Roy's Foggy Avenues

Up and Down the Foggy Avenues of my mind.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Books Completed, June 2007

Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages. by Douglas Macdougall (California UP, 2004)

The Seashell on the Mountaintop: How Nicolaus Steno solved an Ancient Mystery and Created a Science of the Earth. by Alan Cutler (Plume {penguin}, 2004)

An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power. by John Steele Gordon (Harper, 2004)

Disgrace. by J. M. Coetzee (Viking, 1999)

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials, Book I. by Philip Pullman (Knopf, 1996)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Books Completed: May 2007

Rude Mechanicals. by Kage Baker (Subterranean Press, 2007)

After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. by E. C. Pielou (University of Chicago, 1991)

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. by Robert Sullivan (Bloomsbury, 2004)

The Demon And The City: A Detective Inspector Chen Novel. by Liz Williams (Nightshade Books, 2006)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Book completed in April 2007

Snake Agent. by Liz Williams (Night Shade Books, 2006)

I only managed one book last month, but it was a pretty darn good one. Snake Agent, is a very solid fantasy hardboiled detective that in feeling is quite reminiscent of George Alec Effinger's Budayeen series, But based in traditional Chinese religion rather than a Third World North Africa of the future. The plotting was good and their was more depth to the characters than I would have expected. The hero's wife, a classic Japanese fox demon, is much more developed than I expected.

I must admit to being a sucker for the genre though, even though this is one of the first examples I have come across. I am a huge fan of Chinese supernatural stories such as those of Pu Song-ling. If you haven't read any I highly recommend you give it a try. As to editions their are quite a few and some of the weirdest stories get left out of many translations. My favorite edition is this rather tacky edition from Beijing Foreign Language Press. There is a new Penguin Classics abridged edition edited by John Minford which Amazon fails to list under Pu, which is rather criminal, would they list the author of Crime and Punishment as Constance Garnett?

[Edit May 2, 2007. Apparently Amazon has a way of updating product details, and they took my suggestion and corrected the author, as messy as the net is, it is nice to see how it can be so easily corrected sometimes.]

Saturday, April 28, 2007


In the introduction to his photobiography of Marilyn Monroe, Norman Mailer (1973) coined the term "factoid." A factoid is a speculation or guess that has been repeated so often that it is eventually taken for hard fact. Factoids have a particularly insidious quality - and one that is spectacularly unbiological - in that they tend to get stronger the longer they live. Unlike "facts," factoids are difficult to evaluate because, although they often begin as well-intended hypotheses and tentative clarifications, they become received wisdom by dint of repetition by authorities.

From Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations. by Norman Yoffee (Cambridge, 2005) pp. 7-8

Interestingly enough Merriam Webster defines factoid as:
1 : an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print
2 : a briefly stated and usually trivial fact

It is probably due to educational television and "light" new media that the latter definition seems to have superseded the former, and while the latter is one of the chief mechanisms of the process by which a factoid is promoted, in the former sense of course. The utility of this word to mean a false fact that is believed through repetition is probably at an end.

We need a new word.

As an aside it would be good, for aesthetic purposes at least, to have a new word that is not attributable to the author of Armies of the Night, or the genre of photobiographys.

Friday, April 27, 2007

On Equilibrium in Ecological history

The slow response of vegetation to climate change has interesting implications. If climate changes continuously, as it appears to, the vegetation may never succeed in catching with it. In the words of Margret Davis, plant (and also animal) communities are "in disequilibrium, continually adjusting to climate and continually lagging behind and failing to adjust to equilibrium before the onset of a new climactic trend."

This opinion is not universal. The opposing point of view has been advanced by H. E. Wright, Jr., another leader in the field of Quarternary paleoecology. He assumes that vegetation and climate are at present in equilibrium and describes ancient communities that had what appear (to us) to be mismatched mixtures of species as "disharmonious." The implication is that modern mixtures are harmonious. The argument in favor of this view is that climate changes in stepwise fashion and the last step was taken a long time ago; therefore, because the climate has not changed appreciably for a long time, vegetation has by now had time to come into equilibrium with it.

There is a wealth of evidence, however, showing that climactic change is never ending. Even if major climactic "steps" are comparatively quick, it is almost certain that the climate in the intervals between steps undergoes continual lesser changes. In the light of present knowledge, therefore, Davis's view, that disequilibrium in ecological communities is much commoner than equilibrium, is the more acceptable.

It should lead, in time, to a much needed change in popular thought. The notion espoused by so many nonprofessional ecologists-that the living world is "marvelously" and "delicately" attuned to its environment-is not so much a scientifically reasonable theory as a mystically satisfying dogma. Its abandonment might lead to a useful fresh start in environmental politics.

