Friday, January 30, 2015

A peak into The Sixth Extinction

Classes started this week and I am completely swamped with things that I am doing and supposed to be doing, so instead reading fiction, I am trying to memorize Japanese Hiragana in my "spare time" 'cause that is totally what I should be paying attention to ... thus I don't have a fiction book this week (though Fairest is sitting there giggling at me, waiting for me to pick it up). 

Thus for Book Beginnings on Friday, hosted by Rose City Reader, all I have is a nonfiction work. Here is the start of the Prologue of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Beginnings, it's said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story, which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years ago. The species does not yet have a name – nothing does – but it has the capacity to name things. 

As with any young species, this one's position is precarious. Its numbers are small, and its range is restricted to a slice of eastern Africa. Slowly its population grows, but quite possibly then it contracts again – some would claim near fatally – to just a few thousand pairs. 

The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful.

For The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice here is a bit from page 56 of The Sixth Extinction ...

The Icelandic Institute of Natural History occupies a new building on a lonely hillside outside Reykjavik. The building has a tilted roof and is designed as a research facility, with no public access, which means that a special appointment is needed to see any of the specimens in the institute's collection. These specimens, as I learned on the day of my own appointment, include: a stuffed tiger, a stuffed kangaroo, and a cabinet full of stuffed birds of paradise. 

The reason I'd arranged to visit the institution was to see its great auk. Iceland enjoys the dubious distinction of being the bird's last known home, and the specimen I'd come to look at was killed somewhere in the country – no one is sure of the exact spot – in the summer of 1821. The bird's carcass was purchased by a Danish count, Frederik Christian Raben, who had come to Iceland expressly to acquire an auk for his collection (and nearly drowned in the attempt). Raben took the specimen home to his castle, and it remained in private hands until 1971, when it came up for auction in London. The Institute of Natural History solicited donations, and within three days Icelanders contributed the equivalent of ten thousand British pounds to buy the awk back. (One woman I spoke to, who was ten years old at the time, recalled emptying her piggy bank for the effort.) Icelandair provided two free seats for the homecoming, one for the institute's director and the other for the boxed bird. 

 Ohh - this needs pictures !

Icelandic Institute of Natural History

Count Raben's Great Auk with egg (Bird no. 49) at the
Icelandic Natural History Museum in Reykjavík.
© Reproduced on Extinct Website by
kind permission of Bruce Aleksander & Dennis Milam

 Have a great weekend !

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wondrous Words Wednesday 39

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Kathy at the Bermuda Onion where you "can share new words that you’ve encountered or spotlight words you love. Feel free to get creative!"

Some neat words ...

From When Oil Peaked by Kenneth Deffeyes (long) (of all places) ...

zymurgy \ˈˌmərjē\
:  a branch of applied chemistry that deals with fermentation processes (as in wine making or brewing)  
Origin: mid 19th century: from Greek zumē 'leaven', on the pattern of metallurgy.

"... a much fuller account of our travel from Scirland to Vystrana, is a window into a time all but forgotten now, in this age of railways, fast ships, and caeligers." 

Latin for "heaven supporting" 

Okay, I am having no luck sorting this one out. If someone else has a clue, could you share it in the comments? Clearly this is meant to be a form of mass transport - air ship perhaps? 

"No, you wouldn't ... they are crepuscular hunters, after all. ... Granted, we don't understand very well how it works even with the dragons we've seen..."

crepuscular  \kri-ˈpəs-kyə-lər\

1:  of, relating to, or resembling twilight :  dim <crepuscular light>
2:  occurring or active during twilight <crepuscular insects> <crepuscular activity>  
Origin: : from Latin crepusculum 'twilight' + -ar
First Known Use: 1668 (mid 17th century)

"... as all the gathered villagers ran toward us waving graggers." 
graggers  (aka groggers) 

paraphrased from Wikipedia: A ratchet, or noisemaker (or, when used in Judaism, a gragger or grogger (etymologically from Yiddish: גראַגער) or ra'ashan (Hebrew: רעשן‎)), is an orchestral musical instrument played by percussionists. Operating on the principle of the ratchet device, a gearwheel and a stiff board is mounted on a handle, which rotates freely.

Is that what those things are called ?!? They always fell into the generic category of noisemaker for me, upgraded to "give me that thing before lose my mind" at kids parties.  Of course they never had nice wooden ones, just cheap plastic ones that made a terrible racket.

" the end, Jacob had to teach me how to abseil, which I was not very good at."

abseil   \ˈab-ˌsāl, -ˌsī(-ə)l\

chiefly British
:  rappel
:  to descend (as from a cliff) by sliding down a rope passed under one thigh, across the body, and over the opposite shoulder or through a special friction device
Origin : German abseilen, from ab down, off + Seil rope
First Known Use: 1941
(Origin of Rappel : French, literally, recall, from Old French rapel, from rapeler to recall, from re- + apeler to appeal, call  
First Known Use: 1944)

You could figure this out from context, but I thought it was cool since I had never heard this term used before. I always just repelled down cliffs.  

