Corona diary with extra corona

This update is a bit different because I’m typing on my phone. I’m making arrangements now for a 2 week quarantine. Unfortunately, I have the plague. It’s a mild thing — I would not have thought to test for it did I not work in a public place. But a cough on Monday and extreme fatigue were enough to worry my coworkers. I never had fever or any “flu like symptoms ” My cough has now subsided but the tiredness is still with me. This may be good news for the TBR, as I have lots of books to read while not working. It just remains to be seen if I can concentrate…I’ve been taking lots of naps! Be well, everyone.

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Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR

This week for Top Ten Tuesday, we’re sharing our fall reading lists!   In my case, it’s a literal fall TBR: I’m currently diligently working on my Pile of Doom, complete with scheduled titles and the like,  with other materials mixed in.  

  1. Something by Stephen King. I haven’t decided yet; both It and Pet Semetary are two of his more well-known titles which I’ve not yet experienced. 
  1. Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry,  Randolph Nesse. TBR title 
  1. Enemy at the Gate, a history of the Battle of Vienna, in which Ottoman expansion into Europe was checked by the Austrians.    TBR title. 
  1. Ring of Steel, or The German War. These are similar titles: one covers the Great War from the Austro-German perspective; the other is a history of WW2 focusing on the German homefront.  Both are TBR titles. 
  1. War Lord, Bernard Cornwell. To be released in November…possibly the last in the Saxon Stories series?  
  1. A Bright Future: How Some Nations Have Solved Climate Change,  Joshua Goldstein. TBR title. 
  1. Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Energy, James Mahaffey. TBR title.  
  1. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons and the Illusion of Safety, Eric Schlosser.  TBR title on the history of near-nuclear incidents between  DC and Moscow. 
  1. Firefly: Generations.  Another of those Firefly novels.  This one is a preorder to be released in November.  
  2. Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy Sayers & C.S. Lewis. This one is more debatable…I may save it for next year’s Read of England, but it’s also a possible for the week of November 22, as a kind of nod to Lewis’ death.
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The Forest Unseen

In his Becoming Wild, Carl Safina remarked, “How long and rich a morning can be if you bring yourself fully to it. Come to a decent place. Bring nothing to tempt your attention away. Immerse in the timelessness of reality. Attention paid is repaid with interest.” The Forest Unseen proves how accurate Safina truly was. It’s the diary of a biologist who chose a square meter of wilderness in the Tennessee hills, and sat for an hour or more each day, over the course of a year — and reflecting on what this square meter had to teach. Each day’s meditation brings to the reader fresh and varied explorations into the goings-on of the natural world: a consideration of the symbiotic relationship expressed by lichen, for instance, themselves a joint creation between bacteria & fungi, the study of flower reproduction or an examination of ant politics. The story delivered is one of gradual progress and constant change, as Haskell watches the ground dance with the seasons. Although the bulk of the work is solidly in the area of biology or ecology, the writing is more florid than technical, and contains many beautiful passages. This title should be of great interest to anyone who enjoys nature writing.

Some quotes:

“To love nature and to hate humanity is illogical. Humanity is part of the whole. To truly love the world is also to love human ingenuity and playfulness. Nature does not need to be cleansed of human artifacts to be beautiful or coherent. Yes, we should be less greedy, untidy, wasteful, and shortsighted. But let us not turn responsibility into self-hatred. Our biggest failing is, after all, the lack of compassion for the world. Including ourselves.”

“The unique flashing sequence of each [firefly] species usually keeps males and females of different species apart. Just as we have no interest in the sexual signals of gorillas, fireflies ignore flashes from species other than their own. But Photuris females mimic the answering signals of other species, drawing in hopeful but hapless females, and then seizing and devouring them.”

“At least half a tree’s contribution to the fabric of life comes after its death, so one measure of the vitality of a forest ecosystem is the density of tree carcasses. You’re in a great forest if you cannot pick out a straight-line path through fallen limbs and trunks. A bare forest floor is a sign of ill health.”

“The earth’s slow movements seem to exist in another realm, separated from life by a wide chasms of time and physical scale. This is challenge enough for our minds. But the most unfathomable truth about the chasm is that there is a thread across, a thin connection from life’s moment-by-moment to the next impossible longevity of stone. This thread is woven by life’s persistent fecundity. Tiny strands of heredity join mother to child and combine to stretch back billions of years. The strands spool year by year, sometimes branching into new lines, sometimes ending forever. So far, diversification within the thread has kept pace with extinction, and the mortal biological fleas on the immortal stony gods have brought a contingent immortality of their own. But every strand in the rope is a race between procreation and death. Life’s generative force has been strong enough to win this race year by year for millennia, but final victory is never guaranteed.”

