Book Review: Venice: A New History

First of all this history book is a great supplement or even replacement for many highschool text books. Since it covers a tremendous amount of history and events, beyond just the city of Venice, it can be used as a good overview of power struggles and economic development in Europe from medieval days right up to our time.

This book's greatest strength is to provide context for events we're kind of familiar with but didn't really know how they are all connected. We typically see Venice as a place with a great flair for the theatrical, but how did that come to be? We also know Venice as an important sea port, but how did it fit in with all the other famous harbours?

Although I think this particular book does a better job of teaching history than other history books, I do believe it suffers from the same ailment many other such books suffer from. That defect is not keeping the reader informed as to where we are in time. Certainly times and dates are mentioned but the author will easily take a long diversion into a previous era without explaining how things are connected or even where the current discussion is situated.

The overarching feeling reading this book is that as a reader you're constantly wondering: "ok so where are we right now?" A side effect of this back-and-forth jumping is that you can't decide how to look at the time period currently being discussed. If I need to understand how an event in the 18th century relates to something that happened in the 17th century, then you would at a minimum expect sentences that start with: "Unlike in the 18th century, in the 17th century there were ...". Any linking text or dialog is completely missing here, which is the main reason I gave it 4 stars instead of 5.

Book Review: Vurt

How abstract are you willing to go? If you're not scared of a little meta then this book is for you. This book takes an LSD trip and combines it with an ever lasting Virtual reality trip. Drugs are administered through feathers, which you almost swallow. That's pretty much the most concrete one can get describing the contents of this novel.

The plot revolves around a writer (Scribble) who loses his sister in an out of control virtual reality drug trip. In exchange he ends up with a being from that reality. In the rest of the book the main character tries to rescue his sister by trading back the alien for his sister. Reading this feels like being chased by sensory overload, as if that could be a monster hunting you.

Vurt is often compared to works by William Gibson, but unlike Gibson Jeff Noon actually provides assistance here and there to help you understand the maddening world of the protagonist. It takes effort reading this novel but it's worth it. Once you get used to the language, the character confusions and the reality stretching world descriptions, you're in for quite a trip.

If you can get a hold of a library edition then try that first, although the book is good, it's definitely an acquired taste.

Book Review: The Library Book

I was so eager to read this. I mean it's a book about libraries for crying out loud, or rather the going up in flames of one big one. Let me get right to the point: I don't care about the author's personal life or involvement. It seems to be a trend these days that if you're writing a non-fiction book you can secretly make it about yourself instead. I'm sure the author did her research and I'm sure all the facts are there and are complete and I'm sure her conclusions about the alleged arsonist all make sense, but I never felt like I was ever inside the Los Angeles Public Library. That's ironic because I've been there and I didn't feel remotely that the book described my experience.

Let's talk about some details about the building that are sure fire giveaways that this book has too much misplaced descriptions and too many distorted observations. If you've ever been to that building and you've done any kind of walking around you will notice some very unique aspects. For example, I found that in the men's room none of the stalls had doors. You would think that might be noteworthy. The author describes how the old part of the library is connected to the new one via escalators. Anyone who has every taken those is intimidated, not delighted. Striking a metaphor by calling it a waterfall is a gross misrepresentation of what it's like and indicative of a writing style that tries to polish and burnish real life as if it's a fairy tale.

Every person the author meets is wonderful and lovely and entirely positive, even the mean and nasty ones. Other reviewers have also noticed this and describe the book as overly cloying. I couldn't agree more. Ironically, every time the author gets close to describing a real person it cuts off, which is where I got interested and ultimately lost faith in this book altogether.

The antagonist is such a typical Los Angeles flake that anyone in that city could point out hundreds more like him and I kept wondering how many more of his ilk were in the library the day it went up in flames. Any of them were more likely to be the culprit. You can tell that the author is desperately trying to squeeze interest out of a person who was completely uninteresting.

Book Review: Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh

I'm writing this review with mixed feelings, not because I can't make up my mind if this book is good or not, it is in fact quite good. Instead the contents of this work of descriptive history needs to be evaluated against modern approaches to teaching history. I'm going to try to explain what I mean by that.