From After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. By E. C. Pielou (University of Chicago, 1991) pp. 100-101

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ecological Inertia

Except for the earliest plant pioneers in newly deglaciated land, all later arrivals, if they were to success, had to take possession of ground already vegetated. They had to get started in gaps in the existing vegetation. But gaps would have been uncommon, and such gaps as there were would have received far more seeds from whatever plants happened to be abundant in the neighborhood than from the few, isolated specimens forming the vanguard of an invading species. This would have been true even if the climate were slowly becoming less suitable for the established vegetation and more suitable for the invaders. Hence the lag in vegetation change; once a plant species is abundant in a particular area, it can usually hang on there for a long time in spite of the climate's gradually becoming less suitable for it. Many plants have an astonishing ability to persist in unfavorable habitats. The old adage "possession is nine points of the law" sums the matter up.

From After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. By E. C. Pielou (University of Chicago, 1991) p. 99

This incumbency effect is very pronounced in all kinds of places in ecology, and even in society. If you are already there you don't have to be as efficient or as effective in order to compete, because you have the advantage of already being there. It is not just in politics either, what else explains the continued existence of General Motors?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Migration of Vegetation during Ice Ages

Most People are familiar with maps of the major vegetation types of North America, showing a strip of tundra in the far north, a strip of coniferous forest immediately south of the tundra, and so on. It is easy to envisage similar maps showing the vegetation zones as they must have been at different times in the past, when great ice sheets covered much of the north. And it is not so difficult to visualize a motion picture version, with the zones creeping southward as the ice sheets grew and then creeping northward again when the climate warmed and the ice sheets slowly melted. It is so easy to visualize such scenarios that one is apt to forget that the southward shift of the vegetation zones as the ice expanded, and their northward shift as the ice contracted, were radically different phenomena. Obviously, vegetation does not "creep" in the way that strips of color on a motion picture map do; likewise plants cannot "migrate" or "advance" or "retreat" in the way animals can. To use these words in connection with plants is to speak in metaphors that may be useful as shorthand but are apt to disguise the true nature of what they represent.

The responses of vegetation to growing ice sheets on the one hand, and to shrinking ice sheets on the other, were entirely different. When an ice sheet expanded on of two things happened, depending on the cause of the expansion. If the ice spread because of climactic cooling, then the cooling would also have affected the vegetation ahead of the ice front. The less hardy plants gradually died off, and permafrost (perennially frozen ground...) formed, seriously inhibiting the growth of trees. In other words, a strip of tundra would have developed or, if one was already there, it would have widened, ahead of the ice. But if surging ice lobes caused the expansion, full grown forests would have been overrun by the ice, which crushed and buried them.

In either case, plants did not and do not "migrate." What does migrate is only an abstraction, a line on a map representing the margin of a vegetation zone. The plants themselves die.

From After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. By E. C. Pielou (University of Chicago, 1991) pp. 81-82

Saturday, April 21, 2007

On "Normal weather"

It should now be clear that the physical environment of northern North America has changed dramatically in the past 20,000 years. This environment was (and still is) a complicated and intricate system, powered by the sun and land, ice, freshwater, salt water, and atmosphere as its components. Even if it were lifeless, it would still be dynamic; the components would interact with one another. One of the most interesting aspects of this never ending change from the ecological point of view is that, over the time interval we are considering (and probably for the whole of the earth’s history), physical conditions on this continent (and everywhere else) have never repeated themselves.

At no time has there been a return to “things as they were.” It is true that there must have been times when average temperatures were similar to those at present. Thus, before the beginning and after the end of the warmer-than-now hypsithermal interval, the average annual temperature must, for a while, have been much the same as now. But in other respects, conditions would have been radically different, as there were still extensive ice sheets that would have cooled their immediate neighborhoods, and sea level was still about twenty-five meters lower than at present. Nor is it reasonable to assume that conditions on the ice sheets were the same as those in Greenland and Antarctica today. The North American ice sheets were at a much lower latitude; they did not experience months of winter darkness, and the altitude of the midday sun in summer was much greater.

From After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. By E. C. Pielou (University of Chicago, 1991) pp. 29-30

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Books completed March 2007

Beasts of Eden: Walking Whales, Dawn Horses, and other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution. by David Rains Wallace (University of California, 2004)

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. by John M. Barry (Touchstone [Simon & Schuster], 1998)

The Corner That Held Them. by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Virago [Little Brown & Co. {UK}], 2000)

The Road. by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2006)

Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West. by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2006)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Books Completed February 2007

A Princess of Roumania. by Paul Park (Tor, 2005)

Gods and Pawns. by Kage Baker (Tor, 2007)

Tourmaline. by Paul Park (Tor, 2006)

White Tyger. by Paul Park (Tor, 2007)

Off Armageddon Reef. by David Weber (Tor, 2007)

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame. by Mark Monmonier (Chicago, 2006)