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What Judgments Come

Star Trek Vanguard: What Judgments Come
© 2011 Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore
354 pages

For three years, Vanguard Station’s mission of facilitating the exploration and colonization of the Taurus Reach has been sidetracked by its covert attempts to come to grips with the remains of an ancient, unimaginably powerful civilization once anchored there. That search has been met with setbacks and costly disasters, not to mention frequent run-ins with the Klingons, who believe the Reach may have weapons for the taking. Compromises have been made – -too many, for some — and things are starting to come to a head. An attempt by Starfleet to communicate with an entity encased in a crystaline artificat sees a proud ship mortally wounded, and a monster unleased on the stars…

It’s been over eight years since I last read from the Vanguard series, as this book hadn’t yet been released once I was caught up. Vanguard proved itself very early as a compelling character drama with an interesting mystery at hand, solidly grounded in early Original Series lore. One can hear the bridge ambiance, see the sets and bright costumes. That’s still largely true seven books in, but I’ve found my interest in the super-civilization to have waned consistently as we find out more about them, to the point that I largely read this for the characters. The two most prominent here are Diego Reyes, who sacrificed his career to throw light on some of the excesses and moral compromises of the secret project, and T’Pyrnn, a Vulcan intelligence officer who helps her former boss Reyes begin fishing for more intel abroad an Orion gaming ship.(I’m glad to see that T’Pyrnn finally got her ex-boyfriend’s katra out of her head: he’d been hanging up there for years, driving her insane and making her occasional romances super awkward.) There are many others, of course, but Quinn and Pennington — the HanSolo & maverick reporter duo who featured in the early books — are largely background here. One thread to pay attention to is the crew of the USS Defiant, as this book leads into “The Tholian Web” TOS episode in which the Defiant is trapped by some strange Tholian matrix that phases it out of existence — or, pushes it into the Mirror Universe, if we’re to believe Enterprise. Also of interest are the Federation, Romulan, and Klingon diplomats trying to establish more amicable relations from a pilot project: The “Planet of Galactic Peace”. (If you’ve seen Final Frontier, it’s the deserted hellhole that David Warren is stuck on.)

Although my interest in the story as a whole has waned over the years, I can’t help but anticipate what David Mack will bring in Storming Heaven: he has way of making finales absolutely epic.

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Becoming Wild

Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
© 2020 Carl Safina
375 pages

In Becoming Wild, ecologist Carl Safina recounts his time spent with field scientists studying cetaceans, macaws, and chimpanzees, to share insights and speculation about the most under-appreciated aspect of animal life on earth: culture. Not only do many animal populations appear to have sharply-defined conceptions of belonging to a particular group — one that distinguishes itself with unique ‘accents’ — but this clannishiness can drive speciation, dividing populations into increasingly distinct subspecies. What’s more, the unique knowledge and habits of a given population mean socialization is as vital for chimpanzees or macaws as it is for humans: bear cubs are taught their diets, and primates their predators, the same way humans learn their letters. Although Becoming often meanders off-topic, it never fails to be fascinating — nor could it, given its primary subjects.

We begin with sperm whales, who lives in elaborate watery clans and only mate within them. The large groups are divided into smaller and smaller subsets, until one arrives at the intimate family circle — and each layer of this social onion declares itself with unique verbal codes, distinct expressions of the clicking ‘language’ that sperm whales use to communicate. Each group, each clan has its own clicking ‘tags’ that identify it to the others; different clans of whales avoid contact with one another. Linguistic differentiation between populations within a species is extremely common, across the spectrum of animal life — and it’s often associated with subspeciation. Different whale populations, despite sharing the same genetics, will develop unique subcultures and specializations, never tapping into foodstuffs that other populations rely on as staples. Animal cultures can effectively create social islands in which the subspecies develop physical as well as cultural differences from one another — and if that trend continues long enough, eventually the accumulated physical differences are enough to make cross-group breeding an impossibility. Et voila, a new species!

Not only do many animals have a knowledge of the group they belong to, one that alters what they eat and who they mate and where they live, but they actively depend on that group’s knowledge to sustain them. Birds learn most of their repertoire of songs and alarms from their families: without them, they can only do the equivalent of bird-babbling and grunting. Individuals within a group acquire knowledge unique to them, or hit upon a way of obtaining food. If the knowledge-bearing individuals within a group are lost, very often successful behavior can simply disappear from a group. That can lead to disaster: during African droughts, for instance, it is the long memory of elephant matriarchs that allows them to lead the family to distant oases. Another instance of this that Safina shares is a pack of wolves which had found a tactic to counter prey which had a nasty habit of retreating uphill, into terrain the wolves couldn’t navigate: when some of the older wolves were killed, the younger ones hadn’t yet learned the trick, and that particular prey went unexploited in the future. If enough members of a group prematurely perish without passing on their acquired knowledge of the land, the group itself will wither.

