30 January 2006

2. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

So I know I may be the last, or next-to-last American to read The Da Vinci Code, so I am sure you have been all around about this book years ago.

I'm the guy who doesn't want to get on the pop bandwagon, or I get on it early and then ditch when everyone else catches on. For example, I won't read any reviews of movies I haven't seen so I won't be influenced or hear anything about the characters' deals, the plot, or the setting. Or, I'll listen to a band nonstop until their album is on the radio, or whatever, and then I'll drop them. I did the same thing with Contact by Carl "googleplex" Sagan – when I heard the movie was coming out I read the book as fast as possible and then never went to see the movie. I still haven't seen the entire thing. (I recommend the book.)

So, here I was, with DVC on my shelf, a Christmas present from a kid who is now in 9th grade. So I have had the book for two years, and I think it's been out longer than that.

So I am sure you already know all this but (I thought) it was a great story for its good, interesting, twisty and tight plot, and its detailed historical base (embellished or not, I don't care). The characters were flimsy stereotypes – we never see Langdon change from what he was in the beginning of the book, or wonder what his favorite color is. It doesn't matter – all he has to do is be our wonderer, our puzzler, and our plot-guide. Same with Sophie. The plot answers the questions of why them, why did it have to happen to him or her? But the characterization falls down.

But I guess that is to be expected from a thriller/mystery/conspiracy theory/other novel.

I do now want to find out to what degree did Dan Brown invent, or rearrange history. What did happen at the convention were the Nicene Creed was written? Was there a vote to have Jesus become divine? Was he a direct descendant from King David? Through Joseph? But wasn't he the literal son of god and therefore had no earth-patriarchy to be descended from? And what was the deal with Mary Magdalene? It also makes me want to go back to the Gospels and do some research. I took a class on Ancient Religions one summer at NYU and learned a lot about the outright thievery by the early Christian church, or borrowing if you prefer, of the religious cultures that came before it: Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and some of the other pantheistic local religions of Rome and Mesopotamia. It's amazing. I also did a long paper on the letters from Paul, and came to the conclusion that he hijacked the message and did more damage than good.

Is Angels and Demons as compelling reading? I read the first 300 pages of DVC in one jury duty day and the next 150 in three busier days. I saw the trailer for the movie and it provoked a new motivation for me to finally read it. And the need to read something good and clean after the completely disappointing Mossflower.

Recommended? Yeah, but you've already read it.

25 January 2006

1. Mossflower by Brian Jacques

I chose this book for a couple of reasons. First, I had seen many of the 7th graders reading the series. Second, I thought it fell into one of my favorite genres, the animals with intelligence and organized societies trying to deal with problems created by humans, and while this book has organized animal societies, there isn't a human in sight. Third, there are a bunch of books and I like to read complicated, convoluted, epic stories with deeply detailed worlds (West Wing, Middle Earth, Belgariad, Shannara, Forgotten Realms, and above all, Dragonlance).

Unfortunately, what I got was a pretty standard low fantasy setting and a pretty standard fantasy plot.

The setting: a small section of woods, with a road and a river. "Far to the west in the unknown lands" we have mountains, a swamp, and an ocean shore. In between are all sorts of bad guys.

The plot: Evil is threatening the land in the form of Tsarina, a bad wild cat who usurps her dad and imprisons her brother (the heir). As soon as she takes over she tries to dominate the rest of the kingdom, and she tries to rule with an iron paw. Enter the good guys, an overwhelmed fighter (Martin the Warrior Mouse, who teams up with a punning, don't-take-everything-so-seriously thief (Gonff), and the McGyver character, Dinny the mole. Of course they have to go on a quest to save the kingdom and the poor beaten, abused subjects. Of course, during the quest they nearly get killed in every chapter until they get separated and then they nearly get killed separately until they find each other again where they almost get killed until they make it to the end of their quest. Which it turns out is not exactly the end of the quest, but merely a change of direction for the quest. Fortunately they make a few allies along the way and are able to get back to the forest just as their friends are about to be overwhelmed by the bad guys.

