Pumpkin and Honey bread

This recipe was adapted from The Martha Stewart Cookbook. We use a can of pumpkin purée. Honey provides a good balance against the taste of pumpkin: the bread was eaten (with a helping) by someone wary of anything pumpkin!
Makes 2 large loaves.

Ingredients:

1 ½ sticks (150 gr) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup raw (or brown) sugar
4 jumbo eggs
3 tablespoons honey
2/3 cup water
1 can (15 oz / 425 gr) pumpkin
3 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground Ceylon cinnamon (or any cinnamon)
½ teaspoon ground allspice

Preparation:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter two 9x5x3 inch loaf pans.
  2. Beat together the butter, raw sugar, and sugar until well-blended and creamy.
  3. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the honey, water and pumpkin and mix well.
  4. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the pumpkin mixture to the bowl and stir until well blended.
  5. Pour into the prepared loaf pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean – for about 55 minutes. Cool the bread in the pans.

Enjoy!

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The Greeks – A Global History

“…when we think of ‘Greeks’, what comes to mind first is likely to be the artistic and scientific achievements of a group of city-states led by Athens and Sparta around two and a half thousand years ago.”
From the preface to The Greeks by Roderick Beaton

The GreeksOffhand, I’m more likely to think about a Greek restaurant (or yogurt) and yet I read The Greeks because I wanted to know more about what led to the Athenian golden age. How the confluence of artistic creativity and rational thinking materialized in temples that inspired countless buildings, in plays that are still taught in high-schools, and in concepts that became part of our everyday vocabulary? Greek Classical Age has boggled people’s minds at various periods. How could so many achievements culminate in a small area in a relatively short span of time? Why did the ancient Greeks’ influence continue to spread even after the transition to monotheism? What caused it to make such a lasting impact over people physically and chronologically removed from the original city-states?

The Greeks addresses these questions, starting with Mycenaean civilization, “the dark ages” that ensued, the emergence and the heyday of ancient Greek civilization (from about 800 BCE when the Greek alphabet was adapted, to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE) and what came after, up to the twenty first century. Apparently, The Greeks is the first book to condense three and a half thousands years of Greek-speakers history into a single volume. Its scope is enormous – historical figures (rulers, artists, writers, philosophers…), innovations, wars and major geopolitical events that shaped the Greek world. The “biography” of Greek culture it mostly told in a chronological order, with emphasis on processes that led to or were a result of world-changing events. A few examples:

Fortification built around citadels in Mycenaean Greece used massive stones “that latter generations could not believe they had been raised into position by human beings at all but must have been the work of mythical one-eyed giants, called Cyclopes.”

Cyclopean masonry
Tiryns – Cyclopean masonry

The language of the Iliad and Odyssey mixes elements taken from dialects spoken in the eight century BCE in different parts of Greek-speaking world and traces of earlier forms of Greek that go back to Mycenaean times. “By the 540s BCE, the poems had already become so central to public life in Athens that the city’s ruler, Pisistratus, decreed that a definitive, authorized version should be made…
Three centuries later, scholars in Alexandria in the service of the Greek dynasty, the Ptolemies, took it upon themselves to collate all the manuscript versions of the poems they could lay their hands on. They stripped out all the bogus, redundant lines that had crept through successive retelling and copying. The result was the model texts that would ever afterwards be copied with great accuracy right down to invention of printing in the fifteen century.”

By the sixth century BCE, the belief in Olympian gods was widespread throughout Greek settlements, where private and public ritual were obligatory part of everyday life. The Greek philosopher and poet Xenophanes however argued that “there is one god, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortal neither in shape nor in thought.” Xenophanes attributed the traditional portrayal of the gods to human tendency to suppose that the immortals look like people. “If cows, horses, or lions could draw shapes, he posited, they would draw their gods in the shape of cows, horses, or lions.”

The Greek word drama means action. Men played all the parts, from powerful goddesses to the comic role of Lysistrata who organized Athenian women to withhold sex from their menfolk to force the men to conclude the war between city-states.

aa Aristophanes

After the Golden Age came the inevitable fall, the conquest by Rome, then the rise of Christianity. The story of the Greeks continues to alternate between good and bad times, the first culminating with Justinian I and the building of Hagia Sophia , then again came disintegration and miseries, some brought about by foreign conquerors and other self-inflicted.

