Sunday, May 23, 2021



Phillip K. Dick.  (1928-1982)

Lars Powderdry works for the government as a hypnogogic weapons designer.  This takes place in 2005 although the book was written in 1965, so an alternative future is predicated.  The idea is that the Wes-bloc and Peep-East (Russia, China, etc.)  are at continual odds with each other.  After a series of world wars, neither side is willing to initiate physical aggression, so, as a substitute, they both resort to designing weapons which are mocked up in a prototype, but never actually created.  The designer for Eastbloc is Lilo Topchev.  With the aid of specialized drugs, the two psychically sensitive operators enter a kind of drug-induced trance, in which they envision the proposed weapons and simultaneously draw the blueprints of said weapons on paper.  In the West, the plans are shipped to the Lanferman productions site which underlies all of California from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  It's buried, for secrecy and safety.  The Peep-East bloc has a similar facility.  

In addition the government of both sides is controlled by the Military.  In Washington D.C., below the Military "Festung" (fortress), lies the Kremlin, a secret chamber in which the civilian "concomody" meets to oversee the functions of the government.  There are six concomody members who hold the position for life and are only replaced upon the decease of one of them.  The collective members of the government as a whole are referred to as "cogs", after "cognoscenti" (experts);  cog is also another term for a cheat or a liar, as in dice play or the cup and pea game.

Anyway, the story opens with Lars complaining about not being able to go to Paris to see his girl friend. As well, he is trying to cope with his sense of guilt over his meaningless job whose sole purpose involves keeping the public misinformed about the country's armament status.  Some of the weapons he has dreamed up are the Garbage Can Banger, the Sheep Dip Isolator (very stinky), the Civic Notification Distorter (changes people into rugs) and the Evolution Gun, intended to displace the human race two billion years into the past.

Other characters are Surley G. Febbs, a library researcher from the middle west with an eidetic memory who has spent his life studying and remembering all conceivable data as regards military history and the operations of government.  He receives a notice in the mail informing him that he has been appointed a concomody replacement.  He spends the bulk of the novel trying to gain entrance to the Kremlin but is kept out by bureaucratic busy-bodies.  Also there is Vincent Klug, an itinerant toy maker who does manage to gain access to Lars' office.  He plays a significant role in the resolution of the upcoming quandary, which is:

The news travels across the globe:  a new satellite has appeared orbiting the earth.  A certain amount of hysteria occurs in the top levels of government, but things only come to a head when it's discovered that part of New Orleans has vanished.  According to reports, a dense mist was seen hovering around the city and soon after all the inhabitants disappeared.  And then another satellite arrives and more cities around the globe lose their populations.  Governmental Officialdom is in hysterics and they decide to hold a joint conference in Iceland, including Lars and Lilo in hopes that the two designers can discover a weapon that will handle the alien invasion.  It has become known that the satellites are from Riga and that they are turning Earth's citizens into slaves.  There's a lot of arm-waving and mutual accusations flung about with the end result being no solution to the problem.  

Back in D.C.,  an attempt is made to kidnap Lars, during which his girl-friend is killed.  But he's already fallen in love with Lilo, the sequel being that he feels even more guilty than he did earlier.  Meanwhile, Surley has managed to gain access to the Kremlin, but not much is achieved until Vincent Klug magically appears on the scene, with what turns out to be an unusual toy, that proves to be the key component in the resolution of the alien problem.

At this point, i'm going to quit describing the action and leave the balance of the novel and its truly inventive disentanglement of the alien problem to the pleasure of the book's readers.  

Dick was not a normal person.  He took a lot of drugs and they enhanced the instability of his already unstable personality.  But he was a genius at writing science fiction that included and dealt with some of the  philosophical difficulties common in the modern world:  what is reality, how do we cope with time, are there more than one universe, is there a God,  can we be in more than one place at a time, etc...  Although i'd read a lot of Dick's work in my early years, i hadn't read this book, and i was surprised at how cogent and rational and ingenious it was as compared with what i'd learned about his work in the past.  Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Lived After the Bomb was the first one i read and i recall being floored by it, although i don't even remember much about it now.  Dick's reputation has died in the ensuing years, and his books might be a bit recherche today, but he still has the ability to make the reader think outside his usual comfort zone.  I'd recommend his more popular novels to anyone interested in science fiction...

Sunday, May 16, 2021



William Duthie  (?-?)