I also can't help but think they were doing it wrong in the book. Repelling down a cliff face shouldn't result in a bunch of scrapes and bruises. Jacob should have been feeding her the line for a controlled decent and she should just have been bouncing off the cliff face using her feet. Even beginners pick it up quickly. Odd.

Anyhow, I always thought repelling was the best part of climbing - zipping down the rope is one of the closest things there are to flying. Awesome! 

 Happy Wednesday !


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

AAAAHHHhhhhhh ! ! !

The semester has started. Eeeeek !!!!

 Here - have some babies in tunnels instead ...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A peak into The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and Hedy's Folly

For this week's Book Beginnings on Friday, hosted by Rose City Reader here is the start of the novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley - the first Flavia de Luce Mystery (I started these and for some reason forgot about them. I need to start reading them all over now!) Just FYI, Flavia is, um, rather precocious ... 

It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily though my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air. 

And for my non-fiction choice this week, I have Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes (who was going for an epic length title on a pretty short book) ...

Invention is a strange business. Is it creative, like painting or sculpture? It's certainly original, by definition genuinely new, but it's also and fundamentally practical. Patent law says an idea must be "reduced to practice" to be patentable. That means an idea must be embodied in some new and useful mechanism or process or material. So invention is creative, but not the same way that fine arts are. Usefulness isn't fundamental to a sculpture or a painting. 

Is invention, then, scientific? Many inventions today are explicitly derived from scientific discoveries. The discovery that certain materials, stimulated in a particular way, would emit coherent light–light all of the same wavelength–led to the invention of the laser. The laser was a practical device that embodied the discovery, but wasn't the discovery itself. The distinction is clear even in prescientific times: Fire was the discovery; the fireplace was an invention. That fire hardened clay was a discovery; pottery was an invention. Again, as with fine art, usefulness isn't a requirement for scientific discovery. 

For The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice here is a bit from around page 56 of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie...

Little by little, I had come under her spell. She had talked to me woman-to-woman, and I had succumbed. I felt sorry for her ... really I did. 

"His downfall?" I asked. 

"He made the great mistake of putting his trust in several wretched excuses for boyhood who had wormed themselves into his favor. They pretended great interest in his little stamp collection, and feigned an even greater interest in the collection of Dr. Kissing, the headmaster. In those days, Dr. Kissing was the world's greatest authority on the Penny Black–the world's first postage stamp–in all of it's many variations. The Kissing collection was the envy–and I say that advisedly–of all the world. 

And here is something from page 57 of Hedy's Folly (since page 56 is the last of the previous chapter and completely incoherent on its own) ...

The film Ballet mécanigue premiered in Vienna on 24 September 1924, without George Antheil's music. As late as March 1926, when the film was screened at the London Film Society, a note in the program apologized for the missing soundtrack: "Mr. George Antheil was engaged in the composition of music for this picture but, according to Mr. Léger, this music is not likely to be suitably ready for some time and a jazz accompaniment suggested by Mr. Léger will accordingly be played instead." The music was written by then–but it had grown from a film score into a major composition. "The work had really sprung from previous inspiration," Antheil explained, "derived from its three predecessors: the 'Sonata Sauvage,' the 'Airplane Sonata,' and the 'Mechanisms'–to say nothing of my microscopic sonatina, 'Death of Machines.' 

Okay - I give. There is no way that this is going to make any sense. Unless you either have a degree in film history, modern music or critical theory, this is probably just gibberish.

I mean, come on - this is about a Dadaist post-Cubist art film by the artist Fernand Léger in collaboration with filmmaker Dudley Murphy and with cinematographic input from Man Ray (of all people - just look him up in Wikipedia along with Dada - I am not even going to try). 

 The film is available on YouTube (actually lots of versions) - it's, well, experimental and unique (you might want to make sure you have the volume turned down) ...

BTW - it wasn't actually the movie that was the big deal - it was George Antheil's music - he is our connection to Hedy Lamarr.

Here is an alternative place to view the film ...
 Oh, and Man Ray ... you might recognize this famous photograph called Glass Tears ...

Glass Tears, Man Ray, 1932
  (if you decide to look up more of his artwork be warned some of it is NSFW)

I see no graceful way out of the hole that I have just dug myself (I can't wait to finish the book and try to write a review /sarcasm) so I am just going to say have a lovely weekend.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Environmental News 4

Another semester, another oil pipeline bursting ...

Crews work to clean up an oil spill from Bridger Pipeline’s broken pipeline near
Glendive in this aerial view on Monday. Source:LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff photos (linked)

Oil spills in Montana's Yellowstone River after pipeline leak (Reuters)  
Bridger Pipeline LLC said on Monday it has shut the 42,000 barrel per day Poplar pipeline system after a weekend breach that sent as much as 1,200 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana. 
Oil Spill Contaminates Montana Town’s Water Supply, EPA Says (WSJ)
“The initial results of samples taken from the City of Glendive’s drinking water system indicate the presence of hydrocarbons at elevated levels, and water intakes in the river have been closed,” the EPA said in a statement.

Map from National Pipeline Mapping System - Public Map Viewer

Now I finally find the Montanta DEQ site's office posting ...

