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Sun, 21 Apr 2013
A Place of Greater Safety
# 18:07 in ./books

The law is the expression of the general will.
-- Rousseau, via the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

I'd already finished reading Hilary Mantel's Place of Greater Safety before discovering it was the first book she wrote (but not the first published). In the interview that accompanies the e-book, she says it took her five years to write: the tremendous amount of research and detail would attest to this.

Although it has quite a slow start, and a fair number of characters and places to follow, the pace quickened as the "revolutions" happened. As the book neared its climax, I was sad it was ending.

Left: Eugène Delacroix,
Liberty Leading the People. 1830.

A few years ago, I discovered how great a well researched and written historical novel could be when I read First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough. This book was not only a pleasure to read, it taught me more about life, death and customs of ancient Rome than any school class or textbook. Like McCullough's book, Mantel's close research immerses you in the events. The story is of three friends experiencing the upheaval of the French Revolution: no ordinary people these however, but Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins. These three are at the heart of the book as they sat at the heart of the revolutionary drama.

I was unfamiliar with Desmoulins and he is perhaps the main character in the book. Complex, funny and good looking but also a hateful figure, his journalism and speech writing play a large part in stirring things up. A radical: but someone more radical always comes along. A childhood friend of Robespierre, their dynamic creates a massive central tension resolved through destruction.

Although not quite as polished as her latest books, the writing is concise and sharp. It can be hard reading a book where many, if not most, of the main characters are not only unlikeable but quite nasty as events roll forward. However, this can be seen as the mark of a great writer. It is also chilling to enter a world where justification for mass murder, industrial extermination and casual brutality is so easily expounded. Each of the main characters arrives at such a place, some trying to extricate themselves from the consequences at the end. Like them or not, you do care about what happens to them in the end, even though the tragedy's end is clear.

Revolutions then and since have had woeful consequences and you can trace some of the calamitous ideologies of the present back to these times. The triumph of reason can lead to horror and reasonable men lead us all to hell.

The In Our Time program on BBC Radio 4 had a good broadcast on the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror in 2005. Download an MP3 here.

Fri, 19 Apr 2013
Sugar vs Cocaine
# 08:34 in ./general

An article in The Telegraph on Friday covered a familiar topic: just how bad sugar can be for us. It's called Sweet Poison to drive home the message.

Emphasis here was on addiction as the driver, so nothing completely new to people familiar with recent research and articles about food reward and brain/body chemistry. Sugar's in almost everything, and one of the worst aspects is that it can be hard to avoid because it's hidden (that is, not clearly stated on the label).

Dr Robert Lustig, famous for his YouTube hit, Sugar: The Bitter Truth has a book out and is quoted here :

Lustig explains that instead of helping to sate us, some scientists believe that fructose fools our brains into thinking we are not full, so we overeat. Moreover, excess fructose cannot be converted into energy by the mitochondria inside our cells (which perform this function). “Instead,” he explains, “they turn excess fructose into liver fat. That starts a cascade of insulin resistance (insulin promotes sugar uptake from blood) which leads to chronic metabolic disease, including diabetes and heart disease.”

Regarding High Frustose Corn Syrup, an especially egregious ingredient in some "food" :

As a liquid, it is also easier to blend and transport. In particular, it is used in low-fat foods (which would otherwise taste, says Lustig, “like cardboard”). His theory goes a long way to explaining why the low-fat diets which rose to popularity in the Seventies have coincided with a rise in obesity and related illnesses.

From David Gillespie, author of a book called Sweet Poison, we hear :

The average Briton is consuming more than a kilo – 238 teaspoonfuls – a week"

Really? So can you account for this? Where is it all coming from? Hidden sugar.

And as far as an addiction :

The more he learnt, the more Gillespie was determined to do something about his own eating habits. “I stopped eating sugar and immediately started losing weight – without adjusting anything else about how I lived.”

For Gillespie, the weight started dropping straight away, but the sense of addiction took a little longer to go: “At the two-four week mark I noticed I was no longer craving food and in particular I could leave things which I would have found difficult to bypass before.

Like any addiction, to break free requires discipline and it is easy to lapse and fall back into the same habits as before. A modern supermarket is well designed to tempt you into breaking any vows you've made ....

Thu, 04 Apr 2013
Fonts ...
# 17:52 in ./general

So, here I am messing (again) with the blog fonts, wondering about sans versus serif and legibility and look. There are so many clients now, and different resolutions, that it's hard to take them all into account.

I was using a Google web font called PT. Now I've actually switched to basic Times New Roman and feel like I'm some sort of web neanderthal! But playing with CSS (size, height etc.) makes it seem very clear and legible to me. Let me know if not.

Wed, 03 Apr 2013
In Search of Classical Greece
# 11:58 in ./general

I pencilled this into my calendar ages ago but only got around to visiting last Thursday. I'm very glad I did. I was tempted to queue for the new exhibition Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum before the crowds get overwhelming, but in the end didn't feel like it and went to Room 90 instead.

The smaller and quieter exhibition in Room 90 is In Search of Classical Greece.

In Search of Classical Greece displays the drawings and paintings of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi from their trip through Greece at the start of the 19th Century.

On the left, Western End of the Erechtheion, Dodwell 1805.

Their trip took place well before the Greek War of Independence from Turkey (between 1821 and 1832) and shows a Greece that has now changed almost beyond recognition. From the Britsh Museum's web page :

70 views exploring the beauty of the Greek landscape and picturesque ruins of Classical civilisation have been selected from an archive of over 1,000 images. Many of them are highly finished in watercolour and have never been on display before. They record buildings that have disappeared or changed and landscapes that are now unrecognisable under modern cities.

Some beautifully detailed paintings in the display, shown with other artifacts (such as some ceramics, final bound volumes) alongside interesting descriptions and history. In some way you can thank Napoleon for this, since the closure of the usual Grand Tour routes in Italy forced people like Dodwell to look elsewhere. Greece proved a very stimulating substitute and the rest of the century can really be described as "sensational" when one considers the finds at Troy, Mycenae and Crete. It's hard getting too much of this stuff sometimes.

Now for the Pompeii show ... once I find a decent spare slot ...

Mon, 01 Apr 2013
Code Again
# 13:45 in ./tech

Via Hacker News, Zach Shapiro has some thoughts on how to learn to program. One of the points he makes is about Code Academy, a resource I recently wrote about.

Zach thinks CA is a less optimal way to learn because it's all done inside a web browser and doesn't teach you how to set up a real development environment i.e. the tools and resources you need to program properly standalone.

This is a good point and is something that Code Academy should probably try and incorporate into their coding tracks. Of course, the track I've been through, Javascript, is native to the web browser and so has less need for an "outside the browser" environment. But a language like Python is not browser-native and so would benefit from a guide on how to set it up. A language like C++ more so.

Learning some basics using a simple browser based environment can definitely be a useful start though.

If you're interested in learning to code, the post is worth reading.

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