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The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution
by Jonathan Eig
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.68
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5.0 out of 5 stars How Oral Contraceptives Came to Be, November 21, 2014
We take for granted now that people can take steps to keep pregnancy from happening while they still enjoy all the pleasures of coitus. It is astonishing how recent an idea this is. Using contraception was illegal in most states until after World War I. Under the Comstock Law, just mailing information about contraception could land you in jail, and Anthony Comstock himself considered it his duty to seize not only pornography from the mails but any device for contraception. The American Medical Association did not consider contraception a matter for medical consideration until 1937. Some states continued to make contraception illegal for single women until the 1960s. Married women had few options if they wanted to space children out, so staying home and bearing babies was simply what they had to do. Eventually some dreamers thought this could be changed, and in _The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution_ (W. W. Norton), Jonathan Eig has told how all the anti-pleasure societal forces were eventually thwarted. It is an astonishing story, told with detail and even excitement, of a triumph of idealists who were ready to work hard to make their dreams come true, and it is amazing that their victory came just a half-century ago.

The first, and most famous, of the four dreamers was Margaret Sanger.. Sanger enjoyed sex, and knew that sex without fear of pregnancy was a feminist goal; women needed to take from men the final say about when they would become mothers. She had dreamed of an oral contraceptive for decades, but only in 1950 was she able to contact a researcher that might make it happen, physiologist Gregory Pincus, who, having been shut out of Harvard, was running his own shoestring-budget lab. Sanger had previously allied with heiress Katherine McCormick, who had shown commitment to contraception by smuggling diaphragms from Europe. McCormick poured thousands of dollars into the effort, money that went to buying such things as rats and rabbits for hormonal research, and then eventually to research on humans. Pincus needed a medical doctor’s help in research on humans, and he found it in John Rock. Rock was an expert in fertility, and his research at Harvard was directed at treatments for infertility. He was a practicing Catholic, but he came around to the realization that women could be burdened by having too many children as much as by not being able to have any. Much of Eig’s book describes the complicated process of arranging human testing, and some of what they describe is distasteful now, since there were few rules at the time about medical testing. Test subjects were nurses, prisoners, and especially women in Puerto Rico. Eventually the pill was approved for regulating menstrual periods, but with doctors using it “off label” for contraception, it eventually got that approval, too.

There were hard work and struggles that had to be undertaken to make a now commonplace and trusted medication. Eig does not belabor the analogies to our own time, when some are arguing that IUDs and birth control pills must be outlawed or excluded from medical coverage because they cause abortions (they do not), or simply because of the feeling that any enjoyment of sex must always be linked to a likelihood of pregnancy. It is the same distaste that Sanger faced, with conservative religious people trying to curb the sexual pleasure of others. She’d be delighted that the pill is taken for granted today, and dismayed that the anti-pleasure forces are still strong.

Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life (Ackroyd's Brief Lives)
Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life (Ackroyd's Brief Lives)
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.91
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Light and Dark of Chaplin's Life, November 18, 2014
One century ago, the most famous man in the whole world was not a king or a president or a singer or a writer. He was Charlie Chaplin, and he was 25 years old. His fame has lasted; there is no more familiar figure in the movies than the tramp with the ill-fitting suit, a bowler hat, a cane, and an indomitable spirit. There have been many volumes written about Chaplin, including his curiously unrevealing autobiography. Now Peter Ackroyd, novelist, poet, biographer, and critic has weighed in, with a terrific examination of a brilliant life that had more than its share of darkness. _Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life_ (Nan A. Talese) is brief only in comparison to the other heavy volumes that have tried to assess Chaplin the man and the artist. What distinguishes this one is Ackroyd’s sense of place; he has written often about London, and convincingly summons Chaplin’s South London childhood to explain both the light and the dark.

