Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Eye Candy

The Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things

Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas, by Gary Geddes
$16.47 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 1402743637
Travel memoirs are a favorite of mine, and this one is a real winner. 
In the fifth century, a Buddhist monk named Huishen is alleged to have travelled from Kabul, Afghanistan to Chiapas, Mexico: a journey of 7,000 miles over a thousand years before Columbus discovered America.
Following the so-called Silk Road, he is said to have crossed China to the Pacific Ocean and then sailed to what is now the American Continent.
Is the story true, or just a legend? Gary Geddes never find out for sure, but what he sets out to do is fascinating in its own way. He follows the route the ancient monk might have taken, and makes a series of observations on the cultures he passes by.
Now I'll be the first to admit that like most Americans, I don't know too much about this part of the world. Geddes paints a fascinating portrait. He visits with 
dozens of scholars, some officials from the UN, and ordinary  folk in the many towns he passes through. There's a lot of suffering and poverty: much of Central Asia is covered with land-mines left over from the Soviet-Afghan War. Thousands have been killed or wounded. Additionally, there's little employment available and almost nothing to buy with what money one does have.
Still the exotic East is positively captivating: he visits with Muslim women who've opened a small, 
desperately needed school for girls. In China he visit peasant farmers raising yaks in the pastures outside the Himalayas. In Mexico, he searches for Chines characters among ancient Mesoamerican ruins. This is diverse as it is breath-taking.
Mr. Geddes has a lot of international connections, allowing him to visit places most of us will never see. Also, he's an acclaimed poet and therefore an outstanding writer who 
manages to capture a land's exotic beauty through his language. 
This is an outstanding and intriguing adventure: the trip of a lifetime. The search for relics of Huishen gives the book a bit of a plot: the common thread that gives cohesion to otherwise dissimilar cultures.
I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and learned a bit about ancient and modern Asian cultures in the process. Please check this one out.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Eye Candy

Dinosaur Beginnings

251.4 million years ago, Earth experienced the Permian Triassic Extinction Event, also called the Great Dying. No one really knows what caused it, but 70% of all terrestrial life and 96% of marine life was destroyed. Some scholars suspect it may have been a series of meteor impacts, or radiation when a nearby star became a quasar.
In the Mesozoic Era (251.4 - 65 million years ago) animal life was recovering from the worst mass extinction in the world's history. It is against this backdrop that dinosaurs developed and quickly spread across the planet.

During the first third of the Mesozoic Era, the Triassic Period (251.4 - 213 million years ago, see chart), true dinosaurs had not yet appeared. The Triassic hosted the appearance of archosaurs, which were a kind of muscular lizard.
Two important evolutionary changes took place among the archosaurs. They changed from sprawling, lizardlike animals to animals that walked with their legs held directly under their bodies. The ancestors of the dinosaurs developed a stronger ankle, which allowed then to walk upright and sometimes become bipedal (walking on two legs). The other change was from cold-blooded, lizardlike metabolism to a warm-blooded, birdlike metabolism.

True dinosaurs at last! During the Jurassic Period dinosaurs grew very large. The massive Sauropods, as large as 60 bull elephants, developed early in this period. Alongside them, in the middle and late Jurassic, evolved the carnivore giants.
Late Jurassic dinosaurs were spectacular. They exceeded the imagination in size and form. Finally, by the Cretaceous Period, dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and had spread all across the land. This continued until their mysterious mass extinction, 65 million years ago.

The earth was still changing as the early Cretaceous began. The land masses were drifting and the climate was changing. These changes affected the plant and animal world. Dinosaurs were becoming more plentiful and many more types were evolving. The Early Cretaceous world was very warm. There were wet and dry seasons rather than summer and winter. Most areas of the world were covered by tropical jungles. The low-growing plants were ferns and fernlike vegetation. A perfect breeding ground for dinosaurs, large and small.

If you're interested in this sort of thing, there are a lot of good books on the subject: some very scholarly and others more basic. One of my favorites is National Geographic Dinosaurs, by Paul Barrett.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Eye Candy

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
$13.95 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 978-1-4000-3271-6
Full of surprises, the Curious Incident is a murder mystery. The detective is a very peculiar young boy. The victim, a black poodle named Wellington.
Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.
When Christopher discovers Wellington's body on his neighbor's lawn, still warm and impaled by a garden pitchfork, he decides to launch an investigation which takes one bizarre turn after another. His strange behavior is both heartbreaking and intriguing.
Now, the book doesn't say so, and I'm not an expert to diagnose this sort of thing, but I believe he may be what's called autistic. Or perhaps what they used to call an Idiot Savant. At the beginning of the story he slugs a police officer who tries to grab him. He screams, wets his pants... honestly at times, he seems retarded.
But he does these amazing equations in his head and explains real brainy material with fascinating, abstract examples. The story is told in the first person, Christopher makes one of the most unusual narrators I've ever encountered.
Most of all, he's a really sweet kid. He never lies, dedicates himself tirelessly to find Wellington's killer, and takes doting care of his own pet rat, Toby.
The mystery of the dead dog is solved, of course. In the process Christopher learns some interesting things about himself and experiences his first great adventures. There are moments of tension, during which I felt terrified for the little guy. I'm pleased to say he comes out alright.
A very easy novel to get into, and by the end I was racing through the pages to find out what happens next.
It's not easy to produce a novel that has it all: humor, a gripping story, lovable characters, terror, intrigue, and a few new insights. Haddon has written a real winner. Truly original and captivating.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Eye Candy

The Elements

It's been a while since I've posted about our sub-atomic friends, the atoms that make up our world. There's an excellent reference book on the subject called Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, by John Emsley. This and several other books are the basis for the Hansisgreat chemistry posts. If you'd like to check out the previous chemistry posts, click here.
Chemistry may seem like a geek pursuit, but I believe it's good to be a well-rounded, informed person. So it's good to know a little bit about...

Atomic Symbol: Ne
Atomic Number: 10
Neon is a colorless, odorless gas which is unreactive towards all known ch
emicals. It was discovered in 1898 by William Ramsay and Morris Travers. A rival chemist, J. Norman Collie, also laid claim to the discovery of neon. Although this assertion is suspect, Collie was an accomplished chemist and is reputed to have been the character on whom Conan Doyle based his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
Neon is used mainly in so-called neon signs, although only the red ones are made with pure neon. They are quite robust, operating without attention for up to 20 years.

Atomic Symbol: Na
Atomic Number: 11
The chemical symbol, Na, comes from the Latin name natrium. Sodium has been known since ancient times, mostly in the form of salt (NaCl, sodium chloride). Sodium is essential for all animal life. Most people who eat meat, however, get more than enough sodium from this source. Prehistoric man discovered that animals needed salt licks to survive in captivity. Sodium has been leaching from the earth's soil and rocks into its oceans for billions of years. As a result, only 4% of the planet's water is "fresh", the rest is salt water.

Atomic Symbol: Mg
Atomic Number: 12
Magnesium is a silvery-white, relatively soft metal which burns when ignited and it reacts with hot water. Humans need at least 200 milligrams each day, but a normal diet provides more than enough. Magnesium is often used by car manufacturers because of its environmental benefits in making vehicles lighter and longer-lasting. Reducing the weight of a car means not only that it uses less fuel but also that it causes less damage in accidents.
The Earth's mantle (the layer beneath the crust) is composed of magnesium silicates, making it the third most abundant element in the planet. Since it burns with very bright light, it is used in incendiary bombs, flash bulbs, and rescue flares.