Safina’s approach in Becoming Wild isn’t simply to recap what he’s learned, but to share the journey; some chapters are diary-like. Much of the book is arguably off topic from the concept of animal acculturation, though if one has an interest in animal behavior, particularly social dynamics, it’s certainly not time wasted: I was never bored for a moment when reading this work. Not only is the subject itself absolutely fascinating, but Safina often waxes lyrical. Regardless, there are focus problems: the section on macaws is more on the concept of beauty itself than the promotion of it through sexual selection. Safina’s discussion there is absolutely enjoyable to consider in its own right, as were the sections on how baboons have adapted to exploiting research camps and the like — but I sometimes wondered when we were getting back to animal culture.

Although not without its quirks, Becoming Wild succeeds in opening a lay reader’s eyes to the importance of animal ‘culture’ across the world — and the emphasis that puts on taking conservation & animal preservation more seriously

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Selections from “Becoming Wild”

“Until now, culture has remained a largely hidden, unappreciated layer of wild lives. Yet for many species, culture is both crucial and fragile. Long before a population declines to numbers low enough to seem threatened with extinction, their special cultural knowledge, earned and passed down over long generations, may begin disappearing.”

“WE BECOME WHO WE are not by genes alone. Culture is also a form of inheritance. Culture stores important information not in gene pools but in minds. Pools of knowledge—skills, preferences, songs, tool use, and dialects—get relayed through generations like a torch. And culture itself changes and evolves, often bestowing adaptability more flexibly and rapidly than genetic evolution could. An individual receives genes only from their parents but can receive culture from anyone and everyone in their social group. You’re not born with culture; that’s the difference. And because culture improves survival, culture can lead where genes must follow and adapt.”

“How long and rich a morning can be if you bring yourself fully to it. Come to a decent place. Bring nothing to tempt your attention away. Immerse in the timelessness of reality. Attention paid is repaid with interest.”

“Planet Earth constantly thrums with messages being sent and received by living things. Life is vibrant, and it generates good vibrations throughout the air, the sea, and the ground. But whale sounds seem particularly enchanted. Roger Payne wrote of the first time he heard a humpback whale singing: ‘Normally you don’t hear the size of the ocean … but I heard it that night.… That’s what whales do; they give the ocean its voice, and the voice they give is ethereal and unearthly.’ Payne later told me, ‘The reaction of some people to hearing whales sing is to burst into tears; I’ve seen that a lot.'”

“Social learning is huge, because it means that a dolphin or an elephant, a parrot or chimpanzee or lion, can tap into collective skills and wisdom that accrued slowly over centuries. For a young whale: Where in miles and miles and miles of ocean should I look for food? For a young elephant: Where is drinking water when everything I know has dried up? For a young chimpanzee: Now that the fruit is gone, what do I eat? For a young elk: As everything begins freezing solid, where should I go? For a young wolf: How might we hunt and eat this creature that weighs ten times what I weigh? These are all learned skills. For many creatures, they are skills learned from experienced elders.”

“To destroy a whale is a monumental denial of life and merely one symbol of the human species’ rather recent working hatred for the world. We have named one whale ‘killer.’ But that shoe best fits the species who possesses feet to wear it.”

“All of the above sums to this: a species isn’t just one big jar of jelly beans of the same color. It’s different smaller jars with differing hues in different places. From region to region, genetics can vary. And cultural traditions can differ. Different populations might use different tools, different migration routes, different ways of calling and being understood. All populations have their answers to the question of how to live.”

“Silence is not the absence of sound. It’s the absence of noise. There are reasons to love so magic an interlude. But residing deeper than reason is the felt music of such plush silence. Dawn is the song that silence sings. In a recess of the world such as this forest, you can still hear the magic. Outside such whittled hideaways, one species fills up all of the spaces between the notes. Nonetheless I am cheered by the thought that as the eyelash of daybreak rolls endlessly across the planet, a chorus of birds and monkeys is eternally greeting a new dawn.”

“Our planet spins a weave of tragedies. Life is bearable only because the warping maladies sometimes come with wefts of little triumphs.”

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Wisdom Wednesday: Through adversity, excellence

Today’s reminder is from Seneca’s essay, “On Providence”, included in the volume Dialogues and Essays. Seneca was a practicing Stoic in the Roman court, a one-time tutor to Emperor Nero (not a very good student, Nero), one whose counsel and advice were sought by his contemporaries. His insights are no less fruitful today.

