Archive for pandemic

a journal of the plague year [post-december reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2021 by xi'an

Read a (French) novel by Fred Vargas, Sous les Vents de Neptune, after finding it in the book depository near my office. And enjoyed it very much, partly because it was partly taking place near Ottawa [which I visited many times while my wife was completing her EE Master there] and partly because of the author’s ability to make us doubt the main character and to keep the suspense tight enough for most of the book. There are a trip to Montréal to attend a concert and a journey to Detroit and back to find a lost relation, both reminding me of drives on these roads more than 30 years ago. What annoyed me though was the caricaturesque depiction of the locals, with a Québecois French that sounded overdone. Checking for a local perspective on that aspect, I found a book review in Le Devoir of 2004 sharing the reservation on that aspect, if with humour.  (I would also have rather done without the super-hacker character à la Lisbeth Salander.)

Watched Still Life (三峡好人) a 2006 film by Jia Zhangke, as it was proposed in the list of my local cinema (which I support during the endless lockdown of cinemas and theatres in France). This is an amazing film, which at the same time feels incredibly remote or alien… It follows two characters arriving by boat on the at the Three Gorges Dam under construction in search of a runaway spouse. The search for their respective spouse takes place among the demolition of the old Fengjie, soon to be drowned under 150 meters of dam water. This demolition makes for a unique soundtrack, workers hammering in cadence as blurred black shades against the sky. The dialogues are full of long silences, except for the background hammering, and it often feels theatrical. But the characters maintain a strong dignity throughout the film and the depiction of the last days of Fengjie is gripping. The film received the 2006 Venezia Golden Lion.

Cooked a few Venetian dishes from a Venetian cookbook that was my Xmas gift. And finished that way past-the-date polenta boxes. Managed to escape unscathed from both the bûche and galette weeks! And found that cooking spelt bread with spelt yeast was unbelievably easy, taking less time to work on the dough than to reach the closest bakery!

Could not manage to achieve a coherent discussion with some anti-vaxxer relatives over the Xmas break. And gave up, still hoping they would change their mind.

Watched the first episodes of The Expanse, which started as a collection of eight novels and eight shorter works, before turning into a TV series which won the 2020 Hugo Award. Enjoyable if a rather conventional setting, with the usual disregard for space physics! Reminded me very much of the Takeshi Kovacs novels.  To quote from Wikipedia, “Ty Franck began developing the world of The Expanse initially as the setting for a MMORPG and, after a number of years, for a tabletop roleplaying game.” Some of the actors are terrific (even though Steven Strait’s Holden painfully reminds me of Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow, to the point I wondered for a while if they were the same actor…)

Xs Xplain’d

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2021 by xi'an

tempDavid Spiegelhalter is starting a column in The Guardian about COVID-19, the first installment being about excess death statistics. Arguing rightly that it is “fairer to look at what has happened to the total number of deaths”, since this is an objective quantity (in countries with trustworthy death statistics). The discussion on how many of the excess deaths can be attributed to the pandemic is somewhat confusing, though, as little can be said with enough confidence, between the positive impact (flu deaths have plummeted, 30% less traffic deaths in France, &tc.) and the negative impact (stress, harsher economic or social conditions, &tc.) A worthy warning: the deficit in “other” deaths during the second wave is partly due to the extra deaths during the first wave, esp. for fragile and elderly persons.

a journal of the plague year [almost gone]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2021 by xi'an

Read The stars are legion, by Kameron Hurley, which I brought back from Gainesville last year. Although I cannot remember why I bought the book, it must have been a “recommendation” on Amazon… The story is part unusual, part classical, with a constant switch between the two major characters [viewpoint].  And between different times. The style is complex, maybe too complex, as the universe is slowly revealing itself, through the perception biases of the characters. Including (spoiler!) one with multiple memory erasures and two attempts at recycling. Stars are actually (spoiler!) space-ships with some possibly organic elements that are decomposing (and showing the steel skeletons), with also apparently organic smaller vessels to travel between ships or fight between clans. Some of the ship inhabitants are mutants, possibly for being unprotected from space or ship radiations (although the control and propulsion of these ships is never mentioned), possibly because they are perceived as such by different groups in the ships, à la Huxley’s Brave New World? And there seem to be only females on-board, with all of them getting (mysteriously) pregnant at one time or another, rarely giving birth to children (associated with driving the ships? creating new ships?) but rather to other organic entities, apparently contributing to keeping the ship alive. All this is quite creative, with a powerful theme of power versus motherhood, but the story-telling is just too messy for me to have enjoyed it. The more because the type of subterranean universe where characters wander from one level to the next and discover supremely different ecosystems at each level never appealed to me. Since I read Verne’s Voyage au Centre de la Terre. (And I suddenly remembered dropping out of an earlier Hurley’s book.)