Hagia Sophia Southwestern entrance mosaics
Southwestern entrance mosaic of the former basilica Hagia Sophia of Constantinople
(presently Istanbul, Turkey). The Virgin Mary is standing in the middle, holding the Child Christ on her lap. On her right side stands emperor Justinian I, offering a model of the Hagia Sophia. On her left, emperor Constantine I, presenting a model of the city.

El Greco paintingFor me, the second part of the book was less interesting, even though it gave a context to how the achievements of ancient Greeks survived and became a bedrock of modern Western civilization at times when the art and the knowledge of other pagan societies were lost. Compared to the glorious past, Greeks’ artistic and scientific contributions after the collapse of Byzantine Empire were a bit of a letdown. There were acclaimed individuals like El Greco (a nickname for Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos, a Greek painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance), but considering that many Greeks migrated to the great commercial centers of Europe in the late seventeen and eighteen centuries, it’s surprising how little they influenced Neoclassicism in the arts and the Enlightenment in philosophy and the sciences. Even the Greek Revival that peaked in the early nineteen century was influenced not by contemporary Greeks but antiquarians and travelers from western Europe fascinated with the traces of ancient Greek civilization they glimpsed in the Ottoman Empire. Of these, the most notorious was Lord Elgin, who “removed about half of the sculpted blocks that make up the frieze of the Parthenon” and the most famous was Lord Byron, whose poems brought Greek culture to the minds of his many admirers.

The British Museum
The British Museum in London

The Parthenon in Athens
The Parthenon in Athens

I recommend the book to readers who want to know more about Greek history and have the time and the inclination to tackle the plethora of events, names and places they are most likely to forget.

PS. The Greeks emphasizes the importance of the Geek language and often mentions the Greek origin of many familiar words (for example, the word nostalgia comes from longing for nostos, the Homeric word for homecoming).My Big Fat Greek_Wedding movie poster Reading these attributions reminded me the father-character in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who always pointed at words that came from the Greek language. I recommend this romantic comedy for its hilarious portrayal of the clash of cultures encountered by second generation Greeks in America.

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The Strangest Man – the Hidden life of Paul Dirac

The equation was “achingly beautiful”, as theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek later described it: like Einstein’s equation of general relativity, the Dirac equation was universal yet fundamentally simple; nothing in it could be changed without destroying its power.
The Strangest Man, by Graham Farmelo

The Strangest ManDirac’s equation, published in 1928, describes the relativistic and quantum behavior of an electron and predicts the existence of electron’s antiparticle – the positron. Although Dirac made other important contributions to physics, as the Nobel Prize Award summarized:

The importance of Dirac’s work lies essentially in his famous wave equation, which introduced special relativity into Schrödinger’s equation. Taking into account the fact that, mathematically speaking, relativity theory and quantum theory are not only distinct from each other, but also oppose each other, Dirac’s work could be considered a fruitful reconciliation between the two theories.

If Dirac’s greatest achievement can be distilled into one short equation he published in his mid-twenties, what could be so interesting in hundreds of pages of his biography?
Farmelo’s answer is that P.A.M. Dirac (1902-1984) was a very strange man. Arguably anyone who dedicates his life to search for a beautiful quantum field theory must have, to put it politely, an unusual psyche. Dirac was considered odd even by theoretical physicists’ standards, not only by cynics like Pauli, but also by fatherly figures like Einstein and Bohr.

The biography with the long title The Strangest Man, the Hidden life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom (US edition; the UK edition is titled The Strangest Man, the Hidden life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius), illustrates Dirac’s unusual behavior and outlook through his relations with his nearest family, his approach to research, his quick ascent as mathematical-physicist (Dirac “was not quite thirty and just a few months older than Newton’s age” when he took the Chair of Lucian Professor in Cambridge University), his attitude toward other physicists and their work. For me, with the exception of lengthy description of Dirac’s childhood and shorter posthumous speculations about Dirac’s possible autism, the book was a fascinating read.

