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Archive for the ‘Microhistories’ Category

Lovelace and BabbageCharles Babbage, once described as “a logarithmetical Frankenstein,” was an eccentric Victorian inventor who is widely credited with inventing the first computer, although it was never built in his lifetime. Ada Lovelace, the daughter of mad, bad, and dangerous Lord Byron, was an exceptionally talented mathematician widely credited with creating the first computer programs, although she had no computer on which to run them.

Babbage died a bitter man, offended that the British government never funded his “Analytical Engine.” Lovelace met an even unhappier end, bankrupting herself at the horse races and dying at the age of 36. That’s the history. But wait!

In this alternate history graphic novel, animator and cartoonist Sydney Padua brings Lovelace, Babbage, and the Analytical Engine thundering back to life for adventures in a steampunk London. History, mathematics, gears and cogwheels, bad puns, and Boolean logic jokes mingle in this thoroughly geeky appreciation of computing history’s early days. There are cameos by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, who presides over the invention of the lolcat; Luddites; a 19th-century version of the oh-so-helpful Microsoft paper clip; and that cigar-chomping, rock star engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The graphic novel is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster itself, a comic adventure stitched together with anecdotes of Victorian mathematics and computer science excavated from period letters and publications. Padua meant to post just one web comic about Lovelace, but her research led her down a rabbit hole that first became the blog 2dgoggles and later transmogrified into this book. There’s no straight-line narrative; you’ll flip back and forth between the comic panels and the extensive, no, really extensive footnotes1 , which explore historical Babbage and Lovelace’s lives and writings. An appendix concludes with diagrams of Babbage’s steam-powered calculating monstrosity.

1 I don’t just mean that this comic has footnotes, I mean that the footnotes have endnotes2.

2 And the endnotes also have footnotes.

Both the book and the blog are particularly recommended for fans of Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant! and others who enjoy tongue-in-cheek history with lots of all caps and exclamation points.

Check the WRL catalog for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

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Island on FireSome volcanoes are world famous; everyone has heard of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii in the time of Pliny. Iceland’s volcanoes are less known, although they were in the news a few years ago when unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull spewed out enough ash to disrupt European air travel for weeks. Eyjafjallajokull may be more present in modern consciousness but it isn’t the only, the largest, or even the most dangerous of Iceland’s many volcanoes. Recently, scientists and historians have been focusing their attention on Iceland’s fissure volcano Laki, which evidence suggests may have disrupted world climate for years after it started erupting in 1783.

Island on Fire’s long subtitle, “The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano the Changed the World” sums up the problem with its history: this eruption occurred in a sparsely populated part of the world before the advent of easy international travel or communication. Nonetheless new research using techniques such as ancient ice cores suggests Laki’s eruption affected the climate all over the world. This lead to crop failures and famine and, depending on how you calculate it, may have killed millions of people. In a long eruption that continued over months Laki spewed out enough toxic gases to poison the entire lower atmosphere, especially over Europe. From all over Europe numerous newspaper accounts from the summer of 1783 report a “dry fog” that made it difficult for people to breathe.

Much of the surviving eyewitness account from Iceland comes from Jón Steingrímsson the ‘fire priest’ who famously gave a sermon while lava was bearing down on his village church. His journal reports unbelievable devastation and destruction, including the horrific symptoms in people and livestock from months of exposure to fluorine gas.

A compelling, if sometimes disturbing read, Island on Fire includes plenty of maps and black and white photos. The interested reader can also find color visuals of Iceland’s wonderful landscape, and the story of Laki’s eruption in the documentary Doomsday Volcanoes. For those interested in volcanoes in general try the documentary series Mega Disasters.

For another fascinating book about the historic effects of a major volcanic eruption try Tambora, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood. And for a gripping teen trilogy about the worldwide effects of an apocalyptic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano I heartily recommend Ashfall by Mike Mullin.

Check the WRL catalog for Island on Fire.

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Animal ArchitectureFrom its arresting cover to its fantastic photographs to its quirky animal facts, Animal Architecture is a winner for art lovers, photographers, and nature lovers.

The term “architecture” usually means buildings. In this book the term can mean structures made of materials from outside of an animal’s body, such as a bird’s nest or beaver dam. It can also mean structures made with materials from animal’s bodies such as webs, or even ones that stay on their bodies such as shells.

Some of the featured animals are very small, such as the caddis fly, but the sparkling photographs with black backgrounds show every hair-like appendage on the tiny creature’s body and every minute piece of wood, stone, leaf, shell or straw in the amazing cases that they build to protect their soft bodies. The photograph with the largest scale goes to another of the smallest animals. The compass termite in northern Australia builds 3 meter (10 feet) high mounds and the aerial photographs taken at dawn and dusk show a flat semiarid field with long shadows highlighting hundreds of aerie gravestones. On any scale, we are not the only creatures who can mold our environment. The changes can be destructive for the host like the galleries of the bark beetle larvae or cause great changes to the entire local environment like beaver dams, termite mounds, or coral reefs.

The photographer, Ingo Arndt, has won numerous awards and been published by National Geographic and it’s easy to see why. These photographs are immediately arresting but also bear long study to examine the intricacies of the galleries of the bark beetle larvae, the bower bird’s opus, or the staggering variety of corals. The text by Jurgen Tautz takes up less space but it provides clear and digestable chunks of information about these spectacular architects.