Extremely standard stuff and that's why it took me over three weeks to read. I have started a few other books trying to excite myself into reading, and give me enough of a reading boner to finish Mossflower.

One cool thing, or a concept that strikes you as cool when you start until the literature deconstructer part of the brain takes over, is the fact that there are so many animals and they each have their specialty. For example, the squirrels are great archers and they love to sneak up on their prey (from the treetops of course) before they attack. Then the otters are great sailors and swimmers and in-water fighters. But then you start to think, hmm, is this supposed to be a metaphor for racism, or species-ism? I have since read on the internet that this is a common critique of the books. I found it to be one of the factors wearing me down.

If it wasn't for jury duty I wouldn't have finished this book until well into February.

Recommended? Not.

12 January 2006

You come to me on my daughter's wedding day...

I'm pleased to report that I have been asked to be little Jacob's godfather.

I gladly accept the nomination.

10 January 2006

"Everything comes from the sun..."

Nearly 100, LSD's Father Ponders His 'Problem Child'
Craig Smith. New York Times. New York, N.Y.: Jan 7, 2006. pg. A.4

ALBERT Hofmann, the father of LSD, walked slowly across the small corner office of his modernist home on a grassy Alpine hilltop here, hoping to show a visitor the vista that sweeps before him on clear days. But outside there was only a white blanket of fog hanging just beyond the crest of the hill. He picked up a photograph of the view on his desk instead, left there perhaps to convince visitors of what really lies beyond the windowpane.

Mr. Hofmann will turn 100 on Wednesday, a milestone to be marked by a symposium in nearby Basel on the chemical compound that he discovered and that famously unlocked the Blakean doors of perception, altering consciousnesses around the world. As the years accumulate behind him, Mr. Hofmann's conversation turns ever more insistently around one theme: man's oneness with nature and the dangers of an increasing inattention to that fact.

''It's very, very dangerous to lose contact with living nature,'' he said, listing to the right in a green armchair that looked out over frost-dusted fields and snow-laced trees. A glass pitcher held a bouquet of roses on the coffee table before him. ''In the big cities, there are people who have never seen living nature, all things are products of humans,'' he said. ''The bigger the town, the less they see and understand nature.'' And, yes, he said, LSD, which he calls his ''problem child,'' could help reconnect people to the universe.

Rounding a century, Mr. Hofmann is physically reduced but mentally clear. He is prone to digressions, ambling with pleasure through memories of his boyhood, but his bright eyes flash with the recollection of a mystical experience he had on a forest path more than 90 years ago in the hills above Baden, Switzerland. The experience left him longing for a similar glimpse of what he calls ''a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality.''

''I was completely astonished by the beauty of nature,'' he said, laying a slightly gnarled finger alongside his nose, his longish white hair swept back from his temples and the crown of his head. He said any natural scientist who was not a mystic was not a real natural scientist. ''Outside is pure energy and colorless substance,'' he said. ''All of the rest happens through the mechanism of our senses. Our eyes see just a small fraction of the light in the world. It is a trick to make a colored world, which does not exist outside of human beings.''

He became particularly fascinated by the mechanisms through which plants turn sunlight into the building blocks for our own bodies. ''Everything comes from the sun via the plant kingdom,'' he said.

Mr. Hofmann studied chemistry and took a job with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz Laboratories, because it had started a program to identify and synthesize the active compounds of medically important plants. He soon began work on the poisonous ergot fungus that grows in grains of rye. Midwives had used it for centuries to precipitate childbirths, but chemists had never succeeded in isolating the chemical that produced the pharmacological effect. Finally, chemists in the United States identified the active component as lysergic acid, and Mr. Hofmann began combining other molecules with the unstable chemical in search of pharmacologically useful compounds.

