Monthly Archives: November 2016

Book Review — Between the Acts

Don’t bother with the plot: the plot is nothing.

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts is Virginia Woolf’s last novel. In the introduction, Leonard Woolf explains that Virginia had finished the book, and although some grammar editing was still needed, at the time of her death, she considered it finished. Only obvious errors were corrected.

The story takes place in June 1939 but was written while WWII was being fought. The story opens before the summer pageant and play at Pointz Hall, about a three-hour train ride from London, if the trains are running on time to this remote place. The house is owned by Bartholomew Oliver who is retired from the Indian service. His widowed sister, Lucy, lives with him, and she may be showing signs of dementia. His stockbroker son, Giles, and wife, Isa, also live there; they are having problems with their marriage.

The story revolves around the pageant and splits between the interactions of the Oliver household with visitors at the pageant and the play being performed. One theme that I found prevalent throughout the story is war. The title itself could be a play on the inter-war period with World War I as the first act and WWII as the second with the characters living in the intermission. Everyone seems to be happy living in isolation. This isolation is also shown in Lucy’s reading. In England’s prehistory, a land bridge formerly joined England to the continent. Just as Pointz Hall is separated from London, England is now separated from Europe. England is safe and secure. The characters seem oblivious to the impending war. There are, however, very few dissenters. Giles sees the whole pageant as a waste when the country should be preparing for war. Another guest watching the historical play comments how the army is not mentioned; its role is vital to British history. Interestingly, the word “war” is only mentioned five times in the entire book, but the symbolism grows throughout the book.

The writing is unmistakably Woolf. Her stream of conscious writing is at its peak. The quote I used as a header was a thought Isa had while watching the play and very much reflects Woolf’s writing. What characters are thinking is more important than story lines. The “color” of language also plays a vital role in the writing

…and as they trundled they were talking –not shaping pellets of information or handing ideas from one to another, but rolling words, like sweets on their tongues; which as they thinned to transparency, gave off pink, green, and sweetness.

He thought very little of anybody, simple or gentry. Leaning, silent, sardonic, against the door he was like a withered willow, bent over a stream, all leaves shed, and his eyes the whimsical flow of the waters.

Woolf lets her poetic talent flow through her prose. Several times I stopped and re-read passages because the were just so well written and contained flow and imagery that is simply sublime. Woolf would have given my grammar teachers fits of rage. She uses punctuation for her own purposes. Periods, semicolons, and commas do represent full stop, partial stop, and pauses, but do not always play by the rules of sentence formation. Like most of Virginia Woolf’s novels, Between the Acts is a difficult read for the reasons I mentioned above, but like most of her work, it is very well worth reading.

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Book Review — Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing

Void by James Owen Weatherall

Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing by James Owen Weatherall is a historical look at physics and vacua. Weatherall is a physicist, philosopher, and mathematician. He holds graduate degrees from Harvard, the Stevens Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Irvine, where is presently an assistant professor of logic and philosophy of science.

Weatherall takes the reader through the history of physics and in particular empty space. Throughout most of history, plenum or aether was thought to occupy the “vacuum of space”. Newton believed there needed to be medium for gravity to interact through. Leibniz, a contemporary and competitor, believed empty space was possible, but he believed God kept it hidden. If man added something to empty space, he would improve on God’s creation and that was not possible. It is interesting how religion still played a key role in the cutting-edge science of the time. Newton, however, was no better with his involvement in alchemy, even to the point of mercury poisoning. It is interesting to see what was mixed into science and mathematics and still succeeded.

Void ,next, takes us in the era of relativity and the end of the era of aether. With the curving of space-time, the interaction of gravity could operate through a void. Perhaps the most interesting point is defining empty space. Quantum mechanics picks up after relativity and adds an interesting and very unexpected twist to a vacuum. In addition to radiation– radio waves and light –through a void, particles could pop in and out of existence randomly. Finally, string theory, not to be outdone, offers 10,500 possibilities to have an empty vacuum in as many universes.

Weatherall presents an interesting study on the history of science. The book reads more like a history study than a science book. This helps in making it easy to read and easy to hold the interest of a non-scientist brain. The conflict between scientists was serious, and failure was devastating to more than a few scientists. The Newton- Leibniz conflict was very bitter. Jordan and Dirac, in competition for an electron theory, was not bitter, but after Dirac’s released his equation, Jordan fell into depression and left physics altogether. The work becomes a quest for some and a place of defense for others. As each new theory makes an appearance the “old guard” is resistant. They have put their entire lives behind their theory, and to be wrong after a lifetime, is devastating.

