Monday, March 17, 2008

Lords of the flies

At this time of the school year I am always driven to think of Hume's remedy for "philosophical melancholy and delirium" (in my case, nothing more elevated than simple overwork): "I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther." Dinner and a game of backgammon are possibly more effective, but as a constitutional recluse I have turned, as usual, to light reading...

Over the weekend I read Charles Stross's The Jennifer Morgue, sequel to The Atrocity Archives, which I read recently and loved. This fellow's novels are just absolutely delightful to me, the perfect light reading! Funny and appealing and lively and super-intelligent, sparking with energy of all kinds...

Here is Stross's protagonist, Bob Howard, demonology hacker extraordinaire and employee of the penny-pinching British covert government agency known as the Laundry:
Most of what we get up to in the Laundry is symbolic computation intended to evoke decidedly nonsymbolic consequences. But that's not all there is to . . . well, any sufficiently alien technology is indistinguishable from magic, so let's call it that, all right? You can do magic by computation, but you can also do computation by magic. The law of similarity attracts unwelcome attention from other proximate universes, other domains where the laws of nature worked out differently. Meanwhile, the law of contagion spreads stuff around. Just as it's possible to write a TCP/IP protocol stack in some utterly inappropriate programming language like ML or Visual Basic, so, too, it's possible to implement TCP/IP over carrier pigeons, or paper tape, or daemons summoned from the vasty deep.
And speaking of the vasty deep, the other absolutely delightful book I've just finished reading is Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museu. Utterly magical!

The official US publication date is not until August, which is very frustrating as my immediate impulse is to buy multiple copies and send them to various people I know who will particularly love this altogether delightful book! (Also, why has "Store Room" been changed to "Storeroom" for the American release? I refuse to assent to the transformation!)

Hmmm, I am so impatient to press this on others that I might need to order a copy or two from Amazon UK...

In the meantime, I will turn to my favorite format, the list, in an attempt to plumb its lovely depths and lay out some of the wares on offer in this portrait of the Natural History Museum as Gormenghastly house of treasures:

--A description of the steps the specialist goes through on discovering a new species, including "writing an accurate description . . . in language as dry as a James Bond martini" (shades of Bob Howard!)

--An account of the difference between "truffles" and "false truffles," and speculations on what insights genomic tools might provide into how the truffle shape or "truffle habit" might have originated independently in multiple locations

--A sly aside that were Fortey an opportunist, he "might well be penning a book suggesting Jack the Ripper as the guilty party in the Piltdown fraud"

--The fact that one part of the museum's basement used to be known as Lavatory Lane:
There were two different lavatories; one was labelled "Scientific Officers," the other labelled "Gentlemen" where the other ranks were allowed to pee. However, in both of these establishments the lavatory paper was a remarkably hard, shiny variety that had the words "Government Property" printed on every sheet.
--. . . that the mineral called Proustite, whose blood-red color fades when exposed to light, "was not named after the novelist Marcel Proust, though one feels it should have been"

--. . . that the mineralogist who directed the museum from 1968 to 1976 "had the curious distinction [during the war years] of growing the largest crystal of Trinitrotoluene (TNT) known to mankind, and would suddenly produce it from a large matchbox to discombobulate his visitors"

--. . . and that the model of the blue whale has a secret hiding place inside, to which one obtains access via a trap-door in the stomach . . . .

Fortey has an amazing ear for the humorous or striking detail, as when he quotes the Keeper's Annual Confidential Report from 1979 on the "'problems . . . inherent in the fish section manned by a number of "prima donnas"'" or lists the "wonderfully suggestive names" of the insects involved in corpse decay: the coffin fly, the burying beetle, the sexton beetles and the larder beetle, also known as Dermestes, capable of reducing a human body to bone in twenty-four days (the tank in which this process is encouraged to take place is called a Dermestarium), but his writing's quite lovely throughout.

Some altogether magical straight science bits, and some scientific stuff appealingly interwoven with personal reminiscence ("My father had fishing-tackle shops, and sold maggots to fishermen; they were known by the euphemism of 'gentles' and came plain or colored" and were "supplied to the trade by a farmer known simply as Wormy").

(And how can you resist a book whose author reveals, during a discussion of recent changes in the understanding of the ancestry of termites and cockroaches, that it has been "one of my life's unfulfilled ambitions to eat the giant mushroom Termitomyces that grows deep inside the termite mounds in Africa--it is reputed to be delicious"?!?)

(Also, I wonder whether there is any chance that the name of eminent zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester might have been borrowed by novelist Eric Linklater for the gentleman zookeeper in a favorite novel that featured very largely in my childhood life of reading and rereading, The Wind on the Moon? Sir Lankester Lemon!)

Finally, an egg-related bit:
In other cases the collecting compulsion takes a pathological turn--they have to own an example of a desired species. . . . [Another visitor] raided the birds' eggs. This is one of the more familiar obsessions, and one that I can understand, because as a young boy, before it became illegal, I briefly collected eggs myself, as had my countryman father before me. I am ashamed of it now, but I can recall the excitement of coming across an uncommon species; and birds' eggs are fragile and beautiful objects. They are just the kind of thing to attract an oddball kleptomaniac. This particular thief appeared in a wheelchair; he secreted the desired birds' eggs inside women's tights that he then tucked into his trousers and made good his exit. He was discovered and prosecuted. It later transpired that the reason he was in a wheelchair in the first place was that he had had an accident stealing copper from electrical installations.
(Many thanks to Lauren LeBlanc for sending me the book!)

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