May 31, 2005

Saturn on Edge

One of the nice things about working at JPL is once in a while I get interesting stuff in my e-mail.
Interesting stuff like this image of Saturn taken by Cassini just as the spacecraft was crossing the plane of Saturn's rings.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:17 PM | Comments(0)

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis

Prince Caspian is Jane's favorite Narnia book, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is mine. I remember reading it for the first time, sitting in a little blue folding chair on the back porch. What's odd is that I have no idea why I was sitting on the back porch; it wasn't a very pleasant place for sitting (it still isn't), and I don't remember doing such a thing at any other time. Out on the front patio, sure, but the back porch never.

But I digress.

I just finished reading it to my two boys, and while I'm not sure how much of the ending they really got, I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's one of those books that deepens each time I read it. The boys, for their part, were considerably amused by the Dufflepuds.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:12 PM | Comments(2)

May 30, 2005

Notebook V2.1.3

I've just uploaded a new version of Notebook to the Notebook Wiki.

Posted by Will Duquette at 02:32 PM | Comments(0)

May 29, 2005

Guardian of the Horizon, by Elizabeth Peters

I finished this book almost two weeks ago, and I've been sitting on it instead of writing a review...mostly because I'm not sure what I think about it. It's an Amelia Peabody novel, but with a difference. Heretofor, every book in the series has represented a chronological advance. In this case, Peters has jumped back to the years prior to the first World War--which is to say, back to those years when Ramses was still stressing over whether to tell Nefret how he felt. Not a time period I was with child to revisit.

And then, it's a direct sequel to Peters' homage to H. Rider Haggard, the very odd The Last Camel Died At Noon. It's been about ten years, and the Emersons and sundry go back to the Lost Oasis and the lands beyond. There's bluster, derring do, adventures, arch comments, surly villains, and all manner of colorful atmosphere--all very promising.

But it takes a long time to get started. And though there were bad guys galore, there was never any great sense of danger. And the denoument seemed both too simple and a little contrived.

I dunno. I suspect Peters had fun writing it, and I found it mildly entertaining, but she's capable of better than this.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:43 PM | Comments(0)

Plumbing, Day 1

This is the morning of the second day of our re-plumbing job; we have no water in the kitchen or in the kids' bathroom, but the master bathroom is complete. We've got bright clean copper pipes running into the house in place of the rotten old congested galvanized we used to have, which means that the water runs more smoothly and more quietly, and I'm betting more expansively as well, which is not entirely a good thing. But it made for a nice shower this morning.

Today they are going to get the kitchen hooked up, and then they can get our pantry put back together so we can move the cans and bottles and bags out of our livingroom.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:19 AM | Comments(0)

May 27, 2005

Rumors of my demise....

...are greatly exaggerated.

But gosh, it has been a while since I last posted anything, so I figured I'd jot down a few notes about what's been going on.

Mostly, what's been going on is work. Two weeks ago, I finished up a project I'd been working on for about seven years. I started on it as one of the developers, and ended up managing the darn thing (there's glory for you--I don't think). Now it's over, and I'm a manager no longer (for which God be thanked) and I've started on a new project altogether. I've actually been transitioning on to it for the last six weeks or so, but I've only really clicked into high gear during the last two weeks.

I don't know how your job works, but in my job my backbrain does most of the heavy lifting. It grinds away at problems while I'm eating and sleeping and driving and so forth, and it presents me with solutions when I need them. And sometimes my backbrain gets so caught up in what it's doing that there's no capacity left over anything else creative. So I've been doing a lot of reading over the last two weeks, I've played a game or two, and written almost nothing.

This weekend is a bit of a respite; given that it's a three-day weekend I made sure I didn't start anything today that I couldn't finish. Otherwise my backbrain would chew on it all weekend. My backbrain is rather like a large puppy when it's working hard; it chews and chews and every so often it barks and says "Come play with me!" And it won't quit! So I took pains to let it go to sleep toward the end of the afternoon.

It's bound to be an interesting weekend anyway; we're getting our house replumbed. It'd be a great weekend go to somewhere special, except of course for everyone else doing the same thing. We'll see how it goes.

But I digress. (Or do I? It's hard to say.) I should have some time to blog this afternoon, and in particular I've got a stack of books awaiting review which I hope to get to. So watch this space!

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:49 PM | Comments(0)

May 22, 2005

How I Became A History Buff

I am not a historian, not even an amateur historian. What I am is a reader, and since I was little what I've liked to read is tales of the odd, the strange, the exotic, the interesting. Science fiction; fantasy; mysteries; this should come as no surprise to anyone who's read this blog for even a couple of weeks.

