John Blackburn’s A Book of the Dead

If you’ve read my blog enough, you know that I occasionally write introductions for volumes released by the excellent Valancourt Books, in particular a lot of introductions to the work of the late John Blackburn (1923-1993), master of horror and thrillers.  Well, I’m happy to say that one of Blackburn’s rarest books, A Book of the Dead, was recently released by Valancourt, with an introduction again by me!

A Book of the Dead (1984) is Blackburn’s second-to-last novel, and it is a murder mystery set in the world of used book sellers.  When a longtime book trader turns up dead after paying a ridiculous amount of money for an obscure and unimportant nonfiction adventure book called Men of Courage, his friend Tom Payne suspects foul play.  With the help of the lovely heiress Janet Vale and the obnoxious and egotistical adventurer J. Moldon-Mott, he begins an investigation not only into the circumstances of the death but into history of the seemingly uninteresting book.  The trio quickly finds themselves in a race to unmask the murderer not only before he strikes again, but before he strikes out at them!

A Book of the Dead is a great Blackburn book with some very odd quirks to it.  In my introduction, I talk about why it may be considered Blackburn’s most rare and most famous book, at the same time!  Folks who enjoy clever, fast-paced mystery novels will find it quite enjoyable.

Posted in Mystery/thriller, Personal | 1 Comment

Dr. SkySkull in Rome: Colosseo and Palatino

Part 3 of a series of photo essays on my recent trip to Rome. Part 1 can be read here, and Part 2 can be read here.

We got up early on day 3 in Rome to head to the Colosseum.  On the recommendation of my guidebook, I had purchased combined Colosseum/Palatine Hill tickets for us the night before, and this turned out to be a great idea. Instead of waiting in a line that might have been hours long, we were able to go through a separate line where we waiting, in the shade, for some 20 minutes at most before getting inside.  I highly recommend buying the “full” combined tickets at coopculture.  Even if you don’t visit the Palatine Hill, the time savings is worth it, though the Palatino is definitely worth visiting, as we will see below.

Only once we had passed the ticket readers did I realize that I had been doubting that we would actually make it inside!  The Colosseum is one of the top tourist attractions in Rome, and probably a top attraction in Europe, and we were in Rome during the tourist season; the day before, we heard that the (regular) line was over three hours long.  I took the following selfie to convince myself that I was, in fact, going to see the Colosseum.


Continue reading

Posted in Animals, History of science, Personal, Travel | 1 Comment

Swift to Chase, by Laird Barron

(Taking a short break from entanglement and Rome posts to catch up on some fiction blogging!)

Laird Barron is, in my humble opinion, one of the most talented authors of horror fiction working today, and will be regarded historically as one of the greats of all time.  I quickly snap up anything new by him — though sometimes it takes me a little while to become aware of it!

I recently read Barron’s Swift to Chase, which came out in October of 2016.  It is the fourth major collection of his short stories, after The Imago Sequence (2007), Occultation (2010), The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013).

(There is also a special limited edition collection, A Little Brown Book of Burials, that came out in 2015.)

Continue reading

Posted in Horror | Leave a comment

Dr. SkySkull in Rome: Working and walking

Part 2 of a series of photo essays on my recent trip to Rome. Part 1 can be read here.

Day 2 of our Rome trip was a combination of work and vacation. The choice of Rome as a destination was originally motivated by an invitation from an optics colleague to visit him at Roma Tre University, and my former postdoc advisor and I both volunteered to give short talks about our research.  We were scheduled for pre-lunchtime presentations, so we slept in a little bit and then took a taxi to the university.

Even a taxi ride in Rome can be interesting, though, as we passed several ancient landmarks of note along the way!  Three of them appeared in a single photo I snapped on the road.

The Piazza Bocca della Verità.

