The God Equation

God Equation coverThe God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything
by Michio Kaku
Doubleday (April 6, 2021), 215 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $13.99

I am always interested in books on physics, quantum mechanics, and cosmology, so in reading a review of this title I decided it was worth my time. The author is a working physicist who teaches graduate students, but who also had written several books for the general reader. This is his most recent.

The purpose of the book is to discuss whether a “theory of everything” is possible, something that so far has eluded scientists. Kaku starts by reviewing the history of physics, starting with Newton, and moving on to quantum mechanics. I guess I’ve read more books (or listened to more audiobooks) on the subject than I’ve given myself credit for, because I noticed at least a couple of places where Kaku glossed over things where he could easily have provided a complete explanation. For example, he somewhat simplifies the (in)famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, when presenting it exactly the way Schrödinger did would have taken perhaps another half paragraph.

Kaku spends some space, appropriately, discussing the race for the atomic bomb during World War II. He describes how Werner Heisenberg was appointed to lead the German effort. Kaku says that the Germans under Heisenberg were well behind the Americans, who were pursuing their secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. However, other sources I have read state that Heisenberg knew the correct formula, but deliberately introduced subtle errors, too subtle for anyone but the sharpest physicist to notice, that were just sufficient to prevent the Germans from getting the bomb.

But back to the theory of everything. Kaku “has a dog in this fight,” as linguist John McWhorter likes to say, and Kaku admits it. He tells us he has been researching string theory since 1968 and believes that it offers the best candidate for a theory of everything.

Near the end of the book he also tells us that string theory continues to uncover new layers, and a final, definitive version of string theory has yet to emerge. Kaku hopes that a definitive version of string theory will provide us with a neat, mathematically complete theory of everything.

Somehow, though, as I finished the book I was left disappointed and unconvinced.


new things around the house

We have some new items to make things simpler and easier around home.

Swedish Sponge ClothsI first saw these Swedish cellulose sponge cloths in Bon Appétit magazine. They looked as if they made a lot of sense, and Amazon had them in a variety of packaging configurations. The best way to describe them is to say that they are large, flat sponges. They work really well and can be thrown in the washing machine and reused. The best thing about them is that they have allowed us to cut back drastically on our paper towel usage. That is a Good Thing.

Compost BucketThen there’s our new compost bucket. A few years ago our trash and recycling company allowed us to include food waste in our yard waste Toter when they opened a new state-of-the-art facility that turned all of that stuff into natural gas and fertilizer. (Another Good Thing.) At the time they provided food waste buckets for the kitchen counter. Ours worked serviceably but was always somewhat awkward and unwieldy.  It finally reached the point where the lid would not stay upright as we were scraping food into it. I found this composting bucket on Amazon and bought it along with a roll of one hundred compostable liner bags. Simpler, cleaner, and easier.

LED Floor LampFinally, there was that floor lamp in the bedroom. It had two circular fluorescent tubes which were a pain to replace, and it was not always easy to find the replacement tubes. When one burned out recently Terry suggested we replace the lamp. There was no argument from me. I found this LED floor lamp on Amazon which has a remote control and allows me to control both the brightness and the warmth of the light. It produces a brighter, cleaner light than the old fluorescent unit. I really love it.

A few little things that make domestic life easier and a little more pleasant here at home.


Kindred

Kindred coverKindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Bloomsbury Sigma (August 20, 2020), 409 pages
Kindle edition $9.02, Amazon hardcover $20.99

For a long time people used the word “Neanderthal” as a pejorative term, and I suppose they still use it that way sometimes. What we have learned in recent years, however, is that Neanderthals were a close relation to us Homo sapiens and that we coexisted for several millennia. The title of this book makes clear the author takes that perspective. Sykes is a scientist who actively works in the field, but she has made Kindred very much accessible to the general reader.

The author does an outstanding job of describing what we know and what we don’t know. Archaeology can tell us a lot about where Neanderthals lived, what kind of tools they made, and what sort of clothing they wore. It seems clear that they were nomadic, but that they returned to certain locations at about the same time each year. DNA research tells us which groups were related to other groups, something that is not always obvious based on archaeological evidence.

