1491 book coverI recently finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. As implied by the title, Mann describes the rich and sophisticated civilizations that existed in the Americas before Columbus. Rather than the small bands of natives that lived in harmony with nature, the world Mann describes had cities that rivaled or even surpassed anything in Europe or Asia in population and development, people who reshaped entire ecosystems to suit their needs, and a refined understanding of technology and nature.

While I was mostly unaware of evidence of these things beyond the Mayan ruins and such, I was particularly interested by the areas Mann points out where the Indians (and he uses this word explicitly) optimized their solutions to problems differently than Europeans or Asians. For instance, rather than domesticate livestock like bison, the Indians in North America simply extended the range of the bison and optimized the forests to allow deer to flourish by regularly setting fires to prairies and the forest undergrowth. At one point, bison ranged as far as Maine and Georgia.

Another example of this difference is the Inka's use of fiber instead of steel or wood for tools. Andean cultures wove reed ships that were easily the size of Spanish caravelles, built rope suspension bridges, and made quilted cloth armor that was almost as strong as European armor at a fraction of the weight (the conquistadors switched from their breastplate and helmets to the Inkan armor.)

A third example I found interesting was the Norte Chico civilization in the Andes. They were unusual in the fact that they developed agriculture not for food like every other civilization in the world, but for cotton. The primary use for this cotton was to make fishing nets to harvest fish. There's almost no evidence of food crops at all.

Like Jared Diamond describes in Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel, Mann points to a few factors that brought these great civilizations down. Early contacts (even pre-Plymouth or pre-Cortez) introduced smallpox and other diseases that wiped out huge percentages of the populations. By the time the Pilgrims arrived, scores of Indian villages had already disappeared. In other cases, over-population and bad climactic conditions (usually drought) wiped out civilizations to the point where they were conquered and/or assimilated by their neighbors.

I thought the book was well-written and fascinating. It's great to see more light thrown on these incredible civilizations.

Learning Chinese Via Podcast

As I mentioned earlier, I've started listening to Chinese language learning podcasts to help me improve my language skills. I took a look at a few and decided that two really fit my weird needs pretty well (I'm pretty fluent speaking and listening, but my vocabulary isn't particularly modern or adult, having learned most of my Chinese at home.)

Chinese Lessons with Serge Melnyk
Serge MelnykIt's hard to believe that a guy named Serge Melnyk speaks Chinese well enough to teach Chinese, but our man Serge does. In fact, his Chinese is better than his English, which he speaks with a weird accent.

The thing I like best about Serge is that he covers real topics with mostly real language. One of the first lessons I evaluated was one on lining up in China (anyone who has visited China knows that queuing is a lost art in China) and included vocabulary on how to yell at the line cutters ("Are you blind? Can't you see there's a line here?"). Another recent lesson was on how to break up in Chinese ("...you're a great girl and I'm sure there's a better match for you somewhere.") I certainly didn't learn that at home or in Saturday morning Chinese classes growing up.

The podcasts are free; you can buy the transcripts and worksheets for added practice. My only real complaint is that Serge doesn't provide any pauses in the podcast for the listener to repeat the vocabulary or sentences.

Another good podcast for me is iMandarinPod. This podcast is put together by The Center of Chinese Educational Development in Tianjian in partnership with the College of Chinese Culture & Literature on Nankai University.

I picture all the instructors are students at Nankai University; they all sound young and are very sincere in their efforts. The lessons are a bit more traditional Communist Chinese text book (e.g. "The Great Wall" or "I want to learn to sing Beijing Opera") than Serge's lessons. Unlike Serge who explains the lessons in English, the iMandarinPod lessons are entirely in Chinese. They force me to really listen a lot more closely than Serge does, which is a good thing. They also are clearly native speakers and have the right cadence and sound; even though Serge's Chinese sounds excellent, you can still tell he's not a native speaker.

The biggest issue with iMandarinPod is that most of the site is in Chinese; since I don't read or write Chinese very well, it's tough for me to get around. However, since it doesn't really matter which lessons I download, this hasn't been horrible for me. These podcasts are free as well, although there's a link to donate. They also have downloadable learning guides once you register.

Serge claims to be able to take learners from nothing to high fluency. I haven't listened to the earliest podcasts to see how well he handles people new to Chinese; the iMandarinPod stuff is definitely for advanced intermediates+.

Good luck!

The Bacon Cookbook

The Bacon CookbookAs usual, we had a generous Christmas with lots of great presents. One gift that I thought was particularly appropriate given my long-lasting and well-known love for bacon was The Bacon Cookbook by James Villas, former food and wine editor of Town & Country Magazine and Bon Appetit's Food Writer of the Year 2004.

It's clear that Villas shares my love of bacon in all its forms. He starts by describing the different kinds of bacon from around the world and then dives through forty+ recipes, sorted by course; he even has a few bacon desserts like Canadian Bacon Maple Custard.

Each recipe has a short description that tells a personal story, explains a little history, or otherwise introduces the dish; I love when cookbooks do this vs. just listing a pile of recipes. Each introduction sells the dish with effusive praise, e.g. "...you simply can't serve a more delectable side dish" [Lima Bean and Bacon Casserole] or "One of America's most original and sensational breakfast or lunch dishes..." [California Hangtown Fry]. The photography in the book is very nice as well. More important, the recipes seem pretty well written and straightforward, with the possible exception of having to find these exotic types of bacon (although Villas does offer web resources for getting the different kinds of bacon.)

