Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Edward Gibbon

After a long hiatus, I have decided to take up my blog that I started some time ago.  Here is my new contribution.

I have been reading for a couple of months now a very well-known and much less read today book by Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he published in six volumes during 1776—1788. I am reading it on a Kindle, so it is not easy to really grasp the full magnitude of this amazing set of books as I am reading.  Six volumes would take up some space on a shelf. Here’s a picture from Amazon;

which one can purchase today for only $2,235.36.

My Kindle edition is an old one from the early 19th century (1845), edited by Rev. H. H. Milman. The language of both the text and the notes, most from Gibbon and some from Milman is quite old-fashioned and quaint at times. I have learned much from this reading and here are a few notes of items that I wasn’t really aware of. 

When Rome, the city, fell to the Barbarians in 476AD, the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, continued to flourish for about 1000 more years until the Turks conquered this city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia in 1453.  The city of Rome was recaptured by the eastern empire several more times more as there was a continuing see-saw over the control of Italy and other parts of the classic Western Roman Empire.

The Eastern Empire became what is known as Byzantium with its contributions to the arts and culture.  The writing down of a code of Roman law by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century became the foundation of law for continental Europe over the centuries following. The Decline of the Roman Empire coincided with the growth of the Christian Empire, which through the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches came to dominate religious thought in Europe.  The Gothic kings who took over Italy after the fall of Rome were all Catholic and the power of the Vatican was never impeded by the fall of Rome but continued to wield more and more power as the centuries evolved.

What is coming on the horizon in Gibbon’s book for me is the creation and growth of the Muslim religion by Muhammad and his followers, which I am looking forward to. One of the things that Gibbon does well is to describe the other cultures which surrounded the Roman empire throughout its history (he begins his history of the decline in about the second century AD, referring only briefly to the earlier Roman Republic which was followed by Julius Caesar, Augustus and the other earlier caesars). This includes the various Germanic tribes, the cultures of the Middle East and of northern Africa, and others. Of particular note is the continual evolution during this time of the Persian culture, which was always on the border of the Roman Empire and continues to this day in Iran, having been converted to a Muslim country sometime after the rise of Muslim culture in the Arabian Peninsula.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The iPad

The iPad seems to be an amazing device. I'm writing this blog using the microphone system on the iPad. I bought this iPad some months ago because I could read PDF files on the iPad with the Kindle reader, which I also installed on the iPad to read my Kindle books. I have a number of PDF files which represent books from the 18th and 19th-century for the research I'm doing for the book I'm trying to write. It is much nicer to read these books on the iPad than on my computer. At first glance it looked like the iPad was more of a toy than a working device. However with time, I'm learning that it seems to The iPad seems to be an amazing device. I'm writing this blog using the microphone system on the iPad, a very powerful computer. And it is much more useful than I had known or thought. One problem that I've been dealing with is that I have a large collection of movie files on four hard drives that I had copied from DVDs. The only way I knew how to play these movies was by attaching a PC computer to these drives in our living room(with a USB connection) and using Windows Media Center (a part of Windows 7) for playing the movies. Yesterday I discovered some software which allows me to play my movies on the hard drive attached to my PC which is upstairs in my study here in Boulder, and play the movies on either my iPad or on the AppleTV attached to our high-definition television in our living room.  This is not perfect and has bandwidth problems, dependning on the speed of the wireless system

When we traveled to Houston recently, I only took my iPad. It turns out that I needed to type some serious emails, so I went to an Apple store and bought a keyboard for the iPad. It attaches with the Bluetooth connection and works very well.

I have learned that I can see files from the cloud from dropbox, Google Docs, or Microsoft's SkyDrive. These files are all synced with my PC, and this is gives one great deal of flexibility.

I had thought that I was going to have to buy a new computer for living room in order to play our movie collection, but it seems that the iPad can do what I need, and this will save me a substantive amount of money.  We will see.