We see wrestlers, who concern themselves with physical strength, matching themselves with only their strongest opponents, and requiring those who prepare for a bout to use all their strength against them; they expose themselves to blows and hurt, and if they do not find one man to match them, they take on several at a time. Excellence withers without an adversary; the time for us to see how great it is, how much its force, is when it display its power through endurance.  […]

Fortune lays into us with the whip and tears our flesh; let us endure it. It is not cruelty but a contest, and the more often we engage in it, the stronger our hearts will be: the sturdiest part of the body is the one that is kept in constant use. We must offer ourselves to Fortune so that in struggling with her we may be hardened by her; little by little she will make us a match for her; and constant exposure to risk will make us despise dangers. So the bodies of mariners are tough from the buffeting of the sea, the hands of farmers calloused, the muscles of soldiers strong to enable them to hurl the javelin, the legs of athletes agile: in each case the part of the body exercised is the strongest. It is be enduring ills that the mind can acquire contempt for enduring them.

“On Providence”, Dialogues and Essays. Seneca
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A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns
© 2007 Khaled Hosseini
372 pages

“There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in school . . . Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure . . . It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of an unlikely household in Kabul, Afghanistan, one formed by tragedy as the nation veers from civil war to civil war. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Herat businessman, one who loves his daughter but who cannot find the courage to embrace her; Laila is a young war orphan, pining for the loss of all she knew and loved. We follow these two women, first met in rivalry, who form a familial bond, holding on to what joy they can as Afghanistan shifts from bloody chaos to ordered brutality under the rule of the Taliban. Although full of suffering, like The Kite Runner, Hosseini’s followup has a redemptive, beautiful ending.

The Kite Runner remains one of the more unforgettable novels I’ve yet read, and I suspect Suns will find its way into that category, as well. I hadn’t the first notion what the novel was about; I only knew its author, and I was immediately struck by the sad story of Mariam, pining for a father who could not bring himself to do right by her. That made it all the more surprising when we suddenly jumped into a different girl’s story, of a slowly-blossoming romance — until the Soviets left and the struggle for power in Afghanistan consumed Kabul. There, death and tragedy follow the other in circles, and ‘poor Mariam’ appears again — as an antagonist to another young soul we’ve grown to care for. And yet the story continues, and our two women grow and face mutual battles together, until at the end theirs is a friendship as memorable as Amir and Hassan. One can almost hear Hassan’s voice ringing here: “For you, a thousand times over!”

I suspect I would have embraced this story even were it not for my interest in Central Asia, in understanding places like Afghanistan which have a deathly attraction for global powers. Here we experience the Soviet invasion, the hopeful establishment of a republic followed by coup and war and suffering piled upon suffering — though Afghanistan had decades more to come after this book ends in the early 2000s, following the American invasion. Although the reader’s attention is mostly on the personal dramas, those are inextricably bound up with these political struggles: it is the fighting that claims Laila’s brothers, her parents, and all she knew — and sends her careening into the path of Mariam and Rasheed, the book’s villain who behaves in the opposite manner to his “rightly-guided” name. One wonders what hells were released on nonfictional Mariam and Lailas in the 2000s, as DC arrogantly set about trying to build a country. And yet despite all they suffered, the characters here inspire by their ability to persevere: even Mariam, who had known nothing but isolation and rejection all of her life, is able to find some sliver of joy — and meaning.

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Quick note

The gulf’s hurricanes have been ignoring Alabama for a couple of years now, hitting states on either side of us. I can’t say that we mind, but the windy hiatus is over. One is expected to roll in tomorrow right over the top of the Blackbelt, and flood warnings are currently in effect. I don’t think anything serious will happen, but I can’t help but note that tomorrow is also the anniversary of Hurricane Ivan hitting the state, and that one was a whopper.

I was attending the local community college, and my parents were both in California, visiting my mother’s family, and when we lost power for over a week, I was left largely to my own devices as to what to do. I’d sheltered from the storm at my grandmother’s house, along with several other family members, listening to the wind howl through the trees in utter darkness. I can still remember the bizarre popping sound trees made when they strained and fell. Radio stations were largely off the air, but a few combined services onto one channel to offer period updates. It was all very surreal.

