Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Eye Candy






February

Our calendar, like so much of our culture, is brought to us by the Roman Empire. Originally the Roman calendar was 304 days long followed by an unnamed and unnumbered "Winter Period". The months were all different lengths, and keeping track of the date was the responsibility of the priests. Like everyone else, they were corruptible and would often take bribes to make the months and years longer to keep politicians they liked in power longer. "Wow, it seems like it's been April for a really long time now!"
The calendar was reformed several times over the centuries. The first and most notable was by an early Roman king named
Numa Pompillius who ruled from 715-673 BC. He added the winter months of January (for Janus, the god of beginnings) and February (for feberes, to cleanse, for the purification rituals toward the end of winter). This addition displaced the other months so that September, October, November, and December which mean seven, eight, nine, and ten, no longer line up with their corresponding months. The second important calendar reform was introduced by Julius Caesar (100-44BC). He made the calendar 365 days with all months having either 30 or 31 days, eliminating the priestly temptation to change the length of months and years. When he died the name of the month of his birth was changed from Quintus to Julius, or July in his honor. Since this month was named for the divine Caesar, it was felt it should also be the longest. Therefore a day was taken out of February (giving it 29 days, 30 in a leap year) and added to July (giving it 31 days). Years later the next month was named August in honor of his successor Caesar Augustus, and another day was taken from February, giving it the current 28 or 29 days.
February is still the only month which changes its length every fourth year for Leap Year, which has widely been considered an unlucky year. In the US February is celebrated as Black History Month. Both Sweden (in 1700) and the Soviet Union (in 1929) tried adjusting the length of February to give it 30 days like the other months. As their calendars started to fall "out of sync" with the rest of the world, these attempts were quickly abandoned. US President George W. Bush once stated that the fiscal year ends on February 30. He misspoke, obviously because there is no February 30 (the fiscal year actually ends on September 30). Notable birthdays in February include George Washington (the 22nd) Abraham Lincoln (the 12th) Thomas Edison (the 11th) JS Bach (the 4th) and teen heartthrob Ashton Kutcher (the 7th). So stay warm, everyone, and have a happy February!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Eye Candy






Books

Not too much happening in my world. I'm heading out with my roommate shortly for some guy time: beer at the local bar followed by video games back at our place. We're looking for a good PS2 game: a first-person shooter with interesting environments, preferably one without a lot of stuff to unlock. We're fans of Timesplitters and 007 Goldeneye: the sort of mindless fun where you run around in a maze shooting at your friends. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
So that'll be fun. While we're waiting, here's a couple creepy non-fiction books for those of you looking for the dark side of world history.

The rating system is based on how difficult a book is to read, not how good it is. All the books at Hansisgreat come highly recommended.

* <-----------> ** <-----------> *** <-----------> **** <----------> *****
Easy - - Pretty Easy - - Moderate - - Pretty Challenging - - Challenging

Stiff, by Mary Roach
$12.55 at Bn.com ISBN: 0393324826
*** (moderate)
Want to go to college in the 1700s? You can pay your tuition with the corpse of a dead loved-one rather than cash! This and lots of other ghoulish facts await you in this strange and lively book about human cadavers. Would you believe this book is actually incredibly funny?! Beginning with the uses of human remains in ancient Egypt and ending with them in cutting-edge medical research, with lots of grave-robbing fun in between. A must for fans of HBO's Six Feet Under. Always interesting, often hilarious, and occasionally enough to make anyone squeamish. Read it and then repeat a few of the stories at your next cocktail party.
The Colony, by John Tayman
$27.50 at Bn.com ISBN: 074323300X
*** (moderate)
Vacationing on a beach in Hawaii sounds terrific, unless it's on Molokai, where the US government establishment established a long-running colony for lepers: those suffering from the only disease also considered a crime. Thousands were unwillingly exiled here, many of them not contagious, some of them not even really suffering from leprosy. They just made enemies with the wrong people. Some who were sentenced to exile here ran for it and wound up in shoot-outs with the army. One thing is certain, though: no one sent to Molokai ever returned. Life in a tropical paradise, 4000 miles from land, trapped with horribly disfigured, diseased people has never been so entertaining. And written by the Editor in chief of Men's Health magazine.
The World of Caffeine, by Bennett Weinberg & Bonnie K. Bealer
$17.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 0415927234
** (pretty easy)
Of all the drugs I use, caffeine is my favorite. This is part history, part science, and part charming anecdotes about the only drug most people consider safe enough to give to children. More something to flip through than read cover-to-cover (although it's good enough to read this way as well), the authors cover how coffee was discovered, the proliferation of coffee houses centuries before Starbucks cornered the markets; even the first Pope to try coffee when asked if drinking it was sinful (quite the contrary: he said it was delightful!). If you're as devoted to coffee and teas as I am, you'll find this curious collection a blast. There are even pictures of spiders' webs after the spiders were given a dose of java. Guess how they turned out! This book is always fascinating and fun.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Eye Candy






Books

After the last few posts: war, slavery, and all that, I'd say it's time to lighten up a bit and have some fun. Here's a few books that are easy and awfully enjoyable. Have at it...

