Monday, June 16, 2014

18: Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running, Raymond Krisse and Bill Squires

Riddled with typos and inaccuracies and horrendously poorly written, it still made me want to run.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

17: Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

From the blog of the same name. Cute, funny, poignant, and insightful.

16: The Last Three Minutes: Conjectures about the Ultimate Fate of the Universe, Paul Davies

Excellent popular account with actual (gasp) science! The discussion of false vacuum is particularly interesting, and made me dig up "Gravitational effects on and of vacuum decay" by Coleman and Deluccia (PhysRevD, 1981, 3314). The conclusion, partially quoted in The Last Three Minutes, is amusing:
The time required for the collapse of the interior universe is on the order of the time A discussed in Sec. I, microseconds or less. This is disheartening. The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate.Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe, ' in a new va- cuum there are new constants of nature, ' after va- cuum decay, not only is life as we know it impos- sible, so is chemistry as we know it. However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some structures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.
"This is disheartening"! "This possibility has now been eliminated"! This makes me happy.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

15: Richard Feynman: A Life in Science, John and Mary Gribbin

Surprisingly I'd never read this before. It explains, in a popsci way, a lot more of the science Feynman worked on than the other biographies, including, I believe, Genius (though the last time I read that was a long time ago). It also made me order Most of the Good Stuff.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

14: Just My Type: a Book about Fonts, Simon Garfield

Very good read. Last few chapters were a bit of a drag (I don't care about what people think is a bad typeface). First book I've read that references both YouTube videos and an xkcd comic. Welcome to the 21st century.

13: Official Secret, Clayton Hutton

Clayton Hutton's autobiographical account of his time making escape aids (and other gadgets) for the English military in WWII. He is sometimes described as the real-life Q. The book is an interesting read, despite some glaring mistakes and exaggerations (I doubt Hutton would have carried around an unused arrest warrant for years only to be able to show it to the man it was intended for when he accidentally met him in a pub).

12: Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron's Memoir 1934-1969, Timme Rosenkrantz

An English re-working of Timme Rosenkrantz's "Dus med Jazzen". Fantastic reading. This is an anecdotal autobiography filled with inaccuracies and mistakes, no doubt, but also with the flavour of the times. It's filled with passages worth re-reading, but this I found particularly interesting. It's the most insistent and (seemingly) precise of the etymologies of "jitterbug" I've yet seen.
And to Harry White goes the honor of coining a word that jives the world: jitterbug. Ed Swayzee held the trumpet seat next to Harry in Cab's band for years. Ed was known as "King Swayzee," a terrific soloist, as you can hear in quick bites on records with Chick Webb, Jelly Roll Morton ("Deep Creek"), and Cab Calloway. ("Weakness," Ed's own tune and arrangement, is a little gem.) The men were, as Harry put it, "boon coons," and naturally they shared their bottles, which they referred to as "jugs." Harry called all his intimate friends his jug-buddies. There was a pretty strong brew called King Kong—many called it Panther Piss—and it was strong enough to make strawberries grow. [...] Harry called it his "jitter juice" because he needed it every morning to cure his "shakes." [...] When very thirsty Harlem musicians form a friendship, they call each other "bug." That's what Harry called his closest friends. One morning, Harry had a solo spot in the Paramount Theater show with Cab. He had hidden his bottle behind a curtain in the wings, so he could take a steadying swig to front the band and play his first solo of the day. [...] When he got there, much to this consternation, the bottle had been taken away. In sheer panic, he shouted to Cab, on stage, "Keep playin', man! I can't find my jitter, bug! Where's my sauce? Get me my jitter, bug, or I can't play." Cab Calloway grabbed the words right out of Harry's mouth, insisting that Harry write a song titled "Jitterbug." He did, with Ed Swayzee. It scored a big hit at the Cotton Club. Already popular in Harlem, a new dance, the Lindy Hop (named in honor of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic hop), was rechristened the Jitterbug.
I'm sure Norma would not be happy to read that.

11: Why Is That Bridge Orange? San Francisco for the Curious, Art Peterson

In semi-preparation for a friend's visit I picked this up at City Lights in SF. Pretty good one-page descriptions of things SF visitors are likely to wonder about. (And, no, it has nothing to do with rust. The designer just liked the colour of the undercoat.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

10: Isadora Duncan: a graphic biography, Sabrina Jones

A biography of Isadora Duncan in comic book form. It's O.K.