Sykes leaves unresolved as to whether Neanderthals buried their dead. There is a site called Shanidar in Kurdistan where researchers once believed a skeleton was surrounded with flowers and hence likely formally buried. That thinking has changed, and the consensus is now that the pollen accumulated naturally. The evidence is ambiguous, however, and Sykes in unwilling to say that Neanderthals didn’t bury their dead. She notes, “Although Shanidar isn’t exactly a Neanderthal necropolis, there’s absolutely more going on than the remains of those who perished by rockfalls.” The same chapter shows there is, sad to say, evidence of cannibalism at times.

The author opens each chapter with a short vignette, a sort of literary speculation about how Neanderthals might have perceived their world. It sets the tone for the scientific material that follows in the chapter.

The world of DNA evidence has been an enormous boon to many disciplines in science, as you’re no doubt aware. You likely know that there is between 1.8 and 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA in modern humans not of sub-Saharan Africa origin. You may remember from high school biology the fact that we define a species as two individuals who mate and produce fertile offspring. Since Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens are clearly different species the obvious question is: how is this possible? Sykes fortunately provides an answer: “Modern zoology’s concept of allotaxa may be more appropriate for what Neanderthals were to us: closely related species that vary in bodies and behaviors, yet can also reproduce.”

This is all interesting stuff, well written and easy to understand.


putting Alexa to work

One of the cool features of our Amazon Echo devices is the ability to create routines, where you can use a single command to have Alexa perform multiple actions. The first time I tried to set up a routine I couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work. But I went back to my iOS Alexa app and took another look. That time it all made sense. And then I was on a roll.

Fourth Generation EchoI now have a command that says, “Alexa, it’s dinner time.” Alexa then turns on the light  in the dining area (which is connected to a smart plug), tells us “Enjoy your dinner,” and then turns on KCSM, our favorite jazz radio station.

When we’re done with dinner I tell Alexa, “We’re done with dinner.” Alexa turns off the light and KCSM, then tells us, “It’s time to put your feet up.”

When we head into the bedroom to put our feet up, read the paper, and enjoy our respective apéritifs, we tell Alexa, “Good evening.” Alexa turns on our table-top fountain, also connected to a smart plug, plays KCSM on the Echo in the bedroom and tells us, “Enjoy your jazz and reading.”

When we say, “Alexa, good night,” Alexa shuts everything off and wishes us a good night.

How much fun is that?


Growing Up Bank Street

Growing Up Bank Street coverGrowing Up Bank Street: A Greenwich Village Memoir
Donna Florio
NYU Press (March 9, 2021), 239 pages
Kindle edition $14.72, Amazon hardcover $16.99

This book appeared as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review and I thought that it would be exactly the sort of thing I would enjoy reading. I was correct.

Donna Florio grew up in an apartment at 63 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. Her parents worked in the world of opera, so between that and the location of her home she had quite the eclectic upbringing. As an adult she returned to that building and lived in a different apartment, so she has had a lifelong familiarity with the building and the neighborhood.

She writes both about the people in her own building and about the people in the larger Bank Street district of Greenwich Village. Her own building housed people in show business, the mentally unbalanced, and even for a time a major figure in the United States Communist party. As an adult, one of her upstairs neighbors loved cooking gourmet meals for the tenants.

Bank Street residents in other buildings included CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, the novelist John Dos Passos, and Marion Tanner, the woman on whom Auntie Mame was allegedly based, Tanner’s nephew having written the original novel. He both assisted her financially with income from the book, the play, and the musical, and at the same time denied that she was the inspiration for Auntie Mame.

Florio writes:

quoteArcheologists, movie stars, trust-fund babies, and college professors did indeed live next to secretaries and sanitation workers.

Bank Street was a fascinating place filled with fascinating people and Florio brings it to life.


our newest Echo device

I have written about our Amazon Echo devices and about how much we enjoyed having two of them, one in the kitchen and dining area, and one in the bedroom. I also wrote that I was content to continue enjoying the trusty internet radio in my office until I learned that the service that powered it was going away, making it for the most part useless.

Amazon Echo ShowI wrote that I thought about getting a new internet radio that would be powered by a newer service, but as I considered the matter I decided that an Amazon Echo could play all the stations and streaming services that an internet radio could, and that it could do a lot more. With the Echo I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or to give me the weather forecast. I can ask it to play my current audio book or give me the score of yesterday’s Dodger game.

