Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Weight of Ink: a very short review

Who can resist a love story?

Who can resist a love story, set in a library?

It's two great tastes, that taste great together: Rachel Kadish's The Weight of Ink.

Well, I'm not really being fair. It's not set in a library, it's set (partially) in a Rare Manuscripts Conservation Laboratory.

In a library.

Well, it's also set in a kibbutz in Israel.

Oh, and it's also set in 17th century London, during the time of the Inquisition, and the Plague, and yet also, the time of the birth of modern Philosophy.

It's a book about Baruch Spinoza, who you might never have spent much time thinking about (certainly I never did), and it's a book about being Jewish in England during a time when that was only barely legal.

And it's DEFINITELY a love story.

But it's rather a non-traditional love story, not least because a lot of it is about People Who Love Books, both now and then, back in the days when a book was still a thing that People Who Love Books built by hand, with agonizing care.

Our heroes and heroines are the sort of people who know immediately what a rare thing it is to find a 350 year old book, or even writing of any sort:

Her eyes were on the book. "Iron gall ink," she said after a moment.

Following her gaze, he understood that the damage had been done before he ever touched the ledger. The pages were like Swiss Cheese. Letters and words excised at random, holes eaten through the page over the centuries by the ink itself.

And they are the sort of people who can survive the most horrible tortures and injuries, and yet the thing that pains them the most is the loss of books:

Before she knew what she was saying, she turned to the rabbi. "What do you see," she said, "behind the lids of your eyes?"

For the first time there was unease beneath his silence. She felt a hard, thin satisfaction she was ashamed of.

"I shall not, at this moment, answer this question," he said. "But I will tell you what I learned after I lost my sight, in the first days as I came to understand how much of the world was now banned from me -- for my hands would never again turn the pages of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of ink, a thing I had loved since first memory. I walked through rooms that had once been familiar, my arms outstretched, and was fouled and thwarted by every obstacle in my path. What I learned then, Ester, is a thing that I have been learning ever since."

The literary technique of trying to tell two stories, one old and set in the past, and one new and set in the current time, is well-known, and although it can be powerful, it can also be a bit of a crutch.

It also leads to a situation in which the book is packed full of characters, and can be a tad confusing when you jump back and forth, although I felt like, overall, The Weight of Ink pulled this off well, and did not over-burden the reader.

Some of the characters are extraordinarily compelling, and front and center is surely Ester, the 17th-century orphan girl who comes to live in the household of a blind, dying rabbi.

Other characters are, well, not quite so gripping, such as the young heiress Mary, or the extremely annoying graduate student Aaron.

But for my money, my favorite was the aging scholar Helen, absorbed in the study of history, dragging herself out of bed every day, overcoming her advanced Parkinson's disease, to get into the library and spend her time with The Books:

For a long time, Helen sat in the silent laboratory. All around her, on shelves and tables, on metal trays and in glass chambers, lay a silent company of paper: centuries old, leaf after leaf, torn or faded or brittle. Pages inked by long-dead hands. Pages damaged by time and worse. But they -- the pages -- would live again.

The climactic scene in which Helen must go to face the Dean, who waits for her to deliver her requested resignation, is remarkably more vivid and compelling and heart-wrenching than you could possibly imagine.

A large part of The Weight of Ink is the painstaking detective story of the literary historians, discovering The Books, poring over their contents, and then, slowly, but surely, reading between the lines to understand what they really say.

But The Weight of Ink succeeded, for me, because it balances that detective story quite nicely with the fill-in-the-blanks story of Ester and her adventures in London.

Bit by bit, page by page, Aaron and Helen come to understand what Ester's life was like, and what she did and thought and felt.

And yet, how could they? How could any of us know what it was like to be a young girl, alone in a city of tragedies at a time of horrors, still consumed by those most elemental of human passions:

"No," she said. "No, it's not that way. I choose with my heart, and my heart is for you." As she said it she felt her heart insisting within her ribs -- indeed, for the first time in her life she almost could see her heart, and to her astonishment it seemed a brave and hopeful thing: a small wooden cup of some golden liquid, brimming until it spilled over all -- the rabbi breathing in his bed, the dim candlelight by which Ester had so long strained at words on the page, the dead girl with her father in the cart. All that was beautiful and all that was precious, all of it streaming with sudden purpose here -- to this place where they now stood.

And, of course, in and around it all, there is that Birth of Modern Philosophy business, with plenty of Hobbes and Descartes and Spinoza.

And whether that's your thing, or not, probably depends a lot on how you feel about Philosophy.

The folly of her own words astonished her. She pulled the papers back from over the water, and read more, and as she read she saw the enormity of her blindness. In her arrogance and loneliness she'd thought she understood the world -- yet its very essence had been missing from her own philosophy.