The rating system is based on how difficult a book is to read, not how good it is. All the books at Hansisgreat come highly recommended.

* <-----------> ** <-----------> *** <-----------> **** <----------> *****
Easy - - Pretty Easy - - Moderate - - Pretty Challenging - - Challenging

Skipping Towards Gomorrah, by Dan Savage
$15.00 at Bn.com ISBN: 0452284163
** (pretty easy)
Dan is beloved worldwide for his controversial, sometimes distasteful, yet always funny newspaper column Savage Love. In this book he writes about each of the seven deadly sins: greed, anger, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, and sloth. He experiences each of these vices in some interesting way (visiting a fat-acceptance convention, casino gambling, shooting off rounds at a firing range) and then shares the experience. Dan is an easy-going, often comical writer whose short chapters and hilarious themes will engage even readers with the shortest of attention spans. In my favorite chapter he visits a swingers' club: ordinary people who want to have sex with total strangers. It's sinful and wrong, sure, but still within our basic freedoms (in the US, at least). Fans of Mr. Savage's work will especially enjoy it. If you're unfamiliar, check out his column at Savage Love at the Onion AV Club.
You Suck
, by Christopher Moore
$15.36 at Bn.com ISBN: 0060590297
** (pretty easy)
Two young vampires enjoy a hot teenage romance while being chased by a band of vampire hunters. Unbelievably funny, set in the wild town of San Francisco. Our two heroes, Tommy and Jody, are as lovable as two kids can be despite sucking blood every night. And, surprisingly enough, it's also loaded with plenty of hot vampire sex-scenes. I didn't realize the un-dead could even do that. The adventure they have every night on the run is entertaining enough on its own to sell this as a "horror" novel. But the constant jokes, mostly adolescent low-brow humor, are what made the sale for me. This book just came out this week, so you can still be the first person on your block to have read it. Being dead can really suck sometimes.
Barrel Fever, by David Sedaris
$12.55 at Bn.com ISBN: 0316779423
** (pretty easy)
Sedaris, as I believe I've mentioned before, is a national treasure. This is a collection of his short stories and essays. Most famous among them is Holidays on Ice, in which the author works as an elf in Santaland at Macy's in Herald Square. A must-read for anyone who's worked in customer service that'll have you laughing out loud and rolling on the floor. A lot of his other stories are treats as well: Don's Story is an off-the-wall Academy Awards speech given by a deadbeat who lives in his parents' attic. Firestone involves a nearly retarded man who works at a filling station. In Jamboree a teenage boy steals a baby from his psychotic family. There are a lot of gems in this book, and short stories loaded with Sedaris' wry humor will keep even the most reading-resistant engaged. If you don't enjoy it, I'll personally refund you the $12.55 plus shipping. Seriously.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Eye Candy






Books

This is true: Truth is stranger than fiction. Here are four non-fiction stories that all involve elements so strange that they'd be unbelievable in a novel. I highly recommend all four: they're exciting adventures in an exotic time and place with weird and twisted characters that'll keep you engrossed. If you're the type who usually goes for pop-fiction but are looking for something a little more substantial but still a page turner, here you go...

The rating system is based on how difficult a book is to read, not how good it is. All the books at Hansisgreat come highly recommended.

* <-----------> ** <-----------> *** <-----------> **** <----------> *****
Easy - - Pretty Easy - - Moderate - - Pretty Challenging - - Challenging