Chaplin was brought up in the music halls of South London, unsure of who his father was. His mother was a performer, when she wasn’t in mental asylums. He lived in one tenement or another, sometimes on the streets. He danced on those streets for pennies, and he was a clog-dancer in the music halls. He eventually joined a mime troupe that traveled to America, and signed with Mack Sennett. The Little Tramp first appeared in a 1914 short, and cracked up Sennett and the technicians while the movie was being made. Ackroyd obviously loves Chaplin’s movies, describing all the hits like _The Gold Rush_ and _The Kid_, and even seeing the good in his late pictures like _The Countess from Hong Kong_. The little fellow’s triumph over hunger, solitude, disregard, and poverty can all be tied to Chaplin’s childhood. Inescapably, Chaplin’s less likable characteristics are tied to his childhood as well. In real life, even when he had millions, he was famously tight with his spending. He was always worried that he was going to lose everything. He had a constant need for power and control, and was known to be tyrannical and unfeeling to the actors and technicians who were working on his films. He got plenty of adulation from crowds wherever he went, but it was not enough. He was a bully in his private life, a role he must have found easier to play with the young women or under-age girls with whom he had affairs.. Then there was the eventual divorce between his adopted country that had given him such success, but didn’t accept his leftist political views during the time of McCarthy’s witch hunts. On a visit to Britain in 1952, he was denied permission to reenter the US, and since Britain had an extradition treaty with America, he settled in Switzerland, which had acceptably low taxes.

In Ackroyd’s account, then, this dislikable little man who made a brilliant screen character is a product of the desperation of his South London childhood. “A great cockney visionary,” Ackroyd calls him, with full appreciation of the visions Chaplin produced for the world to enjoy. We can be grateful we don’t have to work for the man, or share any affair of the heart with him, and we can be grateful, too, that such matters wind up merely as important footnotes in the artist’s life. It’s the universally-appreciated character of the Little Tramp that matters, and shines brighter because of the darkness in the real life of the man who created the image.

Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians (A Merloyd Lawrence Book)
Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians (A Merloyd Lawrence Book)
by Justin Martin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.96
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5.0 out of 5 stars Merry at Pfaff's, October 28, 2014
You may well have heard of the Algonquin Hotel, that famous New York meeting place for actors, writers, and wits. Chances are you have not heard of Pfaff’s Restaurant and Lager Bier Saloon. And chances are that if you read _Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians_ (Da Capo Press) by Justin Martin, you will never forget Pfaff’s, and you will wish somehow you might spend a late evening with the brilliant crowd there. As the book’s subtitle suggests, this is largely a story about Walt Whitman, whose career might have been far different had it not been for Pfaff’s; Martin says that the influence of Pfaff’s upon Whitman has been mentioned in previous biographies but not fully appreciated. Whitman may be the star here, but there are plenty of other comets who shone bright in their time and are now forgotten, as well as that ring of those around them like Mark Twain and John Wilkes Booth. This is essential reading for anyone interested the America of the nineteenth century. It is also brightly written, and funny and heartbreaking by turns.

The most important person in this story is not Whitman, but Henry Clapp, Jr., a reporter who gave up teetotaling when he visited Paris in 1849. He embraced the bohemian life there, and when he returned to New York City, he had a plan to begin bohemianism in America. In 1856, he happened upon Pfaff’s, in a basement on Broadway near Bleeker Street, and he began recruiting bohemians for his table. What a curious cast this is. Fellow journalist Fitz-James O’Brien was the first recruit, a hard-drinking Irishman whose writings are forgotten now, but who wrote ghost stories and predecessors of science fiction and magical realism. Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who had enjoyed taking different intoxicants as a teenager and college student, became a sensation in 1858 with the publication of his _The Hasheesh Eater_. Artemus Ward was developing a “humorous lecture” for the stage, and Martin says he was America’s first stand-up comedian, Also at the table were women. They certainly had a place in bohemian life, and the egalitarian Pfaff’s welcomed them when other saloons would admit only men. There was Ada Clare, a wit, actress, and satirist who made arguments that anticipated feminism. Another woman there was Adah Isaacs Menken, who was a poor poet but became notorious for the worldwide sensation she made clothed merely in a bodystocking (or was she?) as she was bound spread-eagled to the back of a horse in the melodrama _Mazeppa_. Then, of course, there was Whitman. Clapp did Whitman and literature a magnificent service by realizing Whitman’s talent early, and when Clapp founded _The Saturday Press_, Whitman’s poems had a place in it, as did lots of reviews of _Leaves of Grass_ when it was published in its monumental third edition. Clapp’s boosting worked. Whitman might justly have become famous without Clapp and Pfaff’s, but that is not the way it happened, and Whitman knew it. He remembered: “Henry Clapp stepped out from the crowd of hooters - was my friend: a much needed ally.”