When you're writing a novel you want to begin with a bang, you want to make the reader interested. It's a modern approach to fiction writing we can trace back to Goethe and his short novel: The Suffering of Young Werther. That novel starts with: I'm so glad I don't ever have to be here again. It puts you right in the scene and sets up the mood of everything that follows. Later on novelists and especially screenwriters have picked this up and refined it to an art. E.g. if you can't engage a movie audience in the first 10 minutes you've lost them.

In this book about Sir Walter Ralegh, by Anna Beer, the same approach is used. We immediately learn in graphic detail how the protagonist meets his ending. So the question is: does the effect of starting with a bang work for non-fiction as well? I think it does, even though I don't like that it does. Chances are I'm too old and set in my ways to appreciate what this format can do for learning about historical facts, but it felt too forced, too on the nose. It does work though, it does get you engaged and connected to a human being who lived a very long time ago in a period where daily life was a lot more brutal to say the least.

Ironically the author goes against the 'novel' approach of the book by adding lots of detail that gets in the way and doesn't add to our knowledge of who this person Ralegh was. This could easily have been fixed by using footnotes and end notes. Providing a listing of names who were involved in certain event in Ralegh's life, although historically relevant, gets in the way of following the narrative. At some point you simply read over it because trying to remember all those names simply doesn't work and doesn't help.

Overall I appreciated the human aspects and approach. This otherwise abstract from long ago became a crisp clear individual in my mind. As such I think some of the extrapolations and interpretations the author makes are fully warranted. More so because they are noted and indicated.

We're living in an age where the skill of writing is applied to otherwise dry subjects like history. I wish all high school history books were written in the same style and manner as this biography.

Book Review: The Relic Master

Master Dismas is a relic trader, an honest one, or so he thinks. Because of one small misstep, instigated by his close friend Albrecht (Nars) Durher, his life spins out of control. Such is the basic premise of The Relic Master without giving away much else of the plot.

There are two completely different sides to this inventive novel by Christopher Buckley. The first one is that this is a carefully plotted romp through the renaissance full of colorful and outlandish characters we shouldn't take that seriously. The other perspective you can take is that this is a well developed critique of the Catholic Church and its practices in placed in the proper context and time. If this book were just a good yarn nobody would go to the deeper side of its telling. However, there is an aroma of something more, something more elaborate and well crafted. Some other reviewers have hinted to this duality in the novel but have used it against it, not altogether unjustly. The novel sometimes reads like an Umberto Eco work written by Dan Brown and Christopher Moore.

Throughout the novel such an enormous amount of historical detail is given that you can't help but wonder how the author meant the book to be read. Why so much research for a novel which is at it's core a medieval adventure about abbots and tarts. You're left with wondering what it would have been like if the language had been more in line with the historical dignity. Not that high language is always appropriate for an historical adventure, but this felt almost like a long joke or a detailed attempt and historically accurate toilet humor.

Having said that I enjoyed the novel tremendously having learned more from this work than many learned textbooks about the same period.

Stop Pulling the Car before the Goat!

If you've gotten this far you're probably wondering about my sanity, scratching your head about my command of the English language or you're questioning my ability to construct coherent sentences. It's worse than that: I can't construct coherent homework answers and neither can you. It's not your fault, it's not even the fault of our teachers and professors. It is an inherent flaw in how we think and process narratives that makes most coursework more like a class in cryptography.

Here is what I've learned so far. About 20 years ago during my very first programming class I asked the professor this:

  "The assignment says I need to use a Boolean. What is a boolean?"

His answer, which for me has been the paragon of bad teaching, was:

  "A boolean is something that can be true or false".

Although conceptually correct the answer was more than useless. It was confusing and as the very first encounter with a conceptual programming term could have easily lead to a dark path of misunderstanding or worse: not enjoying computer science. I call this type of miscommunication: Answering a 'what' question with a 'why' answer. How this works exactly and what can be done about it I will explain further on. But first some more real-life experiences.

Most bad teaching can be explained by bad student information processing. Bet you didn't expect that as an excuse. It is true, we generally process information in a very inefficient way, something which has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. In fact I hope to change your mind about what intelligence is.