9: "Don't Take Me the Long Way", M.C. Mars

Taxi driver's stories, mostly from his time in SF. It was better than Callgirl. I don't know whether that teaches me anything about life.

8: Sumo Watching, S.W.A.

A beginner's guide to watching sumo wrestling. The text is often endearingly condescending. I suspect I'd find it annoyingly condescending if this weren't translated from the Japanese.

7: Callgirl, Jeannette Angell

At best an interesting anecdotal account of being a call girl in Boston in the late 1990's.

Jeannette thinks she's more clever than she is. She gets herself into hideous money trouble by misjudging others and by keeping on spending exorbitant amounts when she's broke (e.g., buying her boyfriend a Philippe Patek watch while still in debt on her credit cards), decides prostitution is the way to go. She is snooty about being a "call girl" rather than a "hooker", which is fine, except she is awfully judgmental of "lesser" prostitutes. She also brags about "being able to get any man she wants", which makes me dislike her immediately. Then she starts doing drugs.

Perhaps it's an interesting "oh, that's how you get into cocaine" story, but I'm not convinced it's a particularly objective account, so is it really useful or interesting? Unclear.

I find it interesting how detached she can be from sex, and how easy she finds it to have sex with men she finds unappealing. I also find it interesting to hear what douchebags there are surrounding the business. (Not surprising—but still interesting.)

For someone with a Ph.D. in the humanities she doesn't write terribly well. Maybe she wrote this thing in a hurry? I don't know. It could have been so much better.

Best sentence in the book:

I was usually a little high, a little buzzed from whatever we had done with the client; the last thing that you want at a time like that is to be sitting alone in a room with a giraffe staring you down.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

2014: The beginning: 1-6.

1: Einstein Simplified: Cartoons on Science, Sidney Harris
Cartoons by Harris. Classic.
2: True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall, Mark Salzman
An autobiographical account of Mark's year tutoring kids in a high-security juvenile hall. The usual tear-jerking is there, but Marks's a good writer, so I enjoyed it. It does bother me that he writes from memory (no tapes, no notes at the time), yet gives full conversations in dialogue format. His first autobiographical book, "Iron & Silk", about martial arts in China is funnier and more interesting.
3: Laughing without an Accent, Firoozeh Dumas
A collection of (mostly humorous) stories about family, and about growing up Iranian in the U.S. in the 1980's. Firoozeh's first book (Funny in Farsi) was funnier—I feel like she used up the better stories, and there's some filler here (including some terribly moralistic closing chapters). I don't recommend it, but I do recommend the first one.
4: Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine, Douglas Botting
Scott recommended this. A history of Zeppelin flight that focuses on Hugo Eckener's work and influence. (He was director of the Zeppelin company for many years, and one of the first airship captains.) It's an excellent story. I'm obsessed with Zeppelins, though, so take that bias into account.

Reading this made me order a bunch more books on Zeppelins.
5: Feed, M. T. Anderson
Yes! Brilliant YA fiction! Amy recommended this, and I've been calling her Unette ever since. This was meg brag.
6: Delta of Venus, Anaïs Nin
I'm not charmed. Some of it was good, some of it I found boring. I prefer Little Birds.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Finishing 2013: 37-61 (!)