Deciding to buy a new Echo, it only made sense to go for quality. I wanted an Echo Show so I could have the visual element as well. I bought a third generation Echo Show 10. It’s pretty amazing. It has excellent speakers and the screen is sharp and clear. I like seeing the artist and song title on KNX-FM 93 (clearer and more easily readable than on my internet radio) and that information plus a nice image of the album cover on my Pandora stations. I recently signed up for Amazon Music and am amazed at the breadth of choices available. I can ask Alexa to play just about any classical work, and when I play popular songs most of them display the lyrics.

Echo Show MusicOf course it’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s easier to punch a button than give a verbal command, and sometimes Alexa doesn’t understand what you want. Podcasts are a particular problem. If I ask Alexa to play either of the two astronomy podcasts, StarDate or Earth and Sky, I get something Star Trek related for StarDate and a mystical podcast of the same name for Earth and Sky. But then Alexa has no problem bringing up John McWhorter’s podcast on linguistics, Lexicon Valley. Too bad he’s going to stop doing it.

Still, though, for the most part all three of our Echo devices work very well.

The new Echo Show was an indulgence, to be sure, but given the income I’ve been getting from my contract writing work, I decided I could use some of that money for fun stuff. And this is really fun stuff.


The Possessed

The Possessed coverThe Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Elif Batuman
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, March 14, 2017
Print edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 16, 2010)
$24.46 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I had read and enjoyed Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot and picked up this volume based on a brief mention in The New Your Times Book Review. Batuman specializes in Russian literature, as you might surmise for the book’s subtitle. As to the book’s content, the subtitle does not mislead.

Batuman opens the book describing the beginning of her post-graduate studies at Stanford, and how she came under the influence of the leading scholar of the Russian author Isaac Babel, of whom I had never heard until listening to this book, and how said scholar hooked her into the study of Babel. Babel wrote in the first part of the twentieth century but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and was executed in the Stalin era. Batuman writes about her encounter with Babel’s two daughters, who are invited to Stanford for a Babel conference. I learned far more than I cared to about Isaac Babel.

She also writes about a summer spent in a language immersion program in Uzbekistan, about lost luggage, and the people she encounters there. Passing off her boyfriend, who wanted to tag along, as her husband caused her to make up some fabrications about their nonexistent marriage.

We hear a lot about other, better known, Russian authors and their writing: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. Since Russian writers write a lot about grim topics such as illness, poisoning, and death we hear a lot about those topics. Too much. I didn’t know that there was a debate about whether Tolstoy’s death was due to poisoning or that depending on one’s own views one could be labeled a Tolstoyan (or not).

Batuman writes about academic politics, the unsettled lives of graduate students at Stanford, and her own untidy personal life. Although I did not enjoy The Possessed nearly as much as her novel, the book was nonetheless interesting reading, especially since we hear it in the author’s own voice.


A Thousand Ships

A Thousand Ships coverA Thousand Ships
Natalie Haynes
Harper (January 26, 2021), 368 pages
Amazon hardcover $19.28, Kindle edition $10.99

There have been some excellent retellings of classical mythology by women published in the last couple of years. Madeline Miller wrote both Circe and The Song of Achilles. Now Natalie Haynes has released A Thousand Ships, which tells of the events (mostly) after the Trojan War through the perspective of women. It was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2019, but Harper just published it in the United States this year. Terry got to the book before I did, buying it at Barnes and Noble, so in this instance I read the hardcover rather than the Kindle edition.

Haynes opens the novel with the sack of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans brought the famous wooden horse inside the city walls. This is interesting because the Iliad does not mention the Trojan Horse at all. The Odyssey mentions a “hollow horse” three times in passing, in such a way that Homer must have assumed that his audience knew the story. It is only later sources that provide us with any sort of full account.

Nonetheless, this approach works because Haynes tells the story mostly from the Trojan perspective, from the viewpoint of the losing side, and in particular by the women of the losing side. She does not, as you might guess, portray the Greeks in a positive light.

We encounter a lot of women in the book. Some women we meet only in a single chapter, and others intermittently throughout the book. Then there are the Trojan women as a group, drawn from the chorus in the Euripides play by that name, who sit on the seashore awaiting their fate by the conquering Greeks. We see them several times.