Entry exams and tests for every school are based on IQ in some form or another. No matter what the vendors of GRE study guides tell you, if you have a higher IQ you will do better on the tests. But that doesn't help you because you can't say: well then in that case I will need to get a better IQ. Think of the process of going through college or graduate school as any other profession for which you need a selection of skills to perform well. If you're a plumber skills in algebra won't help you. Similarly skills in algebra won't help you when you've got turds floating down your bathroom. So you need to discover which skills you have and which skills you need. The answer isn't as straightforward as: 'I just need more math'. The answer: 'I can't do this because I'm not good at math', also doesn't work.

There are many skills that can help you through school you can learn or acquire by putting work behind them: 'patience', 'perseverance', 'caffeine tolerance', etc. But there are two skills that you will need to start thinking about in a different way: imagination and literal thinking. Ironically you need the opposite of these. The best academics, you know those guys who breeze through a test where every question is conceptual and none of the memorized information applies, those guys are non-literal thinkers with no imagination.

You would think that a good or even over active imagination helps you in academia because it allows you to think outside the box. All that lateral thinking business you hear about. A great imagination does the opposite, it makes you think of all kinds of possible representations of the answer to a question (and even the question itself), most of which are so far from the truth that you might as well ask your imaginary friend to help you. In other words, you're spending your energy reconstructing a badly posed question instead of trying to answer it.

How about being a good literal thinker? The stuff mathematicians are made of. You would think this is the best skill to have in the sciences because such folks are not easily put astray by confusing information or non-relevant details. To mathematicians there is ever only one answer to a question, literally. Mathematicians are actually not so much literal thinkers. They are concret thinkers who appear to take things literally. Engineers such as programmers are extremely literal thinkers and I've noticed that most of them have severe problems with higher math. Myself included.

Instead you want to cultivate the opposite skills. During class or when doing homework you want to stop imaging what the answers might be or what they could look like as well as stop thinking literally. Easier said than done, right? If you're like me, an eternal skeptic, then your first reaction when you don't understand a question will be: 'well then the information in the question must be wrong'. Unfortunately in college and graduate school that can happen quite often. On top of that the average teacher are trained to counter the cultivation of non-literal thinkers with no imagination. Most teachers are very very good at their respective fields but very poor at constructing coherent narratives. I would like to share a recent experience with such a confusing discourse. In my final project for a course (which I failed because of the project) the following was tacked at the bottom:


Although the text as-is was completely correct in the appropriate context, the information given is highly confusing. In the first sentence it is suggested to use a different scale than in the second sentence. The two sentences apply to different parts of the project but that's not clear from the text. The example above is from a project given by an extremely competent and understanding professor but unfortunately the course materials and slides were filled with such cases and for someone who has an overactive imagination and who thinks literally it is like going through a mine field with skis on. All you do is figure out what is being said and asked.

So what can we do? We can declare war on confusion and egg salad. Well not the egg salad, that's just a personal grudge. I bet that confused you a bit, but you figured out that I was saying something out of context. Now we're making progress, we're seeing that we can 'decode' unnecessary messages. But in order to do that we have to understand where the lecturer is coming from. Most of them suffer from expert blind spot. They can't explain basic ideas from their field because they've been using them for so long. Very much like the first example about the professor explaining what a boolean is. How can we detect expert blind spots and what kinds of grenades can we use to attack these situations?

Below are few types of well meaning but misleading answers you might get from professors.

  • Answering a 'what' question with a 'why' answer

Back to our boolean question. If I want to explain what water is then a seasoned alchemy professor, uhm I mean chemistry, professor would tell you it is H2O. Correct, but again useless. The given answer tells us that there is a molecule name which differentiates water from other chemical compounds. In other words: it's a why answer. It tells us why water is different from let's say Silicon Dioxide SiO2 (sand).

Although idiotic, explaining that water is stuff that is like sand but is blue, feels cold, and slippery is more helpful. Why? First of all it bypasses the imagination because it is specifically stated what your mind should be seeing. It also helps the non-literal thinker because we're not talking about an animal or plant. The downside? Which teacher ever would give such an answer that made them look like an idiot?

