Archive for the ‘navel gazing’ category

A Bleg

December 8, 2009

Dear readers,

I’m thinking about moving my blog to a host that allows me more flexibility than WordPress allows.  I’ll be redirecting from here, so there will be some continuity, but I wonder if anyone has any thoughts about the new domain name.


Or is this a distinction without a difference?

Hive mind help gratefully appreciated.

Image: Dr. Marcus Gossler, The subject catalogue (“Schlagwortkatalog”) of the University Library of Graz. 2005.

More Horn Tooting (Newton and the Counterfeiter Edition), and yet another apology

December 7, 2009

The apology first:  regulars here know that the blog has been moribund for a while now.  Two factors lie behind my (uncharacteristic) dalliance with (bits of) the  Benedictine Rule.  First — just sheer end-of-term/father-of-a-nine-year-old/husband-to-someone-I’d-like-to-see-more-than-in-passing overwhelmed-ness.  That goes with the season and the life…but usually doesn’t so thoroughly quash my fire to get stuff up and out there.

The second is a kind of soul or brain weariness.  Over the last couple of months, the relentlessness of the stupid out there has gotten to me, and this latest mock furor (warning — deep ocean of glib and I’m-so-clever-stupid at that link) over the East Anglia emails has left me speechless.

I’m going to try to blog about it, unnecessarily, no doubt, after the tens of thousands of words (much more, probably) already expended on the topic.  It is futile, I know, to attempt to explain the fact that even if every false claim about the significance of the alledged distortions of the temperature record were true, the breadth and depth of the body of direct measurement, climate proxies, experiment, simulation and the rest would be sufficient to document the deep predicament we find ourselves facing right now.  I will.  I really will.

But I’m going to get going on that tome tomorrow.  For now, I have some happy news to share.  London’s Sunday Times, one of the two or three major players in the world of British literary journalism, has had the kindness and the good taste to name my  Newton and the Counterfeiter in its books of the year round up for 2009, one of nine books in their history category so honored. (Or, as I should write to acknowledge the source, so honoured.)

Here’s what their judge/reviewer had to say in support of his choice:

A delightful piece of narrative history, exploring the surprising second career of Isaac Newton as warden and master of the Royal Mint, his efforts to secure the country’s coinage and his attempts in particular to end the career of master forger William Chaloner. Levenson has a wonderfully light touch, and is able to bring the same enthusiasm and vigour to his discussion of Newton’s work as to his engrossing description of the pursuit of the dastardly Chaloner

I couldn’t agree more. 😉

(And if such seals of approval move you…the book can be found at Amazon,PowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at,WaterstonesBlackwellsBorders,John Smith & Son.)

Image:  Pieter Huys, “A surgeon extracting the stone of folly” before 1577.

The Bees of Brookline…Real Estate Schadenfreude Post

June 30, 2009

This is just a little gift to y’all, or at least any of you enmeshed in house-renovation hell.

My wife and I just completed the purchase of a house in the Boston-area city town of Brookline, noted for its truly first class public schools — a relevant fact for parents of an elementary school kid nudging up to the not-wonderful middle school in our current town.

It’s a nice place, or rather it will be after we deal with the consequences of the previous owners’ 2 + decades of more or less complete neglect.  As far as we can tell, they spent exactly nothing on making sure that a 1920s house did not rot, serve as lunch for social insects, or simply settle under the weight of 20 years or so of dust and grime that never, seemingly, suffered an encounter with a wet rag.

But even as we marvel at various decor details — the coffee cans in the lighting track above the stove are a particular favorite — and check and re-check to ensure that previous waves of termites are not in fact being followed by that last push over the top of the sort the Germans hoped would finally crack the fortress at Verdun, we were truly flumoxed by only one discovery.   Check out these photographs:

Hive in full

How would you like to find four feet or so of working honey bee hive inside the wall of your house?