The key points are ...
  • On January 17th Bridger Pipeline LLC detected a pressure drop and shut down flow in the pipeline that crosses the Yellowstone River 9.22 river miles south (upstream) of the City of Glendive.
  • There was a release of crude oil from a 12-inch pipeline.
  • According to company reports, the operator’s aerial patrol plane has confirmed a sheen on the Yellowstone River in open water approximately three fourths-mile downstream and also at the first intake that is 25 miles downstream (north) of Glendive.  Oil sheen has also been found 15 miles north of the intake, near Savage.
  • The company estimates between 300 and 1,200 bbLs (12,600 and 50,400 gallons) have been released. 
    UPDATE: Jan.20, 7:30 a.m. - First Water Test Results Received
    Results from the first water sample taken from the Glendive Municipal Water Treatment Plant has come back and the sample showed an elevated level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), predominantly benzene. The presence of benzene would account for reports of adverse odor in the local water supply. This test result confirms findings from field samples taken Monday at several locations in the city.
    While the elevated levels are above the level for long-term consumption, the scientists who reviewed the data at the Centers for Disease Control have told the Unified Command that they “do not see that domestic use of this water poses a short term public health hazard.”

Here is the DEQ site map ...

"River is Froze Over Crews Are Investigating."  Froze over? Seriously ? Sheesh. 

Pop-up books

The library on campus has a neat display of pop-up books. Here are some quick pictures which don't really do the books justice (you should be able to click on them to get larger pictures) ...

Snow White - Pre-Disney

Snow White - Pre-Disney

Disney Snow White - overview

Disney Snow White

Disney Snow White
The Hulk - yes he is bursting right out of the page there

Tron - which was intricate and minimalist at the same time

Wonder Woman - Dig the Combat Kangaroos!
Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski (Thanks to Ian Barrans for the correct title)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

It's Monday! What are You Reading? 1-19-15

It's Monday! What are You Reading? is a meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey and It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen at Teach Mentor Texts.

This past week ... 

On Wednesday I did a Wondrous Words Wednesday 38 using words that were all from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and I followed that up on with a brief mini-review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (it is still quite a fun read). 

On Thursday I posted a huge, long review plus conceptual discussion about the nonfiction book When Oil Peaked by Kenneth Deffeyes (long). Did I mention this was long ? 

Friday I posted A peak into A Natural History of Dragons and The Secret Rooms for Book Beginnings and the Friday 56. 

Then on Sunday I posted a review of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (what a neat book!). 

This week, I am going to try to read Hubbert's Peak by Kenneth Deffeyes to see if his first book was better (I imagine it has to be otherwise he never should have gotten to the point of writing a third one.) Not sure what else I will pick up. Right now I just want to get my hands on The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent the second Lady Trent book, but that would take ignoring my monster TBR pile.

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (mini review)

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent 
by Marie Brennan

Published by: Tor
Copyright: 2013
Format: paperback
Pages: 334
Genre: Fantasy, Dragons!
Source: own book

From the back cover:
All the world, from Scirland to the furthest research of Eriga, knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons, defied the stifling conventions of her day. 

Here, at last, in her own words, in the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever. 

I am sorry that I waited so long to read this. Wow - it was just lovely and almost a perfect read for me. The book does really feel like a Victorian Lady Travels to X Place novel - reminding me strongly of Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, which is one of my favorite books ever. The author did a wonderful job with the worldbuilding and evoking a period feeling.

I really liked how the developing relationship was handled as well. I have never quite gotten my head around the idea that women had to be married off before they were 25 or they went stale or something - married at 19 and the adjustments and everything, especially given how sheltered upper class girls were - it must have been so tough and overwhelming. I thought this was well done and that the author managed a delicate balance in the narrative that emulated a person writing about these issues but still maintaining a polite distance from the overly personal.

Some might find the pace of the book slow, and overly descriptive, but I loved it.  I am very much looking forward to the next book.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A peak into A Natural History of Dragons and The Secret Rooms

For this week's Book Beginnings on Friday, hosted by Rose City Reader here is the start of the novel A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan.

When I was seven, I found a sparkling lying dead on a beach at the edge of the woods which formed the back boundary of our garden, that the groundskeeper had not yet cleared away. With much excitement, I brought it for my mother to see, but by the time I reached her it had mostly collapsed into ash in my hands. Mama exclaimed in distaste and sent me to wash. 

Our cook, a tall and gangly woman who nonetheless produced the most amazing soups and soufflés (thus putting the lie to the notion that one cannot trust a slender cook) was the one who showed me the secret of preserving sparklings after death. She kept one on her dresser top, which she brought out for me to see when I arrived in her kitchen, much cast down from the loss of the sparkling and my mother's chastisement. "However did you keep it?" I asked her, wiping away my tears. "Mine fell all to pieces."

"Vinegar," she said, and that one word set me upon the path that led me to where I stand today. 

For nonfiction I have The Secret Rooms: A True Story of A Haunted Castle, A Plotting Duchess, & A Family Secret by Catherine Bailey ...

