Monday, June 17, 2019

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: A review

In his latest book, Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan gives us a bit of alternative history, a bit of science fiction, and wraps it all up in a unique menage a trois love story featuring a fully-functional humanoid robot named Adam.

In the world of this novel, Alan Turing did not die in 1954; he is still alive in the London of the 1980s, and, having been knighted by the queen, he lives openly with his longtime partner and is contributing to the advancement of computer technology and artificial intelligence. He is a much-honored member of society whose work during World War II and later is recognized for the world-changing event that it was. And Turing is the idolized hero of Charlie Friend, one of the main characters in this story.

Charlie leads a rather drab existence in which he makes a living - sort of - by playing the stock and currency markets. He lives in a shabby apartment and pines for the woman who lives upstairs, an enigma named Miranda.

He is also obsessed with robots, and when he unexpectedly comes into some money, he decides to spend it all on one of the first "Adams" to come on the market. There are twenty-five of these robots produced, 13 "Eves" along with 12 Adams and they are fully humanoid. They breathe and they are able to learn and can make moral judgments. They are not sex toys, but they are fully capable of a sexual relationship.

Charlie brings his Adam home and makes an agreement with Miranda to share designing his personality. Charlie will answer half the questions that establish the personality and Miranda will answer half. Soon their collaboration leads Charlie and Miranda into the sexual relationship which Charlie had desired, but he is appalled when he learns that Miranda has also had sex with Adam! And furthermore, it was very good sex!

Moreover, we learn that Adam, too, is in love with Miranda and that he composes haikus in her honor. A haiku-writing robot - what could be more human?

This odd relationship is further complicated by the introduction of a young boy, Mark, whose parents are abusive. Charlie and Miranda (especially Miranda) long to adopt the boy and free him from his abusive parents and they scheme to make it so.

Meanwhile, their other "child," Adam, seems to have established a higher ethical standard than either of his "parents." Charlie had assigned him the task of doing all his investing while he concentrated on his relationship with Miranda and Adam had quickly made a fortune with the investments, but he is troubled by the accumulation of that wealth and by the need which he sees existing in the world. It doesn't seem to him that Charlie and Miranda deserve all this wealth and he decides to do something about it.

Charlie and Miranda are complicated characters. Miranda has a particularly horrendous backstory and Charlie is not especially accomplished at dealing with reality. Can this relationship be saved? Can Mark be saved? Can Adam be saved, or, perhaps more to the point, can Adam save them all?

This is in many ways a tragic story of all too human foibles. The characters in McEwan's tale embody noble human qualities of love and family, but also less noble qualities like jealousy and deceit. And, in the end, Adam may be the noblest "human" of them all.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Poetry Sunday: A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

There are no red roses in my garden just now - only pink, yellow, and salmon-colored - but, with any luck, there will be soon. In the meantime, I'll settle for enjoying Robert Burns' iconic red, red rose. 

A Red, Red Rose

by Robert Burns

O my Luve is like a red, red rose 
   That’s newly sprung in June; 
O my Luve is like the melody 
   That’s sweetly played in tune. 

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass, 
   So deep in luve am I; 
And I will luve thee still, my dear, 
   Till a’ the seas gang dry. 

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, 
   And the rocks melt wi’ the sun; 
I will love thee still, my dear, 
   While the sands o’ life shall run. 

And fare thee weel, my only luve! 
   And fare thee weel awhile! 
And I will come again, my luve, 
   Though it were ten thousand mile.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - June 2019

Summertime (almost). The cicadas are serenading and the crape myrtles are in bloom. Here in hot pink.

And here in lavender.

'Cashmere Bouquet' clerodendron.

And potato vine.

'Belinda's Dream' rose.

It doesn't look very red but this is red yucca.

This was my much-appreciated Mother's Day gift from my daughters - a vitex shrub, also called chaste tree.

The blossoms remind one a bit of lilac which we can't grow here. They are much-loved by all pollinators, especially bees.

A Mother's Day gift from a previous year was this hydrangea which has been blooming its heart out this spring.

I do love its big squashy blossoms.

These blossoms are definitely not big and squashy. It's buttonbush (Cephalonthus occidentalis) and you can see how it got its common name. The blossoms do look a bit like buttons. It is a native plant, also much-loved by pollinators.

An oldie but a goodie - 4 o'clock.

This is a newer variety of 4 o'clock, planted last year.

And here's the white variety.

These daylilies have bloomed especially well this spring.