This is a peculiar book.  Duthie, a London goldsmith living in the mid-19th C., decided to take a tour of Europe on foot, partly to demonstrate that is was possible to do such a thing without extensive prior funding.  The first section, about a hundred or so pages, was used to detail the expenses of his trip, together with some ancillary comments about isolated individuals and incidents that he encountered:   how much he spent per day on food and so forth.  The second section was much longer and, repeating the itinerary of the first section, dealt with his experiences and accidents and some of the tourist attractions that he admired along the way.  Two categories of interest that he delved into had to do with work conditions; and the legal and political strictures governing the lives of the citizens of Germany, Austria and France.  Workers in all of these countries, in the jewelry trade anyway, had to work six to six and a half days a week, 72 hours being a normal figure for a week's employment.  Longer hours than that were not considered overtime.  Payment schedules were enough to enable very basic necessities.  Breakfast was normally bread and tea, lunch perhaps a piece of boiled meat and more bread, and dinner providing bread, soup and possibly a vegetable.  Living arrangements were commonly limited to six or more associates sleeping in one room, often in the house of the employer.  Days started at six AM and ran until six at night or longer, if there was a major project in hand.

Duthie found that, even when walking from town to town, the police kept stringent control of all transient movements.  He and his fellow travelers usually had to get a visa stamp when entering a town, or passports were confiscated during the period of employment until the worker left the city.  As part of the normal regime, there were many more official regulations governing social and business functions than Duthie had been used to in England, and many more policemen present than he had been used to in London.

Initially he landed in Hamburg, where he worked for an English jeweler.  He made several friends there some of whom accompanied him in his later peregrinations.  He took the road to Berlin after seven months, renting a seat on a wagon for several pence for the last sixty miles.  As in the other cities he visited, he first had to register with the police, then find the local guild hall.  Guilds were present all over Europe and there were systematic procedures for traveling workers to register, receive small amounts of money, and sometimes places to sleep, as well as, if lucky, the occasional dinner.  The guild halls varied enormously in quality, some dirty and bug-ridden, and some clean and well run.  Nonetheless, they were hubs from which to search for work, or from which to obtain clothing and other necessities.  

Duthie had a lot to say about the military monuments in Berlin, beginning with the Brandenburger Tor (the gate of the city), and ending with the opera house and the vast arsenal with munitions and gunpowder.  The memory of Frederick the Great permeated the cultural and artistic structures.  The Spree river runs through the city and a lime tree lined street followed it for miles.  There was no work to be found there, so William left after a week, taking the railroad to Leipzig, partly because the ground surface in that part of Prussia was so sandy that it made walking difficult.  (Madame LeBrun said the same thing in last week's post, even though she did walk a lot of the same route).  Almost at once, upon arriving in Leipzig, he returned to Berlin for six weeks work, but then caught the train back again for a brief stay before setting out to walk to Vienna.  He had several partners on this leg of the trip and they toured through Prague and Moravia.  Eighty miles from Vienna, he and his partner Alcibiade had only 4 shillings left between the two of them,  They survived on fruit, it being late spring, and water.  They had a lot of formalities and regulations to deal with when they got there.  Initially they were only permitted to stay 3 days, but using some of the guild connections, they gradually waded through the regulatory swamp and managed to land decent jobs.  However, during a slight altercation with a belligerent policeman, Duthie found himself in jail.  The policeman had knocked his hat off with his club and William took offense, with unhappy results.  He spent 9 days in prison before his friend could get him released.

Soon afterwards, Duthie and Alcibiade left the city, hoping to find friendlier receptions elsewhere.  Near Salzburg, they became curious about a large salt mine that presented certain intriguing elements.  Deciding to take a tour, they climbed up a mountain for four miles, to the Obersteinberghauptstollen, the name for the entrance to the mine, which occupied most of the inside of the mountain.  They walked down a sloping tunnel, led by a guide with a candle, for 3 kilometers, then used the "Rolle" to descend 200 feet to another ramp.  ("Rolle" describes a set of poles situated 12 inches apart, down which a person slides down on his backside through a small tunnel).  This was termed the Untersteinberghauptstulm.  Another Rolle, 600 feet long took them to another 2700 foot long ramp and yet another Rolle that led to the Soolerereugungsuerkkonhauser, an underground lake, across which they were rowed by Charon, noting the eery reflections of candlelight in the pitch-black ambiance.  On the far side, another Rolle 468 feet long to a freshwater spring, some of which they drank, and then boarded a small gauge railway pulled by two boys to the exit at the bottom of the mountain.

They continued walking through Carlsruhe, Bavaria and Munich, and then took the train to Paris.  Duthie lived with Alcibiade and the family of one of his friends, the PanPans.  He lived there for 17 months and then returned to London.