What gets me is that there were several tens of thousands of bees that called my new address “home” up until last Saturday.  The hive was in the stairwell between the second and third floor, basically, next to and slightly above the previous owner’s bedroom.  Given that you don’t get a fine piece of modular hexagonal construction like you see there in ten minutes, don’t you think  he might have noticed just a bit of noise (not to mention a ton of six legged friends flying past his windows) at, say the four a.m. summer wake up call?  Just asking…

And if you were laboring under the misapprehension that the above was a disused or dead hive, check this one out:

live bees

This isn’t to say that it wasn’t kind of cool to think of our house as a shared domicile with our apian friends.  Honey bees are, after all, potent symbols, creatures of myth, generally associated with all kinds of good things — eloquence, well ordered social life and so on.  For a dwelling to be home to a writer and a family, that’s not so bad…

Als0 — I have to say that it was fascinating to take a look at the intricacy of a hive from such an intimate vantage.  For example — I never even knew that there was this to see:

Queen cells

Those protuberances on the side are queen cells, where potential successors to the sitting queen gestate.  The first one out massacres the rest, a not unknown precaution in human families of consequence, and then occupies the vacancy left by the death or departure of her mother.

And speaking of departure, check this out:


It’s hard to see at internet quality, but that big black blob in the center is the swarm.  Just as the bee keeper arrived and started cutting into the wall, the reigning monarch took off with about half the hive.  They hung out near the top of the maple next to our new house for a couple of hours, sending out scouts.  And then, suddenly, a suitable new location having been found, they all took off.  Somewhere in a mile or two radius in the Coolidge Corner area of Brookline, a hive is born.

Note that I said “bee-keeper,” and not exterminator.  By local law, you can’t just kill honey bees (and if you did so without opening up the wall, you’d end up with as much as fifty or sixty pounds of honey melting down the interior of your house too, with consequences I don’t want to think about).  Instead, you have to find someone who specializes in bee removal who comes by, equipped with the appropriate armor and a very gentle sort of shop-vac kind of thing to remove the bees alive:

Vacuuming the bees

It’s a good deal for the bee keeper, in this case a delightful and extremely mellow young man named Jean-Claude:  he gets paid skilled rates for the removal (you don”t think that it makes sense to seek out a discount bee-wrangler, do you?  Not in my house…) and he gets to keep the bees, putting them to work in his own apiary.  (This is why he was a bit put out by the sudden decision to swarm; he was left with many fewer bees than he had hoped.) I don’t begrudge the craftsman’s gleanings — I don’t want them, certainly, but it did both de-and impress me that I have to put myself on the waiting list to sample Jean-Claude’s honey production.  He’s already oversubscribed.

That leads to the last note I’ll add:  the high point of the morning was when Jean-Claude pulled off some honey-bearing comb and handed it round.  It was unlike any other honey I’ve ever tasted — Cuvee Brookline, perhaps — and certainly the freshest I’ll ever taste.  It was composed of who knows what:  the choke cherries in our back yard, the neighbor’s English garden flowers, just about anything in a mile or so radius of the house.  It had a sharp, spicy flavor, lots of orange in it, and not so sweet as commercial honey.  Wild.  It really exploded in the mouth.  We grabbed a couple of pounds of comb for later, and as we share it with friends we can truly say it was home-made.

So that’s it.  Enjoy a little schadenfreude at my family’s expense.  I’d venture to say that we were the only folks on our block with our own bee-hive, however briefly.  So for all you home-renovators out there, as you contemplate medieval plumbing and knob-and-tube wiring, reflect on the fact that at least you didn’t have to confrong 40 or 50,000 six legged room mates in your walls.

And now back to the serious stuff…unless something else weird this way passes.

Sunday Links

June 7, 2009

Running late — deadlines on three (3!) pieces by tomorrow at eleven at the latest.

So far I have one in draft, one that I will conjure out of another piece of writing on the same subject for a different purpose, expanding by 60% (all good stuff, no groats for fillers) and a third that is but a gleam in my eye.

Plus it’s Sunday and my son wouldn’t mind having his dad share the same spacetime coordinates with him, and nor, emphatically would his father.

So not much today, except to thank all those who listened to my appearance on Ira Flatow’s NPR TOTN:  Science Friday to discuss Newton and the Counterfeiter— and especially those who mentioned the gig beforehand on Twitter or in their blogs.  (I haven’t managed to send my personal thanks to all those in the latter group yet, but I will.)

