After months of talking about how our lives were more complicated than we could deal with, R and I took a step in simplifying.

Our apartment is overflowing with books. Five to six years ago, we got new bookshelves to deal with the problem. Three years ago, we just started putting the extra books in boxes that slowly started piling up. Two years ago, R was banned from buying new books and mostly bought his books in e-book format. Of course this meant he has had several e-book readers including two version of the Sony Reader and every version of the Kindle. But it seemed worth it compared to having more books enter the house.

At the end of 2010 though, we had about five thousand books in the house and we made the decision to donate most of them. R found a charity recommended by the NY Public Library (which no longer accepts any books) and off we went. First R and then I went through every book we had, making a “keep” or “give decision. We ended up keeping around a thousand books. There was a battle over some.

Of the four thousand others, we invited our friends to come take as many as they wanted (a small sample of them in the pictures below). Over the course of a week, about 9 boxes of books were scooped up by friends, including a box that will be shipped to Canada and one to San Francisco. Some of them are already in Chile. Pretty cool.

And a couple of weeks ago, the other 50 boxes were collected by the charity.

It was not an easy process, but it feels good. Over 90% of our book purchases will be electronic going forward. Which… makes me think of all the things that I need e-readers to do to live up to the wonderful, tangible, real world benefits physical books in a home offer. I’ll save that for the next post…

Coolest bookshelf…

BookshelfThis post made me look around and realize how much I adore our bookshelves…

Sometime in 2005, we ran out of bookshelf space. Done. All gone. But there was a small problem – we still had about 30 boxes of books in storage and we had to get them out.

The boxes showed up, we doubled up every shelf in the house – so there are two layers of books on every single shelf – and yes, you can’t see the second layer at all. Even after all that, we still had close to a thousand books and no clue where to put them.

Then we discovered these really cool stand alone bookshelves. In fact, when fully stocked, you can’t even see that it is a bookshelf. It looks like a stack of books rising from the floor. We first got a couple and then, over time, acquired a few more.

Life savers. Space savers. And elegant. These now dot the house. I can’t recommend them more highly. But as much as I love them, R is on a book diet and is also armed with an eBook reader in the hope that we don’t have to buy more of these!

Harry Potter and the ending

I get very involved with the characters in a book. I’ve laughed and cried, been elated or depressed based on what happens to the people in it. Maybe it is because I visualize as I read and the characters become much more real to me.

And… I can’t stand stress and waiting to find out what happens. Does she get the guy? Does Harry Potter live? Argh, I can’t bear it. I’ve been that way ever since I was a kid – much to my mother’s horror, I have flipped to the last page, heaved a happy sigh and then consumed the rest of my book.

And that is exactly what I will do with the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I will open the book to the last page, figure out what happens to Harry and then start at the beginning. I want to enjoy the whole book, see how the plot unfolds, who lives, who dies, who’s good, who’s bad. But I will do so much more calmly/resignedly knowing what happens to Harry.

Just in case you are curious, for all the Harry Potter books so far, the stakes have never been high enough, so I never jumped ahead!

Ah, it will feel good to know… 🙂

And yes, I could find out now from the leaked source. While the publishers will be livid at the leak, I don’t think it will affect sales in any way. Knowing the ending is not enough – people want to know how it unfolds. And for me at least, I can’t read a badly photographed online version of the book – I will be reading the published book, fresh, crisp and heavy in my hands. Can’t wait.

Crazy scientists

It is a given than artists and other “creative” types are quirky. They get a lot of leeway because everyone expects them to be slightly odd. But I am discovering that scientists can be equally odd.

I am reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything. It is a great book and I am fascinated by some of the more personal information he shares about the men who’ve changed our world.

Newton was a decided odd figure – brilliant beyond measure, but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted (upon swinging his feet out of bed in the morning he would reportedly sometimes sit for hours, immobilized by the sudden rush of thoughts to his head), and capable of the most riveting strangeness. He built his own laboratory, the first at Cambridge, but then engaged in the most bizarre experiments. Once he inserted a bodkin – a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather – into his eye socked and rubbed it around “betwixt my eye and the bone as hear to [the] backside of my as I could” just to see what would happen. What happened, miraculously, was nothing – at least nothing lasting. On another occasion, he stared at the Sun for as long as he could bear, to determine what effect it would have upon his vision. Again he escaped lasting damage, though he had to sped some days in a darkened room before his eyes forgave him.