I arrived home to find a tree on the house, I could only be relieved that it wasn’t worse. The tree was a little gumball (sweetgum) tree, and the front porch had absorbed most of its weight, sparing the house itself. Because I was the sound engineer at my parents’ church (my church, then, for another year or so) and had keys to the building, I decided to ‘move in’ there until my parents returned. The church had power — lights! — but more importantly, air conditioning. (Never underestimate the value of AC near the gulf coast.) That area of the county was rare in that it retained power: most places were without it for more than a week. The national guard or FEMA — some authority — arrived in town to distribute MREs, but I tried a couple and decided: only if I was starving. I think I mostly subsisted on what I could lug from the house to the church, lots of canned chili, soup, and sandwiches. I remember making a ‘bed’ by re-arranging six identical padded, armless chairs in the church in a 2-column, 3-row formation with the backs outward, giving me a comfy trench to place my sleeping bag in.

I don’t think Sally will do that kind of damage, but from what I’ve read it’s a slow-moving storm and so the main threat will be rain — the Alabama EMA is expecting 6-8 inches of rain, and river flooding until Saturday. Poor drainage in town is more of a threat than the river, though! If there are power disruptions, fear not…I have one review lined up for tomorrow, and if I’m able to finish Becoming Wild tonight, I may be able to schedule one for later in the week.

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The Vanishing American Adult

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis , and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance
© 2017 Ben Sasse
320 pages

Why are teenagers and young adults floundering into maturity? Ben Sasse believes that much of the problem is the mass schooling system in the United States, which — he argues — promotes passivity and disengagement. Schooling is not education, he writes, and by depending on it parents have abrogated their responsibilities. He calls on parents to take seriously teenagers’ need to be guided & trained, not schooled, and proposes a course for doing so. If we continue to allow young people to languish, he writes, the consequences could be the loss of the American republic itself — for it depends on citizens who take themselves, and their conjoined rights and responsibilities as citizens seriously.

Mass schooling as an institution has been under-performing for most, if not all, of its lifetime, to the point that it has been deforming college by turning the early years of the same into catchup classes for those who high school failed. But increasingly young adults are graduating high school and entering their adult years not just unprepared for college, but unprepared for life — to the point that ostensibly sensible people call for high school classes on balancing checkbooks, cooking, etc — as if raising human beings to their full potential was an achievement possible by a bureaucracy. When could schools fit in all these lessons, when the college prep so overwhelms classes that physical education & the arts are fast on the retreat? One of mass schooling’s more formidable opponents, John Taylor Gatto, was himself a decorated teacher — until he began writing books that argued schools fomented intellectual dependency and passivity. Sasse proposes that parents develop an active program with their teenagers to help them realize their adulthood: one that involves being engaged in physical work, helping the aged and the very young, embracing limited consumption, and engaging with the world through both travel and thoughtful literature. Most of the book consists of his expanding on this course.

Sasse’s proposed course, which is not woolgathering but the way he and his wife guide their own teenagers, marks him as one of the more interesting members of Congress. It would be easy enough for a dullard to dismiss Sasse’s urging parents to help teens develop a work ethic as age-old adult complaining about the laziness of the young, but Sasse proves himself someone who has given much thought to human flourishing, especially in his chapters on overturning age segregation and consumerism. Spending time with the aged doesn’t just expose children to perspectives beyond their myopic generation; it will help them to start wrestling with the idea of mortality, to the inevitable visitors of suffering ,decay, and death, and to the universal human need to compose ourselves for them. We will not find relief from these troubles by sinking into transitory pleasures and comforts — but by investing in ourselves, in our character, by learning to practice self-awareness and control, we can live well despite our pain, and die with weary feet but rested souls. All of the ideas have merit on their own, but Sasse draws connection — as when he connects the value in work to curbing consumerism: consumption doesn’t make us happy, but meaningful labor can. That’s not labor merely as in day jobs, either, but the work we do for our homes and friends — cooking meals to share with others, helping a neighbor with a fallen tree after a s storm.

Sasse wrote this book for the same reason he later wrote Them: Why We Hate, and How to Heal: he is concerned that the American nation is actively disintegrating, being divided into what he later called anti-tribes, and the failure to raise teenagers into adults who function only aggravates this. Minds whose only interaction with literature has been to memorize trivia about it, rather than engage with it and grow, will fare poorly at trying to understand others — and people who have been told what to do and where to go and how to do this their entire lives, with no allowance for self-exploration, will not do well in becoming the actors of their own lives. They will drift into passivity and frustration, knowing they’re missing something but not knowing what, and seeking their meaning in political ideology and social media antics instead. Although this book was intended for parents, it’s worth reading for anyone concerned about the future of the American polis. I think there’s more to the question of widespread infantailization than the school system, but considering that pre-corona children often spent more time immersed in it than they did at home, it’s as solid a place to start as any.

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