How can we apply this to the boolean answer? What if I told you this: The sotware we write has to make lots of decisions. For example in a video game the player enters a key into a lock to try to open the door. The software in the game decides that the door won't open because it is the wrong key. This is where booleans are very useful. Software applications use booleans to do housekeeping or tracking, it answers the multiple choice question: is the key the right key: a) true or b) false?. It notes down in it's memory: 'false'. When it then goes to try to open the door it sees that the answer to the multiple choice question was 'false' and it won't open the door. The answer for non-imaginitive non-literal thinkers is: a boolean is the answer to a multiple choice question where the answer is one of 'true' or 'false'.

Did that help? I hope so but for this imaginative literal thinker it's hard to come up with good examples. Luckily I don't teach. But we go on, there is more.

  • Answering a 'why' question with a 'what' answer

You see this type of answer confusion a lot with people who are teaching conceptual courses but who are not themselves conceptual thinkers. I have the most sympathy for people who teach like this because chances are they had to work very hard for their position and are proud that they are allowed to teach the complicated material. Here's an example:

Question: Why does the earth revolve around the sun?
 Answer: The earth goes around the sun in an orbit, very much like the moon orbits the earth.

It is an answer but it tells us what the earth does, not why.

  • Answering a 'what' question with a 'yes' or 'no' answer

Although rare, this type of miscommunication and confusion tends to happen on crucial questions and usually on questions where you are explaining your reasoning to a professor to figure out where your train of thought went wrong. The response is almost always well meant but mostly confirms your incorrect but elaborately constructed fantasy of the best fitting answer. You end up with the professor inadvertently confirming your misconception. It is these types of miscommunication that builds the foundation for a bad start of a course. Once a misconception sets hold it is very difficult to undo and will take a tremendous amount of time to compare and contrast to contradicting information.

  • Answer a question by repeating the previous answer

This is probably the most common unanswer and is used by professors who have absolute confidence in the clarity of their own thinking and teaching. This is perhaps a classic example you might have even heard in physics class:

Question: Why do we have tides?
Answer: We have tides because of the proximity of the moon to our oceans

Question: But how does that influence tides?
Answer: Because the moon directly influences the water in the oceans (duh)

The professor in this case assumes you already know the answer but probably weren't paying attention to his previous stellar blackboard performance. Or even worse and more likely: the person in front of the class has no capability whatsoever to assume the body of knowledge of the people in the classroom. The reasoning behind the answer goes something like this:

Everyone knows what the moon is and everyone knows what gravity is. Everyone knows the earth and the moon have gravity and gravity pulls at like everything, so all I have to say is that the moon is close to the earth and the rest is obvious.

What is left out here are all the other possible explanations we make up for ourselves all of which are equally likely. Yes some of those are probably quite bizarre, especially if you are a literal thinker with an overactive imagination but they are valid explanations and that is the important point. They are not correct explanations but they are valid. They are valid because you constructed them yourself using the information you had. Let me say that again:

Just like there are no stupid questions there are also no stupid extravagant imaginings of possible answers.

There I've said it. The trick is to find enough time to selectively weed out all the explanations that couldn't
possibly apply. That's damn hard and it also takes a damn lot of time. Damn. But how about this teaching technique for good measure:

  • Answer a question by repeating the question

Probably the most common teaching mistake and the cause of non-learning. Here we go, you might find this hauntingly familiar:

Question: what is weight?
Answer: In science and engineering, the weight of an object is usually taken to be the force on the object due to gravity (taken from Wikipedia)

Question: I don't understand, can you please explain what weight is?
Answer: it is the definition that states the relation between an object and gravity.

Annoying isn't it? It sounds like an answer but it is the original question. There have been many cases where I wanted to give a professor a lecture in logic and rhetoric but that would have taken too much time and I'm not a good explainer. Besides people who teach rarely take their own medicine.

  • Withholding the answer

Now  you're dealing with someone who doesn't understand the materials either. You're not losing but you're not winning either because chances are you won't get a good answer no matter what you ask. All you can do is make your own questions very small and very concrete. You will be narrowing down the answer by weeding out all the things it can't possibly be. What you're left with has to be the answer.

