Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Grunt by Mary Roach ****

Some readers might recall NASA  celebrating their civilian contributions, notably Tang, the sad orange juice substitute. Now through Grunt by Mary Roach, the military responds with penis reconstruction, replacement, and transplantation. This seems to be such a fruitful field of work that they are willing to share the credit with others.
"The art of phalloplasty--craft a working penis from other parts of the patient's body--has come a long way (thanks in no small part to the transgender community)."
That gives you a taste of the fascinating subject of military R&D. Topics range from the seemingly mundane like clothing (camo is so popular, that the Navy introduced blue camo for sailors...why?..."That's so no one can see you if you fall overboard.") to the life-critical like bomb proofing troop transports and escaping from submarines.

All together this is a jumble of research reports by the author who managed to get invited into unlikely places like nuclear submarines, the Entomology Branch of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (bugs? right?), and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. Just the book for the hard-core military/science voyeur.

In addition to the hardcore science, the book is full of interesting trivia.

How do you rate smells? The positive responses might be (1) smells good, (2) smells edible, or (3) I would wear it as cologne. Interestingly, no matter how evil a scent might be, people can be found to choose all these descriptors.

Even though the military has a massive operation to design and test "everything a soldier wears, eats, sleeps on, or lives in," they draw the line at women's underwear. Women receive an allowance to buy their own.

Submarines use passive sonar. The do not send out blips; they only listen. Thus, submarines are blinder than bats.

A fun read.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen *****

Remember Alice's Restuarant by Arlo GuthieRazor Girl by Carl Hiaasen is the Alice's Restaurant the 2016 election. Like Arlo Guthrie before him, Carl Hiaasen unrolls a long, humorous story with a serious punchline. Highly recommended for both the journey and the destination.

If you're not familiar for Alice's Restuarant Massacree, briefly, it was a satirical anti-war song from the 1960s. Some say, you had to be there, but you're welcome to find it online if you missed it the first time it came around.

Carl Hiaasen writes zany satirical comedies set in Florida. This latest offering includes: Andrew Yancy, a detective kicked off the police force and now working as a health inspector checking out restaurants, Buck Nance, a reality TV star from Wisconsin who plays a bigoted redneck raising chickens and going by the name of Captain Cock, and Brock Richardson, a lawyer who advertises class action law suits on TV and is a victim of his latest target, an underarm deodorant that cures erectile dysfunction and causes phallus shaped growths plus other difficulties, ... among others.

That gives you the idea, but I can't leave out the title character: Merry Mansfield. Her specialty is to crash into cars to kidnap the driver or whatever. Her special twist is that when the angry driver gets to her, her skirt is up and she is shaving her bikini area. The distracts the victim...well you get the drift.

Like Alice's Restuarant, once everyone is relaxed and happy, a serious message is delivered. So there you have it, a trio of ambush artists: Arlo Guthrie, Carl Hiaasen, and Merry Mansfield.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Ancient Mesopotamia by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat ****

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat is a comprehensive volume on the dawn of civilization from 4000 BCE (and before) to the rise of Greek civilization (mid first millennium BCE). How comprehensive? Exhaustive.

There are many long lists with detailed explanations and examples. For examples, the section crafts includes: carpentry, pottery,glass, textiles, basketry, leather, stone sculpture, seals, metals, jewelry, ivory, and songs.

In the interest of completeness, the editing tends towards redundancy rather then conciseness. For example there is a discussion of money...
"...silver, which now began to serve the three classical functions of money: as a medium of exchange, as a unit of account, and as a standard of value."
A mere seven pages later the following is offered...
"Currency has four difference functions: (1) as a standard of value, (2) as a medium of exchange, (3) as a means of payment, and (4) as a means of accumulating wealth."
Certainly the major contribution of this place and time was writing. By 1500 BCE much of civilization as we know it was in place, including recognizable government, religious, family, trade, diplomatic, judicial, and medical structures, as well as technologies for manufacturing, farming, housing, and transportation. Someone transported back 3,500 years might have little difficulty understanding society. Much from back then survives today.

Our base 60 math (minutes, seconds, degrees of arc) comes from these people.