Amazing, huh? A supreme genius who did such crazy things. Apparently Newton also spent about half his life on alchemy and very odd religious pursuits.

In 1936, the economist John Maynard Keynes bought a trunk of Newton’s papers at auction and discovered with astonishment that they were overwhelmingly preoccupied not with optics or planetary motions, but with the single-minded quest to turn base metals into precious ones. An analysis of a strand of Newton’s hair in the 1970s found it contained mercury – an element of interest to alchemists, hatters, and thermometer-makers but almost no one else – at a concentration some forty times the natural level. It is perhaps little wonder that he had trouble remembering to rise in the morning.

Fascinating stuff. Thankfully, between all this, Newton found the few years to write down his work in the world changing paper, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

And that’s just Newton. Bill Bryson makes science fascinating by also telling us about he people behind the discoveries we take for granted today.

He shares the most delightful tales about exasperating efforts – like the one where scientists from all parts of the world wanted to track the passage of Venus across the face of the Sun.

The tireless Edmond Halley had suggested years before that if you measured one of these passages from selected points on the Earth, you could use the principles of triangulation to work out the distance to the Sun, and from that calibrate the distances to all the other bodies in the solar system.

He goes on to give us the sad plight of the scientists who set out years in advance of 1761 to position themselves to track this event. Oh, the event happens in pairs of eights or eight years apart and then doesn’t happen again for more than a century. So… important to catch it

Many observers were waylaid by war, sickness, or shipwreck. Others made their destinations but opened their crates to find equipment broken or warped by tropical heat. Once again the French seemed fated to provide the most memorably unlucky participants. Jean Chappe spent months traveling to Siberia by coach, boat, and sleigh, nursing his delicate instruments over every perilous bump, only to find the last vital stretch blocked by swollen rivers, the result of unusually heavy spring rains, which the locals were swift to blame on him after they saw him pointing strange instruments at the sky. Chappe managed to escape with his life, but no useful measurements.

Unluckier still was Guillaume Le Gentil, whose experiences are wonderfully summarized by Timothy Ferris in Coming of Age in the Milky Way. Le Gentil set of from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setbacks left him still at sea on a day of the transit – just about the worst place to be since steady measurements were impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his equipments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but, just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: three hours, fourteen minutes, and seven seconds.

Unbelievable. It brings home how much pain and sacrifice these men of science made for the greater good. It makes them much more human and it makes me really want to keep reading more.

If you haven’t read this book, get it now. It is fabulous – so educational and also entertaining at the same time.

Note: I typed the passages out from the book. The publisher and author retain all copyright.

Copenhagen Consensus

Confused’s post on motives behind charity giving, reminded me about one of the most analytical ways to think about charitable giving that I�ve ever heard of.

Bjorn Lomborg, a Scandinavian economist, became famous for his controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, that challenged the notion that our ecology was at risk. He proposed that our environment was actually improving and that if there was real risk, people would adapt how they did things in order to continue to live on earth. He also proposed that giving money to climate change was like burning it.

As someone who believes that our climate has changed and that people need to sit up, take notice and do something about it, this was hard to hear.

But in 2005, I attended the TED conference. And I heard Bjorn speak. He was extraordinarily compelling. He has started a project called the Copenhagen Consensus. What the Copenhagen Consensus does is get top thinkers to figure out the charitable causes that can be best addressed with funding. That is, if you gave one dollar to climate control or one dollar to fighting communicable diseases, where would your money be more efficiently used and actually help solve the problem. The first year, he had economists participate and rank the problems. You can see the results here. In 2005, he had 24 UN ambassadors do the ranking. It is quite interesting.

If you are someone who cares about your money actually helping to solve a problem, check out the website to learn about where it would be most compellingly used. It is not the only way to think about charitable contributions, but it is the most analytical way to do so.

Kiran Desai wins Booker Prize

kiranbook.jpgThis is cool. Kiran Desai became the youngest woman to win the Man Booker Prize for her book “The Inheritance Of Loss”. The last Indian woman to win it was Arundathi Roy for “God Of Small Things”, which I loved.

It took Kiran eight years to write the novel (wow!) and she dedicated it to her mother, Anita Desai, who was nominated for the Booker three times, but never won.

Click on the book to listen to Kiran’s reading.

Here’s an excellent interview by one of my favorite bloggers, Jabberwock.