  • Using more unfamiliar concepts in the answer than there were in the question

This happens a lot in fields that depend on specialized jargon, which is almost all fields these days. I've heard another student ask my boolean question years later and the answer she got was even worse:

"A boolean is an entity that can take on only the values true or false, which is usually modeled by a binary 0 or 1. But if you have to you can also model it with a string that is set to 'true' or 'false'. It just takes more calculation that way and will be slower if used in a tight loop"

Again the answer is correct, but this answer is even useless to seasoned programmers because the person is describing their hard earned experience not the answer to the question. This type of answer will be heard mostly from people who exclusively live in their own heads. Most of the question/answer disconnects are the cause of some kind of miscommunication but this one is exclusively the realm of: I did not hear what you think you meant you said.

  • Pronoun confusion

I only 'teach' during the summer and only interns who come to us from their third or final year in college. Most of them are computer science majors but no matter what their background is I see persistent pronoun confusion. Professors do this as well but enough bashing on them, what do we do wrong ourselves?

Once someone gets comfortable in an area of expertise (even just a little) the mental model becomes so strong and clear that it is difficult to assume that other people don't see the same thing. You will get descriptions like this:

"I just finished the code and patched the stuff we talked about. The other parts are working well now but it's not connecting properly not sure if it's my stuff or something else".

The immediate question should be: what does 'the' refer to, or 'my'? If you're in a direct conversion about details you're actively discussing then you might have some hope of tracking the pronouns but otherwise replace with actual objects or persons no matter how guilty.

An Academic Survival Guide for Daydreamers

What can you do when confronted by these situations? There is no straight answer. Sorry. It's a survival guide, not a winning guide. It is not like the guides they make for the GRE where they say things like: if you are stuck then first make a list and start eliminating the most obviously wrong answers. If you have a good imagination and are a literal thinker you will see every answer as possibly correct. What also doesn't help is to put yourself in the professor's shoes because then you will start to reason about what he or she was imagining when creating the questions.

I want to split the survival guide into two steps. First of all you need to visually separate what are questions in a statement in a homework or test and second you need to start thinking about the difference between 'what' and 'why'. Here is an example of such a question, which is trickier than it seems:

  Question: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3. What role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

I'm not going to assume you know the answer, quite frankly I've forgotten the jargon myself at this point. But there are some important confusion triggers we can detect. First of all these are actually two questions. In a homework or on an exam I now always re-write or annotate the question so that you can see it should have been:

  Question 1a: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3.
  Question 1b: What role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

I think it is reasonable for your imagination to see the second sentence as a guide on how to answer the first sentence. This is something I've done wrong for too long and only recently did I notice I was doing this. Here is how I would have read the question in the past:

Question: Describe the distinguishing properties of DG and CA3. Hint: what role is each region thought to play in memory formation?

See the difference? My brain was trying to make sense of the structure of first the question unrelated to its contents. No when I'm confronted by an exam question I do a first pass to find out how many questions there are in a question. THERE MIGHT BE MORE THAN ONE!

Part Two

Also note that we potentially have a 'what' and a 'why' question. The first question relies on memory. It uses the word 'describe'. Your imagination should not kick in. Whatever you do at all costs prevent your imagination from doing anything at all and simply regurgitate. This type of question is best answered by correctly replaying the memorized text you have stored in your head. Golden rule of test taking: if you can score points by memorizing text and diagrams: always always do so.

Question 1b is harder because it is most likely a 'why' question but it could be a 'what' question. You could answer the what question again by listing the facts you've memorized that pertain to both the term DG and the term CA3. Chances are you might get some points for that even though it might not be the dead on right answer. I go for this option mostly.

If we assume question b is a 'why' question we're in dangerous territory. It's begging for our imagination to kick in and construct elaborate theories on how the two are related. We are even able to construct completely wrong but wondeful explanations by using correct facts we memorized. Even if you know the conceptual model underlying the question.

The trigger word is: 'role'. You can, well I can, replace that word with a whole lot of other words and the sentence still makes sense. I could think it says:

Question 1b: What aspect is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What part is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What mechanism is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What construct is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What theory is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What force is each region thought to play in memory formation?
Question 1b: What destructive power is each region thought to play in memory formation?