Try Animal Architecture if you like the spectacular nature photography of The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman, The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger or Sea, by Mark Laita. Or if you are interested in the substances that these creatures use try Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik.

Check the WRL catalog for Animal Architecture.

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Justinians FleaFive centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.

Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”

Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount.  I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy,  Plague: A Very Short Introduction by  Paul Slack or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.

Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.

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Link to the Past CoverIt can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.

Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.

Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.

The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.

This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.

Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.

Baa-bara
Baa-bara who came to meet children at Williamsburg Regional Library’s “Sheepish Storytime” on February 21.

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windThe Harmattan is a fierce wind that blows across sub-Saharan Africa, stripping vegetation, drying out watering places, and causing health problems for the inhabitants of the Sahel, as the region is known. The dust clouds it creates can block the sun, and have even been strong enough to lift sand particles which are carried by trade winds as far west as Florida. In Jeffrey Tayler’s skilled hands, the Harmattan becomes a metaphor for the insurmountable problems that affect countries across the widest and poorest part of continent.

Jeffrey Tayler, who served in the Peace Corps and writes for The Atlantic, traveled from Chad to Senegal, encountering first-hand the ancient traditions and modern troubles that define Africa for many Westerners. Fluent in both Arabic and French, he was able to speak with all types of people without the filter of an interpreter. These encounters turned up both superstition and up-to-the minute awareness of international affairs (many people weren’t shy about criticizing the Iraq War, then two years old), but were for the most part genial and even-handed. One tradition, that of hospitality, has not diminished even in the face of desertification, unrest, and religious extremism.

Even ten years after Angry Wind was published it remains a timely read. Boko Haram’s power base is in the Sahel. Niger holds the last spot on the Human Development Index. Mali suffered a revolution co-opted by an al Qaeda offshoot and had to have French assistance to quell it. Chad is overwhelmed by refugees from Darfur, and has a history of coups d’etat that could destabilize the central African region that surrounds it.  And history dominates it all – Tayler finished his journey in the House of Slaves on the Atlantic Coast of Senegal, where men, women, and children from the region would have their final views of Africa. Anyone who wants background on this essential region of a continent headed for its own maturity owes it to themselves to read Tayler’s journey.

Check the WRL catalogue for Angry Wind

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Blizzard“No-one knew THEN that this was the day which was to be remembered when all the days of 70 years would be forgotten.”

If you’ve spent any time in the last few weeks watching the Weather Channel, you’re accustomed to the long lead-in we have to any winter storm. Plenty of time to gas up the generator, run to the grocery store for more milk, or double- and triple-check the school closings. This riveting and often heartbreaking look at a 19th-century blizzard reminds us that once, the only warning of a deadly cold front was the wall of fast-approaching clouds and a plummeting thermometer.

In January 1888, an unprecedented winter storm swept across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and southern Minnesota, freezing cattle in their tracks, freezing farmers and their children where they fell, or sometimes even where they stood. (Yes, Jim Cantore, there was also “thunder snow.”) It became known as the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” because it struck on a clear, fine day when many youngsters were at school, and it was their attempts to reach the safety of home that ended in so many tragedies. Laskin’s history draws on memoirs and oral histories from pioneers who lived through the blizzard, and he notes that even the most taciturn, uncomplaining immigrants wrote about this storm as being unlike anything they had lived through before.

Just like any modern weather event, there’s a lot of talking before the weather actually hits. Laskin spends the first half of the book describing the lives of the Swiss, German, and Norwegian immigrants who came to the great prairies in search of land and freedom. He surveys the 19th-century weather service, run by officers in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The scandal-ridden weather service was surprisingly entertaining: it depended on staff like the fellow who took all of his weather observations at the local pawn shop, where he had hocked his barometers to pay off a poker debt. Laskin is actually quite poetic in describing the atmospheric dance of high and low pressure areas that builds to a winter storm. Then, finally, the blizzard itself arrives: blowing in at 45 mph, temperatures and visibility plummeting. Across the prairies, students and schoolteachers take stock of the situation and decide whether to shelter in place or strike out for the warmth of nearby homesteads. And you, the reader, want to warn them, just like we warn characters in horror movies not to head to the basement… don’t leave the schoolhouse.

The narrative follows several individuals and groups who walked into the storm and were blinded and disoriented by the wind’s intensity. They were assaulted not by the “lacy star-patterned crystals” of Christmas-card snow, but a fine, choking, blinding dust of nearly microscopic ice crystals. Disoriented, travelers wandered from their paths. The lucky ones found shelter in haystacks. Others died within sight of their destinations—if only they had been able to see. Hundreds died that night, although some survived, like schoolteacher Minnie Freeman, “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid,” who roped her charges together on their walk to safety, or so goes the song. In telling these stories, Laskin explains the physiology of hypothermia and frostbite and why some survived a night of exposure only to drop from cardiac failure as soon as they stood up the next day.

If you enjoy tales of survival and disaster like Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, The Children’s Blizzard is a sad but fascinating winter read.

Check the WRL catalog for The Children’s Blizzard

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