Whitman, of course, would go on to duties taking care of the wounded in the Civil War, a war which broke up the old gang at Pfaff’s. He lived long and become that Good Grey Poet, and was beloved nationally. The fates of the rest of the gang make sad reading. O’Brien died in battle, Clare was bitten by a dog belonging to her agent and died of rabies, Menken had a rumored affair with Alexandre Dumas _père_ and died of some ailment in Paris, Ludlow lost his beautiful wife to the painter Albert Bierstadt with whom he had joined to chronicle a journey to the West, and died of tuberculosis, and the hugely popular Ward also died of tuberculosis while taking his show on the road to London. The brilliant Clapp made it to sixty years of age, but his later years were a mess of failure, booze, and sanitariums. Oh, well - Thomas Aldrich, a poet that was in the circle, included in his poem “At the Cafè” the line, “We were all very merry at Pfaff’s.” Let us be grateful that _Rebel Souls_ has brought a touch of the merriment back.

Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof
Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof
by Roger Clarke
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.88
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5.0 out of 5 stars Eternally Haunted, October 27, 2014
Ghosts have haunted us, it seems, for as long as we have been able to worry about the afterlife. The ghost of Achilles wails to Ulysses, "I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground, than king of kings among the dead." Nowadays even our computers' spellcheckers may be haunted, at least according to a footnote within _A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof_ (Particular Books) by columnist Roger Clarke, who grew up in a haunted house and was the youngest person ever to be invited to join the British Society for Psychical Research. In 1998, the SPR investigated the case of a report being typed about a particular ghost named Prudentia, and the spellchecker highlighted the name and suggested that "dead," "buried," and "cellar" be considered for alternatives. Ghosts, you see, go through their fashions as much as do we living. This ought to tell us more about people than about ghosts, and Clarke's book is a wonderful entertainment, with plenty of spooky stories, frauds, pranks, impossibilities, and seemingly inexplicable events. Clarke is obviously fascinated with his subject, and is able to convey the fascination. He has a good reporter's distance on the stories he covers here, with an appropriate skepticism that makes the tales more, not less, fun.

Before investigating what ghosts do, it might be best to consider the big question: Do ghosts exist? You won't get an answer here because Clarke is dismissive of the question, one that he says belongs in a London of the nineteenth century. "In a basic sense," he writes, "ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them." We use ghosts for sensation, or ancestor worship, or even to make moral tales. The most famous ghost story of all is Dickens's _A Christmas Carol_, but Clarke points attention to a letter from Pliny featuring an Athenian ghost in chains and shackles like Marley. This ghost did not appear to make any observer less misanthropic, though, but came with the classic ghost duty to inform the living that his body was buried in the cellar, and needed a proper burial, after which the ghost came no more.

The most famous of the ghost stories told here is that of the Cock Lane Ghost, referenced plenty of times by Dickens and even by Melville in _Moby Dick_; Hogarth included a reference in his picture "Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism: a Medley." Part of the reason for its fame is that Samuel Johnson himself was on a committee to investigate the ghost, and though the committee spotted the hoax, Clarke says that Johnson's reputation suffered, as he was criticized for taking the open-minded position beforehand that the ghost might exist. The story is fascinating in many ways. It has a strong religious connection, with the greatest booster of the ghost-as-fact being the Reverend John Moore, a Methodist at a time when the church (based on the proclivities of its founder, John Wesley, who grew up in a haunted house) accepted such supernatural occurrences as fully factual. The ghost, manifested by knocks and noises, and able to answer questions by giving appropriate taps, was able to tap out an accusation of murder against her husband. But the ghost was no such thing; like many such sensational disturbances even to our own time, the noises and other manifestations were the stunts of an adolescent daughter. Her father took part in the prank as a practical joke, but then Rev. Moore latched on, and thinking that any minister who proved beyond doubt that the dead were fooling around with the living would be one of the All-Stars of Methodism, offered the father a stipend and other support. Moore arranged press releases (in what Clarke says was the first media circus ever) and people paid to come in and hear the ghost tapping away. When the dismissive report of Dr. Johnson's committee came out, the father accused the committee of getting its result by stealing the body of the "murdered" wife, whereupon there was an exhumation. The hoax came crashing down, and the husband sued for damages, which Rev. Moore and others had to pay. A hundred years later, though, street vendors were still selling pamphlets about the haunting, and locals continued to believe it had been genuine; ghosts do not die of disproof.