Quite a long while ago now, though well after I completed my formal schooling, it struck me that the past contained thousands of times and places which are as odd, strange, exotic, and interesting as anything in literature. You'd think that this would lead me straight to historical fiction; perhaps surprisingly, it didn't. Instead, it led me to "popular history"--the real stuff, packaged up for the layman.

I went to the public library, and checked out a copy of the first volume of Will Durant's Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage. Durant takes a great deal of abuse these days; apparently his books are just chock full of errors and inaccuracies. I wouldn't know. I was after the general picture.

I don't remember whether it was The Life of Greece (Durant's second volume) or Caesar and Christ (the third) that our golden retriever devoured while Jane and I were out one evening. I do know that we caught him in the act, and that he was never again foolish enough to set tooth to page. Jane went to the library to pay the fine; "The dog ate it," she said. The librarian didn't believe it until Jane opened the bag and showed her the remains.

Just about that time the Book-of-the-Month Club had a promotion in Smithsonian Magazine--they'd send you Durant's complete series if you signed up. They'd been doing this for ages, but usually you had to promise to by four more books in the next year. That particular month, though, they waived the four book requirement. I jumped at it, got my set of books, and canceled my membership. (The requirement was back the next month, as it happens; clearly I wasn't the only one to take advantage.)

After I tired of Durant (I gave up at the Enlightenment) I discovered Barbara Tuchman; I also read quite a bit about the Roman Empire. It was only after that that I discovered historical fiction--Patrick O'Brian, George MacDonald Fraser, Dorothy Dunnett. The former two led me to the history of the British Empire, and Fraser in particular to Central Asia and China. From there, my reading spread all over the place.

I owe it all to Durant and Tuchman; without them, or other writers like them, I'd never have gotten so far.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:45 AM | Comments(0)

Popular History

Kevin at Collected Miscellany has a nice post in reference to a snotty diatribe against "popular history" that appeared in Slate. Here's what I had to say in the comments:

A good popular history can tell a story without becoming historical fiction; and telling history as a story is essential makes it much, much easier for the reader to build the conceptual framework on which more sophisticated reading depends.

For example, what point is there in reading an argument over what did or didn't happen at the battle of Hattin if you don't know that the battle of Hattin was a major defeat for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and and you don't know that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was established by the Crusaders, and you don't know why the Crusaders were in the Middle East to begin with, and you don't know anything about the rise of Islam or Christianity, or the later history of the Roman/Byzantine Empire, etc., etc.

Popular history helps you start building that skeleton, and gives you badly needed context. The little details may be inaccurate or "insufficiently nuanced", but you're not reading it for the little details; you're reading it for the big ones.

Once you've got the broad sweep of things under your hat, then you can dig deeper into anything that interests you. But without that broad sweep you're lost.

More to the point, while everyone would benefit from a general knowledge of history (and the republic not least) it's absurd to think that the average citizen should act like a serious historical scholar. We have other things to be doing--and without those things, our culture wouldn't be able to support the serious historical scholars we do have.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:24 AM | Comments(0)

May 21, 2005

Photo of Mars Odyssey

This is simply too cool for words.

The Mars Odyssey spacecraft is in orbit around Mars. The Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft is in orbit around Mars. The two spacecraft are usually so close together (from the point of view of Earth) that they get tracked at the same time by the same DSN antenna--a relatively new capability, and one that was implemented precisely because of the number of spacecraft now in orbit around Mars.

So a few days ago, Mars Global Surveyor took a picture of Mars Odyssey--the first time one extraterrestrial orbiter has taken a picture of another. And here it is. In fact, there are two images of Mars Odyssey in the one picture, because of how MGS' camera works and how the two spacecraft were moving. You can read about it on the picture page.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:42 AM | Comments(0)

May 18, 2005

Flashman in the Great Game, by George MacDonald Fraser

From the title, you'd think that this was a book about the "Great Game" that I've mentioned several times over the last month or so--the Anglo-Russian cold war of the 19th century. And it is, sort of, in an alternate-history sort of way; but not really.

What it really is, is the story of our Harry Flashman caught smack in the middle of the Sepoy Mutiny. The Mutiny was the watershed event in the history of British India. Prior to the Mutiny, India was "ruled" by the East India Company; after the Mutiny the British Government stepped in, Queen Victoria became the Empress of India, and the classic Raj was born.

The Company had subdued the Indian subcontinent with a little scheming, a little bribery, and the help of the Royal Army; but it had its own armies as well, which but for a small corps of British officers were composed entirely of native troops, both hindus and muslims. It was these troops that mutinied, and horrible atrocities were committed upon British men, women, and children all over India. These led to fierce reprisals and counter atrocities, and eventually the Mutiny was put down.

