Thursday, October 23, 2008

738: What do you do with Red China?

The Arcanum : The Extraordinary True Story covers an interesting period in the Age of Reason. An "arcanum" is an alchemy term for a secret formula, and virtually all of Europe's finest minds were obsessed with discovering the ultimate arcanum: a philosopher's stone, which could transmute base metals to gold.

Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, was the patron of the alchemist Johann Bottger who had rashly promised he could create gold. Bottger became a prisoner for the rest of his life, seeking to deliver the philosopher's stone he had promised. He never succeeded, and, as the king's patience ran out, he frantically sought ways to save his reputation, and very likely his life. His salvation came when he met another alchemist who had been working on the problem of porcelain.

China held the secret of making porcelain, and all of Europe was obsessed with owning it. Augustus owned an immense collection, and was always buying more, at an incredible price. Accordingly, the kings were eager to discover the secret of making porcelain. The one who succeeded would have a monopoly on European porcelain, which would bring great prestige and, of course, wealth.

Bottger succeeded where all others had failed. At first, all he could create was a red stoneware that was beautiful and unique, but it was not truly porcelain. But Bottger persisted, literally for the rest of his life, and ultimately succeeded in independently recreating the formula the Chinese used to create the translucent white so valued by European nobility.

My one complaint is that the book could have used some illustrations or better yet color photos of some of the porcelain pieces being described. But a fun read, and another look at the staggering wealth and extravagance of the royalty of Europe.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

355: Goats

I took a break from The Black Swan to read The Men Who Stare At Goats. A great read, which manages to be both hilarious and disturbing, and difficult to put down.

The book investigates stories of military research to develop a new type of "psychic warrior" who were capable of various supernatural feats. The title comes from a persistent rumor that one of these men demonstrated the ability to kill a goat by simply looking at it.

In trying to verify this story, the author meets with psychics, Special Forces operatives, and martial artists. His story takes him from Special Forces training to detainee interrogations at Gitmo, and even into the CIA MK-ULTRA experiments with LSD and mind control.

A highly entertaining account and a fascinating look into the world of secret military research.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

973: Wreckage

In The wrecking crew : how conservatives rule, Thomas Frank examines the new conservative movement that has risen to dominance in the Republican party over the last forty years.

Frank's thesis is simple: the new conservatives despise government, and seek to destroy it. They see themselves as outsiders, as rebels, as, dare I say it, mavericks. John McCain's position that he is running against the government in which he serves is nothing new.

Accordingly, when they gain control of government, they wreck it. They appoint industry insiders to regulatory groups and systematically drive out any civil servants that disagree with their beliefs. They deregulate and let businesses runs wild. And when it all comes crashing down, when businesses fail and must be bailed out, and rampant corruption sends politicians to jail, the conservatives see it as vindication. "See! We told you! Government just doesn't work! Look at how it corrupts everyone who goes there!"

The book is extremely well written. Frank admirably succeeds at keeping the tone positive and fun. He clearly disagrees with the conservative movement he is blasting, but he avoids turning the book into a vitriolic screed.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Completed Titles

Thursday, September 18, 2008

818: Braaaaaaaaains!

Of course, zombies do not really say that, as Max Brooks explains in The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead. This is just one of the many Hollywood myths that he debunks in his tactical manual to surviving a zombie outbreak.

The book is a very handy size 8"x5" size, and weighs only 10.7 oz. It will fit nicely into a backpack, or a pocket on your scavenged army surplus fatigues. Inside, this text is packed with down-to-earth, battle-tested zombie fighting advice with some simple but effective illustrations.

This is a book about surviving the outbreak, plain and simple. Not fighting the outbreak, not controlling the zombies, but keeping yourself safe. All of his advice follows a simple plan: avoid attention, fight quietly and effectively, and get away fast.

Overall, this is a very good introduction to the dangers of a zombie-infested world, and belongs on the shelf of every survivalist. His section on underwater zombie eradication is fantastic, and contains information I have never seen published before.