The other famous haunting covered here is more recent, one that continued into the twentieth century: Borley Rectory, often called "the most haunted house in England." One of the reasons it was called that is that Harry Price, an investigator within Clarke's Society for Psychical Research, made it so. Price was sometimes a diligent and serious investigator, and sometimes a promoter of belief in the supernatural beyond what the evidence showed. He was not above faking evidence, and once said, "People don't want the debunk, they want the bunk." The rectory at Borley had cold spots, mysterious appearances of handwriting, thrown stones, footsteps, a ghost of a nun, and much more. Price himself listed two thousand paranormal events. The hauntings, however, are made less believable by the huge number of unreliable witnesses, many of whom changed stories or recanted. Even though Price himself took a lease out on the crumbling rectory, it was an environment that could not be made secure from passers-by, and his troop of observers proved unreliable. A SPR report on Price's report found that supposedly ghostly events were due to fraud and natural causes.

With ghosts taking on the fashions of their times, it is appropriate to consider their clothes. Ghosts were sometimes presumed to show up in the sorts of clothes they might have worn before they became ghosts. At other times ghosts were beheld in that which they wore to the grave, which for most people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a mere winding sheet (most people at the time didn't get coffins). Ghosts' garments were a serious topic of consideration dating back even to Thomas Hobbes, who raised the question in The Leviathan in 1651. A rationalist attack on supernatural beliefs in 1762 stated that ghosts surely would be naked, for they needed no clothes to keep warm. A commentator in 1862 mused that clothes themselves had ghosts, and that this was the explanation for "all the socks that never came home in the wash." Clarke mentions but does not quote Ambrose Bierce, who insisted that one could not believe in a ghost who was not naked. I can't help it; I will include Bierce's delicious words here, from _The Devil's Dictionary_: "A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding-sheet or 'in his habit as he lived.' To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics. Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it?"

One of the ways people used to celebrate ghosts was by what we would call now "flash mobs." In 1868, for instance, a body was fished out of the Thames, and before an inquest could be held, rumors spread that the body was walking all around the churchyard at night. "In consequence, an estimated two thousand people congregated nightly outside. Efforts by the vicar and parish officials to disperse the crowd were entirely in vain; as the police arrived, one James Jones, aged nineteen, climbed up onto the railings and shouted at the murmuring, agitated crowd, 'Don't go - there it is again - there's the ghost!' He was promptly arrested." The police hated dealing with the mobs, which could indeed get dangerous. In 1803, groups of young men gathered in a part of London to show how they had no fear of the ghosts reported to walk therein. Thomas Milward was a bricklayer, who wore his trade's traditional white trousers, apron, and waistcoat, and was accosted with a shout of "There goes the ghost!" one night. He refused to take precautions to keep from being mistaken for a spectre, and was eventually shot dead by someone who made the mistake.

Clarke examines the haunting of Hinton Ampner, which may have inspired Henry James's story _The Turn of the Screw_, the Victorian craze for seances, the Angel of Mons that was (never) seen by soldiers in World War I, and the class-consciousness of ghosts (with headless Anne Boleyn haunting stately homes and highwayman Dick Turpin sticking to pubs). He has comments on the gadgetry now trained on catching ghosts, and on the television shows that promote such technology. Suffice it to say that the new ways of hunting for ghosts have failed to clear up conclusively even their existence. They have infested us living people for millennia, and my guess is that we have cleared up their mysteries just as much as we ever have or ever will.

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)
Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)
by Christian Rudder
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.80
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5.0 out of 5 stars Big Data Shows Us Ourselves, October 24, 2014
We have entered a world of big data, with huge numbers of people entering lots of details about themselves, their likes and dislikes, the people they associate with, their purchases, and more. Big data is being mined for terrorism links, of course, and it is being used for new ways of studying literature, and also to see what sort of sexual activity people favor. Can it tell us details about important human characteristics? Christian Rudder thinks so, and he has the data at his disposal. He is a cofounder of the popular internet dating site OKCupid, wherein millions of people put in details about their lives and desires. He can draw upon the data, sort it in lots of different ways, and experiment (mildly) on the participants. He can learn things we didn’t know before, or thought or hoped were true but didn’t have the data to show it. In _Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking_ (Crown), Rudder presents the sort of sociological study that could never be done before. “Instead of asking people survey questions or contriving small-scale experiments, which was how social science was often done in the past, I could go and look at _what actually happens_ when, say, 100,000 white men and 100,000 black women interact in private.” Aggregate data like this, he maintains, represents real life - to get data like his, no one talks to a canvasser with a clipboard, no one experiments in the lab. He has supplemented the OKCupid data (as if there were not enough) with that from, Tinder, Twitter, Google, Facebook and more. And here we are.