Two doctors were already at the castle; a third, Lord Dawson, Physician to King George VI, was expected. It was mid-morning on Thursday 18 April 1940 and they were gathered at the entrance to a suite of rooms. The door leading into them was made of polished steel; the color of gunmetal, it was the type used to secure a walk-in safe.

The door was firmly closed.

The light from the dim bulbs along the windowless passage cast pools of inky shadows around the waiting figures. Piles of cardboard boxes were stacked against the bare stone walls. Marked 'Secret–Property of His Majesty's Government', they were secured with steel binding.

For The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice here is a teaser from page 56 of A Natural History of Dragons ...

Mama was there with him, occupied in polite chatter, but she rose with alacrity when I appeared. "I will leave you two to talk," she said, and closed the doors behind her as she departed. 

I was alone in the room with an unmarried man. Had I needed any further proof of what was about to occur, that would have done nicely. 

From page 56 of The Secret Rooms ...

'Those rooms are forbidden,' she said, pointing towards them. 'When I was a housemaid here, the housekeeper used to lock us in there while we were cleaning. She used to come back and get us at coffee time. Then we'd be locked back in again.'

'You were locked in? Why?'

'It was to stop us taking anything out,' she said. 'No one went in there.' 

'When did you work here?' I asked her. 

'In the 1940s and '50s,' she replied. 'Those rooms were sealed. They were sealed after the Duke died.' 

This woman seemed to be saying something other than the tour guides who had stopped me earlier. There really did seem to be a mystery attached to these rooms. I look at her. She was in her early eighties and not in costume like the others. 

'Which duke?' I asked. 

 Happy Friday - have a lovely weekend ! 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

When Oil Peaked by Kenneth Deffeyes (long)

When Oil Peaked 
by Kenneth Deffeyes

Published by: Hill and Wang; Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright: 2010

Format: hardback
Pages: 152
Genre: Non-fiction, oil
Source: own book

From the front cover:
In two earlier books, Hubbert's Peak and Beyond Oil, geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes laid out his rationale for concluding that world oil production would continue to follow a bell-shaped curve, with the smoothed-out peak somewhere in the middle of the first decade of this millennium—in keeping with the projections of his former colleague, pioneering petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert. Deffeyes sees no reason to deviate from that prediction, despite the ensuing global recession and the extreme volatility in oil prices associated with it. In his view, the continued depletion of existing oil fields, compounded by shortsighted cutbacks in many exploration-and-development projects, virtually assures that the mid-decade peak in global oil production will never be surpassed. In When Oil Peaked, Deffeyes revisits his original forecasts, examines the arguments that were made both for and against them, adds some new supporting material to his overall case, and applies the same mode of analysis to a number of other finite gifts from the Earth: mineral resources that may be also in shorter supply than "flat-Earth" prognosticators would have us believe.

I purchased this book when it came out because I was considering using it for a class, but never got around to reading it since the class went a different direction (water issues mostly). With the recent, dramatic drop in gasoline prices in confluence with my environmental case studies class, I decided to pick the book up to see what kind of a foundation it would lay on the topic of peak oil.  

First I probably should explain that yes, as a geologist, I do believe that there is such a thing as peak oil. In, fact there are finite limits to most of the natural resources that we use every day and take for granted - gold, silver, tantalum, nickel, oil - all of these resources will some day "run out."  What the idea of peak  brings to the table, and why it is important, is that the point at which a resource runs out isn't important. It is the downhill slope we find ourselves on when extracting and processing that resource becomes increasingly costly and more difficult - where prices get higher and higher as more people are fighting over a smaller and smaller supply. It doesn't really matter too much what the total amount on the Earth of oil, copper or uranium is, what matters is what happens when we run out of the east stuff - how much damage are we willing to do to get that resource out of the ground and how much energy are we willing to use to get it ?  We points where there is a negative return on investment long before we 'run out' of anything.

There is a fundamental disconnect between economic models that assume that as long as a demand exists, there is an infinite supply that can be brought to market, and the reality of our finite natural resource base. I will try to illustrate this with an admittedly lame example ...

(Bear with me - there is a book review here too.) 

Take an existing product, like a smart phone. As long as there is a demand for smart phones, even if Apple and Samsung were suddenly to disappear in a cloud of smoke and counter lawsuits, some company will rise to supply the market with smart phones. If those smart phones get too expensive or lack the functions the market wants, then other companies will rise to fill that gap. (Yes this is an oversimplification of the invisible hand idea, but it will serve for now.) So the idea is that as long as there is a demand, the market will respond with a supply that will dynamically respond to changes in demand.

But what happens if there suddenly is no more tantalum (Ta - atomic number 73) available? Tantalum is an element so, outside of some really expensive processes involving a cyclotron or something, there isn't a feasible way of making more of it - certainly not in amounts large enough to support current levels of industrial use. This limitation impacts all of those smart phone companies (as well as several other industries).

Traditional market theory states that someone will come up with a substitute, but it doesn't really work that way with elements. Instead - as the supply gets smaller and smaller, the things that it get used for will become prioritized by how much the market is willing to spend - cell phones verses medical implants for example. In some cases there might be other elements with similar properties that can substitute, in other cases, there won't be, so some products would become extremely expensive, have to change radically to something else, or simply disappear.