Most of all I enjoyed how Farmelo described the different places Dirac visited and worked at and the physicists whose names one mostly encounters as a part of some principle or equation. In the book, greats like Pauli, Heisenberg, Bohr and first and foremost Dirac are not just formidable geniuses whose work changed the course of history, but they are also actual people faced with a rapidly changing world. Through Dirac’s travels between Copenhagen, Göttingen, Princeton and other hubs of physics, Farmelo shows that even those with secured positions in the most renowned universities, did not work in vacuum. At the beginning of Dirac’s career, aspiring theoretical physicists congregated to Göttingen. In the 1930s, Einstein, Pauli and many others who had to flee Germany, moved to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. The United States became a magnet for scientific talent before and after WWII, but the Cold War, once again, changed the atmosphere. In 1955, Dirac’s application for an American visa was refused. In 1971, two years after his retirement as the Lucian Professor in Cambridge, Dirac moved to Florida State University.

Dirac’s biography offers many anecdotes about this reticent and private man, whose formidable intuition led to creation of quantum field theory and to prediction of a new type of matter – the antimatter. It is worth to notice that Dirac stuck to his results when they were in vogue and when no one else believed in them. Throughout a meeting in Copenhagen in April 1932,

Dirac had to put up with Bohr’s hostile questioning and the taunts of other colleagues. Dirac appeared to take it all on the chin; according to one colleague, during the meetings that week he did not utter a word. In the final session of the meeting, Bohr lost patience and put him on the spot:
“Tell us, Dirac, do you really believe in that stuff?”
The room went silent, and Dirac stood briefly to intone his twelve-word reply:
“I don’t think anybody has put forward any conclusive argument against it.”

The much criticized “theory of holes” predicted the existence of a new, and then unsupported by any experimental evidence, “counterpart”of an electron—a positive charged particle with the same mass as electron. The positron was discovered in 1932 by C. Anderson, when he studied tracks of cosmic ray particles in a cloud chamber (Nobel Prize for 1936). Also in 1932, Blackett showed that pairs of electrons and positrons could be formed out of photons with sufficiently high energy (Nobel Prize 1948). Dirac received the Nobel Prize in 1933.

Commemorative marker for Dirac
Commemorative marker in Westminster Abbey, London

Dirac’s equation (second line from below on the commemorative marker) looks deceptively unintimidating, but only the electron mass (denoted by m) has a meaning for a non-specialist. For those interested, an explanation and derivation of the equation can be found in those videos:



 

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Genuine Lies – Fictional memories of a movie star

Genuine LiesGenuine Lies by Nora Roberts

“There’s always something redeeming in trash. I’ve done plenty of trash and made it shine. This” – she kicked the script again with relish – “is shit.”

“She” is Eve Benedict, an aging movie star who still has a lot of clout in Hollywood. Bossy and manipulative, she lives “alone” in a walled estate in Beverly Hills, drinks champagne like a marathon runner guzzles water, and smokes as if she could not subsist on mere air. Four failed marriages and obsession with her looks add to the impression of a self-absorbed, shallow woman, so one isn’t surprised to read that Eve is poised to tell her story to a celebrity biographer. It’s harder to see why her decision is met with such a wide, almost unanimous disapproval, even from people who have a vested interest in its financial success. When threatening notes start to pop up, both in the manor house and in the guest house where Eve’s biographer and her ten-years-old son stay, it becomes evident that someone is determined that Eve’s tell-all memoir would not materialize.

Eve’s Hollywood career is the backbone of Nora Roberts’ Genuine Lies, a genre-straddling novel, with events unfolding both in the present and in Eve’s recollections of her life and career. Published in 1991, my guess is that the “present” is late 1980s. The “past” starts when “Betty Berenski from Omaha” leaves “Betty and the cornfields behind” and Eve Benedict arrives to Hollywood. Shrewd and ambitious, she volunteers at the Hollywood Canteen, where “Bette Davis pours coffee and Rita Hayworth serves sandwiches.” An actor she meets there becomes her lover. He also helps launch Eve’s acting career, and, since it’s Hollywood, he gifts her a necklace of diamonds with a huge, hot ruby in the center.

“The diamonds were shaped like stars, the ruby like a tear… He took the necklace out, let it run through his hand. ‘When you reach for stars, Eve, you loose blood and tears. That’s is something you should remember.’”