Rudder, whose background is in mathematics, has an informal style full of jokes; you never had a statistics professor who was this entertaining. He has plenty of lists and numbers for you to examine, and best of all he has lots and lots of graphs with some novel visual presentations. Yes, on a dating site, looks matter, and in sometimes depressing ways. You will not be surprised to see elaborate charts that show that men of all ages find that women in their early twenties are the most attractive. When there are pictures, people pay close attention to them, but Rudder’s data shows that “people appear to be heavily preselecting online for something that, once they sit down in person, doesn’t seem that important to them.” That’s pleasant to know. Many of Rudder’s observations on race, though, are just disheartening. People of all races may claim openmindedness, and it is good to know that 84% of OkCupid users said that racism in an otherwise potential partner would be a deal-breaker. On Google, however, searches for the n-word are more popular than “apple pie.” On the night when Obama was first elected, the searches for the epithet reached a level that has never been exceeded. Because of the extraordinary numbers the computers can crunch, Rudder can write, “The data we see in this chapter shows racism isn’t a problem of outliers. It is pervasive.”

More optimistically, here is a little lesson from this informative and funny book that those on dating sites (or those who aren’t) can really use. Flaws are OK. The data show that people whose pictures are perfect and whose descriptions seem top notch are actually off-putting to potential dates, possibly because they may seem inaccessible or already taken. “Be yourself and be brave about it,” says Rudder. “Certainly trying to fit in, just for its own sake, is counterproductive. I know this is dangerously close to the kind of thing that gets put on a quilt, and quilts, being the PowerPoint presentations of an earlier time, are the opposite of science.” It may be the sort of advice your mother gave you, but she didn’t have the data, and Rudder does.

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny
American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny
by Christopher Miller
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.37
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Comic Encyclopedia of Old Humor, October 19, 2014
I remember a _New Yorker_ cartoon that shows a well-dressed couple in their kitchen, and the woman is holding up a rolling pin at the man in a threatening manner. “Harriet,” he says, “Put down that cliché.” It’s sort of a meta-cartoon, with a cartoon character commenting on what countless cartoon characters have done. I have never read a police report of a wife taken in because of assaulting her husband with a rolling pin, nor have I ever had one brandished in my direction. So where did this concept come from? Consult the “R” section of _American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny_ (Harper) by Christopher Miller. The rolling pin as weapon was made famous by Maggie threatening Jiggs in the long-running comic strip _Bringing Up Father_ which debuted in 1913, but Miller says that the rolling pin probably showed up in the boisterous stage comedies before that. “Rolling Pins” is but one of scores of entries in this 530-page, well-illustrated account of the humor of yesteryear. Some of it isn’t supposed to be funny anymore, but this isn’t called a laffopedia for nothing, and even the topics that are too old or too offensive to be funny ought to provoke some amusement at the thought that some people used to find them so.

Miller has drawn from comics, comic postcards, the famous Johnson and Smith novelty catalogues, the Three Stooges, television sitcoms, and much more to form this exhaustive collection. Visual motifs in the comics is a theme here. It is universally understood that a lightbulb with lines radiating from it means that the light is on (though no one ever saw such lines), and further understood that if there is such a lightbulb over some character’s head, that character is in the process of having an idea. Physical lightbulbs were invented in 1841 (not by Edison), and didn’t become signifiers of an idea until the 1930s. Another visual signal is that of the winged money. Miller says that it is rare for inanimate objects to be given life in the comics, and consider how bizarre, even surrealistic, it is to think that dollar bills could sprout wings and fly away. It is a perfect visual abbreviation, however, to show that a character has come to the realization of financial loss. It is surprising is that Mort Walker, the author of _Beetle Bailey_ and _Hi and Lois_ invented names for various comic conventions that otherwise we would be unable to talk about except by describing them. Well, the terms are so specialized that probably descriptions are better, but they do show again how much of the comic artist’s tools we take for granted. Plewds, for instance, are the little drops of sweat that fly off a character’s head to show alarm or agitation. Agitrons are short curved lines around an object to show vibration or trembling. A lucaflect is a tiny curved four-paned window to show something is round and shiny.