If y’all missed it, you can hear my dulcet tones here.*

So just to demonstrate that I’m only mostly about me, and not solely, I’d like to point folks to a running series  of cool over at Daily Kos, Orinoco’s “Fundamental Understanding of Mathematics” farrago, now up to its eighteenth installment.

As long term readers of this blog know, I’m a big proponent of evangelizing the idea that injecting the most basic and simple of mathematical ideas into one’s own reasoning and into public discourse pays enormous benefits.

I’ve given a few scattered examples over the 18 months or so I’ve been writing this blog — e.g. the conversion of raw numbers into abstractions like percentages** but Orinoco, a school teacher who has taught math to young kids, is doing a wonderful job in building a systematic appreciation for both the constructs and habits of mind of mathematics accessible to just about anyone.  Highly recommended — and especially if you read through the comments where a number of math and computer geeks expand on Orinoco’s themes.  This is what I love about the internet:  spontaeneous collective creativity.

Anyway, here’s the link to diary one, and you can find the rest by navigating through Orinoco’s diary page.

*And yes, on the higher traffic day of Monday, I’ll give this another plug — I enjoyed it; I think it went well; and I’d like people to hear it.

**And yes again, I know that numbers are themselves abstractions.

Image: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson), 1884

Diary of A Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 5.0: Editors and your (dis)Contents

May 28, 2009

Going back to a little chronology in this series.  Idea – proposal – agent…what happens next is (a) some editor or editors at major houses cannot resist the idea, bid on it, and leave one with a choice:  who (and why).  And even if no auction occurs to propel one (me, oh why not me?) to riches beyond the dreams of avarice, there is still some choice to be made — to whom to send a given proposal.

The reason that’s important is because of what comes after that brief moment when a writer has some kind of a choice, and has to get on with producing the book.

That means, working with an editor.  This post is about the how I’ve tried to match myself up with those who’ve taken me on.  It’s also about what your editor can and cannot do for your book as it moves through the production process, to the point (now) when it is almost out the door.

The most important thing is to remember that a good editor is a writer’s absolute best friend, despite — because of — the pain that can follow when someone who will not compromise tells you that your copy isn’t there yet.  Those writers who’ve felt they’ve grown past editing (and I’ve known, and read, a few) are like those lawyers who choose to represent themselves in court.

So what makes a good editor?  First, most, but not exclusively, it’s how they read, respond and think.  At least for me, the one thing any editor has to do is read my work, understand its engines, and be able to tell me clearly where problems lie and what the nature of those flaws may be.  They don’t have to tell me how to fix each issue (though good advice is always welcome).  But they can’t let dead spots, confusion, lapses of any sort go by.

Which means that I need people who are actual  editors, those who will give my mss. the kind of close reading and analysis that takes a couple of weeks, at least, of sustained attention.  I’ve been, by design, fortunate enough to have such editors for each of my four books to date — working with Rick Kot  on Ice Time:  Climate, Science and Life on Earth (now, sadly, out of print, to be revived soon in in PDF form); Becky Saletan on Measure for Measure for Simon and Schuster; the legendary Ann Harris of Bantam on my third, Einstein in Berlin;and then Becky again — that glutton for punishment, on Newton and the Counterfeiter, for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


This and That: (Summer blogging edition)

July 14, 2008

1. License plate observed on my way into my writing Starbucks this morning:


How’d that guy get my tag?

Image:  Lord Stanhope’s Printing Press, in T. Antisell, Hand-book of The Useful Arts, 1852.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

I’m Baaack…with a little treat from the road: Unified Theory of Music edition

June 30, 2008

Real blogging on science, civic life and all the serious stuff to start almost immediately, but while my vacation hangover persists, one treat passed on to me by Travis, the 16 year old son of a dear old friend of mine (and a friend himself, now, as he has clearly reached the age of reason…heh.)

It seems that all known post-Baroque music, with the possible exception of settings of Vogon poetry, can be traced back to a single, well known Manchurian candidate of a ditty. See the proof of this subset of a Theory of Everything for yourself:

My informant, Travis, tells me that there are music videos for all fourteen songs referenced above. Consider it a challenge to run them down. (To be fair: one of the fourteen is a setting of the song against found images, not a true, music video.)

Just to get you started, here’s one:

Consider this an announcement of the return of Inverse Square.