The ubiquitous salvia - autumn sage.

The rather inconspicuous little flowers of the beautyberry eventually develop into the colorful berries that give the plant its name.

'Pride of Barbados' - one of my favorite summer bloomers. Those hot orange and yellow blossoms just seem to say "summer."

Duranta erecta - aka golden dewdrop.


Wonderful blooms!

Justicia 'Orange Flame' has been especially floriferous this spring.

The wildflower, purple-head sneezeweed, that I showed you last month is still going strong.

Some of the purple coneflowers are in bloom.

Tropical milkweed. I haven't seen many Monarchs this spring and no caterpillars yet.

This native sunflower doesn't have the big dinner-plate sized individual blooms of the cultivated varieties but it covers itself in these saucer-sized beauties.


Nearby the crocosmia is almost in bloom.

Turk's Cap lit by the setting sun.

The crinum 'Ellen Bosanquet' never fails me.

Summer phlox, always a wonderful addition to the summer garden.

And what would the summer garden be without its iconic sound effects? Here's one of those aforementioned serenaders, a cicada, resting on the ground before taking flight.

That's a sample of what's blooming in my southeast Texas garden this June. I hope you and your garden are enjoying this (almost) summer. Thank you for visiting and thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting.

Happy Bloom Day!

Friday, June 14, 2019

This week in birds - #356

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Carolina Wrens are tiny birds with a huge repertoire of songs. They are brilliant singers and mated pairs sing back and forth to each other in a kind of call and response. They are welcome visitors to my feeders and I enjoy listening to their serenades whenever I am in the garden.


Four former Environmental Protection Agency heads - three Republicans and one Democrat - in testimony to Congress this week excoriated the present administration for its neglect of its core duties. They bemoaned the exodus of longtime EPA employees and the sinking morale of career staffers and expressed concern that five decades of environmental progress are at risk because of the attitude and approach of the current administration.  


Wildfire season in Canada, which is as destructive as in the United States, is off to a ferocious start. Eighty-seven fires were burning in seven provinces and two territories Monday, forcing 4,415 people from their homes. As the Canadian north grows warmer and drier for longer periods, the destruction is expected to get worse. Wildfires are now scorching more than 6 million acres of land there per year. That’s twice what they burned in the 1970s and it is projected to double again by the end of the century.


The heat wave in India, one of the longest and most intense in decades, continues with no relief in sight. So far 36 people have died since May as a result of the relentless heat which has sent daily temperatures soaring well above 120 degrees. Authorities have warned that the suffering will continue as the monsoon rains have been delayed.


Scientists are warning that a near-record-sized "dead zone" may develop in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. The area of oxygen-starved water develops because of runoff of fertilizers from farms in the Midwest that wash into the Mississippi River and are carried down to the Gulf. There has been unusually high rainfall there this spring which exacerbates the problem. The fertilizers feed algae which die, decompose, and deplete the water of oxygen which is deadly for the marine life in the area - thus a "dead zone."  


Alaska is melting. The permafrost is no longer permanent. The state heats up twice as quickly as the rest of the country as a result of human-caused global warming and it is causing the permafrost to defrost and is destabilizing buildings and roads.


Here is a profile of the nation's newest national park, Indiana Dunes.


The relationship between humans and cannabis has existed for a very long time. It didn't start in the '60s. A study published this week detailed the use of cannabis in mortuary rituals in the Pamir Mountains of western China as early as 500 B.C.E.


Human destruction of the living world is causing an extraordinary and alarming number of plant extinctions, according to scientists who have completed the first global analysis of the issue. Their analysis found 571 species had definitely been wiped out since 1750 but with knowledge of many plant species still very limited the true number is likely to be much higher. The researchers said the plant extinction rate was 500 times greater now than before the industrial revolution, and this was also likely to be an underestimate.


Monarch butterflies famously migrate across the continent twice a year, but many other insects also migrate more anonymously. However, their swarms are often so large that they show up on weather radar sometimes confusing the watching meteorologists.


Researchers have determined that our Defense Department in its worldwide operations emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than entire countries like Portugal and Sweden. 


Do you talk to your plants? Did you know that your plants talk to each other? Plants do, in fact, communicate and the field of study of just how they do that is growing in popularity. Currently, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has an installation which illustrates the chatty nature of plants.


Yes, there really are such things as vampire finches. They are one of the finches of the Galapagos Islands and they have developed their taste for blood as an adaptation to hard times. As long as plenty of food is available, they stick to seeds, nectar, and insects, but when drought comes and the banquet table gets bare, they resort to opening wounds on other birds and drinking the blood.  