The Gates of Africa, by Anthony Sattin
$27.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 0312336438
*** (moderate)
Death, discovery, and the search for Timbuktu. Set toward the end of the 18th Century, when no one (in Europe, anyway) knew what was in the interior of Africa: they knew the shape of the continent and the coast. Unfortunately because of the thick jungles and virulent diseases, no white man had ever traveled more than a few miles inland and come out alive. Cartographers who depicted Africa on maps would make things up: phony mountain ranges, rivers, and so on. It was that or blank space! This is the story of the first few explorers who tried to answer the question: what exactly was in there? There had been legends of a city of gold called Timbuktu, no one even knew for sure if it was a real place. Several die in the attempt, I don't mind telling you. Voyaging up the Congo amidst hostile natives and malarial mosquitoes makes a lousy vacation but good reading, and Sattin is a great story-teller, understanding exactly which details are interesting. Four stars!
The Fourth Crusade, by Jonathan Phillips
$15.00 at Bn.com ISBN: 0143035908
** (pretty easy)
One of the strangest wars in history, in which absolutely everything goes wrong. They actually never got to the Holy Land or attacked a single Muslim soldier: it devolved into a state of near-anarchy outside Constantinople as the armies that were ostensibly on "the same side" fought each other and leaders drop like flies due to assassination and intrigue. Among the characters is Enrico Dandolo, the eighty year old Doge of Venice, who is blind and infirm, but plays most of the other players like puppets. It'd be a funny story if it weren't real and terrifically tragic. You needn't know anything about the previous crusades or medieval history to follow it, and Phillips' easy-going, novel-like writing style earned it the "pretty easy" rating.
The Children of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir
$13.50 at Bn.com ISBN: 0345407865
*** (moderate)
I mentioned The Wives of Henry VIII in a previous article, this is the sequel. Henry represents a turning point in British (and medieval) history. This is the story of his children and successors, four interesting rulers in their own right. Edward is first, his only son who inherited the throne when he was eleven. Then Mary, his oldest daughter whose Catholic radicalism earned her the nickname "Bloody Mary" for which the delicious tomato juice cocktail is named. Their tragic cousin, the Lady Jane Grey, who reigned very briefly and died under mysterious circumstances. Finally Elizabeth, the great dowager queen who ruled over fifty years of prosperity and patronized Shakespeare. It's short (only 366 pages) and a fun read indoors with a glass of wine on a cold winter night.
The Embarrassment of Riches
, by Simon Schama
$23.00 at Bn.com ISBN: 0679781242
*** (moderate)
What do you know about the Dutch? If you're like me, probably not much. Schama has produced a terrific first reader here: no long lists of kings' names to remember. The chapters can each be read independently, and all involve a different aspect of Dutch high culture. My favorite involves whales that washed up on the beach. Let me mention: we know what whales are, we've seen video footage of them in their underwater habitats. These people had no idea what a whale was, and when one occasionally washed up on shore they thought: "what the f**k is this thing?!" Funny. How they punished criminals, buried their dead, worked, laughed and loved. The fifteenth century in a land of windmills and funny hats will start to feel surprisingly familiar. Not history, just good stories about history. Funny anecdotes.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Eye Candy






Books

Here's a few books that have two things in common: 1. They're all non-fiction, but still light and easy to get into. No 1200 page "History of the Peloponessian Wars" here. 2. They all involve evil in some way. You'll see what I mean. The bad guy sure does make for an interesting story, though, doesn't he? Torture, murder, and genocide are never boring.

The rating system is based on how difficult a book is to read, not how good it is. All the books at Hansisgreat come highly recommended.

* <-----------> ** <-----------> *** <-----------> **** <----------> *****
Easy - - Pretty Easy - - Moderate - - Pretty Challenging - - Challenging

The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix
$12.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 0750932716
*** (moderate)
Enter a world where severed head are used as lawn ornaments (really!). Here are a few of my favorite methods of torture as described by Mannix: having molten metal poured down one's throat and/or forced up one's rectum. Being raped by a wild animal (they had to train the animals to do this, apparently). And of course, all the old stand-bys are here as well: being tarred and feathered, the iron maiden, the snake pit. The Roman Emperor Claudius always liked having criminals tortured as he ate breakfast, and asked them to be turned so he could see their faces as they died. Military strongmen, religious fanatics, jealous kings, and ordinary lunatics all get mention for the innovative ways they brought agony to their subjects. 100% guaranteed not to be boring.
King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
$13.50 at Bn.com ISBN: 0618001905
*** (moderate)
King Leopold II of Belgium established a colony in central Africa called the Belgian Congo, over forty times larger than the nation of Belgium itself. In it, he brutalized the population, killing millions and selling just as many into slavery, and plundered the territory of its resources, using forced labor. He used the money he made to build himself a fabulous mansion the size of Versailles, all the while publicizing himself as a great philanthropist and humanitarian, helping the people of Africa. Relations between Europeans and Africans have rarely been stellar: this guy is one of the worst exploiters of the bunch. Set around the turn of the century with lots of adventure and plenty of interesting characters, Hochschild is a great storyteller whose work reads as easily as a novel.
Devil in the White City
, by Erik Larson
$13.45 at Bn.com ISBN: 0375725601
*** (moderate)
Set at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, fascinating because of all the innovations it introduced to the world: electricity, skyscrapers, automobiles, the ferris wheel, zippers: people saw all these things for the very first time at the most elaborate fair ever built. In the midst of all the excitement was another "first": the fair was host to America's first serial killer. The turning point from horse-and-buggy America to industrialization is a fascinating story on its own. You'll learn plenty about architecture and big business. As the bodies start to pile up you'll become even more engrossed. Would you believe this guy had a torture chamber including a gas chamber built into his house! Check it out. Murder and mayhem amidst the excitement of the greatest fair the world has ever seen. An overlooked winner!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Eye Candy