Saturday, May 31, 2008

Eye Candy

The Road to Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell
$10.36 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 0156767503
If there's a bad book by George Orwell, I haven't read it yet. He's the acclaimed author of 1984, Animal Farm, Burmese Days, and a host of other late English classics. This is a strange piece of investigative journalism he produced in 1937. It concerns coal mining, the working poor, and above all: socialism. The Road to Wigan Pier is almost unknown now, but at the time it was written it was much discussed and highly controversial.
He begins in the town of Wigan, England by describing the boarding houses rented by the poor. The modern equivalent would be the "projects" in major US cities, considered a symbol of 
urban blight and racial inequality. Here, the working class is forced to live in overcrowded, squalid conditions shared with contagious diseases while underfed on cheap and often rotten food.
Conditions get worse when we get to work, mostly in the coal mines. After dropping down a pitch dark elevator shaft at 60 miles per hour, men had to crawl for miles on their knees in underground caverns to reach the coal face. Accidents were frequent, the air was hot and thick with black coal dust which wound up in the miners' lungs and covering every square inch of their bodies.
This work was done because it was a critic industry in England, yet the poor guys who made the sacrifices involved were so poorly compensated that they were practically beggars. For example, the "traveling" time it took to get from the mouth of the mine to the coal face, all that crawling through the tunnels, took hours and was non-paid. Workers had to rent their tools and headlamps. After all this they barely made enough to buy groceries and pay the rent on their shithole apartments.
It may seem strange to read what would now be classified as 
a "current affairs" book seventy years after it was written. What surprised me the most was how relevant the whole thing was to modern times. The social problems Orwell described mostly still exist today, and his remarks on unemployment, welfare, and housing shortages kept me thinking about this year's headlines.
He ends with a few chapters on socialism, which he considered such elementary common sense that he was amazed it hadn't been 
enacted yet. 
"The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system."
The Road to Wigan is a sad reminder that some things never change. This book is, unfortunately, fading into obscurity; but still vibrant and deeply rewarding.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Eye Candy

The Elements

For those of you not yet familiar with Hansisgreat, I've been posting a series on the Periodic Table of Elements. These are the different types of atoms of which all matter is composed. The lower-numbered atoms are very common in the Universe, but by now I'm posting on atoms which are relatively rare.

In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about the three Elements I'm posting on today until I started researching them for this post. All three turned out to have interesting stories I couldn't have imagined. Please enjoy...

Selenium:
Atomic Symbol: Se
Atomic Number: 34
In 1975, selenium was discovered to be an essential element for human life. In fact, every cell in the body contains more than a million atoms of this element! The concentration is highest in the testicles, and selenium deficiency is a leading cause of low sperm count.
Metallic selenium conducts electricity; it is a better conductor of electricity in light than in darkness, the conductivity varying directly with the intensity of the light. It is therefore used in many photoelectric devices, such as copy machines.
One of its other common industrial uses is to decolorize and tint glass, since it counteracts the greenish glow created by iron. It can produce a wide variety of colors: reds, yellows, and vermilions. In this way, selenium was used to stain glass centuries before it was discovered and understood. 
The idea of television was first proposed in the 1860s, and in the 1880s experiments were tried using selenium to transmit motion pictures over wires. Sadly, the experiments were a failure.

Bromine:
Atomic Symbol: Br
Atomic Number: 35
Although no one realized it at the time, this element was responsible for the famous Tyrian purple which was so prized by Roman emperors. This naturally occurring dye was extracted from Mediterranean mollusks, and was known in the Middle East centuries before the Romans. It's mentioned several times in the Old Testament.
Bromine is the name of the element, which exists as the molecule Br2 , called bromide. It is used in industry to produce organobromo compounds for insecticides, in fire extinguishers, and to make pharmaceuticals. Some of these uses have come under suspicion, because large concentrations of these chemicals leak into the surrounding environment.
Although a small amount of bromide is present in all living things, larger doses are not without effect, most noticeably as a depressed sex drive.

Krypton:
Atomic Symbol: Kr
Atomic Number: 36
This element is one of the rarest gases in the atmosphere, but there are still more than 15 billion tons of Krypton circulating this planet. It has no role in any part of the environment because it is almost totally inert chemically and of low solubility in water.
About 8 tons a year are extracted for industrial use, via liquid air. For example, it is used in lasers and to color "neon" lights.
Radioactive Krypton-85 has a half life of 11 years and is given off by nuclear reactions. It escapes to the atmosphere but is not considered pollution because it is inert. The level of this gas in the atmosphere was carefully monitored during the Cold War because it revealed the extent of the Soviet bloc's production of nuclear material.
This element is privileged to have Superman's home planet named in its honor. The green mineral kryptonite, famous as Superman's only weakness, is completely fictional.