And she remembers this. Eve’s story mixes glamour with criticism of both the Golden Age and the practicality of times “when movies were made by accountants”. There is romance, sex, gambling, and excesses that range from merely annoying to criminal. The cast includes actors (ranging from Hollywood to English theater), servants and assistants, mobsters and cops, and many others. Some of the story seems outdated in 2020s. Dealing with Hollywood, cliches are unavoidable. But in all, most of the story – the hypocrisy of “old fashioned values,” child neglect, and the ambivalence about abortions – seem even more relevant today than when it was published. I expected the romance between Eve’s stepson and her biographer to be a major part of the book, but it was not, for the sixty-seven years old movie star easily eclipsed the much younger, and considerably less flawed couple. It took more than striking looks, dogged determination, and lack of scruples to propel Betty Berenski to stardom and keep her at the top for nearly fifty years.

Reading the novel, I noted similarities between the fictional Eve and legendary Bette Davis, that went beyond their heavy drinking and smoking. Eve Benedict shared her given name with Bette Davis. She had the same number of marriages, an adopted son, and a biological daughter. I could easily see her play the role of the cunning Eve Harrington in All About Eve, where the younger actress Eve manipulates the character of Bette Davis until she threatens the aging actress’s career and personal relationships. Nora Roberts’ Eve is neither particularly good nor evil, which makes her story unusual and way more intriguing. This was a gripping and fun read.

Bette Davis in All About Eve
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Book review: The Tenth Muse

The Tenth MuseThis is a review of The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung,
that I posted on Goodreads.

The notion of the tenth muse, who is reborn in every generation as a mortal gifted woman drew me to read this book. The protagonist, Katherine, was a brilliant child. Growing up as a biracial girl in the fifties, her childhood was complicated by prejudice and discouragement at school. Fascinated by math, she excelled in it at college and made remarkable progress as a graduate student at MIT. Although Katherine is a fictional character, her struggle seemed real.
The first half of the novel was a quick and interesting read. Invested in the progress of Katherine’s academic career, I expected to find out how she triumphed over hardships and obstacles until she became a prominent mathematician, one who many years later was invited to MIT to respond to Lawrence Summers’ “infamous speech on the natural abilities (or lack thereof) of women in the sciences.”
The novel ended without answering this question. This, by itself wouldn’t be a problem, if the story did not lose cohesion around the middle, when Katherine began to search for her roots. As I hate spoilers, I’ll only say that the second half of the novel was a quick succession of scenes that stretched all over the world (more precisely US, Europe and Asia), went back and forth in time, and too often required a complete suspension of disbelief. Some incidents might have made more sense if they were given enough space and context. As it was, I read the novel to the end, but I wish I didn’t, because it only confused me what the story was about.

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Book review: Ascension

Ascension: A Story of Mental IllnessThis is a book review for
Ascension: A Story of Mental Illness
by Daniel Trump,
which I posted on Goodreads.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mental illness is a scary topic, especially when it comes out of the blue for someone young and previously healthy. Dalton Lewis, the protagonist of Ascension, was a bright college graduate in his early twenties when something went seriously wrong with his mind. For me the book’s greatest strength is that it reads like a good fiction, showing, rather than telling, what it feels like to live with paranoid schizophrenia.
In Dalton’s own words: “I know that sometimes I felt like I couldn’t communicate with people or finish sentences. Think of how much better I am on this new medication. Think of the next medication, or the next, or the next. I might be able to articulate ideas more effectively. I might be able to write better. Who knows? I might be able to write something that moves someone, truly, in their mind, heart and soul. That’s the goal…”
I don’t know what in his story is based on facts (the author of Ascension has mental disability) or what is fiction. Nevertheless, it moved me from the beginning to the end.

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Do muses exist?

   “Any medical facility can verify that I have regular vision, hearing, blood type, and every other organ and bodily function. But what does it prove? A hundred years ago, the best doctors and brightest scientists had no clue about DNA. Your society doesn’t have the tools to distinguish between us and what you might call normal people, but only fools will believe that this deficiency can, by itself, rule out our existence.”
Lisa was enjoying herself, Jack observed. And she was quite a good opponent, substituting for a lack of common sense with charm and zeal.
   “Okay, let’s assume that biology and the neural sciences have not yet reached the stage at which they can tell apart a person from a deity assuming human shape. How do you explain the fact that a large complex on Mount Olympus was never detected by any satellite or space station?”
   “I’m a muse, not a NASA engineer.”

