Wednesday, July 20, 2016


I read "The Buried Giant", by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015). My son had read it at the beach and lent me his trade paperback copy. It is 335 pages. It won all kind of "book of the year" awards last year.

The story is set in a straight up (Arthurian) fantasy world. You can tell it is written by a literary type, the language is beautiful. The story moves along surprisingly well, given that its 2 main characters are an old married couple. The main theme is remembering vs forgetting the past. Good and bad with both.

Ishiguro also wrote "The Remains of the Day", which was 1 of those Merchant-Ivory films you had to see. I also bought the movie "Never Let Me Go", based on 1 of his novels. It is near-future science fiction. I also bought "The White Countess", for which Ishguro wrote the screenplay.

Next I read "Remanance", by Jennifer Foehner Wells. The book is subtitled (Confluence Book 2). When I started reading the 1st of the series, my "bad writing" alarm got triggered. I've looked into that more, I hate being critical without knowing exactly why. But regardless, Ms. Wells' writing continues to improve rapidly.

Amazon says the print book is 496 pages? Wow, I would not have guessed that. Kudos to the author for creating such a page turner.

She has a nice sci-fi framework set up with lots of directions to take it. Her aliens are nicely alien? And who could not love a cephalopod protagonist? I was disappointed in the 1st book that the main adversary, who we have not encountered yet, was bugs - Hicks, "It's a bug hunt". But, there are interesting things you can do with interstellar insects: social insect behavior in general, and intelligence without consciousness.

So a quick read and a better ending, looking forward to the next one in the series.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Harmony With Nature

1 of the 7 Basic Goods which together make up the Good Life, from "How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life", by Robert and Edward Skidelsky (British, an economist and a philosopher), blogged here. is Harmony With Nature. I recently saw another list of basic goods which did not seem to have such a concept. The Skidelsky's name a garden as the paramount example of Harmony With Nature.

My wife has always had flower gardens. Lately she has been cultivating dozens of varieties of hybrid irises and lilies. The lilies have been been blooming like crazy lately. Here's some recent pictures of her beds.

Her Asiatic lilies just started blooming a few days ago. These have a strong odor that originally I did not care for, but I have gotten to like it OK.

A few years ago she created her experimental butterfly garden. Towards the back left is a volunteer butterfly bush that has been very popular.

The only big butterflies we get consistently are tiger swallowtail like this male.

We also get a lot of bees of all kinds. They also like to drink from the bird bath. If you do not have a bird bath, I strongly recommend getting one. Birds, insects, squirrels, and chipmunks all drink from it. I had been told that it will also help keep the squirrels from eating your tomatoes, but that doesn't seem to be working out for one of my daughters. Recognize that, like bird feeders, putting a bird bath out is a commitment. The critters will come to rely on it, so you must keep up your end of the bargain.

She also recently found a woman out by Georgetown with a hosta farm. The back of our yard is very shady, so it is becoming a hosta garden.

The 1st spring after I retired I (actualy Carlos Villanova and his guys) put in a vegetable garden. It is 1x2 railroad ties (8'x16'), and was started with 1/2 ton of topsoil and compost. It is now in its 3rd year. It only gets about 7 hours of direct sun/day, but does pretty well anyway. I did not realize when I got into it how much bending over was involved :-O

I started early this year. January 15 I covered it in a wheelbarrow-full of compost from our heap; turned it over with a shovel (took around 40 minutes); and spread 120# of cow manure over it.

March 15 it raked out easily, and I planted lettuce, mixed greens, spinach, carrots (1st time), and snow peas from seed. It froze 4 times after the lettuce, greens, and spinach started coming up, but they did fine. We got maybe 12 gallon bags of lettuce, greens & spinach and I got in a habit of having a big salad for lunch. We got 3-4 gallon bags of snow peas, which we throw into our veggie mix on the grill.

April 1 I planted 6 broccoli, 6 brussel sprouts, and 6 radicchio (1st time) starts. The broccoli are producing 2ndary heads now. The brussel sprouts are just getting close to harvesting. The radicchio has been a great addition to the salads. Radicchio is a member of the chicory family and is a perennial. All 6 plants are growing their 2nd head now.

