that meant, or how it was determined. It was in the dark ages, back before anyone was doing genetic screening of dogs.

He looks pretty much like a Pomeranian to our admittedly uneducated eyes…but he’s larger than most Poms, and has a snout (most Poms have pretty flat faces).

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The Ultimate Democratic Endeavor

I read someplace that war is the ultimate democratic process, because all sides get a say in how it proceeds. I was reminded of this when glancing through a book on the Pacific theater of World War II the other day.

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There’s Usually an Easier Way

There was a UK TV crime show back in the early 90s that I used to watch. It only lasted one season (1994), and, while it was enjoyable, the theme song was what stuck with me. In fact, I made an audio recording of the theme — manually, as this was l-o-n-g before consumer audio recording and editing software! — which has been part of my music collection ever since. It’s part of my “gym collection”, on my iPod Shuffle.

Yesterday I decided to see if I could find a digital version of the piece. I had, however, long forgotten the name of the show.

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Even Favorite Authors Can Write Too Much

I’m a big fan of David Weber’s work, both his series (Honor Harrington, Empire of Man) and his standalone stories.

I also really enjoy his Safehold books, about a human colony struggling to recover after being set up in scientific and technological stasis by its founders. They wanted to ensure the colony, the last remaining human settlement in the galaxy, wouldn’t be exterminated by an alien species that had wiped out everyone else. The books follow the work of a warrior android, set up by a faction among the original starship’s crew who objected to the cultural stasis, who is brought back to life almost a thousand years after the initial settlement.

It’s a great yarn, spanning quite a few books…but those books are getting amazingly, groaningly long. The latest, Hell’s Foundations Quiver, clocks in at 679 pages (plus a hundred pages listing all the major and recurring characters in the books)! I tend to buy books by favorite authors as hardcovers, for my library. But these massive tomes have almost forced me to switch Weber to eBooks just to keep my wrists from being injured.

Worse yet, while there’s plenty of plot development and action in each of the novels, it’s what’d suffice for, say, 300 pages. When spread over more than twice as many words there are pages and pages of exposition and embellishment and recounting of internal musings galore. So much gubbage that I lose track of where I am, who’s speaking, why they’re important, and how they fit into the developing story.

As a result I’ve done something I’ve never done with novels: I’m skimming them. I really want to see how the story evolves, and maybe even ends someday, but it turns out you don’t miss much by just skipping over most of the verbiage. It feels wrong to do it, but at least I’m preserving my sanity.

I suspect this is all because Weber is immensely popular…and hence immensely profitable for his publisher(s). I’ve noticed before that tends to make books get longer. Editors know that if they push too hard for cuts, their company will be cut out of the gravy train. I first noticed this effect years ago with Tom Clancy.

But it’s sad. Weber’s a hell of a novelist. But his books need to shed some pounds, literally, and go back to the fast-paced work on which he made his name.

Tiger (1999 – 2015)

We had to put our remaining cat, Tiger, to sleep Thursday afternoon. She’d been getting progressively weaker for a while and losing weight. I think the final blow involved a fairly serious respiratory infection. It would not have been kind to her to keep her struggling on.

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