November, 2009

Nov 09

Defenders of the Faith, by James Reston, Jr.

Fantastic book; loved all of it. It’s a history about the early 1500s, when Charles V and Clement VII and Henry VIII and Francis I dominated the European landscape, and Suleyman the Magnificent ruled in the East. Reston’s done a fantastic job weaving together geographically dispersed but thematically very related activities, and I found it riveting.

And, actually, the best of the 5 books he considers a cycle looking at the conflict between Christianity and Islam (and eventually between Christianity and science). It started with The Last Apocalypse, about the time period around 1000 AD, then the 3rd Crusade (Warriors of God), continued by looking at the Christian conquest of Spain (Dogs of War), through Defenders of the Faith, and concluding with Galileo: A Life.

At least Reston includes Galileo in his conception of the cycle — I found it quite different in character than the other 4.

But all 5 books are highly recommended — among my favorite histories.

Nov 09


I’ve wanted to visit Rome for a long time — since high school when I learned about it in Mr. Thompson’s Latin class, really. But I’d never been — there aren’t a ton of reasons to get there for work, and I’d never been on holiday either.

But a couple of weeks ago, I got a chance to go for a few days of vacation there, prior to a visit to our Paris office and attending the Monaco Media Forum. Thanks to my mom being kind enough to visit, Kathy was able to go as well, so we got to spend a fantastic 4 days together exploring Rome.

I have a lot of different reactions to Rome — but the main one is that it feels like 4 or 5 different, distinct cities that all happen to be located in the same place. There’s Ancient Rome, of course, and Catholic Rome (and the Vatican) — and Renaissance Rome (including the home of the Medicis) and modern, International Rome. These are all related to each other, naturally (for example, the Popes underwrote much of the Renaissance work) — but just felt really distinct to me — a little more than I expected. (There are also some interesting monuments to Italian nationalism built earlier in the 20th century, celebrating people like Vittorio Emmanuel II, first king of a united Italy.)

In some parts of Rome, the various periods collide in interesting ways — the Pantheon, for example, has functioned more or less continuously since being built by Agrippa in the first century BC (and then rebuilt in the 2nd century AD) — it’s now a Catholic church, but also is where Vittorio Emmanuel is buried, not to mention Raphael — and is of course, despite being nearly 2,000 years old, the largest concrete dome in the world.

I found the Pantheon to be incredible — there’s something about the proportions of the building that make it feel incredibly stable — there’s a rightness to it that’s incredibly compelling. (I think the iconic status of the place plays into that, but it’s not just that.)

And the Roman Forum and the structures of the emperors on the Palatine hill were amazing, of course. There’s something about being able to walk through the forum, to walk through Domus Augustana (the villa that the Flavians built), and just try to imagine what it looked like, what it felt like, how life must have been. I’d always heard the aphorism: “Augustus found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble,” but not really internalized what that meant — as you walk around the Palatine & the Forum, you get a sense — many of the buildings have small holes in them — where the metal hooks had been that had previously held the marble facing for buildings (and that metal was eventually melted down to make ammunition, centuries later, naturally).

The permanence of the ancient buildings is astounding, and — especially taken with the incredible Colosseum, and the remnants of the aqueducts nearby — really hammers home the point that this civilization, for all its obvious faults, really knew what it was doing. Their level of building, planning, administration, and just general control of civic life was unprecedented, and incredible.

Of course, the next question you’re faced with is this: what the hell happened? We know, of course, with hindsight that what happened was invaders from the North, and the middle/dark ages, and the plague, and a shift of power to Constantinople in the East. But, really, it took a thousand years after the fall of Rome to start to approach the level of competence of the Romans again.

What a remarkable thing. I think most of us think of history as a more or less one direction proposition: progress. (We can debate for a while whether, you know, tending to virtual fish & farms is, strictly speaking, but you know what I mean.) And maybe the progress is of a technological sort, or maybe it’s geographic, moving from civilization to civilization.

But you never think the whole world (give or take) will take a gigantic, centuries-long, step backwards. We all read about it in school, of course, and understand it intellectually, but being there, seeing it and thinking about it just left me breathless.

Anyway. Fantastic trip; hope to get back to see more than just Rome, and spend more time in the city itself, too. Will hold onto my camera better next time, too.

I’ve put up a set of pictures of Rome, plus out the window from my hotel room in Monte Carlo, up on Flickr. (Taken with our smaller Lumix LX-3 camera, which is fantastic.)

Nov 09

Zeo Thoughts

Lilly Sleep Chart

As I blogged a bit ago, I recently picked up a Zeo — it’s a sleep monitor for tracking states of sleep each night. Ive always had trouble sleeping and so have a bit of a fascination with understanding sleep and how it affects me personally.

After about 30 days, I’ve decided to return it, because I have suspicions that the data collection isn’t very accurate. I woke up several times each night — times that I was alert enough to get out of bed, walk to the bathroom and back, and then eventually go back to sleep — but the Zeo didn’t seem to register those periods of wakefulness. There are some disclaimers that it doesn’t trigger for periods of less than 2 minutes, which I understand, but these were more than that. The waking periods aren’t such a big deal — obviously I don’t really need to track them since I’m awake & alert enough to manually note them. But the fact that the unit wasn’t tracking them correctly made me feel like the rest of the data was suspect as well.

So I sent it back today — I’m really disappointed. I’m optimistic, though, about both the Zeo company and the future of sleep sensors (and really a huge variety of biometric sensors). The product design and execution of the unit were both outstanding, and the way it integrates with an online coaching system is excellent. (The chart above is actually a chart I generated myself in Numbers with the CSV export of my sleep data.)

I loved the product, loved the way it made me mindful of sleep patterns & factors that affect it — just didn’t trust the data, ultimately, so felt sort of silly to keep it.

Nov 09

Jennifer Government, by Max Barry

A fun, quick read — sort of science fiction but could be present day — an alternate reality where we’re all super-associated with where we work (taking as last names the name of the company), everything is super-privatized and corporate.

Nov 09

Eating the Dinosaur, by Chuck Klosterman

I really love reading Klosterman’s essays, and this is a great collection, as always. Includes essays on:

  • the similarities between David Koresh & Kurt Cobain
  • the impossibility (and merits) of time travel — only real reason to do it is if you want to have dinosaur for dinner)
  • the way the public reacts to high profile failures like Ralph Samson
  • a polemic against laugh tracks
  • and then lots of stuff about Abba, as per normal for Klosterman

Great, fun, smart book, and insightful about our modern media culture.