The Sirens of Mars

Sirens of Mars coverThe Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World
Sarah Stewart Johnson
narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Random House Audio, July 07, 2020
$19.60 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I guess one can say that one has truly become an audiobook aficionado when one decides to listen to an audiobook based on the narrator.

The book The Sirens of Mars caught both Terry’s and my attention when we read about it. Terry bought the hardcover at Barnes & Noble. I had finished my most recent audiobook and was looking for the next, so I pulled up the title on Amazon. I saw the audiobook was read by Cassandra Campbell, who narrated the biography of Dorothy Day that I enjoyed so much. That clinched the decision to make The Sirens of Mars my next audiobook.

Campbell is an accomplished voice actor, who has narrated many audiobooks, most notably that long-time bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing. She does a skilled job of reading this book, making me feel as if the author was doing the narration. Even the best readers make errors, however. At one point she used the word epithet when it should have been epitaph. (I recently saw someone make the opposite error in print. What is it about those two words?) But this does nothing to diminish Campbell’s superb skills as an audiobook narrator.

Author Sarah Stewart Johnson is a planetary scientist, one of the few women in that field. She beautifully interweaves three stories: the observers of Mars from the nineteenth century on, the various NASA Mars missions, and her own life story. The latter two converge, as she was on the science teams of a couple of the Mars Rover missions.

I was particularly sensitive to the author being involved in the search for possible life on Mars as I wrote an essay in 1976 which I titled “Gazing Towards Mars” about the Viking Mars mission. I tried to sell the piece but was unsuccessful. I said we were lonely here on earth and wanted evidence that there was life elsewhere in the solar system. That hasn’t changed in the past forty-four years.

It was only two decades after I wrote that essay that the rovers found water and gave us hints that life might once have existed on Mars. The Sirens of Mars offers a thoughtful and enlightening perspective on human attempts to understand the Red Planet.


“Doesn’t anyone know how this game is played?”

I heard Giants broadcaster Jon Miller ask that question in a frustrated tone of voice after an odd play that invoked an obscure baseball rule. Miller didn’t like how the official scorer scored the play, and, as I recall, he may have been unhappy with the call on the field by the umpire as well.

I ask that question about some less obscure aspects of baseball these days. I’ve learned to accept the designated hitter in the National League during this COVID-19-shortened season, being grateful just to have baseball.

The one thing that does irk me, however, is the concept of the “opener” as opposed to a proper starting pitcher. That’s someone who pitches only an inning or two at the start of the game.

For example, in the final game of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, the Dodgers started Dustin May, who pitched only a single inning. He was followed by two more pitchers who each picked up two innings, and then by Brusdar Graterol who pitched a single inning. Finally, Julio Urías pitched the last three.

That’s not the baseball I grew up with. I was going to blame Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who played in a more traditional era, but Houston Mitchell wrote in the Dodgers newsletter:

quoteKeep in mind that Dave Roberts doesn’t decide who is going to start. He has input, yes, but the front office looks at all their flow charts, their crystal balls, their sabermetrics, their Tarot cards, their performance metrics, their Magic 8 Ball and decides who will start.

OK, Dave is off the hook.

And the Dodgers are in the World Series. We actually have a World Series this year, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles.

That’s something to be thankful for in these crazy days.


two earbud sets

I have two wireless earbud sets? Yep, two.

I wrote a while back about buying a set of wireless earbuds for my iPhone from a company called Letsfit and how much I liked them. As I expected, they are great for listening to my audiobooks when I’m doing yard work and I don’t want sweat to damage my expensive hearing aid.

earbudsBut then there is my laptop, which I use for Sunday morning worship at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Hemet via Zoom. I had been using wired earbuds, but I decided that they were a bit too restrictive. Since we are unlikely to return to indoor in-person worship anytime soon, I thought a wireless solution would be better.

My hearing aid uses an Apple technology that allows it to connect to multiple devices. So I can use my hearing aid with both my iPhone and my iPad. But here’s the thing with Bluetooth. Bluetooth earbuds only connect with one device. My Letsfit Bluetooth earbuds are paired with my iPhone and if I want something similar for my laptop I need a separate pair.

I searched Amazon and found a set for $19.95. (Prices for all of these things seem to fluctuate frequently.) The average rating was 4+ stars with input from over seventeen thousand users. I ordered them and paired them with my laptop. They work great for Sunday morning Zoom worship.

Something interesting. When I fired up my laptop and put the new set of earbuds in my ears, the voice that said “Connected” was identical to the voice on my Letsfit earbuds.

I guess the underlying technology is the same on all of these products.


How You Say It

How You Say It coverHow You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do—And What It Says About You
Katherine D. Kinzler
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 21, 2020), 253 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $20.99

As a writer and as a reader I place a lot of emphasis on the written word, and I think a lot about writing and styles of writing. However, the spoken word is important to me as well. I spent nearly four years in Toastmasters, leaving only when changes to the program made the organization less appealing to me. A linguist will tell you that language is about the spoken word far more than it is about writing. That was the message in John McWhorter’s Great Courses series on language families which I recently watched. It is the spoken word that interests Katherine Kinzler in this book.