Void is a worthwhile read for those interested in science, history, or even biography. It was a bit light on the title word but rich in background. It is a book that will make the reader think. I was fairly familiar with the history and science, in layman’s terms, and I still walked away with something. The point that the String Theory offered, in particular, that there are 10,500 universes, many of which we cannot exist in. Perhaps we are not the one in almost an infinite number of chances of existing in a Goldilocks Universe, but rather we exist in one of many possible universes where life is possible– almost a complete reversal of the odds. My thinking is more amateur and philosophical than scientific but the idea of science is to promote the search for truth and to make one think. A well-written and extremely well-documented science (or history) book for the general public.

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Book Review — A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos

A Fortunate Universe by Geraint F. Lewis

A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos by Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes is a book about the cosmos for those looking for a bit more than a Discovery Channel series on the universe. Lewis is a Welsh astrophysicist, who is best known for his work on dark energy, gravitational lensing, and galactic cannibalism. Barnes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy, University of Sydney. He works on cosmology, galaxy formation, and the fine-tuning of the universe for life.

The universe has gotten a lot more complicated over the years, but much more accessible. Science shows on television, the internet, and since the 1980s, science books that were not just filled with equations. Einstein used thought experiments as well as Schrödinger. Feynman used diagrams to represent extremely complex mathematical equations. Stephen Hawkings had a best-selling book on science (with only one equation). I remember reading a non-mathematical Quantum Mechanics book back in the mid-1980s that opened up a whole new world to me. The popularization of quantum mechanics and cosmology allowed people with an interest in science to follow along and grasp the post-Newtonian universe.

Lewis and Barnes discuss the universe with all the familiar forces and particles. They, however, look at how our universe is “tuned.” They examine what small changes in forces and particles achieve. What would happen to the universe if the strong nuclear force and gravity were at different values? Could stars form? What would their lifecycles be like? Radiation is a serious problem for living beings, but would a universe without radiation support life? The earth would just be a cold dead rock. Radiation keeps the core hot and the magnetic field active. Perhaps the most important aspect of life in the universe is carbon. Carbon is formed inside of stars but by much more than simple fusion.

My background is not in science but I could follow along fairly easily throughout most of the book. There were a few places that I needed to reread or lookup in an external source but, for the most part, the writing was very understandable. The explanations are complete and understandable. Personally, I tend to forget how the weak nuclear force works, but I came away well informed. The writing style is engaging and thought provoking, and although the workings of the universe make rocket science look like child’s play, the writer’s can be entertaining. They also like to drop musical references in their writing.

In addition to what we know about the universe and what changing a variable might accomplish the book discusses what we don’t know and some problems with what we don’t know. The authors tell what happens when theories get stretched too far. In one place the authors discuss the number of 10^120. It’s large number so large in fact that it is nearly impossible. Impossible many times over when discussing the number of protons in the universe. Higgs, dark matter and dark energy, as well as singularities, are part of the discussion and keep the writing current. The authors start and end the book in a discussion format. It provides a good introduction and closes the book well taking in a final discussion of if the universe is so tuned for life could it have been created or designed. A particularly well-chosen closing to what very much seems like a Goldilocks Universe.

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Happy Birthday, Marines!

wpid-image000000621.jpgThe 1986 Marine Corps Ball in Bonn West Germany.  I am the 6th from the right


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Book Review — Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy

Most Enterprising Country by Justin V Hastings

Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy by Justin V Hastings is an economic look at the isolated country of North Korea. Hastings is currently a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Comparative Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, where he is also affiliated with the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, the China Studies Centre, and the Centre for International Security Studies,

Over the past several years, there have been quite a few scholarly books on North Korea. There is a developing interest in the country that keeps its internal workings hidden from the world while at the same time making outlandish threats. During the Cold War, after the Korean war, North Korea remained in the background. The Soviets were a much bigger threat and they managed to keep their allies in line. Once the Cold War ended, North Korea rose as a threat and one of the three members of the Axis of Evil. China still holds North Korea as an ally probably out of Cold War communist nostalgic loyalty, even though China has economically moved on. North Korea has become that loud mouth kid on the playground that does as he pleases because others are afraid of his big brother and since he is more of an annoyance, rather than a threat, no one really stands up to him. It’s not worth the risk.