I admit, my mouth is watering right now as I flip through the book. I'm excited to start cooking out of it.

The Confident Hope of a Miracle

The Confident Hope of a MiracleAt John's recommendation, I read The Confident Hope of a Miracle by Neil Hanson recently. This book is a fascinating read about the "true story of the Spanish Armada." Before reading the book, I didn't know much beyond the fact the small English navy defeated the huge Spanish Armada due to smaller, faster ships. Hanson does a great job laying out the political and economic framework that lead up to the battles, the technology of the day, and the personalities of the players, intertwining these to show how they affected the outcome and ultimately, history.

While I learned many things in the book, a few tidbits stood out. First, almost no ships were sunk via direct engagement. I had always envisioned the Spanish fleet going down in flames as English ships raked them cannon fire. In reality, the crews and crown preferred to capture enemy vessels as prizes, so there was less incentive to simply sink enemy vessels; also, given the ships were made of a floating material, it was just plain hard to sink a ship. Most of the Spanish ships were damaged heavily and the lost to storms, mostly after the engagements as they circled back around Ireland trying to return to Spain after running up the English Channel and failing to land. (They couldn't return via the English Channel because of the prevailing winds; as a fleet their ships could not sail closer than 90 degrees to the wind.)

Another surprise was how ill-prepared England was. Elizabeth was frugal, to say the least, and did not keep a standing navy, relying instead of privateers. Moreover, she was hesitant to spend enough to outfit the fleet, so that the fleet was starving, even in sight of England, and didn't have enough powder or shot to continue the fight. In fact the English really only had sufficient powder because they had a lucky capture of a Spanish ship loaded with powder. The Spanish Armada was really defeated with Spanish powder. Even after the victory, Elizabeth kept her purse strings tight and didn't pay the crews. The crews were turned out, wounded, in their battle stained clothes and typically no prize money, left to beg or otherwise find their way home.

Finally, it was interesting to see how completely outclassed the Spanish ships were. The English vessels were "race built", sleek and low to the water; by contrast, the Spanish ships were castles at sea. The English ships could sail closer to the wind and were much faster, giving them the freedom to dictate the terms of battle. Furthermore, the English cannons had much longer range and were set on wheeled carts so they could be retracted after firing and reloaded quickly; the Spanish cannons were fixed and had to be reloaded from outside the ship. As a result, the English could sustain a much higher rate of fire (something like 3-5x I think); no English ships were lost to Spanish fire.

Hanson's writing is excellent and engrossing. The book provides great insights into this well-known, but little understood event. I highly recommend it.

End of the Line

I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last Harry Potter book. As planned, I picked up my copy at the local QFC grocery store at 12:06am and was home reading it 12:12am. I finished this morning at 8:00. I did have a little trouble staying awake around 3-4, but I powered through.

I enjoyed the book and the closure it brings, but I confess, I'm a little sad that it's all over. I've been a big fan for years now and am feeling a bit of loss now.

Harry Potter Countdown

As I've mentioned before, I'm illogically crazy about the Harry Potter books, so it's no surprise that I'm excited about the arrival of book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this Saturday. I plan to do what I did with book 6 and pick up my copy at midnight from the local QFC grocery store (since they won't have a line for the book there) and binge read it immediately through the night.

I also enjoy reading the speculation about what will happen in the book. As usual, the theories are all over the place, but there seem to be a few twists this time. One guy claims to have broken into Bloomsbury's computers and stolen the manuscript. (Bloomsbury is the UK publisher of HP; I worked with them on Bookshelf and Encarta, incidentally.) The spoilers seemed reasonable, but the most credible leak I've seen is here. The text in the beginning has a bunch of random ideas, but there are a set of digital photos at the end that look like photos of each page of the last chapter of the book. It looks real and, having read it now, it seems legit to me. I won't give away what it says; follow it if you want.

Anyway, I can't wait. I'll be a wreck for most of Saturday, but it'll be worth it. It's been a fun ride reading all the books; the journey ends on Saturday.

[Update: Looks like the leak site I pointed to pulled down the photos of the pages of the book. Oh well.]

Avatar: The Last Airbender

These past few days have passed in blur as sick Michael (6) and I watched a season and a half of Avatar: The Last Airbender (which, coincidentally, is the featured article on Wikipedia today - what are the odds?) As you know, we don't have TV (well, really, we don't have a TV signal), so we downloaded the show from Xbox Live and watched it via our Xbox 360. Pretty slick. Unfortunately, this left me dreaming about the characters last night in my feverish sweat. Ugh.

The show is actually pretty good and does a lot to be somewhat accurate in its use of Asian language (unlike cartoons I grew up with like Hong Kong Phooey); there are even little jokes and insider stuff in the Chinese they use for names, and the martial arts forms they use are distinct and pretty good.

That said, I couldn't let my life be destroyed by this cartoon, so today, I read the episode summaries for the rest of season 2 on Wikipedia. I feel much less compelled to power through the rest of the episodes now and feel some small measure of control coming back into my life. (Once again, Wikipedia proves the world is full of people with too much time, but I'm grateful...)

Still, it's a good show if your kids absolutely must watch something on TV. (Of course, you could just kill your TV...)

I Hate Michelle

My lovely wife has ruined my life. Again.

She's been watching 24 for some time now (she's on Season Four). Last night, I started watching with her. Now I'm sucked in and will have to see how it all plays out.

Of course, this is all her fault and is completely unrelated to my lack of will and discipline...