Kinzler wants to understand, and wants us to understand, how the spoken word affects how we perceive other people. She is not a linguist, rather she is a psychologist. However, in doing the research that forms the basis of this book she took a multidisciplinary approach, working with individuals in multiple fields, including linguistics. She writes with the approach of a linguist, saying, for example, “African American English is a dialect of English like any other (including Standard American English).”

The author writes about the misconceptions that people have, for example that an ethic Asian might have difficulty learning a non-Asian language such as French. She describes how bias is pervasive in the media. In children’s movies, such as Aladdin, she points out that the bad guys have accents and the good guys don’t. Kinzler explores how an accent can have a negative impact on a person being hired for a particular job, even when they are fully qualified.

This is interesting material, and it presents an important set of social issues of which we ought to be aware.


things that won’t happen again

I rarely write in a melancholy mood, but sometimes the melancholy catches up with you, particularly in these days of COVID-19 and bitter political division.

One thing that has been missing in our lives in this time of pandemic and quarantine is the ability of the family to get together for breakfast on Saturday. Terry and I gathered with my brother and sister-in-law, my nephew and his daughter (later his fiancée became part of the group), and my dad who was the primary reason for this weekly routine. We had our restaurant rotation, but for most of us our favorite spot was DJ’s. We knew the staff, including the owner Grace and her daughter who waited tables, and they knew us. Their lease was up and the owner of the building wanted a long-term renewal. Grace, nearing retirement age, declined. Their last day of business was Halloween 2018.

Far more significant than that was the loss of my father in August. We did not lose him to COVID-19, but because he was ninety-one and his organs had simply reached the limit of what they could do.

I had forgotten that this picture had been taken, but Google found it for me on the DJ Restaurant Facebook page, which is still out there. It is a reminder of happier times.

One day the family will be able to safely gather once again and enjoy a meal out. But Dad won’t be there with us. Not physically anyway. And that I think is justification for some melancholy.

DJs restaurant


Dark Matter and Dark Energy

Dark Matter & Dark Energy coverDark Matter and Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe
Brian Clegg
Icon Books Ltd (August 8, 2019), 143 pages
Kindle edition $6.99, Amazon paperback $12.23

This is a slim volume, part of the Hot Science series from Icon Books, a publisher in the United Kingdom. Brian Clegg is a veteran science writer whose language is clear and concise but sprinkled with some enjoyable wit.

Scientists calculate that the matter in the universe that we can see is only a small portion of what should actually be there. We don’t yet know where the rest of it is. Clegg says that it would be better to call it transparent matter. The most recent science tells us that the universe continues to expand and will do so indefinitely. However the amount of energy we can measure is far less than what would be needed for this to happen. Hence dark energy.

Clegg thinks that there are alternative explanations to the existence of dark matter. He is more convinced that dark energy exists.

There are no definitive answers for either phenomenon. The research continues. But Clegg’s book offers a readable snapshot on the state of the research.


In Search of the Lost Chord

In Search of the Lost Chord coverIn Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea
Danny Goldberg
Akashic Books (June 6, 2017), 280 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $13.92

Danny Goldberg sees 1967 as the apex of the hippie era. Before that the movement was not fully mature and the following year brought an end to those ideals in the minds of many. That’s because the year 1968 brought us the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots at the democratic convention in Chicago, and the nomination of Richard Nixon to head the Republican presidential ticket.

Goldberg covers culture, politics, and music. He talks about the original hippie be-ins, a hippie spoof of the civil rights sit-ins and the antiwar teach-ins on college campuses. He points out that “like much hip language, the device had a short shelf life before going mainstream,” with the advent of the irreverent television program Laugh-In.

He writes about a group called the Diggers, who were a sort of a luddite group, but who provided food and other services to the poor. He discusses political activists such as Jerry Rubin, and documents the criticism of hippies by many, including by quite a few on the left, who felt they were doing nothing to improve society. Goldberg describes how musical groups such as the Grateful Dead were mostly non-political, whereas a group such as Country Joe and the Fish was the exact opposite.

Goldberg was born in 1950, three years before me, so he came of age in the midst of all this. Although he at times documents his own involvement in this world, for the most part he objectively describes the era, even if it is obvious where is biases lie.


Taste the Nation

I first became aware of Padma Lakshmi in a rather odd way. In an effort to save a little money I was borrowing audiobooks from the public library rather than buying them from Audible. This meant that the most recent and most popular titles were checked out and unavailable. Scrolling through the available titles I encountered her autobiography Love, Loss, and What We Ate. I had not been previously familiar with her, but I thoroughly enjoyed her book (which she read herself) in which she describes being born in India and then, as a child, following her mother to the United States after she completed her education and found work as a nurse.