Before we give these people too much credit, we also need to remember...
"Caution must be exercised at all times, since many facets of Babylonian technology have their roots in prehistory. For example... wool... the arts of bleaching, spinning, fulling, dyeing, and weaving were fully developed by the fourth millenium... pottery... metalwork... The potter's wheel was already widely used before 4000 BCE... We know even less about early metal, since it was melted down and reused."
If you want to know anything about Mesopotamia (except lists of kings and battles), this is the book.

A few more interesting tidbits, mostly centered around 1500 BCE.

Mesopotamian traders went as far east as India, into central Asia, north to Anatolia (Turkey) and the Caucasus mountains, west to the Mediterranean and Cyprus and Crete, and south to Egypt, both across land and by water. The counter-clockwise route from Phoenicia to Egpyt via southern Crete was well traveled at this time.

Visitors from beyond the this sphere were also possible, as records of European visitors have been found dated back to the 12th century BCE.

Common math knowledge included algebra for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, squares, cubes, and Pythagorean theorem. Math focused on practical applications, such as inventories, land records, taxes, tariffs, and shares.

There is significant continuity from this period to today. Many roads follow ancient routes, and cities maintain their locations and names.
"Once a city was destroyed, the remaining inhabitants continued to live in the ruins, preserving the city's name through the millennia."
Society was divided into royalty, priests, land owners, freemen, and slaves. The was some mobility.

The efficiency of farming left time for recreation, including, polo, hunting, board games, toys, music (drums, lyres, flutes), and plays.
"Kingship began as a temporary office during times of danger. When the emergency past, the king no longer held power. Once war became chronic, the office of the king became a permanent position."
Famously Herodotus wrote of temple prostitutes.
"The most shameful of the customs of the Babylonians is this: every woman must sit at the shrine of Aphrodite once in her life to have intercourse with a strange man... She follows the first man who throws money and refuses no one... After... she... goes home... There is a similar custom in Cyprus."
An interesting device for flotation was the use of inflated animal skins. The head would be cut off and the skin sewed close to form a bladder. Three legs would be sealed, but the fourth was used for inflation by blowing into it and tying it shut. Such a raft might float down the river with occasional re-inflation for leakage. At the end of the trip, the bladders would be deflated and carried by mule back up stream for another trip.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Ancient Egyptians by Brier and Hobbs ****

So much of history, particularly ancient history, is about politics and powers. In the case of Egypt, this means the XXXIII dynasties of pharaohs. The Ancient Egyptians by Brier and Hobbs can't get away from all those pharaohs, but it also covers work, play, food, clothes, etc.

When archaeologists look back many thousands of years, many of their conclusions involve guessing. They are beyond the earlier archaeologists where the bias was to to confirm The Bible. Still today, when a chaotic city for pyramid workers is uncovered, someone can't help but suggest that  the large workers' encampment lead the Greeks to identify it with the labyrinth on Crete. Such is the innate human drive to rationalize and explain.

Egyptian had a limited palette of colors:black, white, blue, red, yellow, and brown.

Interesting to writers, beyond bookkeeping, Egypt left significant "wisdom literature," simply called "instructions." These still seem familiar today.
The respectful man prospers.
Praised is the modest one.
The tent is open to the silent.
This is an excellent references for anyone interested in ancient Egypt from grade 4/5 to adult.

Egyptian Food

Some interesting notes about Egyptian science.

Egypt had two medical systems. One was magical and the other clinical. Known issues, such a animal bites and broken bones were treated clinically. Other diseases, termed "unknown diseases," were treated magically. (Compare ancient "unknown" diseases to modern "idiopathic" diseases.) This is not so different from the present day situation, expect that we have fewer "unknown" diseases.

Since resurrection was a major Egyptian belief, autopsies were out of the question. As a result most anatomical knowledge came from butchering animals. Hieroglyphs for parts of the body all pictures animal parts. For example a uterus was a two-chambered organ, as in a cow, versus the single chamber found in humans.

Much medicine was based on the principle of similars. For example dehydrated pigs eyes were a treatment for blindness, Also mandrake roots which look something like male genitalia were prescribed for impotency and infertility.

On a more scientific note, many potions were mixed into a base of honey which has a proven antibacterial property. Also the pregnancy test of soaking barley in a woman's urine, has been shown to have a 70% accuracy.

The Egyptians invented the 24-hour day. The Greeks combined this with base-60 arithmetic from Babylon.
Thus, modern timekeeping is based on an Egyptian invention, which was standardize by the Greeks using a Babylonian mathematical system.