His work on ergot produced several important drugs, including a compound still in use to prevent hemorrhaging after childbirth. But it was the 25th compound that he synthesized, lysergic acid diethylamide, that was to have the greatest impact. When he first created it in 1938, the drug yielded no significant pharmacological results. But when his work on ergot was completed, he decided to go back to LSD-25, hoping that improved tests could detect the stimulating effect on the body's circulatory system that he had expected from it. It was as he was synthesizing the drug on a Friday afternoon in April 1943 that he first experienced the altered state of consciousness for which it became famous. ''Immediately, I recognized it as the same experience I had had as a child,'' he said. ''I didn't know what caused it, but I knew that it was important.''

When he returned to his lab the next Monday, he tried to identify the source of his experience, believing first that it had come from the fumes of a chloroform-like solvent he had been using. Inhaling the fumes produced no effect, though, and he realized he must have somehow ingested a trace of LSD. ''LSD spoke to me,'' Mr. Hofmann said with an amused, animated smile. ''He came to me and said, 'You must find me.' He told me, 'Don't give me to the pharmacologist, he won't find anything.' ''

HE experimented with the drug, taking a dose so small that even the most active toxin known at that time would have had little or no effect. The result with LSD, however, was a powerful experience, during which he rode his bicycle home, accompanied by an assistant. That day, April 19, later became memorialized by LSD enthusiasts as ''bicycle day.''

Mr. Hofmann participated in tests in a Sandoz laboratory, but found the experience frightening and realized that the drug should be used only under carefully controlled circumstances. In 1951, he wrote to the German novelist Ernst Junger, who had experimented with mescaline, and proposed that they take LSD together. They each took 0.05 milligrams of pure LSD at Mr. Hofmann's home accompanied by roses, music by Mozart and burning Japanese incense. ''That was the first planned psychedelic test,'' Mr. Hofmann said.

He took the drug dozens of times after that, he said, and once experienced what he called a ''horror trip'' when he was tired and Mr. Junger gave him amphetamines first. But his hallucinogenic days are long behind him.

''I know LSD; I don't need to take it anymore,'' Mr. Hofmann said. ''Maybe when I die, like Aldous Huxley,'' who asked his wife for an injection of LSD to help him through the final painful throes of his fatal throat cancer.

But Mr. Hofmann calls LSD ''medicine for the soul'' and is frustrated by the worldwide prohibition that has pushed it underground. ''It was used very successfully for 10 years in psychoanalysis,'' he said, adding that the drug was hijacked by the youth movement of the 1960's and then demonized by the establishment that the movement opposed. He said LSD could be dangerous and called its distribution by Timothy Leary and others ''a crime.''

''It should be a controlled substance with the same status as morphine,'' he said.

Mr. Hofmann lives with his wife in the house they built 38 years ago. He raised four children and watched one son struggle with alcoholism before dying at 53. He has eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. As far as he knows, no one in his family besides his wife has tried LSD.

Mr. Hofmann rose, slightly stooped and now barely reaching five feet, and walked through his house with his arm-support cane. When asked if the drug had deepened his understanding of death, he appeared mildly startled and said no. "I go back to where I came from, to where I was before I was born, that's all," he said.

09 January 2006

"A five year old with a beard..."

During one of the after school Axis & Allies games last week one of the kids, the original Weird Friend Gordon, said that I was "like a five year old with a beard." I took it as a compliment.

02 January 2006

New Year's Eve & New Year's day

Eve: Ran 4 miles in Central Park with Pam. At midnight. She is a member of the Ny Road Runners and they sponsor this event every year. There were a lot of people there. I hate running but I'm glad I did it. Ran the whole thing (no walking) and finished in 43:08. Our splits were 11 minutes for the first mile, 10, 11, and 11. There was this dastardly hill right after we passed mile 2 that just sucked the life out of me.

Day: Went to LI and raced Persuasion in the Annual Ed Brooks Memorial Regatta. There were six boats and we came in second! It was the highest placed finish the boat has ever had, in any race. I had a crackerjack crew: Pam, Marty, Larry, and Uncle Jack. Every boat put up a spinnaker, making the traditionally non-spinnaker race a spinnaker event. Not too cold and not too windy, it was a great day. Ill post pics to the boat blog soon. This week.

Happy New Year!