Most books on North Korea end up repeating the same stories mostly from a handful of defectors. The good and bad in that is although first-hand accounts, they are first-hand accounts of people wanting to leave and making a case for asylum. Hastings takes a different approach and looks at trade. Most trade leaves a trail– buyers, sellers, and transporters. Trade creates an interesting picture of North Korea. Kim Il Sung concentrated his efforts into heavy industry which served North Korea well. It was ahead of South Korea economically. Once the Soviet Union fell, North Korea lost its oil and fuel. It’s industries stalled and fell into decay. Without outside help, North Korea’s brief worker’s paradise came to a sudden end.

North Korea learned how to play its friends as well as its enemies. Playing the Soviet Union against China ensured more than adequate financial support. Playing on the South Korea’s want for unification has allowed North Korea to take advantage of that want financially. North Korea’s insistence on continuing its nuclear program has lead to severe sanctions from most of the world. Even China has stepped up in writing the latest round of UN sanctions against North Korea.

North Korea uses deception on the outside and threats of prison or death on the inside. The diplomatic corps is responsible for supporting itself as well as providing for Pyongyang. Diplomats have been arrested for drug trafficking and North Korea produces a great deal of methamphetamine since the disruption the opium trade. It is also a masterful crafter of counterfeit US currency. Overseas North Koreans also work as brokers between parties arranging deals for profit. Diplomats must use their positions to set up contacts and even fake corporations to acquire needed components and technology. Recently, Taiwan has become a trading partner. Without a seat in the UN, it is free to enter trade with North Korea.

Internally, the Aurous March created and opening for small markets amid the starvation. The people are caught in a cult of personality and fear. The entire economy is created to feed the top. It is layered and each layer through bribes or profit is required to provide for the elite. The country relies on institutionalized corruption inside the country. Even foreign investors feel the pinch or get cut off despite agreed on deals. North Korea has raw materials to offer but no infrastructure to reach them. Investors pay for development then get shut out. There is also export labor to China where the government profits on lending out laborers. Perhaps the most surprising of North Korea’s exports — Restaurant chains.

Most Enterprising Country provides a unique look into North Korea and at it survival when almost all the world stands against them. External trade leaves a trail that can be followed and tracked. Hastings follows the trail and provides a unique and accurate picture of North Korea today.

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Book Review — The Grand Fleet: The Royal Navy During the Great War

The Grand Fleet by H. C. Ferraby

The Grand Fleet: The Royal Navy During the Great War by H.C. Ferraby is a historical primer on the British navy. Ferraby (1884–1942) was a journalist and naval war correspondent from Middlesex. He also collaborated with Hector C Bywater to write Strange Intelligence.

Before war broke out, Germany challenged Britain in a naval build up. Britain previously was the unquestioned ruler of the seas. Germany presented a real challenge. At the time, although Britain maintained supremacy on the water, but Germany was the greatest land force in Europe. Germany was also growing as an industrial power. Germany was on its way to becoming a superpower of the time. Britain although an industrial nation and having a significant empire, had only a small land army. The thought of Britain not having superiority on the seas would be a bit like the US not having air superiority in the Middle Eastern conflicts.

World War I as it turned out was mostly a land war. The Grand Fleet and the German Fleet stayed in port most of the time. Outside of submarine warfare and coastal patrols, the two navies sat out the European war. In the South Atlantic and Pacific, naval warfare on a small scale occurred between British and German ships. This all changed in May 1916 when the British Fleet and the German Fleet faced off in the Battle of Jutland. The battle was fought to a technical draw. Britain lost more ships but the German ships retreated to port and remained there the rest of the war.

Ferraby’s book was published in October of 1916 and was meant to teach the British people about the fleet. What ships made up a squadron. What armament the ships carried. What formation the ships traveled and fought in. It seems that the people needed to be reminded of their navy and its role in a war where it had a much smaller than usual part. The non-decisive battle at Jutland did little to reassure the people who had thousands upon thousands die in land battles. The book seems like a historical reassurance to the British people. Knowing their navy, which has not been a decisive factor in the war, adds confidence in the British effort and to the people at home who have been reading and experiencing war for the last two years. The Grand Fleet is important in its historical context and as a work that helped the country endure the war with confidence.

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