May 1 I planted 2 cucumbers vines, 6 tomatoes (2 roma, 2 grape, 2 black krim heirlooms), 4 peppers (1 japapeno, 2 green bell, 1 red bell), 1 yellow squash, and 1 zucchini squash. May was very wet and the cucumbers were getting some kind of rust on them, so I planted 2 more vines at the other end of the garden - my granddaughter loved the cucumbers sliced with hummus last year, and I wanted to make sure I got some. Of course, all 4 vines are doing well, despite the rust, and I am harvesting about 1 cuc/day. I've harvested a few grape and roma tomatoes - but 1 of my "grape" tomatoes turned out to be some kind of steak tomato. I've gotten a few squash, but the bore has already killed the yellow squash, the zucchini will probably follow soon. I got a few peppers, but I don't think I get enough sun for the peppers to thrive.

I also planted some beets from seed at my wife's request. They look like they are doing OK, may have to try to harvest some soon. Growing stuff underground is more challenging. I didn't thin my carrots near enough - in general, I find it hard to thin stuff, I'm afraid I'll get rid of too much. It is definitely a learning experience.

Last year I tried planting kale and swiss chard seed August 1 as a fall crop. But I found that, after September, the garden only gets 3-4 hours of sun/day, so they didn't do anything. This year I tried putting kale & swiss chard in right after the lettuce and spinach were done, around June 15, but again, nothing. It's too hot for them. So I guess I'll have to try them early, with the lettuce et al, next year.

It is of course great to eat stuff right out of the garden. It is also nice to share with your neighbors. I gave away lots of lettuce and will do the same with the cucumbers and tomatoes. I got some nice radishes and onions from my neighbor across the street.

But the best part is how the grandkids interact with it. Last summer, my grandson, 13 months old, just walking for a month, started picking grape tomatoes and popping them in his mouth. Totally instinctive behavior. He would juice them in his mouth, swallow the juice, and spit the seeds and skins out onto his belly - nice! And my 5 YO granddaughter, who last year loved the cucs sliced with hummus, this year took a cucumber and ate the whole thing like an apple! She was also picking snow peas off the vine and eating them. Seeing them interact with "food in the raw" like that definitely makes it all worthwhile.

Monday, July 11, 2016

More Shamanism

I'm not sure how I wound up with shamanism as a minor theme here. A shamanistic convergence, I guess.

I read "Shaman", by Kim Stanley Robinson (2013). This book came out after the most excellent "2312". It is 530 pages. I'm not sure how I missed it. It is not science fiction or fantasy. It is the coming-of-age story of a (Cro-Magnon) human named Loon in southern Europe 40,000 years ago. The dating is pretty precise, because: a) he was an early cave painter; and b) there were still Neanderthal around.

Looking this up, it's amazing that humans and Neanderthals overlapped in southern Europe for only 5,000 years - from 45,000 years ago, when humans entered Europe, to 40,000 years ago, at which point the Neanderthals had all disappeared. The implication is, it only took us 5,000 years to wipe them out.

Robinson goes into great detail on hunter-gatherer life. In the very beginning there are several pages on how to light a fire in a storm.

Part of the shaman's training consists of being the keeper of the pack's oral tradition: he must memorize the 5 great tales and the 10 minor tales. We get excerpts of some of these tales as blank verse, nice.

1 small detail I liked - Loon is taught to name his injuries. Somehow, as an aging person, this seems like a reasonable thing to do.

Another thing I liked was a discussion of trail finding. I have always enjoyed following trails, and felt that it was one of our innate skills, developed by evolution over the last million years or so. I've often thought that the mathematics of trail-finding - minimizing the gradient function, I think - should be the basis of many search algorithms where you are trying to find a local minimum. Here are 2 passages that describe following trails:

I'm a straightwalker, Pippi said when Look asked about the trails. - I mean, I run a nice clean route. I don't go straight at the land if it doesn't make sense, but I don't like extravagance. Ups and downs are usually not bad enough to justify a divagation. Anyway I look for the best way. I'm always looking to see if there's a better way than the one I've used before, if I'm where I've gone before. And if I'm in new land, well, it's the best thing there is, finding a good way.