I presume I could do many of these things with other tablet computers that have come out, but the hyperbole concerning the iPad was quite intense, and for the first time in my life I bought an Apple product.  Having just read the biography of Steve Jobs this past week, it is fascinating to see how an Apple product does indeed work very well. Well done Steve!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Steve Jobs

Last night I finished reading a recently published biography “Steve Jobs” written by Walter Isaacson.  This book appeared shortly after Jobs’ death in October 2011 at the young age of 56.  I have read Isaacson’s other biographies of prominent individuals (Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein).  He is a superb writer and takes the time to really understand the people he is writing about.  In the case of Albert Einstein, that has to have been difficult because of the highly technical nature of what Einstein did as a theoretical physicist, but he succeeded so very well.  I had read previous biographies of Einstein, but this was as good as it got, so to speak.  With Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs there were many contemporary people available who knew both of these individuals well, and whose interviews played a major role in both of these biographies, in contrast with the historic figures of Franklin and Einstein whose contemporaries are no longer around (for the most part), and one was dependent upon the written sources.

With Steve Jobs, Isaacson spent several years interviewing him and many of his business and personal acquaintances.  What came out, in my view, was a picture of a not so very nice person, who accomplished great things.  I refer you to the biographer’s own words telling the story of a very complicated personality that affected the world so much.  It would be inappropriate for me to try to summarize any of the story here. It is a very complicated one.  I recommend the book very much to everyone.

I recently finished reading a biography of Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle.  This was a multivolume biography which included the whole history of Prussia and its predecessors over more than 1000 years.  It took me several months to finish this book, which is very outstanding in its own way  (reading the Jobs biography is a matter of days; much easier).  In a biography of the past, like this one about Frederick II of Prussia, one learns so much about the culture and the time in which the biographee is living, most of which is completely different from our modern culture.  This is true, it seems to me, of most biographies of figures from earlier than the 20th century.  The Steve Jobs biography that we have here is completely different in this regard.  All of the 20th and 21st century events and circumstances that shaped Jobs’ life seem quite familiar to the contemporary reader (either by personal experience or having learned about them in the contemporary media).  Reading this kind of biography is more a confirmation of what each of us knows about our society rather than learning something new about an older way of life.

In summary, Frederick was trying to build a modern Europe, and Jobs was trying to build a new way of life.  They both accomplished many things that they set out to do, and were both driven by their own internal forces to achieve things that would have been impossible for most, if not all, of their contemporaries. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

On Being Human

It's been a while since I have posted anything, and there's no excuse!

I read three books recently that I wanted tell you all about. As we all know the human species has gone from a small offshoot of a specific part of the mammalian family to the dominant biological species in the world today (discounting the huge range of bacteria and other micro world beings).  What makes us unique?  What capacity do we have that other species don’t have (e.g., our not too distant cousins, the chimpanzees, etc.).  It turns out that there are at least three characteristics which seem unique to humankind and which have played a major role in our evolutionary development.  These are, in no particular order, our ability to run, our capacity for language, and our use of fire to cook food.  All three we take for granted, and they are all unique to our species (not running, just that we are better at this than anything else!).

The first, and most surprising to me, is our capacity to run.  According to the popular book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, we humans can run better than anything else on our planet.  This doesn’t mean faster, but it does mean we have the capacity for running longer than anything else, and the book explains why and its significance for our evolutionary development. One of the vivid heroes in this great book about running, known in the book as Caballo Blanco, and who in reality was a part-time resident of boulder by the name of Micah True, died last week on a solitary run in the Gila wilderness of New Mexico.  The cause is still uncertain, but there is speculation about a heart attack or something similar.

The second book, Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans by Derek Bickerton, asks the provocative question: what came first, humans or language.  His very enlightening and often very entertaining book gives a vivid answer to this intriguing question and explains a lot about our culinary habits some million years ago or so and how that led to the development of language and how this interacted with our evolutionary development.

The third book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham, and which I read most recently, describes how we uniquely use fire for cooking and how this dramatically affected our evolutionary development. The development of cooking and eating around a common hearth played a significant role in the emergence of many of our social structures which are as true today as they were millennia ago.

I learned a great deal from all three of these books, and although they were written independently and from different points of view, they all contribute significantly to partially answering the question of where we humans come from and what makes us different.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New York City 3

What a vibrant city! I’m on the way back to Boulder after three days in Manhattan, and it’s a pleasure to recall the various sights and sounds there. In the early 60’s I was in graduate school in New York New intensely studying mathematics and being somewhat aware of this big city around me and my family (I got married in Germany while living in New York and our oldest son was born in New York University medical center on the east side of Manhattan right by the East River. On our boat trip around southern Manhattan a couple of days ago we could easily recognize the hospital from our vantage point on the comfortable sight-seeing boat. I think this was my first trip to New York that didn’t involve mathematics or any kind of business; just being tourists and helping celebrate our younger son’s 40th birthday.