Not much is known about Duthie;  i couldn't find a picture of him, and his book seemed to sell for around $30.00 even though it can be downloaded free from Gutenberg.  The book, as i indicated above, was erratically assembled and i found out later that it was compiled from letters Duthie had written home and to a newspaper while he was traveling en route.  It was interesting to see such a different slant on European civilization of the time;  references and information were included about recent wars and revolutions in Prussia and Paris that seemed to substantiate what i had previously believed about that era;  that a relatively small segment of the population was responsible for major social upsets such as wars and starvation and destruction.  Most people just want to be left alone to live their lives, regardless of the insane convictions of their leaders, even though they may be frequently led into throwing away their lives and possessions in some sudden struggle for what they've been told is "justice".  Delusion is indeed one of the more amoral tools of the political elite, seemingly...

Sunday, May 9, 2021


Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun (1755-1842)

Translated by Lionel Strachey

Her dad was a painter and he supported her devotion to drawing from an early age.  She was sent to a boarding school at six and was often in trouble for disobedience:  she spent all her time drawing things and not doing her school work.  But she evidenced a talent and a fierce love of painting which lasted all through her teenage years.  Her father died an early death, partly because of the dinners he attended in the presence of d'Alembert, Helvetius and Diderot, who enjoyed rambling on about the hopelessness of life and the pointlessness of actually trying to do anything.  Diderot, of course, was the man who devoted his life to compiling the first French encyclopedia.  It was banned by the church and government both, maybe for including long sections on the mechanical arts.

Marie studied with various well-known artists, Gabriel Doyen in particular, and was supported by other artists and friends of her father.  She spent a good portion of her time studying in the Parisian museums.  She said:  "the difference between well or poorly lighted pictures is the same as between well or poorly played pieces of music."  She began earning money for her portraits, but her stepfather (her mom remarried a businessman) appropriated her money.  Counts Orloff and Schouraloff introduced her to the upper classes and arranged sittings with some of the ladies of the court, one of them being Marie Antoinette with whom she became quite friendly.  She painted her several times.   Walks in the various parks and attendance at public festivals of one sort or another provided her with social experience and helped broaden her horizons.  She liked fireworks.  When invited out to dinners or the theater, she sometimes sang while accompanying herself on the guitar.  Once, absent-mindedly, she sat down on her palette which she'd laid on a chair.  She got to know LeBrun through her stepfather.  He wanted her to marry him because he thought he was rich.  After a period of contention she did, only to discover that her new husband was an addicted gambler and was in debt up to his eyebrows.  She was twenty when she married and for the length of their marriage, he took all the money she earned from painting and wasted it in card rooms.  Marie later estimated that he'd managed to get rid of a million francs, more or less.  Finally he died and she was able to command her own resources.

Taking advantage of a trip to Flanders, Marie was stunned by the work of the Flemish and Dutch painters.  She thought the work depicting an assembly of alderman by Van Loo was the best painting she'd ever seen, because of their life-like appearances.  After returning to Paris, she was nominated to the Royal Academy, a prestigious organization established for the furtherance of excellence in Art.  Marie made many friends among the elite and painted some of them.  She did three pictures of Madame du Barry;  the Count d'Artois and his family as well.  But nemesis was approaching:  the social atmosphere was becoming more and more intense, with popular uprisings unsettling and alarming the upper classes.  Finally, Marie escaped to Italy, as France was thralled in the grips of revolution, with Jacobin agents permeating every nook and cranny of the country.

In Rome, she was astounded by the wealth of art surrounding her:  the statuary, ancient buildings, and the collections in the many museums and palaces.  The palaces even when privately owned, were customarily open to visitors and tourists, and Marie spent lots of time studying the work of Italian artists.  And she began to be accepted and admired by the nobility as well, resulting in new friends and portrait work.  In particular, she came to know some Russian emigres who later paved her way into St. Petersburg society when she journeyed there.  Life in Rome became intense so for a break she moved to Naples for a while, where she painted various royal figures among whom was the Queen of Naples, the sister of Marie Antoinette.

After touring through Venice and Turin, Vienna beckoned and Marie followed.  Court life there involved lots of dances and parties and she came to know important individuals:  Counts Metternich and Rasumovsky  among others.  News of Jacobin violence caused her much unhappiness and she tried to avoid hearing about the victims of Madame La Guillotine.  She spent 28 months in Vienna, then moved to Prague briefly, visited Dresden, and then ventured over terrible roads to St. Petersburg, where she lived for seven and a half years.  She got to know Catharine the Great well and liked her a lot.  She described the Empress as short and stocky, decisive and intelligent, pleasant but with a whim of iron. Catharine built the Hermitage, one of the largest museums on the planet, and intitiated the practice of vaccination.  She rebuilt towns and added to the merchant fleet, encouraging the growth of trade.  Some of Marie's friends were Princess Dolgoruki, Count Stroganov and General Potemkin.  The society of course was divided between the nobility and the peasantry, with the latter being capable and clever, honest and gentle, mainly because of their adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church.  They seemed to live on potatoes, garlic, bread and corn brandy.  