There are darker issues here. Miller says the easiest subject to research was spanking, because “a horde of spanking fetishists had already done the spadework, and more lovingly than a mere student of humor ever could.” There is also an entry for the very unfunny subject of rape; “It sounds jarring if I say that Bluto is essentially a rapist. But after all, what else is he planning to do with Olive Oyl when he snatches her away from Popeye and bears her off against her will? Will he just make her wash his sailor suits and cook his dinners?” It is much more fun to consider Miller’s many other entries on the comic view of dentistry, the honeymoon, the whoopee cushion, and so many more. Miller writes with the humor that befits his myriad subjects, and though he says it could have had twice the number of entries (and tells us some in his afterword), consider his book exhaustive. This is the only laffopedia you will ever need.

Time in Powers of Ten: Natural Phenomena and Their Timescales
Time in Powers of Ten: Natural Phenomena and Their Timescales
by G. 't Hooft
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.72
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5.0 out of 5 stars Time in All Its Scales, October 11, 2014
In 1957, Kees Boeke published an influential book, _Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps_, looking at where we live in different, wide-ranging scales. This was the precursor for the famous short film by Charles and Ray Eames, _Powers of Ten_, a mind-blowing view of scales subatomic to cosmic, each step of the way moving ten times further out or closer in. There are plenty of variations of this sort of scaling view of our universe available now; the book form of the Eames film is especially good because one can flip pages to go ten times out or in, and there are internet versions as well. These efforts were the inspiration for _Time in Powers of Ten: Natural Phenomena and Their Timescales_ (World Scientific) by Gerard ’t Hooft and Stefan Vandoren. Both are theoretical physicists, and this is their foray into popularization (translated from the Dutch by Saskia Eisberg-’t Hooft). It has to be said that they have taken on a less intuitively comprehensible task with the dimension of time rather than the dimensions of space. We can, after all, move ten times closer to an object or ten times further away, and imagining doing this movement on a subatomic or cosmic scale is relatively easy. We cannot move ten times further into the past or future (although of course time moves on in one direction, so ten seconds in the future will get here eventually). So the pages here, leaping between progressive powers of ten, require not just attention for the sometimes dense factual information presented but also leaps of imagination. The authors, however, convey a sense of amazement, and readers will have a renewed feeling of how complicated things are, past, present, and future.

The book has a sensible structure. It starts with our friend the second, a scale of time we live with constantly. The pages devoted to the second have to do with such things as heartbeats and pendulum clocks. The next chapter has to do with 10 seconds, the times for 100 meter sprints or the fall from a 500 meter building. The next chapter is about 100 seconds, and the next 1000. It does not take long for those seconds to accumulate; the eleventh chapter is a billion seconds (10^9), or 31.7 years. This goes on through 10^90, by which time “the universe will have practically ceased to exist.” After that, there is a two-page spread of “All Timescales on a Timeline,” from the shortest possible intervals to the longest. Then the latter half of the book is involved with timescales shorter than a second, starting with the Planck time, which is somehow the shortest time there ever can be at 10^-44 seconds. Ideas about the physics of very long time spans and very short ones are closely and mysteriously linked, and present day research on such topics as quantum gravity is nowhere near settling the links. From the Planck time we get, chapters on, to the snappily-named zeptosecond, 10^-21 seconds. A photon traveling at (of course) the speed of light from the nucleus of a hydrogen atom would get only one hundredth of the way out toward its electron shell in a zeptosecond. Picoseconds are 10^-10 of a second, and two hundred of them make the time it takes for a computer to add two integers. We work down to the millisecond (a thousandth of a second), and consider the duration of an eye blink, about 60 milliseconds literally “in the blink of an eye,” and it seems after all the speeding that has gone before to be a pretty extensive duration.

