Reviews: Who Murdered Chaucer?, Assembling California

April 8th, 2009

Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery by Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor, Terry Dolan - 6.5/10

The premise of this book is that Chaucer was possibly bumped off in 1400 (or so). Yes, he was in his 60s, but there are no contemporary records of his death, there's no will or other documentation we might reasonably expect to have, and he was a bit of a thorn in the side of the new regime of Henry IV who had just overthrown Richard II and was very touchy about the legitimacy of his reign.

The book admits we can only speculate but the hypothesis they present is reasonably compelling, and as I am a history buff I found the discussion of the period very interesting. I enjoyed the scholarship, the interpretation, and learned a great deal about the period and the current state of our knowledge about the period.

The book is weak in several areas, however. The writing is not particularly compelling and is fairly obviously the output of several authors with different authorial voices - it would have been better served if presented as such in the text. Some of the interpretations seem very reasonable but some of them border on flights of fancy, yet there is no differentiation made between them. A concession to the relative weakness of some of the arguments would have greatly strengthened the hypothesis overall.

Ultimately, this book would be of interest to history buffs but I can't recommend it to people not already interested in the period - it's neither gripping nor humorous nor incisive enough. And yes, Terry Jones is the Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, and more recently host of a number of very good television programmes on historical subjects.

Assembling California by John McPhee - 8/10

I was entirely unfamiliar with John McPhee, but apparently he's quite a big name in journalism (albeit from a few decades ago), and is well-known for his series on the science of geology.

After reading this book, I understand why. Well-written, concise, and for what might be the slowest of all sciences, surprisingly compelling. I learned a great deal about the geology that has assembled what we now call California as well as about geology in general.

If I had a complaint, it's that he errs on the technical side rather than on the readability side; whole paragraphs are filled with names that mean nothing to me and which he does not explain, assuming that the reader is already familiar with them. That said, he does explain terms which become important - batholith, serpentine - and stopping to explain every term would slow the book down badly. I think he chose wisely, but it does leave the very casual reader feeling a bit left out.

At any rate, I certainly plan to pick up his other books. Good stuff.

Irony, thy Name is Bachmann

April 3rd, 2009

I find this amusingly ironic: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) believes the president will use the census as part of an elaborate conspiracy to keep Democrats in power for up to "40 years".

Because, in reality, it's the bizarre froth from loonies like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) that could keep Democrats in power for 40 years.

Improvement Hurts

April 1st, 2009

A really, really good post over at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog today.

As you might expect, it's couched entirely inside the black American experience. (To be precise, inside the Ta-Nehisi Coates' experience, just as we are all looking out from our own eyes.) I think it's because of that framework, because black American is a reference frame I can understand but not grok, that I derive as much as I do from his writing; more familiar and I would dismiss it as already known, less familiar and too much would get lost in the translation.

But what he's saying in this piece is deeply true: that it is much more comfortable to accept imprecision and inaccuracy and to cling to that which has emotional appeal than it is to make no excuses, to discard what is false, to seek truth regardless of how it may be bitter. And yet it is only through doing that which is hard that we can emerge more prepared, more certain, more honest - that we can become stronger.

I encountered this, in a much less rigorous manner than Mr. Coates, when I leapt into the ameoba that is ENIGMA. ENIGMA is the sci-fi/fantasy/role-playing general geek club affiliated with UCLA, and, being a geek, when I went to Los Angeles for graduate school I sought out "my people" and went in among them.

Prior to this of course I had lived among geeks, and friends, but where I had come from the dynamic of debate was different. Per Mary Schmich, "Live in northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft." Debate here, in NoCal, is an exercise in Feelgood. No contradiction is complete without a concession to soothe ruffled feathers. I have been in extended email debates at work where both sides vigorously open with "I think we're on the same page" when they are no such fucking thing, and are in fact holding diametrically opposed positions. Serenity ueber alles.

Debate amongst ENIGMA was different - truth was weighed infinitely greater than emotional rapport. If you made an incorrect claim about the role of beer in medieval German monasteries, Ray Lavoie would simply slap you down. No prevarications, no friendly admission of near-correctness or partial validity. The same goes for astrophysics, absinthe, Roman emperors, or most especially movies. You're wrong? Then you're fucking wrong, period.

As a NoCal boy, this took me aback. I've got an alpha personality and I know a shitload of stuff in my own right, so the headbutt potential - and the shame of being called out when wrong! - was high. And yes, I spun some clever bullshit now and then and was almost invariably called on it. Most of those times I even thought I was right. And it stung.

But, and this is why Coates' column resonates so strongly - they're right. It is a disservice to coddle soft thinking, to excuse error - because the world won't. One day those arguments your friends allow you to make will come up against someone who doesn't give a thimble of warm piss for your feelings, and that person will slap you down, and it will be real hard. Worse, it might count. Although it may bring the blood to your cheeks when you get called out by your friends, it's an innoculation. You can come back right next time. But only if you get called out, can you come back right.

I was only down there for two years, which I regret because some of the most worthwhile people I know are among those I met in ENIGMA. I daresay that although the School of Business taught me a lot, it was far from the only source of my education.

A High Degree of Difficulty

March 31st, 2009

We're raiding Naxxramas last night, and we're about to fight Gluth, and there are a couple of people who have not done the fight before. So the raid leader explains the fight, which is a bit intricate with some people running one way and another group doing something else and everyone switching their behavior after a certain event. At the conclusion of his explanation he says:

"It sounds harder than it really is - it's not rocket surgery."

This is a spoonerism I simply must adopt. I suspect most people think of surgery on rockets, which is fine and probably difficult, but I immediately picture surgery with rockets, which is pure awesome.

Cooked Offerings

March 25th, 2009

I noticed the other day that without realizing it, my wife and I have been engaging in an ancient Eastern tradition. In Asian homes there are frequently small shrines to the family ancestors. These ancestors are remembered at meal times with small portions of the meal.

We do the same thing at our house, only instead of sacrificing food to our ancestors, we sacrifice it to our descendant. The first small portion of whatever excellent food we are having is placed aside in a bowl and presented to the descendant. And just like the ancestor portion, the descendant portion is later that evening disposed of, untouched by human lips.