After a 34 year reign, Catharine died and her son Paul was coronated.  He was unpopular with everybody, being capricious and unpredictably violent.  He hated the Russian upper classes and was probably a bit mad.  Perhaps coincidentally, Marie moved to Moscow in 1800.  She did more paintings and met more Counts and Generals:  Prince Bezborodko owned 30,000 kulaks (peasants were property at this time), Count Buturlin was a multi-lingual polymath and was the possessor of a huge library in all languages.  Marie wasn't terribly happy during this period, because her daughter whom she dearly loved had married poorly, against her mother's wishes.  So after only five months in Moscow she returned to St. Petersburg to find that the Emperor Paul had been assassinated.  The next Emperor was Alexander I, who promised Marie he'd fix the roads.  Even so, she left the city partly because of her thorough dislike of her son-in-law and partly because she was not feeling well.

She traveled through Prussia, walking part of the way because the carriage driver smoked evil-smelling tobacco, and arrived after a tedious journey in Berlin, where she lost her voice from yelling at customs officials.  Following a brief tour of the museums, she returned to Paris after being absent for 12 years.  Renting a house, she was joined soon afterwards by her brother and sister-in-law, and her daughter who'd left her husband.  Marie now saw a Paris that seemed cramped and dark.  She attended a military review, where she had a lot of difficulty believing that "that tiny man" was Napolean Bonaparte.  She was restless and took ship to London, where she lived for three years, off and on, taking frequent excursions in the countryside to escape the fogs and damp of the city.  She visited William and Caroline Hershel, the astronomers, and walked on the beach at Brighton.  Painting still occupied much of her time;  she approved of the work of Joshua Reynolds and did a number of portraits of French emigres.  But growing discontented, she returned to Paris to see her daughter and ended up in Switzerland and subsequently in Louveciennes, where she rented another house.  One night she woke up to see four soldiers ransacking her room, stealing all her jewelry and clothes.  Fortunately they paid no attention to her.

After Waterloo, things gradually returned to normal, with King Louis 18th re-assuming the throne for a brief period, being succeeded by the Duke de Berri his brother.  Marie retired for good soon after that, establishing herself in Louveciennes, where she lived out the balance of her life painting and taking walks.  Her daughter and son-in-law died in 1819, and her brother in 1820.  One of her nieces, Tripier la Franc, became a portraitist and did well.

This was a curious book to read;  rather like exploring an unknown country through a keyhole.  Marie's style, in translation, was warm and familiar and sort of like reading a letter from a favorite aunt.  Her prejudices and social opinions were clues to the type of person she was, friendly and perhaps a bit naive, habitually regarding her world with a cheerful and accepting point of view.  I quite liked it.

Sunday, May 2, 2021



George B.Thayer  (1853-1928)

George was already an experienced cyclist in 1887, having made trips through New England of 500 and 1200 miles, the former in 3 weeks and the latter in six.  By the time April arrived, he was eager for something new and challenging so he determined on riding to San Francisco for the pleasure of it.  He was not out to set any records, he just wanted to see what was out there.  Also, since he was a sometime journalist, he planned on keeping the newspapers in Hartford, Connecticut informed as to his discoveries and adventures via his letters.  His vehicle was an "Expert Columbia", 46" in height and he carried a 15 lb. pack for clothes and bicycle stuff.  The tires were solid rubber.  The first day was tiring, as he hadn't ridden in three months, and the initial destination of New Haven was only arrived at after a full day's arduous toil over sandy and rutted roads.  He stayed there for three days, touring the city and visiting the Peabody Museum which was renowned for its fossil collections.  George had some interest and knowledge in geology and described some of the local formations and the origins of the Appalachian and Adirondack mountain chains.  The latter, composed of basement rocks from the billion year old Laurentian orogeny, are some of the oldest mountains in the world.

He was pedaling away near Tarrytown, after visiting the Sleepy Hollow graveyard, when he was almost knocked off his bike by explosions.  Investigating, he located the headquarters of the project-in-progress of the aqueduct extension designed and in the process of being excavated to provide water to the city of New York.  Talking to one of the supervisors, he was offered a chance to descend a vertical shaft 360 and to examine the operating procedures of the miners who were digging the tunnel.  The plan was to push the tunnel under towns, rivers and mountains forty miles all the way to the city.  George didn't go because of some of the horror stories told him by some miners lolling about the entrance.  Eventually the tunnel was completed in spite of the dangerous working conditions.

