What I’m Reading These Days

Both my brother and I recently had major surgery (him: back/nerves/sciatica. me: intestinal/crohn’s disease) and are both suffering from insomnia, which we’ve never really had before. Perhaps the pain medications had something to do with it, but who knows?

In any case, it gives me an excuse to do a bit of home improvement (quietly, so as to not wake my wife) and a lot of reading.  I’m not usually in the habit of reading supermarket or drug store pulp fiction (tho I did enjoy the book Stephen King wrote about the time some disease killed 99.999% of the human race: what would it be like to survive in such a world? Strange, for sure, and SK does a lot of realistic conjecturing [as well as some unrealistic ghostly imagining, of course] and has a really keen ear for the way Americans of different types really do talk. But I read that years ago.)

 A few of the things I’m in the middle of reading, much of it on a Nook e-reader (which has both advantages and disadvantages btw)
* selections of works of Mark Twain (most recently, Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, his critiques of James Fenimore Cooper, and his take on the French Revolution and the Ancien Regime; his take on racism and imperialism, both American and Belgian)
* Last of the Mohicans by JFC. I’ll admit I skimmed a lot of it since his writing is so execrable. One could say in a simple declarative sentence of 2 or 3 lines, tops, what JFC will use 2 or 3 paragraphs for, using language perhaps nobody ever used. I wanted to see how it corresponded with the movie, which i enjoyed a lot. Did you know that Natty Bumppo refers to himself, repeatedly, as “a man without a cross”? And do you know what he meant? I had to look it up, and now you can. I will say the writing is better here than in Deerslayer, which IIRC is bout the american revolutionary war.
* Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich by William L Shirer. Excellent, except he makes lots and lots of excuses for the supposedly anti-nazi German officer corps who actually created Hitler and his party, funded them, armed them, trained their assault forces, and so on. But he does an excellent job at showing how Hitler was a master of the well-placed and perfectly-timed lie, betrayal and murder, allowing him to ally with certain forces only to betray them soon enough, when it suited his purposes. Hitler was, in this sense, one of the largest gangsters ever to live — but one who was able to recruit to his side, or else neutralize, millions of Germans who had fought hard against him for decades. That is one of my biggest unanswered questions: Hitler did not murder the literally tens of millions of Germans who had been members of the German Communist and Socialist parties before he declared those parties illegal. Yet essentially none of them, when drafted into the german military, did anything whatsoever to sabotage his obviously illegal, racist, murdering, and unprovoked wars and attacks. Why did they not revolt?
* Mein Kampf — am only a few chapters in. A bit heavy going because you know that nearly every sentence is a lie; hard to tease out the bits of truth and exactly what he is omitting. Seems surprisingly well-organized book so far. A lot of Shirer comes directly from this book; hard to find too many sources who actually knew Hitler when he was a young bum and who were willing to talk. Generally, I come more and more to appreciate what an utter ASSHOLE Hitler was. I share absolutely none of his basic opinions. I certainly hope that if I had been born in Germany during the first few decades of the 20th century, I would have been an anti-fascist.
* For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, which I had never read, only other works like Old Man and the Sea, Sun Also Rises, and some stories on bullfighting in Spain. FWTBT is about some left-wing Spanish guerrilla fighters behind enemy (i.e., fascist) lines during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which occurred when right-wing Spanish military officers, supported strongly by the Spanish and international Catholic Church, rose up and overthrew a legitimately elected national government, but were not immediately successful. It took three long years of war for the Nationalists, as the fascists were also called, to conquer all of Spain and to wipe out all of the opposition. Hemingway’s book gives an almost moment-to-moment, blow-by-blow account of what it was like to be part of a group of undercover fighters, surrounded by the enemy forces, who have been given the assignment of destroying a particular bridge in the mountains at the precise moment when the Loyalist (anti-fascist) government forces begin a major offensive to relieve the Fascist attacks on Madrid, which was still in anti-fascist, legitimate government hands. I was inspired to read this by watching part of Gellhorn and Hemingway. I liked the book a lot. I see there is a movie version with Gary Cooper; wonder how that will be.