This is of course a silly example but it does illustrate how the process works. By the time you're at destructive power you at least realized you didn't process the sentence properly. What goes wrong in our brain is that we put the wrong emphasis on the wrong part of the sentence. I put the emphasis on 'role', but the emphasis should be on 'memory formation'. Detecting this confusion is possible but finding the right interpretation is not so straight forward, not for me at least. However, once you know what the question means you can most likely answer it well and for most people who struggle with this interpretation problem the problem is not not having the necessary information.

I'm sure you're now itching to find out what you can do to solve these sticky issues. I'm afraid I don't have the answer. After more than 20 years of struggling, including starting and stopping various degrees, I'm no further now than I was back then, I can just describe the signs and signals better. I could blame let's say Dyslexia (which I don't have), or Central Processing Disoder (which I also don't have) or simply Bad Learner Syndrome (which I do have).

If I ever figure out how to approach this issues and become a non-imaginative non-literal thinker I will write a follow-up article. For now I'm going to lick my wounds and not care too much about my latest degree failure and have a beer.

Another episode of: this is not the same person

I'm getting much worse at keeping faces apart. If there are some similar facial features I will most likely think it's the same person. That can be quite emberassing as for example I was telling a friend I liked Going Postal regardless of the fact that Andy Serkis starred in it. With great surprised I had to learn that that wasn't Serkis in the lead, but the actor Richard Coyle. Once you know the difference it isn't difficult to tell them apart but it sure got me fooled. Seeing them next to each other you immediately focus on the differences and not on the similarities. Just as a reference, Andy Serkis on the left Richard Coyle on the right.


I had this problem before when I was convinced that actor Patrick Wymark was the same person as the actor Jay Garner. Actually I still have trouble keeping them apart. And their voices don't help because they even sound more alike than they look alike.


Now that you can see them side by side you can also see why the faces might be mistaken for each other if you only focus on the fact that some features are identical. Look at the eyebrows and nose of the two actors in the lower image, virtually identical. Now with older men it's always trickier because they tend to look more alike, but still.

Oh Moffat Come Off It

With almost as much anticipation as I am waiting for Prometheus was I waiting for season 2 of Sherlock, the much celebrated re-imagining of Conan Doyle's brainchild. With the first season safely behind him Steven Moffat barges ahead writing the second season. With disastrous results. If you haven't seen the first episode then please stop reading because I will have to go over some of the persnickety details to wrap up this disaster. Seriously, someone was murdered by a boomerang thrown from such a distance that it would have returned to whomever was stupid enough to use this weapon of mad destruction? If you want to kill someone with a boomerang you would have to hit someone over the head with it, something someone should have done with Moffat. I could go on about all the gaping plot holes but that's not the critical issue here.

Let's get to the important part of why this new first episode reeks of misplaced writing arrogance. Even the Irene Adler opposing Jeremy Brett in his immortal portrayal of Sherlock Holmes met her opponent as an equal. An equal in brains. No gender fight needed. Ironically Jeremy's nemesis was more of a feminist than the incarnation we now have before us, who uses misplaced sex and sex appeal in every scene and which manages to push back feminism by at least 50 years. Even the Irene Adler who seduces Robert Downey Jr didn't have to rely on this much innuendo or plain nudity.

Surely some will argue that the use of sex-appeal was used quite appropriately and that it was to prove a point about Holmes' non-interest in the subject matter. Is that really the message you're stuck with in your head though after you've seen the episode? Personally I felt left with the same old stereotypical woman-saving hero and damsel-in-distress who can't help but have feelings for the lead. Moffat cleverly uses Adler's nude entrance into Holmes' life by explaining it away as a method of preventing Holmes from obtaining any relevant information through one's attire. Really? Is that how we the audience are supposed to feel after that scene? Guys will enjoy the erotic entrance and women will bask in the knowledge that even an emotionally dead person such as Holmes can be changed by the physical elegance and appeal of a naked female body. Sorry but it's that simple. In one swoop it removes the two characters from center stage, who had the potential of being the most interesting leads in a long drought of BBC dramatic productions, and relegates them to the speaking parts of hopeful extras. All of a sudden Moriarty seems to be the most interesting character but he was only Mycroft's puppet it seems.