He put his mind to seeing the best way downcanyon. He could to this as well as any of them. In all canyons there was a ramp of easiest travel, inlaid into the jumble of rocks and trees in ways that could be hard to find. The best way might zigzag from sidewall to sidewall, or run as straight as a crack. Sometimes it was overgrown by trees or brush, especially if it was an alder canyon; still it would reveal itself to the eye if one took the trouble to look for it.

There is not a lot of conflict in the story. There is 1 long conflict that occupies maybe 1/3-1/2 of the book but generates a totally minimal body count. This vision of prehistoric times is somewhat at odds with that I would have expected, based on, say, Stephen Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature", where Pinker noted that, "Most of the "icemen" found preserved from 10s of 1000s of years ago have some kind of injury likely inflicted by another human." (paraphrased in my blog post).

Regardless, Robinson is truly one of our finest modern writers, and this is a great read.

Next I read "The Supreme Shaman", by Mark Heinz. Mark is my (3 years) younger brother. He has written 6 novels, this is his latest. it is 235 pages. I would classify it as urban fantasy. The protagonist is 1/2 Native American, and was pronounced the Supreme Shaman by the shaman (his grandfather) who trained him. The shamanistic powers are neat - they made me think of Dr. Strange. His strongest power is healing, which makes him the natural adversary for our oh-so-bad guy, who is a psychic assassin. The action moves from Big Sky country in the US to Brunei - the locales seem well researched.

The pacing of the book is excellent. The battle of good shaman vs very evil sorcerer is well done. Some of the background material is very good as well:

  • a discussion of how primitive peoples did not believe in natural death except in the very old, but rather felt that unnatural non-accidental deaths were caused by sorcery, which has been noted in this blog before;
  • a discussion of how after WW2, the US military was able to use operant conditioning to make soldiers much more effective killers.
This was a quick (2 sittings) and fun read, I recommend it.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Shamanistic Sigils

I was walking the Beaumont walking trail heading south. Just past the Beaumont Post Office, I came across the paintings shown above. If you drive the loop around the Post Office parking lot, they are on your right at the end of the parking lot.

I really like these. IMO, some 14-15 YO in our neighborhood is a real artist (more below). I tweeted this picture and referred to them as "shamanistic glyphs". A glyph is actually a single character in a set - a better description would have been "shamanistic sigils".

The left image is of a white tree with bleeding leaves, enclosed in, an egg penetrated by several sperm??? Or cherries in a pie??? Somehow I am getting "nature distressed".

The central image is where it gets shamanistic. The 4 spirals are self-hypnosis devices - welcome to a shamanistic trance. The central white test pattern is reminiscent of voodoo veves.

The right image I remembered as more mathematical than it is - a contrast to the left image, creating a nature vs technology narrative. On reexamination, it is a single spiral. The 4 ovals can give an impression of depth, to where the spiral is descending into the concrete. I have no clue what the green & white objects in the lower left are. This and the central image also are reminiscent of mandalas.

Ha ha. Of course you know that my interpretations of this art are complete BS.

I was privileged on several occasions to do multi-hour museum tours with my oldest daughter Erica, who is an artist. I remember in particular spending 4-5 hours at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, when she was a senior in high school and was going to spend the next night in an MIT dorm. I also remember several hours at the Met, which I blogged about.

In a small measure, she taught me to see through her artist's eyes. 1 thing I believe I learned is, art is like science fiction - it is all about edge, about making people think new thoughts, get a different take on reality. The, what, urban tribalism of these paintings screamed "art" to me.

But, getting back to BS. This multi-media piece that Erica did in high school has hung in every office I have worked in for close to 20 years. It may or may not be titled "Creation".

I was like, "Erica, I get it! The left is mathematics, the upper right is physics, the lower right is biology! Right?" The response: "No, dad. It's art."

So my analysis is BS, but it was still very pleasant to encounter what I would consider real art in the wild.