For the most part, cycling over the mountains was a non-pedaling event, as George usually had to push the bike up the steep parts and often over not-so-steep ones.  But he loved coasting down the other sides.  His technique was to extend his legs over the handle bars and steer with them while hanging on to the seat at the same time.  His progress, once across the mountain ranges, was often difficult, dealing with rutted roads covered with sand and/or mud that meandered back and forth over the Hudson and other rivers.  Sometimes even horses got stuck and had to be pulled out using boards as levers and fulcrums.  Dogs were common and most of them had developed a taste for shoes. He usually stayed  overnight with farmers, but sometimes in hotels.

At Niagara Falls he rode out onto Goat Island to get a better view and an old lingerer told him a story about an argument between the American and Canadian authorities that ended up with a steamship being pushed over the Falls while on fire.  Ohio was a rather depressed countryside, with dilapidated houses and seas of mud.  There were lots of sheep and pigs on the road.  The soft coal that was commonly used for heating and cooking coated all the buildings and people with black dusty tar.  He got tired of fighting the grueling conditions and took the train for the last 120 miles into Chicago.  Leaving that city, he pedaled on toward the confluence of the Missouri river.  One local resident told him about the fierce cyclones common in that area.  One recent one had destroyed two stone buildings in five minutes and killed 58 people.  Coasting down a hill in Iowa the bike hit a chuck hole and George flew over the handlebars and landed on all fours and his pack hit him in the back of the head.  Soon afterward he caught a freight train to Omaha and liked it so he continued on to Denver.

He met a friend in that city and they biked together for quite a while.  They traveled south to Pike's Peak and climbed it.  George got altitude sickness but toughed it through to the top at 14,000 feet.  They stayed several nights in the mountain chalet there and saw fantastic sunrises 150 miles away.  Like a true geologist, he and his friend spent some time rolling rocks off the top.  They visited the Garden of the Gods and continued north, stopping in Ft. Collins, where George noticed that water was scarce at that locality.  Citizens had to pay for it there, whereas in the more eastern states people had to pay to get rid of it because of the seasonal flooding.  The two cyclists took the northern wagon train thoroughfare through Laramie and Rawlins.  They got tired of fighting the constant headwind, a constant presence on that route, and took the train to Green River where they admired the red cliffs in Echo Canyon, then continued on to Salt Lake City.  George took a swim in the Great Salt Lake and was amazed at the floatational qualities of the fluid.  He admired the city and some of its inhabitants, but criticized some of the Mormon churches for their sleazy atmosphere.  Crossing the desert seemed counter-productive so they entrained to Lake Tahoe where they stayed for a week.  Liking that mode of transportation they continued on the railroad over the Sierras to Sacramento.  Bicycling through the Valley by himself, George toured the Calaveras Big Tree monument and then did a lot of hiking in Yosemite Valley before taking the train to San Francisco.  

After several weeks partying and visiting he caught the train to Monterey and stayed for awhile.  Back in San Francisco he boarded a ship for Portland, Oregon and was seasick much of the way, along with most of the other passengers.  They were cooped up in a smallish cabin with insufficient traveler's aids so he spent most of the time sleeping on the deck.  He left Portland on the train but got out at the Snake River so he could ride to Shoshone Falls.  He noted the extensive areas of flood basalts and speculated on their origin.  On the train once again to Pocatello, Idaho, he left that city on his bicycle and headed toward Yellowstone National Park where he visited many of its 71 geysers.  One of the handlebars stripped out on the bicycle, so he had to find a blacksmith to fix it.  He found the shop but the smith was absent, so George found a tap and die set in one of the drawers and hacksawed off the stub of the bar, threaded it, and screwed it back together.

On the return to Connecticut, he went further south, through Kentucky where he was feted and celebrated by some but chastised by others for violating the Sabbath.  He ended up entraining through Ohio again but rode a long section along the Potomac River until he reached Baltimore, then took the railroad home to Hartford.

This was an impressive feat for that era.  The book was attractively written and easily comprehensible.  George faced the trip's dangers and pleasures with equanimity, maintaining his psychic balance in difficult and occasionally provocative situations.  He seemed to take the bad with the good in quite a philosophical manner, and consequently achieved a kind of objectivity not often found in descriptions of personal endeavors...  i liked it, and probably most readers would also...  The book is listed in the files of the Gutenberg Project.