Speaking of the new leading character, how about Mycroft Holmes? Holmes's much smarter brother apparently took over the plot, the details, the characters, the twists and pretty much everything else Doyle knew not to mess with. Mycroft was interesting in the first season because he was this bumbling political genius who pops in now and then to assist and to bail his younger brother out of a bad situation. Instead we have a master criminal slash overlord who is everybody's better daddy. How about Holmes himself who refused to put on his clothes even at the seat of Britain's royal power. Holmes might be infantile and adolescent but he would definitely not be stupid enough to persist in that little game that doesn't gain him anything he cares about.

After countless scenes of "yes he figured it out, no she wasn't dead but she is and she isn't and they like each other but they don't and we won't know until later when we won't care anymore" we've arrived at the last scene. A scene which I seriously hope was a dream sequence and an actual depiction of events because that seriously puts the new Sherlock Holmes in the shoes of a contrived and poorly developed Indiana Jones.

Book Review: Domino

Normally I would start a book review with a brief synopsis of the story. Normally. When I have a good idea what the story is about or what the logical progression of events is. In this case I have no idea what's happening. Granted, the narrative is compelling, the descriptions of the period mesmerizing and spellbinding and the sense of reality is utterly sublime. In a nutshell, with many onion layers, digressions and diversions the story probably comes down to:

An old painter has an engaging conversation at a masked ball with a young gentleman who interrogates him about about the perambulations and ideally scandals of society and in particular the most famous castrati of the period. Now the painter becomes the narrator and tells the story of his travels from the country side into the heart of London society. I'm not giving anything away when I say that this outer story is of no consequence at all and doesn't add anything story-wise whatsoever. We are now firmly embedded in the life of the narrator who, as the son of a clergyman, has little or no knowledge of the real world and therefore lands in various unfortunate situations of his own inexperienced devising. Much of these events feel very much like the adventures of The Idiot in the story The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Like the Idiot our unhappy painter-to-be doesn't learn much from his experiences and keeps stumbling on and on. He meets a stunning beauty who hires him without credentials, without experience to paint her portrait. All this leads to is the introduction of another layer of narrative when the dear lady tells the tragic story of Tristano the famous (and fictitious) Venetian Castrato. All this appears to wrap up at some point because every character finds out that every other character isn't who he or she appears to be and is either the other person or is married, engaged or related to the other person. You be the judge.

Quite frankly I shouldn't be this negative, there is some amazing writing going on and the author clearly spent a tremendous amount of time researching the period and the characters. Pretty soon you will be checking the top of your head to see if your freshly powdered wig is still in it's predetermined place. Not many other books give such a vivid depiction of a historical period and only a novel like The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark or any of the novels by Michael Gregorio come close.

Fortunately not many writers create such and astonishing amount of confusion as Ross King. When I started reading the novel I felt the strange sensation that the chaotic jumble of events felt similar somehow. Once I managed to wade deeper into the marshes I realized that I had the same sense of confusion during the reading of Ex-Libris, also by Ross King. This time I wanted to know why exactly I had such a hard time figuring out what happened and to whom. Of course the fact that the story revolves around masks and mistaken identities didn't help.

I started searching for specific passages where the progression of events doesn't make sense or doesn't add up. Here is a very good example of how the reader gets off track, sometimes even without realizing it:

That is to say, in this moment I noticed many things about Eleanora that I had hitherto failed to notice or recognize; as if, before, I had seen her only like this, through the false image of some warping piece of glass. Unable to face this reflection I turned and, to the sounds of her laughter--as unpleasant and mirthless as her smile--plunged down the stair and into the rain. ...

(2 pages of narrative in which the protagonists stumbles through the streets of London, walks into a pub where he has two beers, enlightening conversations and other such miscellaneous interactions) ...

'Jealous', Eleanora was saying two minutes later. She was still seated before the glass, ...

If you read the text at a normal speed, which I can't, I have to read it very slowly, you might skim over this detail and think nothing of it. But unfortunately such episodes occur all over the novel and it slowly grates at the frontal lobe. Minor additional aggravations are things like many grammatical errors and misspellings, which are completely out of tune with the otherwise carefully crafted text.

The ultimate irony is that King's non-fiction books are crystal clear in their narrative and storytelling and read much more like fiction than either Ex-Libris or Domino. I recommend reading this if you're into a good period piece and if you want to be thrown head first into London and Venice of the 18th century.