Taste the NationYou may be familiar with Padma as host of the television program Top Chef on Bravo, but if you have been reading this blog you know how I feel about cooking competition television shows. There is a lot more to Padma than Top Chef, however, and after listening to her audiobook I started following her on Instagram. I was pleased to learn that she was developing a television program on which she sampled immigrant food around the country.

The series, entitled Taste the Nation, dropped on Hulu this past spring and is still available if you are a subscriber. It is a real delight. She samples Mexican food in El Paso, German food in Milwaukee, and Gullah food in South Carolina. She cooks Indian food with her mother and samples the food of the one group that does not have immigrant roots: Native Americans. (As one woman makes clear, Indian fry bread is not truly native American. It is what they made do with they were gathered up by the white man, put in camps, and given flour to cook with. True Native American food derives from what can be hunted and harvested in the desert of the American Southwest.)

If this sounds very similar to Marcus Samuelsson’s PBS program No Passport Required, it is. But each show brings its own perspective. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and immigrated to the United States. Padma brings her Indian American perspective. Both programs remind us of what we owe immigrants for the variety of food and culture we experience throughout the country.

Taste the Nation was produced pre-COVID-19, so Padma freely interacts with people, eating in their restaurants and homes. It is a delightful series to watch. I’m happy that a second season has been commissioned.


Creative Quest

Creative Quest coverCreative Quest
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Ecco, April 24, 2018, 261 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $14.29

I had never heard of Questlove, aka Ahmir Thompson, until he showed up on the Rachael Ray show one day. Not that I watch Rachel Ray regularly (I wish there was an easy way eliminate all the other goings-on (as they appeared on the show pre-COVID-19) and just watch the cooking segments), but I caught this episode. It turns out that he is the musical director of the Jimmy Fallon incarnation of The Tonight Show, and his musical group Roots is the house band. But you no doubt knew that.

Questlove is also a lover of gourmet cooking and in a pre-COVID19 world he hosted food salons so he could hang out with four- and five-star chefs. He was on Rachael Ray to talk about gourmet holiday potlucks, as I recall.

When I looked him up on Amazon I found this book. Always interested in improving my creativity I bought it. It was a mixed bag for me. I’m not a big fan of hip-hop. Actually, I actively dislike hip-hop. (I never enjoyed the music on Fallon’s version of Tonight the few times that I’ve watched it. Questlove is not Doc Severinsen.) Questlove writes a lot about the creative process in hip-hop and music in general. A music lover I am, but understanding the creative process behind producing music doesn’t interest me in the same way that understanding the creative process in writing does. The author writes about things like ProTools, which, if you are a serious musician, is the ultimate music editing software, or so I understand.

Still, Questlove has some interesting insights into the creative process, and he is candid about his failures in addition to noting his successes. He suggests that in a world of the internet and Google “the brain is more a hunter-gatherer and less a farmer.” He cites William Klemm, of Texas A&M University:

quote[Klemm] defines creativity as the process of drawing water from a deep well. I’m paraphrasing. He said that “creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot.” We don’t have those brains anymore. Instead, we offload our knowledge to our phones and computers, to Wikipedia, to Shazam. It’s a great convenience, but what’s lost in the process?

Questlove, born in 1971, the year I graduated from high school, ought not be worrying about aging quite yet, but I like the fact that he references Dick Van Dyke, now in his nineties, saying as we age we ought not avoid (for example) using the stairs just because it hurts a little. I’ll remember that the next time I ache getting up off the floor when I’m arranging Tasha’s food on the bottom shelf of the cabinet.

The author writes in a light, breezy style. He has a “with” co-author in Ben Greenman, but I assume that the self-deprecation and dry wit are Questlove’s and not imposed by Greenman.

Not one of my favorite books, but there are some good insights here.


Who We Are and How We Got Here

Who We Are coverWho We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past
David Reich
Vintage (March 27, 2018), 356 pages
Kindle edition $7.99, Amazon paperback $13.68

Our ability to interpret the human genome has advanced our scientific knowledge in a wide range of disciplines. In these recent stay-at-home pandemic months I have streamed on my Roku Great Courses lecture series on evolution, Native Americans, and linguistics. All of them have touched upon genetic evidence as part of the material presented.

Author David Reich is a working scientist who complains at the outset about taking time away from preparing papers for professional journals to write a popular book. The general reader, however, is better off for his having done so. He provides a readable outline of the state of genetic research today.

Reich discusses early human history and describes how modern humans carry genes from both ancient Neanderthals and Denisovans, something that helped early modern humans survive in new environments. He writes about the migrations of people and the interbreeding between hunter-gatherers and farmers. The author then describes research into the distribution of human populations today. Throughout the book he talks about work done in his own lab and gives proper credit to individual researchers.

Near the end of the book Reich complains about the politics and academic disputes that arise in the world of research. This was somewhat frustrating reading, but the bulk of the book, in which he lays out how the science of genetics has helped flesh out our understanding of humankind, was fascinating stuff.