I didn't keep this up to date. Obviously.
37: The Baby Dodds Story, Baby Dodds, Larry Gara
On other dances and blues rhythm (pp 10, 11):
On New Orleans dance dates we also had to play mazurkas, quadrilles, polkas, and schottisches. There were certain halls in New Orleans where you had to play all those things. Some of the Creole people went only for that music. [...] Of course we also played the blues. [...] The blues were played in New Orleans in the early days very, very slow, and not like today, but in a Spanish rhythm.
Interestingly, Dodds mentions guitars were used before the banjo (pp 13):
Of course in those days the instrumentation was different. When I first started out they had no piano. They mostly used bass viol, guitar, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and drums. The guitar carried only rhythm in the bands. [...] Later they switched to banjo. I think the first band to switch was Frankie Duson. They made the change because the banjo was a novelty.
On slang (pp 25):
Louis [Armstrong] also had a lot to do with the popularizing of jazz words. He used certain expressions on the riverboats, like "Come on, you cats," and "Look out, there, Pops," and the like. These were his own ideas. I had never heard such words as "jive" and "cat" and "scat" used in New Orleans. There was one exception, however, which you don't hear now. We used to call white musicians "alligators."
On drum technique (pp 26, 27):
On the boat I also worked out the technique of hitting the cymbal with the sticks. I worked that out around 1919. Now everybody's using it, but it came from me on the riverboat. There was a side cymbal that used to be on the drum. I took that off and then it was a straight boom, boom, boom. Of course, I still used the two cymbals on top of the bass drum. There was a regular cymbal and a Chinese cymbal. The Chinese cymbal had a different tone. We all used it in those days but Ray Bauduc's about the only one I know who uses it now.
On volume, playing softly (pp 36):
The Oliver band played for the comfort of the people. Not so they couldn't hear, or so they had to put their fingers in their ears, nothing like that. Sometimes the band played so softly you could hardly hear it, but still you knew the music was going. We played so soft that you could often hear the people's feet dancing.
Sugarfoot Rag/Dippermouth Blues (pp 69, 70):
On one number I was caught very unsettled. That was Dippermouth Blues. I was to play a solo and I forgot my part. But the band was very alert and Bill Johnson hollered "Play that thing!" That was an on-the-spot substitution for the solo part which I forgot.
Morton's 1927 Billy Goat Stomp is in Spanish rhythm (pp 74). That's the first time I see someone call out a specific recording. (And it doesn't sound Spanish to my modern ears.)
38: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Very interesting.
39: The Best of Jazz: Basin Street to Harlem, 1917-1930, Humphrey Lyttelton
O.K.
40: Een barbaar in China, Adriaan van Dis
Excellent! Found it at the Palo Alto Library book sale.
41: Le squelette sous cloche, Robert van Gulik
Third language...
42: A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth, Samantha Weinberg
Very interesting.
43: The Emergence of Language: Development and Evolution, William S-Y. Wang, ed.
Readings from Scientific American. Some excellent articles. I should have taken notes, because I've forgotten most of what I read.
44: The Parrot's Lament (and other true tales of animal intrigue, intelligence, and ingenuity), Eugene Linden
I don't remember a thing. I think I liked it...
45: The Valley of Horses, Jean M. Auel
Why am I reading this tripe?
46: The Mammoth Hunters, Jean M. Auel
It just gets worse: more and more romance-novel-ish.
47: Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss
Finally! Yes, it's funny.
48: Overheard in New York, S. Morgan Friedman and Michael Malice
Why does this have authors listed? Anyway, it's a compilation from the website, and it's hilarious.
49: Little Birds, Anaïs Nin
Finally read some Anaïs Nin. She writes very well.
50: The Plains of Passage, Jean M. Auel
Because I'm stupid.
50: The Shelters of Stone, Jean M. Auel
Because I'm not getting any smarter.
51: Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America, Firoozeh Dumas
Funny.
52: Do Sparrows Like Bach?
Another collection of New Scientist bits. But this one's not very good, I'm afraid. Stick to the Last Word compilations. Hey: 52! One a week!
53: The Land of Painted Caves, Jean M. Auel
WTF is wrong with me? Anyway, this is the last one. They really do get progressively worse.
54: Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates, David Cordingly
Excellent!
55: The Book of Five Rings: A Graphic Novel, Musashi, Wilson, Kutsuwada, Wilson
Meh.
56: Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Inspired by Under the Black Flag. Anyway, it's pretty good. Certainly a fun read, but also certainly a boys' book.
57: More Bats Less Talking, Nick Hornby
Another collection of columns from Believer. Yay!
58: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel
Greatest? Not sure about that, but the book is good fun. I want to pick up Galileo's Daughter now.
59: Human Sexuality: Sense & Nonsense, Herant Katchadourian
"The Portable Stanford"--so it's thin and not terribly thorough. Interesting, though.
60: The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, Thad Carhart
Lovely!
61: Iron & Silk, Mark Salzman
Dated, but still funny and interesting.
And that was 2013: 61 books. I'm impressed with myself, even if some of them were manga.