Boxing things this way helps gives stability to a wide-ranging book, which has lots of pictures and is suitable in size for the best coffee table. Like the original _Powers of Ten_, it is a wonderful book for flipping through and thinking about puzzles of longer and shorter times, and is a good introduction to basics like how to tell a quark from a lepton. There is an enormous amount of physics and cosmology lore here, much of it which was well above my head and I will have to spend some time taking it all in. There are many references among the strange and counterintuitive findings that show that we have to take into account all the details we can. For instance, we all know where we are by GPS satellites. And those satellites know where they are by the clocks they carry on board, but those clocks can’t keep the time that Earth-bound ones do. Their movement slows their internal clocks down, and the decreased gravity speeds them up (if I understood Relativity I would understand this), and so they gain 39 microseconds per day. It sounds tiny, but without making a correction for the difference, GPS fixes might go inaccurate by ten kilometers every day.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl
The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl
by Martin Windrow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.94
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5.0 out of 5 stars A different Pet Memoir, October 7, 2014
We have plenty of memoirs about people and their beloved dogs, and even some about their cats. Here is one about a long and intense relationship between a British bachelor and his tawny owl: _The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl_ (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) by Martin Windrow. The author has written plenty of books, but none on ornithology or natural history; he is a military historian and book editor. His books on horse soldiers, foot soldiers, and military dress must not have given him much opportunity for the sort of self-reflection he gives us in this lovable book that details yet another aspect of what I think is one of the most likable traits of humans, their ability to keep animals as friends. Windrow is no sentimentalist, but in addition to telling us about the nutritional and hardware requirements of his owl, he also is clear in his appreciation of what the owl gave back to him.

Windrow adopted Mumble as an egg from a breeder who raised the owlet. There was plenty for him to learn about getting along with his bird, and plenty readers will learn here. There are chapters here about the folklore we humans attach to owls, and the science, but most of the book is drawn from the diaries that Windrow kept at the time. For three years, starting in 1978, he and Mumble shared the London flat. Mumble did have a cage outdoors on the balcony, but spent much of his time indoors. He ate dead, day-old chicks that Windrow kept in the freezer. No one can house-train a bird, and the only solution was to cover with newspaper or plastic sheeting all the areas most likely to take a hit. The routine of feeding and cleaning was “demanding, but that was an inevitable price for sharing my quarters with a wild creature.” The affection between owl and man will be obvious to all readers, and you may be surprised how involved you become in the episode where Mumble escaped. Windrow’s relief at the outcome is the reader’s, too. With some amusement, Windrow describes how a typewriter worked, since many of his readers will never have seen one in action. “To summarize, this device had a sheet of paper waving out of it, made a rhythmic noise, and was in constant movement from side to side, punctuated by chimes and exciting rushes ending in a crashing sound. What more could an adventurous young owl possibly desire?” Mumble did find ways of attacking the paper without being bothered by the thrashing of the keys. And the sense of playful domesticity starts from the very first sentence of the text: “Shaving is tricky with an owl on your right shoulder.”

We learn plenty about Windrow himself in this volume, of course. He might be curmudgeonly, but he did have friends who visited and whom he visited. It is interesting, though, that he is writing two decades after Mumble’s death, and at this remove he gives no indication that there has ever been any such relationship in his life. Mumble died in her aviary, possibly as a heart attack in reaction to an intruder. Realizing she had no place within the dank ground, he gave her a “Cheyenne funeral”: “I tucked her into the high fork of a leafy tree, with her face towards the hills and the sky….I stroked her soft feathers for the last time, pulled the concealing ivy around her, and left her there. When I got home, I found myself not just choked up, but sobbing. Before that day I truly don’t believe that I had wept aloud in twenty years, and I never have since.” If there were ever an example of a pet being good for a human, this is one, and Windrow gratefully acknowledges it: “During the years that we were together her company enriched my life; it saved me from too much self-absorption, and increased my daily pleasure to a degree that I would never have imagined possible.” What a lovely tribute, in a lovely memoir.

The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of the Nelson Pillar
The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of the Nelson Pillar
by Donal Fallon
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.20
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Ups and Downs of Nelson's Pillar, September 29, 2014
Twenty years ago we went to Dublin, so that we could trot around the city and get a look at all the locales mentioned in _Ulysses_. There were lots of places that remained from the novel, set in 1904. Mr. Bloom’s house is gone, but pubs were still in operation, as was Sweney’s the Chemist where he buys a bar of soap. Glasnevin Cemetery where he goes to a funeral is there, and and the Martello tower where his new friend Stephen had spent the night before, and on and on. James Joyce knew the city was changing even as he wrote the book, but he could not have imagined what would come of Nelson’s Pillar, which is one of the many Dublin monuments he includes within it. It is where Stephen imagines a little story set (one of the inklings we get of his creative potential), and it is mentioned a few times as something noticed by him or Bloom as they make their ways around the city. It can’t be seen now; it was blown up in 1966. Joyce’s great novel was the main reason I wanted to read _The Pillar: The Life and Afterlife of the Nelson Pillar_ (New Island Books) by Donal Fallon, but the book will have plenty of interest for anyone who wants to know more about modern Irish history, or even general urban planning.