The origins of the Mutiny are murky. There had been signs of unrest for some months before the Mutiny began; indeed, these signs are the reason Flashman is sent to India in the present book. Rumors had spread that the British were going to require native troops to use gunpower cartridges greased with cow or pig fat. This was untrue, but it was a potent rumor nonetheless--anything related to pigs is anathema to muslims, and cow fat was even more dangerous to devout hindus, as touching it could break your caste.

Fraser works the Great Game in in two ways. First, the players of the Great Game often traveled through Central Asia in native guise, and though Flashman never gets anywhere near Central Asia in this particular book (unlike Flashman at the Charge), he does spend quite a bit of time in native guise. And second, Fraser feigns that the Mutiny and related uprisings were fomented by Russia, and in particular by the sinister Count Ignatiev, a Russian great-gamesman of note. And that's why I say this book is about the Great Game in an alternate-history sort of way--it's precisely the sort of thing the Russians would have done if they could have. By this time they'd already launched a couple of abortive strikes on India, never getting farther than Afghanistan, and in each case their plans had included a native uprising which, with the help of the Russian Army, would sweep the British out of India for ever.

But practically speaking, it's not at all clear that the Russians were involved in the run-up to actual event; and as for Count Ignatiev, genuine historical figure that he is, I believe he's included in the current book mostly as a bogey-man for Flashman, who had "met" him in Flashman at the Charge.

Anyway, this is a fascinating book, and worth reading...but I have to admit, it's not much fun--the Mutiny is just too grim a topic.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:12 PM | Comments(2)

May 17, 2005

Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson

Sometimes ya just gotta return to your roots, ya know?

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:33 PM | Comments(3)

May 14, 2005

Lego Harpsichord

A really truly playable harpsichord, made entirely out of Lego (except for the wires, of course. I cannot help but be impressed. (But not appalled. I've got too many peculiar obsessions of my own to be appalled.)

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:24 AM | Comments(0)

May 13, 2005

Here's a First Rate Opportunity... note that today is Sir Arthur Sullivan's birthday. In his honor (or despite), I shall quote a few of W.S. Gilbert's lyrics:

The Pirates of Penzance, on discovering the Major-General's (yes, that Major-General) daughters on the beach:

Here's a first rate opportunity to get married with impunity
To indulge in the felicity of unbounded domesticity
You shall quickly be parsonified, conjugally matrimonified
By a doctor of divinity who is located in this vicinity.

The daughters, encouraging the constables in their duty (I love to sing this, which is unfortunate for those nearby....):

Go, ye heroes, go to glory
Though you die in combat gory
You shall live in song and story
Go to immortality!

Go to death, and go to slaughter.
Die, and every Cornish daughter
With her tears your grave shall water

Go ye heroes, go and die!

(Go ye heroes, go and die, go ye heroes, go and die.)

The constables reply,

Though it's very evident (taran-tara taran-tara)
These intentions are well-meant (taran-tara)
These expressions don't appear (taran-tara taran-tara)
Calculated men to cheer (taran-tara)
Who are going to meet their fate
In a highly nervous state
(Taran-tara taran-tara taran-tara)

I could go on and on, but I think this will do for tonight.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:02 PM | Comments(1)

May 12, 2005

Yes, She Will

So my three-year-old daughter bounced into my lap the other day.

"I'm Piglet!" she cried cheerfully.

"You're Piglet?"


"You'll feel differently about that when you're older."

"No I won't."

Yes, I do believe she will.

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:07 PM | Comments(3)

May 10, 2005

Diet Watch

I went to the doctor yesterday for my monthly checkup and weigh-in; I lost 8 pounds over the last month, which makes 34 pounds total since I started my diet three months ago. It might have been more than 8 pounds, but I was sick for a week a couple of weeks ago, and wasn't able to go for my daily walk for a couple of days; and when I started walking again, it took me a few days to build up to where I'd been. But I'm not complaining; 8 pounds is just spiffy.

34 pounds. My 14-month-old daughter weighs half that, and I really don't see how I could carry that much around with me and not notice. I certainly don't feel that much lighter on my feet.

But I've still got a long way to go.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:52 PM | Comments(0)

May 08, 2005

Perfect Songs

Every so often I hear something I call a "Perfect Song"--though that's a woefully imprecise name for it. What I mean by a Perfect Song is a recording which is so perfectly itself that it couldn't possibly be altered without breaking it. The music and the singing mesh perfectly together, and the whole thing usually has a unique feel to it. Any other recording of the same song is going to have take an entirely different approach, because these recordings can't be beaten at their own game.

These aren't necessarily my favorite songs, mind you; just recordings whose perfection I've noticed over the years. Anyway, here are a few of them.