Following through with this example, you can see that it isn't the point at which the tantalum runs out that is economically important - it is the point at which the mines reach their peak. For a finite resource there is going to be a peak point of production - a point after which there won't be enough new discoveries to maintain production so there will be a decline in supply as the mines won't be able to provide enough to keep up with the demand. This causes the price to go up and up - and since we are talking about an element here, there wouldn't be an easy switch - you can't just substitute uranium or chlorine for tantalum.

Now what happens to our market ? Well, smart phones would start to get really expensive - like that $6,000 Lamborghini premium mobile phone, but the sticker price would apply to your iPhone or Android phone as well. Some companies will start making Ta-free, lower priced phones but they are going to be bigger, luggable models that don't fit in your pockets. Computers will also change and/or get more expensive (it might even drive us back to desktops and away from tablets). Hip implants will change. Etc. etc. 

The market response is much messier, but at least in this case there are ways for the market to adapt - though we might not like them. But what if we are talking about resources were there just are not any clear substitutes or substitutes that can be brought to market quickly enough - like oil (water also comes to mind) ? Things aren't messy then - they are downright ugly.

Which leads me in a very roundabout way back to the book. We currently have a situation where we are almost certainly beyond (or at) peak for conventional oil production but in the past couple months oil prices have plummeted - seemingly in defiance of the peak model I just described. 
What's up with that ? 

This is exactly the sort of question I want my students to be asking and why I pulled the book out. See, it was a geologist, M. King Hubbert, who originally came up with the whole concept of a peak in connection to the U.S. oil supply. Deffeyes, the author of When Oil Peaked actually worked with Hubbert at Shell and this is his third, and most recent book on the topic. 
Hubbert's 1956 graph entitled United States crude-oil production base on
assumed initial reserves of 150 and 200 billion barrels.

I read the book basically to see how well it would work as an exploration of the topic and determine if it would be suited for student use. Unfortunately my answer to both questions was "not very well." As an exploration the topic it is pretty weak. It reads more like a bull session with someone over beers rather than a cogent discussion. You would have to already have a pretty good handle on the topic for this discussion, I mean book, to make much sense to you. Ideas are tossed out rather randomly and the topical flow is very weird, plus the author has chosen to make one-line jokes a priority over clarity. 

On that note - the author's privilege pervades the text with jokes that have a tendency to punch down. Towards the second half of the book I have WTF scrawled on many pages in association with jokes that while not offensive (actually one did offend me) but, like I said, punch down or use stereotypes as lazy attempts at humor. I was not impressed. 

In terms of technical content, the book lacks any serious references and the author - with intent - uses just-so stories to make most of his points. That is fine as a starting point, but without more serious discussion or at least references to allow one to pursue a point with greater depth, this approach provides little value to students. 

Too much of the book is composed of the author just writing down stuff that interested him without bothering to do any sort of background research for context. Some random examples: 

From the Uranium chapter - the chapter starts with a series of disconnected statements that I can't tell if the author is agreeing with or arguing with or what. One of the statements is  "The nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain doesn't look effective or safe" [pg 71]. Um, huh ? This book was published in 2010 but back in 2009 the Obama administration 'officially' cancelled the project and stopped requesting money for it. Actually Obama and Harry Reid made closing Yucca Mountain a priority (both campaigned on it) and started dismantling it as soon as Obama took office in 2008. A quick look into the topic reveals that apparently they couldn't really do that and there have been court cases etc, but as things stood in 2010 Yucca Mountain was to outward appearances, cancelled. If the author wanted a one-off sentence it should have read Yucca Mountain has turned into a political and legal quagmire though that still doesn't help with the context issue.

Then the author makes an extremely unclear argument that there is plenty of uranium around to use based on his Gaussian model of uranium distribution in the Earth's crust (I actually had to look this up on-line to figure out - from the book I couldn't tell if he though there wasn't enough uranium or that there was plenty and the model he created was published in Scientific American - was it really that different of a magazine then? peer reviewed ? this just seems weird). Next, for reasons completely unclear to me, he mentions that he is nervous about uranium roll-front deposits (that there haven't been enough discovered in other countries, that the model of a roll-front sedimentary deposit is wrong, or something else - I have no idea) and then randomly starts talking about copper deposits. Why? I have no clue.  

Later in the chapter he makes the completely reality challenged statement "Yucca Mountain, in nobody's backyard" apparently completely unaware that around 75% of the residents of Nevada oppose housing nuclear waste there and have been fighting it tooth and nail for years. Plus, his take Radwaste storage is pretty ill-informed at best. 

And from the last paragraph of the chapter "One final way of sugarcoating the renewal of nuclear-power reactors would be burning up part, or all, of the inventory of military nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapon inventories are being reduced in Russia and the United States. Using the fissile ingredients from bombs to generate electric power is the modern equivalent of 'they shall beat their swords into plowshares.'"

The way that paragraph is written it sounds like he is tossing an idea out there for 'us' to use, right? Book published in 2010 and he says this 'would be' a way to sugarcoat nuclear use? 