The imperative -- she whispered it to herself -- to live. The universe was ruled by a force, and the force was life, and live, and live -- a pulsing, commanding law of its own. The comet making its fiery passage across their sky didn't signify divine displeasure, nor did it have anything to say of London's sin; the comet's light existed for the mere purpose of shining. It hurtled because the cosmos demanded it to hurtle. Just as the grass grew in order to grow. Just as the disfigured woman must defy Bescos, who'd consider her unfit for love; just as Ester herself had once, long ago, written because she had to write.

But I suspect that most People Who Love Books are also people who are quite interested in Philosophy, so I suspect that it's actually a pretty fair bet that if you want to read a love story (actually four or five different love stories, as it turns out) set in a library (yes, yes, I know, a Rare Manuscripts Conservation Laboratory), then you probably want to read a fair amount about the early days of Rationalism and its conflicts with the major Religious Philosophies of the day.

Or maybe you just want to read a great love story!

Oh, to heck with it: go read The Weight of Ink. It's well worth your time.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Responses to the Letters to the Editor in the local paper

To the woman who was upset that she found herself sitting in her car, waiting for the traffic lights to change:

Drive less.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

I really need to plan a trip

I keep thinking that I ought to plan a vacation in which I'd set my signposts based on Destination Libraries:

  • Oodi Helsinki Central Library
    The design divides the functions of the library into three distinct levels: an active ground floor that extends the town square into an interior space; “book heaven” on the upper level; and an enclosed in-between volume containing rooms to accommodate additional services and facilities within the library. This spatial concept has been realised by building the library as an inhabited bridge, with two massive steel arches that span over 100 meters to create a fully enclosed, column-free public entrance space, clusters of rooms grouped around the structure, and the open-plan reading room carried above.
  • The new Deichman library
    The library's architecture is closely tied to its role as a public space. The top of the building cantilevers out to announce its presence to the visitors that arrive from Oslo's city center and the central station. Cuts in the facade mark the entrances the east, west and south, welcoming people from all sides of the city. Diagonal light shafts cut through the building and connect indoor spaces with the streets outside and the nearby Opera House. After dark, the building will glow and change looks as a reflection of all the different activities and events that take place inside.
  • Look Inside the Most Cutting-Edge Public Library in the World
    Library lovers have a reason to visit Denmark: the Dokk1 in Aarhus was just crowned the best public library in the world.

    The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) awarded the Dokk1 with the best library title at a meeting in Columbus, Ohio, throwing a spotlight on the futuristic building that opened in June 2015. The largest public library in Scandinavia has books and workspaces like most public libraries, but serves other functions for the community by housing meetings, performances, art installations and places for kids to play.

Aww, who am I kidding? There's an entire web site: 1001 Libraries To See Before You Die.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Just some completely random stuff I had lying around

Came across it, thought it was interesting...

  • What It Was Like Being Criticized by Feynman
    Unlike any other physics textbook that I have ever encountered, The Feynman Lectures on Physics never bothers to explain how to solve any problems, which made trying to complete the daunting homework assignments challenging and time-consuming. What the essays did provide, however, was something much more valuable—deep insights into Feynman’s original way of thinking about science. Generations have benefited from the Feynman Lectures. For me, the experience was an absolute revelation.

    After a few weeks, I felt like my skull had been pried open and my brain rewired. I began to think like a physicist, and loved it. Like many other scientists of my generation, I was proud to adopt Feynman as my hero. I scuttled my original academic plans about biology and mathematics and decided to pursue physics with a vengeance.

  • What Happened to the 100,000-Hour LED Bulbs?
    There’s more to an LED bulb than just the LEDs. Outlets in our homes are actually fairly dirty sources of AC power. LEDs want clean, constant-current DC sources, so circuits inside the bulbs must rectify and filter the incoming AC, then limit current to the LED packages.

    ...

    Since the LED bulbs contain a number of parts, it’s natural to ask which ones might be responsible for failures. The US Department of Energy (DoE)’s solid-state lighting program supports research and development of LED technologies, and their website contains volumes of data on LED lighting systems. Their Lifetime and Reliability Fact Sheet contains data on the failure rate of 5,400 outdoor lamps over 34 million hours of operation. Interestingly, the LEDs themselves account for only 10% of the failures; driver circuitry, on the other hand, was responsible almost 60% of the time. The remainder of failures were due to housing problems, which may not be as applicable for bulbs in indoor use. This data shows that at least for catastrophic failures (where the lamp ceases to emit light), extending lifetime means improving the power supplies.

    ...