Just before we were about to get in our taxi to LaGuardia Airport to return to Boulder, we saw a parade being assembled with floats for a Persian holiday (the words Persian and Iranian were interspersed throughout the floats we saw). It was a very peaceful looking group of Persians/Iranians in the most colorful of costumes and with a lot of flags waving. It seemed very festive and also very nonpolitical (except that the Iranian flag and the American flag were both at the head of the procession proudly standing next to each other). This was a vivid contrast to what we saw yesterday walking through Times Square from the pier at the Hudson River and 42nd Street to our room (at a private club) on 37th Street south of Grand Central Station, namely a very loud and boisterous street demonstration (the Germans like to say “Demo”) by a group of supporters of the Palestinian cause denouncing the Israelis (a man chanting into a megaphone with the rhythmic cadence of the crowd’s response). One couldn’t help but feel uneasy as one had the impression that in spite of all of the uniformed police and barricades violence could break out at any moment (in vivid contrast to the sense of peacefulness and joy apparent at the Persian/Iranian parade).

Two or three blocks from Palestinian demonstration we walked into the beautiful oasis called Bryant Park on the west side of the magnificent New York Public Library whose magnificent exterior had recently been refurbished and the stonework glistened with a brilliant white sheen while children were laughing as they sat on the old horses of a miniature carousel in the park. We had seen the garish lighting at night of Times Square twice on the trip when we went to a Broadway theater and to a performance of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center (north of Times Square). The lighting in Times Square is so much more vivid (and very overdone and in poor taste in my view) than I recall it. A “saving grace” is that, thanks to an initiative of Mayor Bloomberg, much of Times Square is a pedestrian zone, but still the noise and bustle of the crowd doesn’t draw one to sit anywhere peacefully as it would at a comparable square in London or Paris.

A most memorable part of our trip was on Thursday when all of us who had come together for the birthday celebration that evening (there were six of us altogether) gathered at Union Square at noon for a walk through lower Manhattan. We walked down 4th Avenue past our apartment building where we had lived some 46+ years ago through Greenwich Village, Soho, Little Italy and Chinatown (all along Bowery Avenue, an extension of 4th Avenue which is an extension itself of Park Avenue). We visited South Street Seaport, a relatively new tourist destination with shops and old ships where the Fulton Market was and the original seaport of NYC had been. Then we walked over the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge, relatively unchanged since it was opened in the late nineteenth century (it was the first public structure in the world to use steel for its construction and has been a tourist attraction like the Eiffel Tower since it opened). Walking across on the wooden planking of the broad walkway (now half of it a bikeway and looking down through the cracks one can see the waters of the East River)) with the sun going down and the magnificent architecture in all directions and the babble of languages from all over the globe is an exhilarating experience. We found a subway at the end of the bridge in Brooklyn which took our somewhat tired bodies back to Manhattan as the sun was setting.

What a vibrant city!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tesla Motors

Tesla Motors is a new phenomenon, and we were able to see it first hand in Boulder. For background, the company is only two years old and is the only company that I know of that is devoted to building exclusively electric cars. Or more precisely, they build exclusive electric cars, that is to say, not cheap. They start at over $100K, and with discounts for energy saving vehicles from state and federal governments, they can be substantively cheaper. Right now there are only two-seater roadster sports cars which are apparently very spiffy in road performance. Sedans are coming out next year. We haven't had a chance to ride in one, but we plan to.