I guess he never heard of the Megatons to Megawatts program? The 1993 agreement between the US and Russian governments under which Russia would convert 500 tonnes of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from warheads and military stockpiles (equivalent to around 20,000 bombs) to low-enriched uranium (LEU) and to be bought by the USA for use in civil nuclear reactors? Yeah - that program actually ran until 2013, when Russia competed their end of the deal, making around $17 billion. (U.S. weapons were also converted). A new deal wasn't negotiated since US/Russia relations haven't been that great lately. Here is a NPR report from 2013 on the program - "For the past two decades, 10 percent of all the electricity consumed in the United States has come from Russian nuclear warheads."

If he did know about those programs, the way he wrote that paragraph is disingenuous at best and if he didn't know about those programs - well that is worse. They weren't exactly a secret.

There are many examples like this from the book - the author makes some statement, or suggestion, or whatever it is meant to be, that seems to lie out there its own bubble, shunning context, in defiance of the rest of the world.

And the Climate Change chapter is better ignored completely. It is a hash of either brutal oversimplification or a haze of misunderstanding. I do have to point out that the Black Death - peaking in 1346/53 - caused a huge population crash that might have rather more to do with pushing "societies down into survival mode" than the onset of the Little Ice Age (starting around 1350.) And all I can say is that based on his collection of suggestions is that he doesn't appear to give a d*am about the other species on the planet. 

Mudstone is NOT the same thing as shale!  %#*$& geologist should know that!  Fracing shale typically works because shale is fissile. Mudstone has different implications. I know that some oil people tend to use the term "shale" for any tight, small grained rock but a geologist should be better about their terminology. Sorry - I have pages of notes here that I am trying to condense into something coherent and not just a list of issues/complaints but that one annoyed me.  

The mineral resources are in the book because wind and solar power development depend on access to trace and rare-earth elements, which in turn take energy to acquire and process. This needs to be kept in mind - wind turbines and solar panels can't be manufactured out of thing air - it is energy intensive and requires use of more of those finite resources. I just wish he had tied this together better.

There are lots of other things that I could mention, but in deference to anyone who hasn't given up reading in despair by this point, I will sum up ... It was with almost equal parts interest and annoyance that I completed this book. Some of the discussion was historically interesting or illuminating but way too much was disorganized and disengaged.

I think that the author does have some interesting things to say about oil, using stop-gaps and not wanting to get stuck in a dead-end with respect to energy policy and infrastructure, but I find it odd that he seems to be proposing a one-size fits all solution - i.e. there is one  solution that we should put all/the bulk of funding towards. I think different solutions need to be integrated together. I also found much of the discussion shallow or meandering. 

Mostly it felt like this book was composed out of a loose outline that never got fleshed out. Ultimately it was disappointing. I think that the only people who are going to get anything out of it are people who already are familiar with the topic. This definitely isn't the place to start if you are a student or want to learn about the concept. Sigh, which means that I am going to go back and read his first book Hubbert's Peak to see if it is any better suited as an introduction to the topic. I am just really, really hoping that it is better written as well. 

Oh - about oil prices ... take a look at this graph from the EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration) 

See what happened last year?  Production (supply), the blue line, kept going up while consumption (demand) dropped. Classic oversupply causing a price drop. So does this mean "Yeah! we aren't really near peak oil at all" ? Nope. Sorry. This also isn't because of the tight-oil (shale-oil from the Bakken) making the US "energy independent" either.

These exceptionally low oil prices are actually bad for US oil production. See, it costs more per barrel to extract oil from the Bakken then from someplace like Saudi Arabia.  If you look at the graph below the breakeven point for oil from the Hess Bakken is around $60 a barrel, so if the price of oil drops below $60, you would be losing money for each barrel of oil you pull out of the ground and sell. At the $50/barrel line on the graph you can see that most of the US plays are on the wrong side of the break even point - i.e. bad news for US production.

Just FYI - the break even point for oil from Saudi Arabia is closer to $25/barrel. This means that some oil suppliers can survive low prices much better than others. There are oil-rich nations / oil companies that are hurting right now because their oil-fields are on the wrong side of the breakeven point at the current price of oil. However, many of them are going to keep pumping, at least for a while, for a variety of reasons - ex. making a little money off the oil and working at a net loss waiting for prices to rebound is better/less expensive in the long-run than shutting everything down and having to rebuild later. Prices are going to rebound at some point, the question is when.

We have almost certainly passed peak on conventional oil resources. The world is increasingly dependent on non-traditional oil sources. There is a lot of oil in non-traditional sources, but it takes more energy to get it out of the ground, refine it and move it to market so the energy return on investment (EROI) is much lower than for conventional oil - thus there might be more of it, but we have to use much more of it to get the same amount of energy out. This means that we are still looking at an oil peak, it is just a somewhat different when you include the non-traditional sources.

And this discussion of cost doesn't even consider the external costs associated with non-conventional oil sources - like environmental damage we do trying to get it out of the ground (see for example Athabasca tar sands and the Keystone Pipeline - part 2) and the extra CO2 that gets put into the atmosphere from acquiring it and using it. 