Helen, the cause of all the fuss, has no chapters of her own and plays a very small role in the novel. In Haynes’s world Helen had willingly headed off to Troy with the Trojan Paris, though the mythology we have is ambiguous as to whether she really was infatuated with Paris or whether he took her to Troy against her will.

The one Greek woman Haynes features prominently is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, waiting for him at home in Ithaca. She becomes increasingly snarky as she writes him letters after hearing the stories from the bards of his long, circuitous journey home. She is neither understanding nor patient.

Also impatient is the muse Calliope, who wants the poet to pay more attention to the women and less to the men and the fighting. What Homer doesn’t do Haynes fulfills.

We are all the better for that.


the end of the road for my internet radio

When I tried to tune in to 70s on 7 on my Grace Digital internet radio on Saturday it displayed a message saying it could not contact the SiriusXM server. This was not a huge surprise to me as I had received an email from SiriusXM some months ago saying that “it has come to our attention that you may be streaming SiriusXM at home using a Grace device” and telling me that my Grace Digital device would no longer be supported. When I went on to Google to confirm that I had remembered correctly I saw that I had, but I also saw that my radio would be completely inoperable by late May. It’s a first-generation device that uses a third-party service and that is all going away. (“The managed shut down…will be completed by May 21st, 2021.”) That was a surprise.

We had purchased two Amazon Echo devices, one for the bedroom and a second for the kitchen and dining area as our ancient Recoton 900 MHz wireless devices kept performing less and less well. But, I thought, I still have my internet radio for my office. Guess not.

internet radioI bought my Grace Digital internet radio in January 2014 while we were still in Gilroy to replace another internet radio that used a rather unreliable technology. I kept it in my office and loved it, as over-the-air radio reception in Gilroy was less than optimal. It moved south with us in 2015 and remained in my office here, where over-the-air radio reception is also far from ideal.

There was rarely a day when I was in my office, either there or here, when I did not turn on that radio. And attached to the Recoton 900 MHz transmitter we used it every single evening with the Recoton wireless speakers in the dining area and the bedroom until we replaced them with our Echo devices.

So now what? I thought about getting a current generation Grace Digital radio, but I don’t quite trust those folks, and was not encouraged by the misused words (“effected” instead of “affected”) and other typos on their support web page.

I realized that an Amazon Echo device (our third) could do everything an internet radio could do, plus a lot more. I have always relied on my internet radio for a quick glance at the time when it was not playing, so I needed a visual display. I decided to buy a new Echo Show 10.

It’s supposed to be here tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it works out.


Summer People

Summer People coverSummer People: A Novel
Marge Piercy
Open Road Media (April 12, 2016), 477 pages
originally published by Summit Books, a Simon and Schuster imprint (June 1, 1989)
Kindle edition $10.99

After finishing my previous nonfiction book I was looking for something countercultural. I knew I could find that by turning to Marge Piercy. I selected Summer People and was not disappointed. Now this was not sixties counterculture. The narrative in the novel takes place roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the book in 1989. Piercy mentions the amber screen of a computer. Many computer screens running the good old DOS operating system (yes, I know that’s redundant) in those days had black-and white or blue-and-white screens, but my computer at home in 1989 had an amber screen.

This counterculture existed (in the novel) on Cape Cod. Susan and Willie were married. Susan was a seamstress and fashion designer. Willie was a sculptor and carpenter. Dinah, a musician and composer, moves into the house next door, which shared the driveway with Willie and Susan’s house. They quickly ended up in a three-way relationship. All went well until Susan, with her misperceptions and inflated sense of self-importance, insisted that the arrangement end. That triggered a domino effect that drives much of the novel’s action.

I wouldn’t refer to Piercy’s work as literary fiction, but she knows how to develop a plot and create believable, three-dimensional characters. The women are strong and not dependent on men. Piercy’s novels have always had a strong feminist tone, and her women take ownership of their own sex lives and responsibility for birth control. (One male character, in fact, provides his own condom).

The title Summer People is a bit of a misnomer, as the book is not about the people who arrive at Cape Cod in time for Memorial Day and leave right after Labor Day, although they do play a role. It’s the year-round residents, Willie, Susan, and Dina that are central to the novel.

So while not great literary fiction, Summer People is enjoyable reading with a serious message about how people treat each other, even if the conclusion ties things together just a little too neatly.