  • I Heard It Through The Grapevine, as recorded by Marvin Gaye--the copy I have is on the Big Chill soundtrack. This is the first recording whose perfection I ever happened to notice.
  • Take Me To The River; the Talking Heads' version. With all due respect to Al Green, his version lacks that killer bass riff.
  • Down On The Corner, by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Plus, it's just so dog-gone happy!
  • Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy; the Andrews Sisters, of course.
  • Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress), by the Hollies. This song is entirely unlike anything else they did, and it's by far their best song. I'm told that this was a throwaway B side; instead of overproducing it to death and making it sugary, they just cut loose and wailed. That's not always a recipe for success, but they made it work.
  • Good Vibrations; The Beach Boys--ooooo-eeee-OOOO-oooo-oooo.

There are others, of course; these are just a handful that came to mind at the moment.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:08 PM | Comments(0)

May 07, 2005

Reading, Writing, and Ranting

Limyaael's Rants is a collection of essays on the craft of writing fiction in general, and fantasy fiction in particular. One gathers that Limyaael has read far too much bad fiction, and wants to improve the output of would-be writers of fantasy.

I found this quite some time ago now, and forgot to post anything about it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 01:51 PM | Comments(0)

May 05, 2005

On Basilisk Station,
The Honor of the Queen,
The Short Victorious War,
Field of Dishonor,
Flag in Exile, by David Weber

As I noted a while back, when I get sick I reach for old favorites like Watership Down or I reach for a not terribly deep series that I can chain-read. You get one guess which of those this is.

These are the first five books in Weber's "Honor Harrington" series. Honor Harrington is a starship captain in the navy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. She's a skilled strategist, a brillant tactician, devoted to her duty, a natural leader, and nearly indestructible. Also, she has a knack for getting into difficult situations that require indomitable courage and steely resolve.

I've written about these before; click on Weber's name in the title for links to my earlier reviews. For the most part they held up pretty well on third (or is it fourth?) reading; on the other hand, a couple of them had sections that I simply skipped.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:44 PM | Comments(0)

May 03, 2005

Flashman at the Charge, by George MacDonald Fraser

This is the fourth Flashman novel in the order of initial publication; I skipped the two intervening novels because this one brings us back to Central Asia and the lands of the Great Game.

The book begins with a lengthy explanation of how Flashman, always content to play the devil around London, is dragooned into going to the Crimea as a galloper for General Raglan. The Crimean War was one of the few times when the 19th century cold war between Russia and Great Britain actually turned hot, though the cause in this case wasn't the possibility of a Russian invasion of India, but of a Russian invasion of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire was still a "power" in those days; I use scare quotes because it was rather a senile and incompetent power, right on the verge of collapse. But nobody in Europe wanted to deal with the mess that would follow the breakup of the Ottoman Empire--and rightly so, it finally broke up with the first World War, and we're still picking up the pieces even today. Anyway, England want to war with Russia to prevent Russia invading Turkey, and much tragedy ensued.

It was an extremely bad day in Balaclava for our Harry; a determined coward, he was forced to participate in the Thin Red Line (when a thin line of British troops held off a Russian cavalry charge), the Charge of the Heavy Brigade (when a brigade of British cavalry charged a much larger force of Russians--uphill--and somehow survived the experience), and the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, Exhibit A in the annals of stupid military decisions, where for no good reason a brigade of British cavalry charged down a long, narrow valley lined with guns on both sides and the far end and were largely blown to bits.

Flashman survived, naturally, but was captured by the Russians. He later managed to escape, was captured near the Caspian Sea, and was imprisoned in the same cell as a rogue named Yakub Beg, leader of the armies of the city-state of Khokand. After their escape, Flashman is forced to help Yakub put paid to a Russian army which is trying to conquer Khokand and surrounding regions so as to pave a way to India.

Yakub Beg's an interesting character; Peter Hopkirk's book The Great Game doesn't have much to say about his earlier career, during which he would have met Flashman, but later on Yakub conquered the city-state of Kashgar, across the Pamir range from Khokand, and set up a little kingdom for himself there at the western end of what was then called Chinese Turkestan. As its ruler, he was to play a major role in the later period of the Great Game.

Anyway, "Flash Harry" is in his usual form throughout. He tells a good tale, but otherwise goodness has little to do with it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:25 PM | Comments(0)

May 02, 2005

A New Drink

It consists of Benedictine, Polish vodka, champagne, and a cherry.

They call it a Ratzlinger.

(Heard in e-mail....)

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:35 PM | Comments(0)

May 01, 2005

What Dads Do

Here's a post Jane found, about what fathers contribute to their families. It certainly tallies with my experience.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:54 PM | Comments(0)