My previous posts on the elements are here.

There's a great book of reference on the subject, which has been invaluable to me while researching these posts. Check out Nature's Building Blocks, by John Emsley.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Eye Candy

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif
$14.40 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 0307268071
This is an exciting war novel by a new writer.
Ali Shigri is a young officer in the Pakistan Air Force. At the beginning of the story, his best friend goes AWOL, stealing a plane. Ali is taken into custody as a suspected collaborator, although he insists he had nothing to do with his friend's disappearance and knows nothing about the stolen airplane.
Now, I know very little about Pakistan, and what I found most interesting about this book is that this guy could have been a soldier in any military, including the United States. He's a lovable young man who only seems to want to do right by his country and his loved ones.
Enter the army chief, General Zia-ul-Haq. He's the commander of Pakistan's armed forces, and the de-facto president for life by virtue of holding all the real power in the country. The actual prince is a jet-set, sex obsessed playboy who seems completely clueless.
General Zia is a fundamentalist Muslim; paranoid, hypocritical, and controls the kingdom with an iron fist. He has poor Ali locked in a pitch dark dungeon and tortured, hoping to extract information about 
an alleged plot to seize power.
Meanwhile, Zia has some skeletons in his own closet: most notably a photo in the Pakistan Times showing him ogling a pretty journalist's breasts. It seems he's not quite as pious as he's letting on.
The action all takes place as the USSR is invading Afghanistan and the United States occupies Pakistan. The entire region is a powder-keg as the world's two superpowers vie for control of the region, and the local leadership ranges from completely corrupt to utterly inept.
It's a great war story, for those who enjoy that sort of thing. Ali is a credit to the military, maintains his composure in spite of his desperate situation, and is just the sort of man you'd want fighting 
with you on the front lines. Additionally, there's an interesting view of Silk Road politics, the Pakistani justice system, and even a touching homosexual love story.
This is Hanif's first novel, and it received acclaim in Barnes & Noble's prestigious Discover Great New Writers program. Don't be intimidated from reading it if the culture of the region is unfamiliar to you: the story is quite absorbing and the characters easy to relate to. Funny at times, shocking, and provocative. This book is a reminder that people really are the same everywhere. First class work!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Eye Candy

Our Place in the Universe

Astronomers have come a long way in their understanding of the heavens since ancient times. 4000 years ago, people pictured the Earth as unmoving, floating at the center of the Universe in a celestial sea. All the stars were believed to be located at the same distance, pinned to a gigantic heavenly ball of unknown size which they called the celestial sphere.
Our ancestors found it hard to reject the notion that Earth was at the center of the Universe, and that in fact there may be nothing special about our planet. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicas proved that the Earth goes around the Sun, like the other planets, and took a giant step toward redefining the truth about the nature of the Universe.

It's unusual for the truth to have so much evidence against it, while the widely believed falsehood seemed so obvious: the Earth seems solid and unmoving, and doesn't appear to be spinning around in space at thousands of kilometers per hour. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Copernicus realized, correctly, that the Earth is a small part of a much larger Solar System, with the Sun at its center. Still stranger was the notion that the other planets revolved around the Sun, and in fact weren't controlled by the Earth at all. The discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn was an important first step, since it established conclusively that there were satellites revolving around other planets, and that the Earth wasn't the center of rotation for the entire heavens after all.

More surprising still: the Sun is only one of millions of stars in our galaxy. There are unimaginable distances between stars, which makes them appear to be moving very slowly across the sky. Ancient astronomers could not possibly have anticipated how far away the other stars are. This prevented them from realizing that their apparent motion around earth is in fact an illusion, and that they actually don't circle around our planet at all.

Still more vast are the distances between galaxies, to the edges of the known Universe itself. Light from these ares of space has taken millions or even billions of years to reach our planet. For this reason, when viewing the most remote parts of space, we're also looking back at a very distant time.
The first map of the known Universe was devised by the French astronomer Charles Joseph Messier (1730 -1817), and included a catalog of 45 celestial bodies. The map at the left is much more recent, although our knowledge of space is constantly expanding.

Additionally, galaxies are being created and destroyed all the time. Every day hundreds of millions of star systems, just like ours, are flashing out of existence. The explosions create massive turbulence, which in turn causes the conception of new stars and planets, which will reach maturity long after our own tiny planet has been annihilated.

So just how "big" is the Universe? It's unimaginably huge: light travels at 300,000 kilometers per second, and yet even at this speed it hasn't had time to travel across the known Universe since the beginning of creation. And evidence seems to suggest it's expanding: growing bigger all the time.

For my previous posts on space and astronomy, click here.

If you're interested in a terrific coffee table book about outer space, including lots of breathtaking photography, check out Astronomy: A Visual Guide, by Mark A. Garlick.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Eye Candy