Tag Archives: history

Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger

Soulless by Gail Carriger coverI’m going to begin simply by stating that this book has the cure to whatever ails you. Whether it be work-related blues or sheer tiredness, you’ll start feeling better once you’ve cracked the cover and read the first few pages. I wouldn’t quite suggest it as a prescription, but anything with the wicked kind of humour that Soulless contains is perfectly fine by me.

Meet Alexia Tarabotti, self-proclaimed spinster with a pronounced predilection towards books and a dangerous turn for wielding a parasol to fend off unwanted advances. She has what one might call a slight social impediment: she was born without a soul, and as a result is considered preternatural – between the natural and supernatural worlds. What is especially interesting about Alexia is that due to being soulless, she is able to neutralise any supernatural powers that she comes into direct contact with (such as those of vampires or werewolves, for example). This of course causes a problem when Alexia defends herself against the attack of a vampire, left to the point of starvation and completely uneducated as to how to properly behave.

Armed with her sharp tongue and assertive nature, Alexia must find out why the vampire was left in such a state. In the meantime, she becomes slowly and quietly tangled in a political mess of both supernatural and scientific origin. This necessitates the involvement of the messy and magnetic Lord Conall Maccon, the Earl of Woolsey and Alpha of the local werewolf pack, who is also Queen Victoria’s agent in the matter for the BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry, a division of Her Majesty’s Civil Service). Alexia faces adversity in the form of improper behaviour, family dramatics, attempted kidnapping and things of a far darker calibre. The result of all of the above combined is a fantastic romp through Victorian England, with elements of steampunk and history laced through it. Add to this witty dialogue and the downright brilliance of the unresolved romantic tension between Alexia and Lord Maccon, and you’ve got an incredibly entertaining read.

Amongst this book’s many delightful points, I first feel compelled to praise Gail Carriger for creating such a brilliant female protagonist. Alexia might be soulless, but that definitely doesn’t make her dull. Her verbal fencing with Lord Maccon is simply wonderful, and I was immensely pleased to find a vast amount of it throughout the entire book. Secondly, while Alexia’s nature of being soulless/preternatural is used as an important focal point in the book’s plot, it isn’t constantly thrown into the reader’s face at the expense of all other development. Carriger has woven it in with the complexity of werewolf society, the difficulty of Alexia having to submit to a social climate that doesn’t necessarily suit her assertiveness and the major plot of what is occurring amongst the vampire nests to produce roves (the book’s reference to solitary vampires). The layers make the plot much richer, something which I couldn’t help but appreciate. I also really enjoyed the unique approach to vampires: the idea that only a queen vampire can make more of their kind lends a different angle to the established conventions of vampire literature. I thought that in context of the story, it was very well thought out. In addition to her very nicely crafted protagonist, Carriger’s secondary characters are most definitely worthy of praise. Lord Maccon is simply delicious; rough manners and attractive appearance to boot. Professor Lyall, Lord Maccon’s Beta in the werewolf pack, has a wonderfully dry sense of humour and the kind of arresting politeness that characterises a true gentleman. And last, but certainly not least, there’s the utterly fabulous and absolutely outrageous vampire Lord Akeldama; stylish, loud and genuinely a lot of fun in every sense of the word.

Additionally, the dialogue. Oh my, the dialogue. How can I possibly begin to describe what I loved the most?

Here, perhaps?

Lord Maccon was ever more enraged. “Who bit you?” he roared.

Alexia tilted her head to one side in utter amazement. “You did.” She was then treated to the glorious spectacle of an Alpha werewolf looking downright hangdog.

That, right there, is just a single sample of the glorious play on words that Gail Carriger is capable of.  That is one snippet of what runs through this entire book and makes it one of the best reads I’ve had thus far in 2012. I started and finished the book in one night, and purchased the second book in the series today. Please, if you’re suffering from the blues? Go and pick up this book. You won’t regret it.

These Points of Data Make a Beautiful Line: Data as Art

A drawing by Santiago Ramon y Cajal depicting the cells of the retina.

Despite my better judgement I made the decision to move across town in the middle of the academic quarter. While this was not the best decision I could have made with respect to the health of my GPA, it has led to the collision of my scientific life and my desire to decorate my new apartment. The place I have moved into is a beautiful Art Deco building built in 1926 and I have been determined to stay reasonably within the aesthetic of the period. This has created quite the conundrum for me, however, as most science done is, well, modern and most of the science-themed decorations are of a high tech geek-chic variety–not exactly what I’m going for.

Another of Cajal's drawings. This one shows pyramidal cells.

Enter Santiago Ramon y Cajal: an absolutely brilliant old-time scientist who is considered to be the father of modern neuroscience. He was the type that made extremely important contributions early on in the history of several scientific fields and, in the words of my neuroscience professor Michael Dickinson, ” He hardly got anything wrong, the damn bastard!” Cajal was not only a brilliant scientist but a brilliant artist as well–the anecdote relayed to us in class was that he used to look at silver chromate stained neurons under the microscope before wandering across the street to the café where he would drink wine and draw what he had seen entirely from memory.