It turns out that the highest concentration of microplastics found in the ocean are not floating on the surface but are more than 650 below the surface.


Scientists, aided by citizen scientists, are working to develop a procedure to identify the source of pollution by a "chemical fingerprint." It offers a resource for helping to hold polluters accountable for poisoning the environment.


The tiny killifish can endure in a variety of harsh environments and it develops that their eggs are no less hardy. Researchers have documented killifish eggs that have been swallowed by a swan and later pooped out, still intact. They have now documented at least one such egg that hatched more than a month after it made its transit through the digestive system of a goose. This may explain in part how fish get spread from one body of water to another. Waterbirds are their vector.  

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Spring by Ali Smith: A review

Third in Ali Smith's remarkable seasonal series of novels comes Spring. All three of the books have been timely, the action in them occurring almost in the time frame in which we read them. The action here is mostly in October 2018. Considering the time it takes to write a book - the drafting, the revision, the editing, and finally the publication - how does she manage to do that?

The books are very much of this political era, the post-Brexit vote in the UK and the post-2016 presidential election in the US, and this book deals cogently and in white-hot passion with the monstrous treatment of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

The opening line of Spring is, "Now what we don't want is facts" and thus Smith sums up very succinctly the governing strategy of the moment. Facts are not really facts but are whatever you can get people to believe. Truth is malleable and waiting to be shaped by the master propagandists. This is the background for the stories she tells us.

She gives us a psychological tale about Richard Lease, a filmmaker. Lease is grieving over the death of his best friend, an older female screenwriter with whom he had collaborated. Thus one of the themes of the series, male appreciation for female artists, continues with this book. But it is not only Lease's appreciation for the work of his (fictional) friend but also he reveres the work of a real artist named Tacita Dean. Moreover, the last gift his now deceased friend gave him was an idea for a film about writers Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke who spent weeks in the same small Swiss town in 1922 but never met. She also bequeathed her set of Mansfield books to Lease. So, in fact, the work of three female artists is woven into the story.

Smith also interweaves sections of social media renderings, particularly the collective voice of Twitter trolls which are just as hateful, racist, misogynistic, and ignorant as you might expect. These examples of contemporary "culture" are especially disturbing because we know that they actually do occur. Users of Twitter and other such platforms do threaten to rape, murder, and otherwise physically assault anyone - especially any woman - who dares to express opinions at variance with their dogma. These sections give the novel even greater timeliness. Many could have been taken from our president's daily Twitter output.

Smith then shifts again to the story of Brit, a young woman who works in an Immigration Removal Center, which, she helpfully explains to a refugee who had come to Britain sealed in a hauling container, is not a prison, "it's a purpose-built Immigration Removal Center with a prison design." We understand very quickly that Brit has lost any moral sense she might have once possessed.

Brit's life is changed when she meets a 12- or 13-year-old schoolgirl named Florence who showed up at the I.R.C. one day and somehow - magical realism? - managed to shame the director into having the stinking bathrooms cleaned. Those who meet Florence seem to be in thrall to her and willingly do her bidding.

Soon, but not until we have fully experienced the horrors of the Immigration Removal Center, Brit and Florence hit the road and eventually end up, along with Richard Lease, in a Scottish town. Here, the stories of Lease, Brit, and Florence do finally merge. 

Any summary that I give of this novel is bound to be inadequate. It really has to be experienced. It could be a stand-alone but, ideally, I think it should be experienced, along with Autumn and Winter, in the order in which Smith has published them. Although the stories are not tightly connected in any way, they do build on each other. This one could be said to be the most political of the three. It is certainly the angriest and, in many ways, the most despairing and pessimistic. What, I wonder, will Summer bring? 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves: A review

I have long enjoyed the BBC television adaptation of Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope mysteries as well as the other television series based on her books, Shetland. The actor who plays Vera, Brenda Blethyn, is absolutely perfect in the role, as is the man who plays her sergeant, Joe. Now that I've finally gotten around to reading the first book in the Vera series, I imagined those two actors speaking their lines as I read them. It certainly enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

Not that my enjoyment especially needed enhancing. I thought the book was wonderful in its plotting and in the characters that were introduced along the way. I can't think of a single thing that I would change about it.