Complicated stuff. Now I need better books to help explain it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Last weekend I randomly found myself re-reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It has been a long time since I re-visited these books, though in college I read and re-read all of them. Now that I have started, I will have to read them all again.

Since Hitchhiker's Guide was published in 1979 this isn't so much a review than a quick note to remind people that this is a great book. Not so much a story as an exploration of the essential absurdity of the universe, with the bonus that it is much funnier than reading Waiting for Godot.

If you haven't read it and have any interest in science fiction, nerd culture, or understanding a bunch of in-jokes that float around in such places (like the bit about the towel), you really need to at least read the first one. If you have seen the movie (or the old BBC series) try to make sure you blank it from your mind first. Just read.

Rather than try to explain anything, I am simply going to supply some quotes ...

"Who said anything about panicking ?" snapped Arthur. "This is still just the culture shock. You wait till I've settled down into the situation and found my bearings. Then I'll start panicking!" 

--- *** ---

"Well?" she said. 

"Well what ?" 

"Parts of the inside of her head screamed at other parts of the inside of her head." 

--- *** ---

"Arthur! You're safe!" a voice cried. "Am I?" said Arthur, rather startled. "Oh, good." 

--- *** ---

Plus, Hitchhiker's Guide provided some lovely words for my Wondrous Words Wednesday post this week.

Wondrous Words Wednesday 38

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Kathy at the Bermuda Onion where you "can share new words that you’ve encountered or spotlight words you love. Feel free to get creative!"

Last week was cod, but now we have officially reached ridiculously cold. Sorry it is so blurry, but that is what our weather station reported this morning minus thirteen! Eek!

I randomly started re-reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I haven't read the books in ages so it was neat to revisit it. I have to read the rest of them again now. Classic the glass is half empty, the toast always lands butter side down humor.

Source: Grace's Guide

"It's the Vogon captain making an announcement on the tannoy."

Paraphrased from Wikipedia: Tannoy Limited is a Scotland-based manufacturer of loudspeakers and public-address (PA) systems that was founded in 1926. The name Tannoy is an abbreviation of tantalum alloy, which was used in a type of electrolytic rectifier developed by the company (something that coverts AC to DC). Tannoy became a household word as a result of supplying PA systems to the armed forces during World War II. They are still around and you can still purchase Tannoy speakers and loud speakers.

"He gave us conkers when you bust your way into his megafreighter."

1:  a horse chestnut especially when used in the game conkers
2 plural:  a game in which each player swings a horse chestnut on a string to try to break one held by the opponent

 Origin: mid 19th century (a dialect word denoting a snail shell, with which the game, or a similar form of it, was originally played): perhaps from conch, but associated with (and frequently spelled) conquer in the 19th and early 20th centuries: an alternative name was conquerors.

So - to judge by the context in the rest of the section, we are talking about chestnuts.

"Here," he said, hoicking out a lump of evil-smelling meat from a bowl, "have some Vegan Rhino's cutlet."

hoick \ˈhik\
: to lift or pull (something) with a quick movement 
Origin: probably alteration of hike

First Known Use: 1898
(sounds awful - I read that hocked up at first - blergh!) 

"Since when," continued his murine colleague, "we have had an offer of a quite enormously fat contract ..."

murine \ˈmyr-ˌīn\ 
Origin: ultimately from Latin mur-, mus
First Known Use: circa 1729

Specifically, Old World rats and mice, part of the subfamily Murinae in the family Muridae. Members of this subfamily are called murines. The Murinae are native to Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Happy Wednesday!

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's Monday! What are You Reading? 1-12-15

It's Monday! What are You Reading? is a meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey and It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! hosted by Jen at Teach Mentor Texts.

Wow - I haven't done one of these since classes ended last spring.  Well - in a probably vain attempt to start paying more attention to sharing what I have been writing, I am going to try to remember to do one of these posts at least once a month or so.

And here I find out that Sheila is in Australia!  Soooooo jealous!

Last Monday I signed up for some reading challenges
I am curtailing my attempts this year since last year when life hit I totally spaced on doing any of the links for the challenge - I was read the books, and even managing reviews. I just wasn't taking that last step. This year I have only signed up for three so far. I might add a couple more but will attempt to control myself this year. 

Tuesday I was a Mystery Reader for a 2nd Grade Class. It was tons of fun! I read Rosie Revere, Engineer and If an Armadillo Went to a Restaurant.

I also posted a review of Waistcoats and Weaponry by Gail Garriger. Review spoiler - I didn't like it nearly as much as the first, or even the second. I think it was only nostalgia for the first book that really carried me through. Rather disappointed.

Wednesday - was Wondrous Words Wednesday 37 but the books that I found the words in were pretty meh, so I didn't include them in the post this time around.
Thursday I posted a review for the novella  The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon). Very cool creepy take on the Bluebeard fairy tale. If that is your thing, definitely worth a read.

I also read Dragonbreath #10: Knight-napped by Ursula Vernon. I haven't posted a review yet but - squeee! - I love Danny Dragonbreath books! They are awesome. My son read it over the weekend and spent a ton of time reading bits out loud to me and laughing uproariously.  