Alexander the Great was a Woman?

Ever since I saw a series of ancient tapestries in the Carnegie Museum of Art did I start to wonder why artists depict Alexander the Great in an effeminate manner. It was not just that tapestry that depicted the famous leader as a shining angelic muscular Amazon. I began to find such depictions everywhere. To my surprise this standard female portrayal of Alexander has been adopted by many great artists. The first image here for example is Rembrandt's version, which looks modern, feminine and sexy to say the least. It could easily be the movie poster template for Alexandria, Princess Warrior. There is another similar portrait of Alexander also by Rembrandt, which can be found in Scotland, although this one is not directly meant to depict the historical figure that we know of.

Some artists are more careful in how they paint the great man and will tome down the feminine features and only leave hints and references to other paintings. You have to wonder what is going on here. Is this deliberate, is there some knowledge these artists are tapping into that has been lost through the ages? Perhaps there is some clever and subtle pun at work of which we no longer remember the symbolism but which we've inherited without knowing the source. There are not many references available that allow us to reconstruct what the man looked like and there are various contradicting descriptions regarding his physique. At Wikipedia we find the most tantalizing version by Greek biographer Plutarch (ca. 45–120 AD, which reads as follows:

The outward appearance of Alexander is best represented by the statues of him which Lysippus made, and it was by this artist alone that Alexander himself thought it fit that he should be modeled. For those peculiarities which many of his successors and friends afterwards tried to imitate, namely, the poise of the neck, which was bent slightly to the left, and the melting glance of his eyes, this artist has accurately observed. Apelles, however, in painting him as wielder of the thunder-bolt, did not reproduce his complexion, but made it too dark and swarthy. Whereas he was of a fair colour, as they say, and his fairness passed into ruddiness on his breast particularly, and in his face. Moreover, that a very pleasant odour exhaled from his skin and that there was a fragrance about his mouth and all his flesh, so that his garments were filled with it, this we have read in the Memoirs of Aristoxenus
Historical accuracy gets a bit more complicated with other descriptions being offered. Greek historian Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus 'Xenophon' ca. 86 – 160) described Alexander as:
The strong, handsome commander with one eye dark as the night and one blue as the sky.

The semi-legendary Alexander Romance suggests that Alexander suffered from heterochromia iridum: that one was dark and the other light. British historian Peter Green provided a description of Alexander's appearance, based on his review of statues and some ancient documents:

Physically, Alexander was not prepossessing. Even by Macedonian standards he was very short, though stocky and tough. His beard was scanty, and he stood out against his hirsute Macedonian barons by going clean-shaven. His neck was in some way twisted, so that he appeared to be gazing upward at an angle. His eyes (one blue, one brown) revealed a dewy, feminine quality. He had a high complexion and a harsh voice.

Ancient authors recorded that Alexander was so pleased with portraits of himself created by Lysippos that he forbade other sculptors from crafting his image. Lysippos had often used the Contrapposto sculptural scheme to portray Alexander and other characters such as Apoxyomenos, Hermes and Eros. Lysippos' sculpture, famous for its naturalism, as opposed to a stiffer, more static pose, is thought to be the most faithful depiction.

Here is another portrait of Alexander on the right, this time a bit more traditional and dressed as the artists of the day assumed he strolled around in his domain (Painting by Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707-1762), Alexander the Great and Roxanne. 1756, Oil on canvas, 243 x 202 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). What we see is a more traditional rendition based on classic sculptural depictions, as if all ancient Romans and Greeks wore togas all the time. More surprisingly is the assumption that legendary heroes went to battle in this manner. Note however the reversal of blue and red/pink between the female figure and the sitting Alexander.

Portraits such as these are re-interpreted versions of older editions and ironically those newer versions are made more manly then their inspirations. The further back you go the more ambiguous the depiction becomes, which brings us back to the original tapestry that started my wonderings about the legendary figure. Here for example is a modernized version of the same medieval tapestry I saw at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The pose, placement, angles and headress are all exactly the same (although horizontally reversed), but the facial features have been altered and modernized. Unfortunately I do not have a high-res photograph of the original tapestry, but I found a decent version in which you would unmistakenly identify the main character as a woman. I leave it up to you to judge what happened in this historical mystery.