In the foreground of this piazza is the Fountain of the Tritons (Fontana dei Tritoni), completed in 1715 under order of Pope Clement XI as a monument in his memory.  Right behind that is a significantly older structure, the Tempio di Ercole Vincitore (Temple of Hercules Victor), which dates to the 2nd century B.C.E.!  The roof on the structure is not original, but was added later; the columns are original.  On the far right of the photo is the Tempio di Portuno (Temple of Portunus), originating in the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E. but rebuilt somewhere around 100 B.C.E. It, and the Temple of Hercules Victor, were both converted to Catholic churches at some point in their history and probably owe their survival to this.

Continue reading

Posted in Personal, Travel | 2 Comments

Dr. SkySkull in Rome: Walking the city

My recent trip to Europe was officially work-related, as I was an “opponent” in a PhD defense for a student of my former postdoc advisor in Amsterdam.   We decided some time ago, however, to add a trip to Rome after the defense, and spent a lovely 4 days in the Italian city together with the graduating student.  Between my cellphone and my 35mm camera, I took some 1000 photos, and of course I wanted to share a bunch of them here!

I’ll break up my tour of Rome into several posts.  Of course I’ll dedicate entire posts to major sights such as the Colosseum, the Vatican Museum, and the Appian Way, but in this first post I thought I’d share some of the sights as seen just walking around the city on the first day.

Continue reading

Posted in Personal, Travel | 3 Comments

Dr. SkySkull in Amsterdam: Optics in the Rijksmuseum

The lower level of the Rijksmuseum, an area relatively few time-strapped visitors manage to visit, is reserved for more practical forms of art: musical instruments, ceramics, ship figureheads, weapons, and the like.  I explored this whole area on my recent whirlwind tour of the Rijksmuseum and was delighted to find something I wasn’t expecting: optics-based art!  The museum contains an excellent and diverse collection of magic lantern slides, as well as an optical art form that I had never heard about before, called a diaphanorama.  I spent a good 10 minutes photographing everything I could in the exhibit, probably looking like a weirdo in the process, and would like to share those photographs and a few words about the optics and history here.

Continue reading

Posted in Entertainment, History of science, Optics, Travel | 2 Comments

Dr. SkySkull in Amsterdam: A silly tour of the Rijksmuseum

I’ve been rather quiet lately because of work and travel!  A bit over a week ago, I flew to Amsterdam to participate in a PhD defense, and then traveled to Rome to give a talk and tour the city, which kept me quite busy.  As I’ve done in the past, I thought I would do a series of photo essays on my travels.

I flew to Amsterdam on the 18th of June, arriving on the 19th, and pretty much had the entire day to myself, as my former postdoc advisor and his PhD student were taking care of last-minute preparations for her thesis defense.  So, after a quick lunch with them, I was set free on the town.

Ready for some culture! I think I always look my most handsome on two occasions: right after a skydive, and right before a museum.

I was staying at the Hotel Piet Hein, which is within a short walking distance to Amsterdam’s magnificent art museum, the Rijksmuseum.  When I lived in Amsterdam back around 2003, the museum was mostly closed for major renovations, and so I had never had the opportunity to see it in its full glory.  This trip was a nice opportunity to do so!

Panorama of the Rijksmuseum. Note the weird ugly mouth-like sculpture in the pond center-right. No, I have no idea what it’s supposed to be.

The Rijksmuseum was originally founded in 1800 and moved to its current building in 1885.  It houses works of art from around the world, but has a particular focus on the Dutch masters like Rembrandt and van Gogh (though obviously most of van Gogh’s work is in the nearby van Gogh museum).

Times have changed in art museums.  When I was growing up, photographs were strictly forbidden, but in the cell phone era, only flash photography is prohibited.  I was taking photos throughout the museum and, realizing that I had wifi through a cool university system called eduroam, I started posting photos on twitter. The captions of these photos started off sincere, but quickly evolved into being largely irreverent and silly.  Heck, if you want a serious tour of a museum, I’m really not the person you should be following!

So, without further ado, let’s begin “A (Largely) Silly Tour of the Rijksmuseum.”

(Note added: all the photos are high-resolution. If you want to see detail, click on a photo and hunt for the “view full size” button.)

Continue reading

Posted in Travel | 2 Comments