All of the main characters in the story are women. We first meet Bella Furness, a middle-aged wife caring for her invalid husband. She walks out of her house one day and is next seen by Rachael Lambert who arrives in the area to lead an environmental study. When Rachael arrives at the cottage that is to be home base for the environmental study team, she is horrified to discover the body of Bella Furness hanging in the barn, an apparent suicide.

The death is ruled a suicide and meantime the other two women members of the team arrive at the cottage: Botanist Anne Preece and mammalogist Grace Fulwell. Anne is hoping to combine her work on the study with some extracurricular time spent with her lover, now that she is away from her husband. Grace, who shares a name with the prominent local family but says she isn't related, is hiding secrets of her own and is uncommunicative and unsocial with her fellow team members. 

The study, which is to determine if there is an ecological reason to call a halt to a plan for a quarry nearby, begins and we spend time with each of the three women scientists. The first two-thirds of the book is spent in their company as we get to know them and follow them in their work, and through them, we get to know the surrounding community and residents who are supporting and opposing the quarry.

During all of this time, Vera Stanhope doesn't make an appearance. (Well, actually, she does make one appearance but she is never identified; however, I recognized her from her description.) But then a second death occurs and this time it is clearly murder and that brings Vera and her team on the scene. Then we get to watch her in her unique investigative style as she gets to know the characters and potential victims and/or suspects and homes in on the perpetrator. I had seen the show that was based on this book but it had been some years ago and, frankly, I did not remember who that was and so I was surprised once again when the murderer was unmasked.

The best thing about the book for me was the way that Cleeves was able to draw me into the lives of each one of the main characters and explore the psychology behind their actions. Plus there were sufficient red herrings to keep me guessing. Good stuff! A thoroughly enjoyable read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Poetry Sunday: The Cloud by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote this poem in 1819-20. It was published in 1820.

He uses the cloud as a metaphor for the unending cycle of Nature. It's a theme that was inherent in several of his poems. The imagery of transformation or metamorphosis in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth was a subject which fascinated him and one that he strove to express through his poetry.

His final stanza here really sums up all of that: "I change, but I cannot die."

The Cloud

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers, 
From the seas and the streams; 
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid 
In their noonday dreams. 
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken 
The sweet buds every one, 
When rocked to rest on their mother's breast, 
As she dances about the sun. 
I wield the flail of the lashing hail, 
And whiten the green plains under, 
And then again I dissolve it in rain, 
And laugh as I pass in thunder. 

I sift the snow on the mountains below, 
And their great pines groan aghast; 
And all the night 'tis my pillow white, 
While I sleep in the arms of the blast. 
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers, 
Lightning my pilot sits; 
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder, 
It struggles and howls at fits; 
Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion, 
This pilot is guiding me, 
Lured by the love of the genii that move 
In the depths of the purple sea; 
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills, 
Over the lakes and the plains, 
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream, 
The Spirit he loves remains; 
And I all the while bask in Heaven's blue smile, 
Whilst he is dissolving in rains. 

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes, 
And his burning plumes outspread, 
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack, 
When the morning star shines dead; 
As on the jag of a mountain crag, 
Which an earthquake rocks and swings, 
An eagle alit one moment may sit 
In the light of its golden wings. 
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath, 
Its ardours of rest and of love, 
And the crimson pall of eve may fall 
From the depth of Heaven above, 
With wings folded I rest, on mine aëry nest, 
As still as a brooding dove. 

That orbèd maiden with white fire laden, 
Whom mortals call the Moon, 
Glides glimmering o'er my fleece-like floor, 
By the midnight breezes strewn; 
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet, 
Which only the angels hear, 
May have broken the woof of my tent's thin roof, 
The stars peep behind her and peer; 
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee, 
Like a swarm of golden bees, 
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent, 
Till calm the rivers, lakes, and seas, 
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high, 
Are each paved with the moon and these. 

I bind the Sun's throne with a burning zone, 
And the Moon's with a girdle of pearl; 
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim, 
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl. 
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape, 
Over a torrent sea, 
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof, 
The mountains its columns be. 
The triumphal arch through which I march 
With hurricane, fire, and snow, 
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair, 
Is the million-coloured bow; 
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove, 
While the moist Earth was laughing below. 

I am the daughter of Earth and Water, 
And the nursling of the Sky; 
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores; 
I change, but I cannot die. 
For after the rain when with never a stain 
The pavilion of Heaven is bare, 
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams 
Build up the blue dome of air, 
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph, 
And out of the caverns of rain, 
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb, 
I arise and unbuild it again.