So, who Lisa really is?
What does she want?
And how does she intend to achieve it?
Join Jack as he finds more about this disruptive woman, about the people he thought he knew, and also about himself.

Muse Delusion promotion, until October 12, 2021: 0.99 USD, CND, GBP, EURO, AUD
Amazon US, UK, CA, AU | Apple Books | kobo | nook

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Did Thomas Young perform his most famous experiment?

“phenomena of nature resemble the scattered leaves of the Sibylline prophecies; a word only, or a single syllable, is written on each leaf, which, when separately considered, conveys no instruction to the mind; but when, by the labor of patient investigation, every fragment is replaced in its appropriate connection, the whole begins at once to speak a perspicuous and harmonious language.”
Thomas Young, Introduction to A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and Mechanical Arts, 1807
(cited from
The Last Man Who Knew Everything, by Andrew Robinson.)

Thomas Young (1773 – 1829) sought these clues throughout his life. A child prodigy with interest in classics and mathematics, he was, according to Wikipedia, a British polymath who made notable contributions to the fields of physics, physiology and Egyptology. As Young himself attested, these discoveries did not happen randomly, nor were they results of some “lucky guess.” In The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Young’s biographer pieces together how Young’s scientific ideas were developed, communicated and treated by his contemporaries, by later scientists and by biographers. Continue reading

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Muse Delusion – musing about book promotion

“How can publishers influence the books AISA picks?” she asked.
Scott grinned, finding Lisa’s cluelessness funny.
Answer the dumb question, Daphne told Scott in her mind. She did not like women who looked glamorous without making any visible effort, especially if they were silly and ignorant. But neither Lisa’s enviable appearance nor her questionable intelligence justified Scott’s leering smile.
“Advertisement,” Daphne said when she concluded that no one else would bother to reply.
From Muse Delusion
(AISA stands for Artificial Intelligence Shopping Assistant.)

In April, I tried to wear a publisher’s hat and promote Muse Delusion by making the ebook free for five days on Amazon. The promotional “push” started with an announcement on this blog. Nothing happened at first, but a few hours later Muse Delusion was among the six thousand highest-ranked free ebooks on Amazon. Certainly not impressive, but at least a proof that everything worked as intended. Paid promotions on the second and third days (Fussy Librarian on April 6 and Freebooksy on April 7) made all the difference. Muse Delusion made its debut in various bestsellers charts. I watched in disbelief as it gradually climbed up in the “sales” ranking (it was free).

Well, watched is an understatement. A more realistic description is: click, refresh, check another country, click, refresh, see no change, disconnect and try to focus on something more productive; repeat the sequence. When I noticed a change, it was documented with a screenshot. This craziness started early in the morning and continued after midnight. Luckily, it ended after two days. The screenshots remain.

Ranked 137 among free books on Kindle Store in the US
Ranked #9 on Kindle Top Free books in the US, in the Fantasy category
Ranked #2 on Kindle Top Free books in the US, in the Mythology category
Ranked #1 on Kindle Top Free books in the UK, in the Contemporary Literary Fiction category

Muse Delusion is no longer enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, so I cannot make another free promotion. On the plus side, the ebook is now available on Kobo, Apple Books, and Barnes & Noble in addition to Amazon.

Enjoy!

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29th Street South – a story with a heart

“God damn the man who shot President Kennedy!” Robbie Doyle said out loud without thinking.
The class turned as one and stared at Robbie. Miss Rodgers actually dropped the book she was holding.
From 29th Street South by Nicholas Rogers.

It seems that an entire generation can recall what they were doing when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination, but Robbie’s response drew me to read on. The sheer absurdity of being sent to the principal by the teacher, the conversations and the people Robbie met that day, created an illusion that I was there, watching and listening to real people. This uncanny immersion continued as the story progressed, and news headlines entwined with Robbie’s private life. I cannot say that I liked everything I read – the hatred during the civil rights demonstrations, Robbie’s friend almost raped – but the bad things did not spoil the story. It has dark moments in a rich canvas with many bright episodes.

Continue reading

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