    Certainly moving away from incandescent bulbs to more efficient lighting makes sense, but maybe we never really needed 100,000 hour bulbs in the first place. The lifetime of even 7,500-hour bulbs is long compared to the rapid pace of advance in lighting technology. Does it makes sense to buy expensive long-lived bulbs today, when better, cheaper, more efficient ones may be available in the near future?

  • Where Do I Start? A Very Gentle Introduction to Computer Graphics Programming
    If you are here, it's probably because you want to learn computer graphics. Each reader may have a different reason for being here, but we are all driven by the same desire: understand how it works! Scratchapixel was created to answer this particular question. Here you will learn how it works and learn techniques used to created CGI, from the simplest and most important methods, to the more complicated and less common ones. Maybe you like video games, and you would like to know how it works, how they are made. Maybe you have seen a film a Pixar film and wonder what's the magic behind it. Whether you are at school, university, already working in the industry (or retired), it is never a bad time to be interested in these topics, to learn or improve your knowledge and we always need a resource like Scratchapixel to find answers to these questions. That's why we are here.
  • The 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight
    On the western flank of the Hoover Dam stands a little-understood monument, commissioned by the US Bureau of Reclamation when construction of the dam began in 01931. The most noticeable parts of this corner of the dam, now known as Monument Plaza, are the massive winged bronze sculptures and central flagpole which are often photographed by visitors. The most amazing feature of this plaza, however, is under their feet as they take those pictures.

    The plaza’s terrazzo floor is actually a celestial map that marks the time of the dam’s creation based on the 25,772-year axial precession of the earth.

  • All the Bad Things About Uber and Lyft In One Simple List
    Here’s the latest evidence that Uber and Lyft are destroying our world: Students at the University of California Los Angeles are taking an astonishing 11,000 app-based taxi trips every week that begin and end within the boundaries of the campus.

    The report in the Daily Bruin revealed anew that Uber, Lyft, Via and the like are massively increasing car trips in many of the most walkable and transit friendly places in U.S.

    It comes after a raft of recent studies have found negative effects from Uber and Lyft, such as increased congestion, higher traffic fatalities, huge declines in transit ridership and other negative impacts. It’s becoming more and more clear that Uber and Lyft having some pretty pernicious effects on public health and the environment, especially in some of the country’s largest cities.

    We decided to compile it all into a comprehensive list, and well, you judge for yourself.

  • Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings
    Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert where O'Keeffe lived and worked. But as the protrusions began to grow, spread and eventually flake off, people shifted from curious to concerned.

    A multidisciplinary team from Northwestern University and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico has now diagnosed the strange paint disease: The micron-sized protrusions are metal soaps, resulting from a chemical reaction between the metal ions and fatty acids commonly used as binder in paints.

    Inspired by the research, the team developed a novel, hand-held tool that can easily and effortlessly map and monitor works of art. The tool enables researchers to carefully watch the protrusions in order to better understand what conditions make the protrusions grow, shrink or erupt.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Somehow, "transient ischemic attack"...

... sounds both terrifying, and yet abstract and innocuous, all at the same time.

When it's your mom, doncha know, those stupid words are just noise in your ears.

All you hear is your dad saying: "she didn't sound right, and so when she said she just wanted to go home and rest, I said: no, dear, we're going just down the road here, to the E.R.".

My favorite part from the email he sent me later:

I let her off at the curb and she walked in to the ER so in a few seconds I realized there was valet parking and I gave the man the keys and rushed in to stand next to her.

If there's anything that sums up my parents, and the 65 years they've spent together, well, that's it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

This, as they might say ...

... is littoral-ly bloggable: A stealthy futuristic ship is docked at Pier 30-32 in SF. Here's what it is.

When commissioned this weekend as the USS Tulsa (LCS-16), the 421-foot-long vessel will be the newest in the U.S. Navy's Independence class of littoral combat ships. Littoral refers to operations near shore, or just off the coast.

"It looks like something out of Star Wars," says Mike Rainey, a Navy public affairs officer, who is helping organize a ceremony on Feb. 16 to commission the ship.

The ship's relatively small size, a trimaran design with three hulls and a helicopter flight deck astern make this ship fast, agile, maneuverable and able to perform a wide array of missions. Earlier ships of this size and mission type maxed out at around 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour), while the LCS (powered by two gas turbine engines, two main propulsion diesel engines, and propelled by four water jets) can zip through the open seas at speeds up to 44 knots (51 mph).

I suspect that the closest the USS Tulsa has ever been to Tulsa is when she was first launched from the boatyard in Mobile.

At any rate, welcome to the Bay Area, USS Tulsa and her crew!