Friday was my A peak into The Seventh Bride and The Quiet World post where I post a bit from the first page and a bit from either page 56 or the 56% mark in a book. I usually try to do both a fiction and non-fiction title.
Saturday I posted a review for The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani - another review spoiler - I found this book to be very problematic. The ideas the book purports to play with are very cool and would subvert some traditional tropes, except that the way the narrative actually plays out, most of the negative stereotypes are actively reinforced. Plus the writing was pretty sloppy. Sorry, I know that lots of people really liked this book but I was hugely disappointed.

And I have no clear plan for this week. Goodness only knows I will be reading.  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil 
by Soman Chainani

Published by: HarperCollins Publishers 
Publication Date: May 14, 2013

Format: ebook
Copyright: 2014
Pages: 512
Genre: Middle-Grade Fiction - Fairytale retelling
Source: own book

From Amazon:
At the School for Good and Evil, failing your fairy tale is not an option. 

Welcome to the School for Good and Evil, where best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she'll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. 
Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil. 

The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie's dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are . . . ? The School for Good and Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one.

All I can say is good grief what a load of dingo's kidneys.

Fair warning, this might get a bit spoilery because this book just ticked me off so much. I am going to try and avoid giving away too much but I might let some things slip.

I have had this book shoved to my attention for what feels like ages, so when I saw it on sale at Amazon for $1.99, I finally decided to give it a go. I like fairy tale retellings and the premise sounded somewhat promising.

Turns out I should have given it a pass. Ugh what a wet mess.  The idea that the "ugly" girl is the good one and the "beautiful" girl is the evil one is not exactly groundbreaking here but has been treated as something amazingly subversive and trope upending by lots of reviewers out there. Okay - I was willing to give it a chance, considering much of the stuff that gets published, this sounded like it was at least going to be a chance of pace.

Turns out to be a throughly shallow treatment though because as the story progresses, 'good' girls get prettier and 'evil' girls get uglier - so much for that subversive idea. And for some reason the whole Evil School is populated by the unwashed, unkempt and imperfect, because clearly that all equals evil, right? Excuse me?  Some of the best fairy tale villains were quite beautiful or handsome. What the heck does lack of traditional beauty or inability to blend in with peers have to do with evil?

Someone failed Shakespeare - That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain 
                                                            — Hamlet Act 1, scene 5

The book gives lip service to the idea that actions speak louder than appearances, but doesn't actually make that happen in the plot. Not to mention the fact that the whole 'I want to be an evil villain just because!' thing has never made sense to me. There are some stabs at explaining motivations but they mostly fall flat because the worldbuilding is so nonsensical.

More Shakespeare !

I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace,
and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to
fashion a carriage to rob love from any. In this, though I
cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be
denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a
muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have
decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would
bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the
meantime, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.
                                    — Much Ado About Nothing Act 1, scene 3

I completely hated the whole your soul is either all evil or all good - you were born that way - and there isn't anything you can do about it.  I managed to swallow it down and hope that this was going to be blown apart in the course of the story.

Speaking of inexplicable - apparently murder is common, right since it is common in fairy tales, but only the truly evil can be murders, so really murdering someone is too evil, except at the beginning of the book, and multiple times throughout actually, her roommates threaten, plan, attempt to murder Sophie. Then later in the book they act all shocked about the idea of murder. And someone does actually commit a murder but the only consequences are occasional feelings of nausea. Wait, what ?

And this kind of thing is true throughout the book. Every characters actions and motivations are whatever they need to be at that point in the narrative, never mind the fact that they were completely different just a few pages or even paragraphs ago.

The book starts out promisingly, laying out threads that could have gone somewhere - like perhaps the critical idea that the world isn't totally black and white, and really following through with the ugly does not equal evil. There were lots of ways that this could have been a really good book. It bailed on every single one of them. Sigh.

And the ending! ARGH! Mass slaughter but hey, everything is okay for 'our hero' so that equals 'happy ending' (such as it ended - it was pretty abrupt for such a long, wordy and repetitive book.)

However - at the very end of the book the way that the internal fairy tale ended, the trigger, I really liked that idea. Too bad it was tied up with the extremely harmful idea that good is always required to forgive - no matter how badly someone else has treated them or others - no matter how terrible someone else is. That is a recipe for abuse right there. 

And the writing was occasionally a bit of a train wreck. There were several places where I re-read sections of text that jumped from point A to point B like something critical and revealing had happened, but there was nothing connecting them. Either the ebook version is missing chunks of text or this book needed a much better editor.

Stuff like this (there are worse examples but they are all spoilers) ...

"The west doors flew open to sixty gorgeous boys in swordfight. 

Sun-kissed skin peeked through light blue sleeves and stiff collars; tall navy boots matched high-cut waistcoats and knotted slim ties, each embroidered with a single gold initial."

I flipped back and forth several times trying to find the rest of that first sentence. Just huh?

Sigh. No fun. No fun at all. I certainly am not interested in the second book and don't get why this one was so popular at all.