What makes Boulder special here? There are seven showrooms in the US: Menlo Park and LA in California, Dania Beach in South Florida, as wells as in Chicago, New York City, and Seattle. And in Boulder, this small community outside of Denver. There are also three European sales offices and they are expanding to Asia in the near future. What makes Boulder special is two things. First they don't have a car dealership on Pearl Street, the famous shopping and dining street in downtown Boulder with one of the oldest pedestrian malls in the US. Why? Because of zoning laws prohibiting automobile dealerships from this quite remarkable shopping area (too dirty, environmental problems, etc.). But we were at 915 Pearl Street at a social event in the Tesla Showroom Gallery! Art galleries abound in this neighborhood and the city council apparently just winked this one in. You can test drive a car there, and find out all about it, but you can't buy one there. You have to go on to the Internet and order one from California where they are manufactured. And so this seems to work. More cars were "sold in Boulder" (in this Internet manner) than all other dealerships in the world combined. Quite a little record for the two sales people and office manager who work in the sales area there. Nigel with his booming English accent and absolute self-confidence is one of the sales people we met at a social event two days ago. Right now the company is breaking even and is very confident about the future.

We were invited to two events this past week, and one was a gathering of the Intenational Business Circle at the Tesla Gallery (see photo)where there was a panel discussion about Nikola Tesla (the man who invented Alternating Current and many other things more than a century ago and with his 700+ patents is one of the greatest of American inventors), about electric cars in general, and about the use of non fossil fuels in our transportation systems of the future. Boulder is full of high tech people and industry with a strong international flavor, and it was fascinating to meet some of them. There is the Frenchman who owns companies, some of which operate in Germany, the Australian who runs an energy company with his American wife who runs a straw hat company, a South American woman who runs a distance learning university, a Russian from St. Petersburg who spent 11 years in Munich and Garmisch-Partenkirchen teaching Russian to American soldiers and who is now a lawyer in Boulder, a Spanish entrpreneur, and a Dutchman who teaches mechanical engineering design (pro bono) at Colorado State University in Fort Collins while he lives in Boulder running his businesses, and a friend of ours from Argentina who studied computer science at Rice and is now a real estate agent in Boulder, etc. And on Friday we went to an Art event at Tesla where an artist (also international heritage: American, Swiss and something else) was showing her sculptures dealing with spiritual values and sustainable materials and energy in our fast-paced society. All in all, I have to say, coming to Boulder has been an adventure for us and continues to be surprising.
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Monday, February 22, 2010

Computer Woes

These days we are all so dependent upon computers, and when they crash or give us problems, one can get very frustrated. It happened to me this week, and I spent several days dealing with issues. It was doubly depressing as we had just arrived in the US from Germany and were trying to settle in to our Boulder home, and suddenly my computer crashed pretty badly. I had seen signs of it before (sometime before Christmas). The computer would freeze and then I would have to reboot. Not too bad, as I had seen that with all computers I have had (going back to the Tandy computers from Radio Shack, the first IBM computer with 16 bit hardware and two floppy disks, etc.). This time it seemed worse, although I know it isn’t as bad as it could be. After several cycles of rebooting (using safe mode, etc.), if finally stopped booting up at all, and started cycles of automatic roboot repair. Finally, I reinstalled the operating system (Windows 7 on a Sony Vaio several years old), and I was able to reinstall keeping the programs and data, but this took hours. My biggest concern was whether I would have to reformat the hard disk and install a clean copy of the operating system. That is the worst solution (and I have done this in the past; even worse is buying and installing a new hard drive; been there and done that, too). But I am tired of dealing with these issues, and they really take away from the quality of life.

I should be able to ignore this and go out and enjoy Boulder and its nature and scenery (yes we have some nice snow in the hills and a little on the street sides). But our dependency on computers is sometimes overwhelming. I couldn’t write this blog without a computer, but I have to say writing this makes me feel a little better. I couldn’t have written anything two days ago. I didn’t feel like reading the paper (I was disappointed a great deal by the Massachusetts election and that didn’t help at all).

Now some time has passed since I wrote the above lines (several weeks). In the interim I had to buy two new computers, one for Rena (planned) and another for myself, as the repairs on the three year old machine just didn’t work. The hard drive on that machine has been reformatted and now it sits in our living room as a Wikipedia/Google reference library. Installing all of the programs and setting up both computers was a lot of work, and, of course, it was a great procrastination from doing anything else that might have been remotely useful. In the meantime we have been skiing several times and have enjoyed the wonderful nature that Boulder has to offer.

I hope to write about more interesting topics than computer woes in the future. However, I do know it is a common experience for all of us out there.
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