Regardless of whether or not the drawn-from-memory bit of the story is true, it is hard to argue that the results are anything short of stunning. Having looked at numerous textbook figures and 3-D renderings of various brain parts it is my opinion that Cajal’s drawings are the easiest on the eyes. I realize that these drawings might not be Art Deco in the slightest, but they are old and reasonably within the time period. That’s acceptable to hang on my walls, right?

An image of the Brainbow technique developed at Harvard Medical School.

Cajal’s drawings had been shown to me in previous neuroscience classes, but what I hadn’t seen prior to this quarter is the technique referred to as Brainbow.  I would be hard pressed to claim these images as an acceptable aesthetic for a vintage building, but those grey walls in the hallway could really use some color, don’t you think?

While they may look akin to an abstract painting or a more colorful rendition of van Gogh’s Starry Night, you’re seeing fluorescent staining of individual neurons within a brain. This technique has been useful in studying the way in which neurons connect to each other–a field practically named “connectomics.”

Another example of the Brainbow technique.

Using fluorescence to visualize cellular stuff is nothing new (I’ve done it myself in e. coli), but the sheer number of distinctive colors produced using this technique makes it unique. You can generate over 100 different colors–therefore, 100 differently colored neurons–as opposed to the usually one to three color options offered by most other similar techniques. Brainbow is used predominantly in mice and Drosophila (fruit flies) and it is highly unlikely that we will ever see this being used in humans in its current state.

Regardless of not being used in humans, it is important to point out that research using model organisms such as Drosophila is key to any advancements we wish to make regarding human health. So next time you hear a presidential candidate mocking “fruit fly research in Paris, France” please don’t laugh along with them–laugh at them. And, more importantly, please don’t vote for them.

10 Potentially Amusing Presidential Ancedotes

One day, about 6 years ago, I was listening to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me when the panelists started joking about the Vice President shooting someone. “That’s weird,” I thought, “Why are they talking about Aaron Burr?” It took me a minute to realize they meant Dick Cheney, who was the current VP. And it’s not like I hadn’t heard about the hunting accident, because I had. That was the moment when I realized I was doomed.

As an atheist and American history nerd, President’s Day is as close to a religious holiday as I get. So as is tradition, here is my list of ten fun and interesting Presidential History Facts.

Practically a superhero and he KNEW it.

1. Bulletproof. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was campaigning for a third go as President under his newly-formed Bull Moose Party. Before a speaking engagement in Wisconsin, a man shot Roosevelt in the chest. The bullet was slowed by the copy of the speech in his breast pocket. Upon checking that he was not bleeding from the mouth, he insisted on speaking. With a pierced lung, he got up to the podium and, waving his blood-soaked pages in the air, shouted that it would take more than a bullet to stop a Bull Moose. Roosevelt spoke for 90 minutes before agreeing to go to the hospital. (This is merely the coolest of all of the TR is a Bad Ass anecdotes.)

2. Pus Reports. After James A. Garfield was shot in 1881, he was taken to a coastal town to get well. The nation was so captivated by the ailing President that his doctors issued daily reports to the press on Garfield’s condition. The reports were short and often focused on how much pus was oozing from his wounds. Garfield finally succumbed to death on September 19th, 1881.

3. Presidential Pets. Many Presidents have had dogs but Calvin Coolidge practically had a zoo. His pets included two kittens, several dogs, an antelope, a wallaby and a pygmy hippo. Coolidge also had two raccoons, Rebecca and Reuben, which he let roam around the White House, much to annoyance of the staff.

4. Pajamas. Thomas Jefferson believed in a casual, approachable government. When British Diplomat Andrew Merry arrived at the White House in full military uniform, Jefferson received him in his slippers and dressing gown. Merry was offended, thinking it was a jab at the British government. For the duration of his Presidency, Jefferson often greeted guests in his pajamas. (That is my kind of President.)

5. Every 80s Child Probably Remembers When Bush Senior Went to Japan. While on a state visit to Japan in 1992, President George H.W. Bush complained he felt ill before going to dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa. On live TV broadcast, Bush vomited in Miyazawa’s lap and then fainted. The faux-pas caused the Japanese media to coin the term *“bushu-suru”* or “to do a bush,” meaning to embarrass oneself by vomiting in public.

6. Bathtub Maintenance. William H. Taft was elected in 1908. At six foot two and over three hundred pounds, he was too big for the White House bathtub and had a larger one installed. The new tub measured seven feet long and three feet five inches wide and was said to be large enough for four normal-sized men.

7. The Whiskey Rebellion. Soon after Washington took office, the new US government enacted a Whiskey Tax to help pay for the Revolution. Furious about being taxed—taxation was used as propaganda to incite the war—people began forming small militias and threatening rebellion. Washington decided forcibly taking down these militias would tear the new nation apart before it began. Instead, he mounted his white horse and marched an army of 1200 men down through Pennsylvania. The show of force quelled the uprisings and America accepted that taxes are an inevitable part of life. You’re welcome.