Cooked (the last remaining) pumpkin risotto with (legal) Lapsang tea, which worked out rather nicely, albeit loosing most of the Lapsang flavour. Had a week of (pleasant) cookie flavour home fragrance while my wife was preparing cookies for the entire family. Cooked a brunch with my son on the last Sunday of 2020, once again with Lapsang as drink. And had a Michelin take-away with my mom in Caen, since all restaurants remain closed till an unknown date. Which proved a great choice as it was surprisingly good, once out of the (potato starch) package.

Watched Season 2 of the BBC His Dark Materials series. Still impressed by the high level of the show (and enjoying it even more as I had forgotten basically everything about The Subtle Knife!) Except for the dark matter physicist turning to I Ching to understand her empirical experiment… But it remains a great series (esp. when mostly avoiding bears.) Also rewatched a Harry Potter film with my daughter, The Order of the Phoenix, which I found rather poor on the whole, despite a few great scenes (like the Wesley twins’ departure) and the fabulous rendering of the petty bureaucratic evil of Mrs. Umbridge throughout the film. And a part of The Half Blood Prince. Which sounded much better by comparison.

“It slowly dawned on me that it’s possible for the wise men who run your life for you to see disaster coming and not have a plan for dealing with it”

Read another K.J. Parker’s book, “How to rule an empire and get away with it“, sequel to “Sixteen ways &tc.” Light (mind-candy) but enjoyable bedside reading. Somewhat of a classical trick where a double becomes the real thing, if not in a Kagemusha tragic style.

For a resilient and recovery year

Posted in Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2021 by xi'an

a journal of the plague year [december reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2020 by xi'an

Read only a part of a Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Steelheart, that I found incredibly terrible (given the achievements of the writer). With a few cardboard characters, incl. the (compulsory) nerdy teenager with unique skills and a David Copperfield childhood (also named David) and cartoonesque villains with superpowers. Until I realised, while looking at its Wikipedia page, that this was intended as a (very?) young adult novel… And did not try to finish the book (first of a trilogy) before leaving it in the exchange section in front of our University library.

Cooked (and enjoyed) a fennel and (local) honey tarte tatin and a broccoli polenta with Vacherin (cheese). Made several rye breads as I find them easier to knead and bake than other flours, once I found that I could get fresh yeast by the gram from my favourite bakery.  Fell into a routine of cooking winter vegetables, like pumpkins, butternuts, and cabbages, Jerusalem artichokes (a pain to peel!) and (expensive) tuberous chervil. Plus the available mushrooms.

Watched a few episodes of the Korean drama Two Cops (투깝스), more for the scenes showing bits and pieces of Seoul, than for a very thin and predictive plot. Following a radio broadcast mentioning Carol Reed’s The Third Man as one of the best movies ever—although I had read Greene’s novel a long while ago—, I tried to find it online but ended up instead watching for the first time Fritz Lang’s Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse,  which is his third Mabuse film and the last film he shot (in 1960). While the harsh lights and grainy surveillance TV screens, along with absolutely everyone smoking, put some perspective to the story, connecting post-war West Germany with its immediate past, I did not enjoy much the acting, which sounded very artificial, and the plot was quasi-nonexistent.

Read Olin Steinhauer’s The Bridge of Sighs, which was his first novel, as I had greatly enjoyed The Tourist. It takes place in an unnamed Eastern European country that could be Moldova (since Hungary and Czechoslovakia are described as West, while Romania is mentioned as another country, but the city could well be Szeged, both for having its own Bridge of Sighs and for being crossed by the Tisa), right after the War, as a Stalinist regime is under construction and a rookie cop, grand-son of a communist ex-hero, tries to navigate the new regime. I really liked the book: it is very well-written, meaning an attention to style and perspective that stays away from the usual endless dialogues in crime novelsand the characters have depth and originality, I enjoyed also the somewhat Mediterranean cum Balkanic feel of this post-war Soviet satellite. And will presumably seek the following volumes from UK resellers…