* Cryptonomicon — excellent! A very long novel by Neal Stephenson that involves crypto during World War 2, with specific emphasis on Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, the bombe, the Battle of the Atlantic, and the Pacific Theater (esp the fight in the horrible jungles of New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, and the Philippines) as well as a bunch of modern-day computer geeks and math freaks who are trying to set up some sort of new information network in the Far East in the present-day (more or less)
* Origin of Species by Darwin. Man, this is an excellent book! I’m only about half way through. Neither he nor anybody else knew anything about genetics as we understand the topic today, with DNA, RNA, chromosomes, genes and so on; but he does an excellent job of pointing out what he admitted were gaps in the current state of knowledge of biology and zoology that nonetheless led him to his theory, which I think I can summarize thusly:
>> every creature (animal, plant, bacteria, virus, etc) tries to make copies of itself and stuggles to survive and not to be eaten
>> that drive to reproduce produces so many offspring that if all of them were to survive, then any one species would in a surprisingly small number of generations produce so many descendants that they would cover the entire planet, which is clearly impossible and never happens
>> these descendants, while similar to each other, do vary somewhat. Some of those variations make it so that their possessors are slightly more likely to survive and pass along descendants than their peers do
>>we know that these variations do pass along; in fact, farmers and breeders and completely uncivilized peoples with only the beginnings of agriculture or animal husbandry have been using this principle unwittingly for a long time. For instance, they only allow the strongest or meatiest or most docile rams or bulls or vegetables produce descendants, and have been “improving” (or at least modifying in the way that those people preferred)  those species as they prefer for millennia; this is called “artificial selection”
>> what nature does is very similar and is called ‘natural selection’
>>one big problem remains: precisely how does one decide if two types of animals or plants or yeasts or bacteria are in fact different species or are merely varieties/races/strains of the same species? In many cases, different species cannot produce offspring at all, no matter how hard they try. In other cases (like horses and donkeys) they can indeed produce offspring, i.e. mules or hinneys, but these descendants are sterile and can’t have any offspring whatsoever. Whereas if two different varieties of the same species are crossed, often times they and their descendants have ‘hybrid vigor’ but are quite different from either of their parents.
>>In any case, he assumes that the world is unimaginably ancient, and that evolution (descent by modification and natural selection causing gradual changes in species, such that the vast majority of all species that have ever existed are now extinct) takes a long, long time; but since the world is ancient, that time has indeed been sufficient for lots and lots of change. All you have to do, to see how much change has occurred, is to walk along the beach at Lyme Regis…
* Astrographs, Telescopes, and Eyepieces by Richard Berry et al (published by Willmann-Bell, willbell.com) Excellent technical account of the design and probable outcome of optics of all common, and many uncommon, types of telescopes and their associated eyepieces. The only drawback is that they have very little analysis of how these optical devices actually perform in real life, in the field or in an observatory; nor does it give you much of an idea of how critical the manufacturing tolerances are if you choose to make one of these items yourself. (That’s what I do for fun!) I have discovered that with a regular Newtonian telescope, you can make all sorts of errors and be really sloppy in your tolerances, but your scope will still work great. It only has two mirrors, a large one that is supposed to be a paraboloid and a much smaller one that is supposed to be optically flat. Even if your supposedly-paraboloidal mirror is really closer to a section of a sphere, or shaped more like an ellipsoid or a hyperbolid, or has lots of scratches, or isn’t really any one of those precise shapes, if your focal length is long enough, you will still see way more stuff, more clearly, in the sky, then you would with your naked eyes or even a small refractor or pair of binoculars. Whereas, if you make errors in spacing, focal lengths, or radii of curvature in a multi-element telescope like a Lurie-Houghton catadioptric scope, then it won’t work at all. Images will be horribly distorted. Been there, done that, and that’s even though everything looked to me to be, individually, AFAICT closer to perfection as it had any reason to be. Many years of work down the drain, and I am still drawing a blank on what do I do now to fix it? I haven’t a clue as to where to begin. What if the glass was not what we thought it was?

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