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December 14th, 2008

Subtitled The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research

I have some memory problems, which superficially seem related, but turn out not to be (in my judgment and hey, it's my memory so I think I should be included in the decision making process). The long-standing problem (forgetting nouns) has long been associated with the prodrome of a migraine and I sometimes have difficulty with no ensuing migraine. The more recent problem has been the why-did-I-go-down-to-the-basement sort of forgetting -- getting lost in the middle of a process. For most of my life, I've used my internal dialogue to keep track of what I'm doing. Recently, between newborn, toddler and the holidays, I sort of turned it off to keep it from driving me absolutely bananas (and, also, everyone around me). As a result, I can't remember what I'm doing. Duh. If you have a mechanism for remembering and you _turn it off_, it sort of makes sense there'd be a "memory problem" afterwords. It's back on and calibrating and I'm Much Better Now, thank you very much. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with this book.

In theory, I should adore this book. Ms. Halpern has a lovely authorial voice. She's chasing down the relevant scientists and quizzing them about their work and what's in the popular press on the subject of memory and attempting to draw useful connections between them for all the people hitting midlife, seeing their parents' generation lose memory to Alzheimers or other, and wondering if there's some way to stave that off or avoid it altogether. She does a reasonable job of making the work of the scientists and drug development crowd accessible. She does an excellent job of inducing skepticism (I'm assuming this was on purpose) towards the promises of Pharma (everything is five years away). She charts some of the wrong turns and dead ends of the past and recent present -- including her own ideas. At one point she describes an idea she had as a freelance journalist: go down to the local health food shop, buy some of the more popular items, try them out on herself and report on the results. Once she had personally _encountered_ a health food shop, she realized what a bad idea this was.

And she even remembers and mentions the disaster that was tryptophan a couple decades back.

She concludes with a very positive outlook on exercise as a way to extend memory function and improve cognitive reserve and explores some of the research backing why that happens. We know it works -- there's a ton of large longitudinal studies that show the correlation too strongly to really question (much) any more.

Why, then, do I not love this book? The answer, I suspect, lies in her trip to the health food store. It also lies in her learning a variety of memory techniques, from the ancient stash-stuff-along-a-known-trail to the MindMaps (TM) of Tony Buzan (whose work I suspect I first encountered in 9th grade, around the same time I read _A Whack on the Side of the Head_ which is not by Tony Buzan, even tho I thought it might be), to the say-it-hear-it-visualize-it. I could not shake the feeling that this particular author really, really, really wanted to find something that would Fix the Problem. A pill. A puzzle. A trick. If need be, an exercise routine.

I'm actually not interested in Fixing the Problem. I would far rather understand how the brain and the mind works. And people who are focused on fixing the problem (or, worse, and I suspect a lot of the people she talked to, looking to make money off people by selling them something they say will fix the problem) often blow right past the really interesting side bits.

If you're a basic science person, or trying to understand how memory works, this isn't the book for you. If you are worried about your memory, Halpern can hold your hand for a while and walk you through the morass of competing ideas and claims. That might be helpful, but not for me.

For me, this is a book I mostly finished because the cable went out. Which says a lot about someone, most likely me.

_The Myriad_, R.M. Meluch

Recommended by K. (thank you!), this is military sf by someone who has apparently been writing for awhile altho I was not aware of that. First entry in a series (Tour of the Merrimack #1), ensemble characters, a war with a colony that seceded has been interrupted by an attacking collective called the Hive. Our Ship of Heroes and Heroines (good gender mix throughout, which is a big chunk of why K. recommended it to me) is trying to bring the war to the Hive's Home, rather than fight a defensive fight forever (or until all the humans are dead). Along the way, they stumble across an odd trio of planets that seems to not have FTL travel but came from a long, long way away without generation ships. Oh, and they seem to have near-instantaneous communications among them. Hmmm. In the middle of a globular cluster. Things are complicated when the written language turns out to be the same as something that turned up a long ways away and has been dated to older than the universe.

With that set up, it's sort of a gimme that there's going to be some kind of stargate system. And the older than the universe indicates that something has roundtripped twice which suggests time travel. Thus, we are not particularly surprised (hey you! You do realize I include spoilers in my reviews, right?) that the climax of the book revolves around whether a time paradox exists and how it will be resolved.

The choice Meluch made for solving that little conundrum can only be done once in a series. At most. I, personally, kept thinking, dude, that was just a dressed-up it-was-all-a-dream, wasn't it? But the new-real universe at the end may include some interesting story possibilities. Now I have to decide whether to continue with them or not.

The whole recreate-the-Roman-Empire thing has been done before, altho again, Meluch's take has some entertaining aspects to it. Marines being carted around the stars by a Space Navy of the future has also been done (to death, arguably. Heh. Uh, sorry about that.). Serviceable (okay, I can stop any time) milsf for those with a weakness for that kind of thing.

Separately, I really need to remember to call K. and have a long chat about the romantic entanglements of this novel. Because those, honestly, may have been the best aspect of the whole thing. ("I'm not cheap. I'm free." _That_ is a fantastic line.)

Life in a National Disaster

Here in southern New Hampshire, I have been patting myself on the back many, many times a day for insisting, back in 2003, that we get a generator. It was more expensive to buy than we expected (had I known then, I would have built in the 20% less than the best possible deal out there that I know my husband's cost estimates invariably represent). We learned things about gas plumbing that we probably should have anticipated. There was trench digging. The generator has some wiring shortcomings (crappy plug in the trickle charge to the battery which caused it to shut down last night when the battery finished draining. R. swapped it with the Fit's battery last night, diagnosed and fixed the problem today, swapped the batteries back and put the Fit battery on a trickle charger to get it back up to speed. Have I mentioned lately how much I love and appreciate my husband?), but because it is essentially a swap for the service (same amperage; well, it would be if the generator operated to specs, which will probably involve getting a service tech out here to troubleshoot. And make it auto-swap when the power goes on and off at the street) so we don't have to worry particularly about what we do and don't use.

Thus we have heat, hot water, lighting, electricity, laundry. What we don't have, because a neighbor's tree branch froze, broke off, landed on the wires that serve our house and _ripped them out of the house_, is cable. J. came by and patched it back up, but we await PSNH and others to finish the job properly. In the meantime, we have Tivo. We still have internet because I have a phone that tethers to R.'s laptop (again with the patting of myself on the back).

As long as we stay home, there's really nothing obviously wrong in the world. Well, there's a lot less light pollution at night. However, if you drive around outside, it's really kinda scary. So scary, I'm glad I haven't given in to the temptation to wander the neighborhood with the stroller to see what's what. There are lines down _everywhere_.

We went to an open house today in Acton (26 Agawam, 1960s vintage torn down to basement and rebuilt, plastered recently, new septic, blah, blah, blah) which was interesting. Because it wasn't finished, we got a good look at the build quality and are suitably impressed. But the yard isn't as big as we'd like and the location isn't really what we want so we'll keep looking. Also, despite price drops, it's not as low as we'd like, either. We had lunch at the Atlantic Street Grill, which was huge (the lunches were huge) and tasty. While much of Massachusetts lost power when we did, they more or less have their power back (well, at least the bits of Mass that we went through). Not so in New Hampshire.

But center Brookline does have power so with any luck, I get to go to book group tomorrow night.