8. Jackets Are For Sissies. William Henry Harrison’s inauguration day, March 4, 1841, was freezing and wet. Since no President before had given their Inauguration Address in a coat and hat, Harrison refused to wear them. He spoke for two hours in the cold and caught pneumonia. He died thirty days later, on April 4, making it the shortest Presidential term in history.

9. Peanut Farmer Becomes President. Jimmy Carter worked as a peanut farmer before becoming the Governor of Georgia and eventually President. Floating along in his Inauguration Parade in 1977 was a giant peanut-shaped balloon.

10. Poker. Warren G. Harding decided to host a gambling night in the White House for a few of his friends. During one hand the betting got high and Harding ran out of money. Instead of folding, Harding bet the White House’s china. He lost and so did the nation.

Originally printed in the City Collegian, a newspaper that was systematically killed by school politics.

Cross Dressing: Jeanne D’Arc

Note the curves in her armor to emphasize her femininity...

Thinking about the name Chicks With Crossbows, the first image that came to mind was a heroine that was some sort of a hybrid between stock characters in video games, fantasy novels, and action movies. I also thought of my mom who would occasionally do target practice in our backyard with her crossbow. Yes, you read that correctly. My mom would go into our backyard and shoot arrows at a target using her crossbow. It was pretty bad ass.

But when I tried to think of historical records of women using crossbows, I couldn’t think of one. Historically crossbows were used in war and wars were fought by men. Women did not typically go into battle because that was considered men’s domain. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any women who fought alongside men.

During the Siege of Orleans in 1428 Jeanne d’Arc – also known as Joan of Arc – was hit by an arrow fired by a crossbow. Crossbows are a fascinating weapon and, if Hollywood has it right, it looks like a horrible way to die if you’re hit in a vulnerable spot. Jeanne d’Arc was hit in the leg and that’s not so bad, I suppose, but it probably doesn’t make for a very successful day on the battlefield. Well, to be forthright, it’s not known beyond the shadow of a doubt that the arrow was shot by a crossbow, but that was the weapon of choice for many warriors on both the British and French sides, so we can surmise it was a crossbow that did the damage.

But it’s not the crossbow that I want to focus on, but Joan of Arc and her crime of cross-dressing. It’s probably no surprise that she wasn’t wearing a dress while in battle. It would have made her more physically vulnerable to weaponry and she would have been a much easier target for the English. But the fact that she wore men’s clothing became a central aspect of her trial because there were laws against that sort of deviant behavior. And those laws were supported by Biblical scripture.

Relying on Deuteronomy 22:5 – “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God” – those overseeing her trial built a case against the 19-year old that was grounded in Christian dogma. Of course, the clothing that men and women wore had changed dramatically since the book of Deuteronomy was written, but such trifles were not to be bothered with.

Jeanne also wore men’s clothing while imprisoned by the English, an act that was viewed as not only sinful, but arrogant as well. The Chief prosecutor of her case, Pierre Cauchon, built much of his case around her violation of gender roles that had established women as modest and passive.

But Jeanne was not foolish; she utilized Christian dogma to support her donning of male garments. In the court record she stated that, “I believe this seems strange to you, and not without cause; but since I must arm myself and serve the gentle Dauphin in war, it is necessary for me to wear these clothes, and also when I am among men in the habit of men, they have no carnal desire for me; and it seems to me that thus I can better preserve my purity in thought and deed.” It has been speculated that Jeanne d’Arc was sexually assaulted while a prisoner of the British and that her clothing defiance was an attempt to protect herself. Regardless of her motivation, it was this perceived act of defiance that her enemies used as one of the reasons to sentence her to death when she was only 19 years old.

For more information on Jeanne d’Arc, including the transcript of her trial, please visit http://primary-sources-series.joan-of-arc-studies.org/PSS021806.pdf

The 5 Nerdiest Presidential History Things I Own

I’ve always had a fascination with U.S. Presidents. I don’t know if it’s because the nation’s leader at any given time speaks volumes about the country when he was in office, or if I’m just impressed by men who get the job and don’t totally muck it up. It helps that I’m also hugely enamored with American history in general, so focusing one specific constant helps paint a larger picture of chronological events in our nation’s past.

Point is, I love Presidential History and these are some of the nerdy, silly Presidential things I have collected over the years. (Note: I also own a Mount Vernon nail clipper, but since I couldn’t find it, and figured no one would believe me without photographic evidence, it didn’t make the list.)

5. Abraham Lincoln Gettysburg Address Poster Hanging in my Kitchen

Hey, my roommate knew what he was getting into when we found a place together, okay?

I can recite the speech from memory, too.

I got this forever ago and it’s pretty beat up, but it still makes me smile. The Gettysburg Address might well be one of the best short speeches of all time. (Bonus nerd fact: I have a line from Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address tattooed on my arm. No joke! It says “With Malice Toward None.” Maybe that should have made the list? I can never get a good photo of it since it’s in a band around my upper arm.)

4. Presidential Card & Trivia Games

Despite suggested ages, I got both in my 20s.

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