Admiral Horatio Nelson was the archetypal British naval hero, and there was admiration for him in Ireland; there may have been rebellion in the city in 1798, but news of Nelson’s victory over Napoleon brought celebration to Dublin’s streets. The planning for the Dublin monument started shortly after Nelson’s death, with the Aldermen approving such a statue, and public subscription began. The foundation stone was laid in 1808. Objection to the pillar was fast in coming, but it was originally aesthetic and not political. It was not long before loyalists used the pillar as a focal point and a place to celebrate jubilees of union with Britain. Nationalists soon showed their disapproval of the pillar, and even in the nineteenth century there were civic discussions about moving it or removing the statue or replacing it with someone more Irish. In the rebellion of 1916, there is folklore that the rebels attempted to blow up the pillar, but the men in the fight were probably much more interested in damaging more animate and less symbolic targets. In the early morning of 8 March 1966, however, bombs went off toppling the upper half of the column. It was suspected, of course, that the IRA had done the bombing, but it seems that a splinter group had taken the task upon themselves, although who exactly took part is murky.

What eventually arose at the site in 2003 was the Spire of Dublin, an enormous pin-shaped column with no figure atop. When the foundation for the Spire was being dug in 2001, there were rumors that a time capsule from the original foundation had been discovered. Time capsules just weren’t done in the early nineteenth century, but it was a good story that everyone wanted to be true. There had been tall tales about Nelson and his pillar, and the bombing, and for a while Dubliners renewed their exaggerated talk about the old pillar. It is fine to have this factual history of the pillar, and even better that Fallon has included lots of folklore and humorously disrespectful poems attached to it.

Just My Typo: From "Sinning with the Choir" to "the Untied States"
Just My Typo: From "Sinning with the Choir" to "the Untied States"
by D. Moir
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.95
63 used & new from $3.52

5.0 out of 5 stars The Comedy of Errors, September 23, 2014
It isn’t the most mature form of mirth, but laughing at other people’s mistakes is as universal a trait as people making mistakes in the first place. Most mistakes are not funny, and most typographic errors are not funny. There isn’t anything humorous, for instance, about dropping a letter and coming up with “droppin.” But what about this truncated advice found in a parish newsletter: “Smile at someone who is hard to love. Say, ‘Hell’ to someone who doesn’t care much about you.” It is one of hundreds of examples in _Just My Typo: From “Sinning with the Choir” to “The Untied States”_ (Three Rivers Press) by Drummond Moir. Moir has himself been a proofreader and editor. He has asked friends, authors, lawyers, and more to send in their favorite howlers, he trawled the internet for the ones made famous in news stories (such as Mitt Romney’s campaign spelling our great nation as “Amercia” in their advertising), and he has also looked at older books which, like his, collected the typos of their times (such as the advertisement by a New York publisher for Charles Dickens’s fifth novel, “‘Barney,’ by Rudge - $1.50.”). Moir’s book has plenty of examples that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Some of the typos hint at danger. There is an alarming instruction that had to be corrected in the _Easy Skydiving Book_: “On page eight, line seven, the words “state zip code” should read “pull rip cord.” The examples I laughed at the most here were the unintentional injection of dadaism by typesetters. An Ohio paper informed its readers, “Miss Clyde ----, of Pemberton, fell down stairs at her home this morning breaking her myhodudududududududosy and suffered painful injuries.” There is a photo here of someone’s arm that will forever bear the tattoo, “I’d rather live for something then die as nothing.” A sign at a parking lot reassures users, “ILLEGALLY PARKED CARS WILL BE FINE.” Author and poet Bret Harte had a newspaper in California, in which he recalled including “... that a resident named Mrs. Jones ‘has long been noted for her charity.’ The typesetter made it ‘has long been noted for her chastity.’ The proofreader put a question mark in the margin of the proofs, meaning that the typesetter should check the original copy. The article came out in the paper thus: ‘Mrs. Jones has long been noted for her chastity (?).’”

This is a book of silliness, often of ribaldry. What it lacks in profundity it makes up for in sheer entertainment. While the mistakes here are produced by chance, within context they sometimes seem to be making comments on the real story. Take a last example, from the _Chicago Daily Tribune_: “Before the verdict was rendered this morning, ‘Miss Mexico’ told interviewers that if the court freed her, she would become a nut.”

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