Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Smart Swarm: how understanding flocks, schools, and colonies can make us better at communicating, decision making, and getting things done
by Peter Miller

While this book is briskly readable and thoroughly interesting, it suffers from the disease of hyperbole that afflicts many of the lengthily titled books referenced in its text. Books such as How Everything's Connected Because of YouTube and Why That's Going to Save Humanity Maybe Not as We Know It but Probably Better Because Ashton Kutcher Is Awesome Even if He Did Quit Tweeting, which I've made up, but you probably know what kind of book I'm lampooning.

The trap is that of the Enlightenment. We're figuring out all these new things, and it's looking as if we'll be able to solve every problem ever if we just apply this or that new paradigm in the right way. But no matter how much you fix stuff, people will find a way to fuck it up anyway — amiright?

All in all, though, it's nowhere near as bad as the connection-is-everything wisdom-of-the-crowd internet boosterism to which it irritatingly and persistently gives shout outs. The actual science bits, about analyzing swarm and colony behaviors, how they *sometimes* apply to human situations, are quite nice. The caveat, however, is delayed too long. Following the final chapter on the downside of swarms (for example, when they become mobs and crush people to death), the conclusion is very pragmatic and does a good job of couching the amazing discoveries in some much needed realism, but why is that only at the end?

It's not all at the end; there are a few earlier hints that termites are not our multitudinous messiahs. My favorite hint is when he talks about the movie Minority Report (a book first, of course, which he fails to mention) and points out how those future cops make very effective use of swarm-y robots to find Tom Cruise but the knowledge they needed to make the "spyders" clearly hasn't led to the elimination of poverty or a generally positive transformation of society.

But it's a good book. Self-organizing, collective, decentralized behavior in animals is truly fascinating and fertile ground, and this is an excellent introduction for those with low to medium science prowess. I recommend this book. It just has a few things that are particularly irritating to me. But they can be overlooked. In a way, I'm glad for its shortcomings, as I've found my new peeve word (a phrase, technically): not unlike.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark
by Mary Wollstonecraft

I read about this in a zine, Hyena in Petticoats, about M.W. and the zine author's obsession with her. I suppose it helps that I used A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a major source for a college paper ("Teaching Madness," about the fate of well-educated young women in a society unprepared to accept them). Anyway, Wollstonecraft was a feminist pioneer, a real piece of work, and totally ahead of her time (and yet, being only human, she went a bit bonkers over a married man).

We think of Scandinavia as so civilized these days — maybe even more civilized, in some ways, than the rest of Europe and North America — so it's interesting to read an old-timey English woman's thoughts on traveling in what was then the wild, barbarian north. It's also quite interesting to consider how a generally progressive intellectual can still be so totally backwards in some ways. Makes one wonder what the future will find lacking in today's liberalism.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
by Patton Oswalt

For a guy who usually plays the minor character that's the schlubby butt of jokes, this dude is super smart. So smart, at times, that you can almost miss the humor. I'd say he's more of a Sarah Vowell than a David Sedaris: you get the guffaws, but with seriously introspective interludes. One gets the sense that his true calling is to write for shows that are critically acclaimed cult hits but unfortunately get canceled after a few seasons (eg., Arrested Development), rather than stand-up comedy. An enjoyable and easy read that could make you pee your pants, or wax nostalgic, or a bit of both.
Cold: adventures in the world's frozen places
by Bill Streever

I love this kind of book (literary nonfiction), but this particular one is only a moderately good example of the genre. Nothing in particular is wrong with the author's informative and evocative exploration of coldness, combining thorough knowledge with pleasant story-telling, but it just isn't cream of the crop. I'll give it a solid B-minus.
The Strangest Man: the hidden life of Paul Dirac, mystic of the atom
by Graham Farmelo

Somehow I got the idea that this guy, like Alan Turing, a tortured genius of the same era, was gay. I kept waiting through the whole book for the big reveal. He certainly was awkward enough with women. Alas, no dice.

This would be a tricky book to recommend. As a biography, it's well-written and holds the attention, even while being quite long. The author provides good insight into the unspoken and the strange, of which there's plenty in the life of a mathematical savant who surely would be diagnosed on the "autism spectrum" in modern day. You get a good sense of the history and politics of nuclear science around WWII, and the author consistently connects Dirac's early training in engineering and technical drafting to his uniquely visual and instinctual approach to subatomic physics, a realm of almost pure theory and maths. Unless you find all those things interesting, you'll likely have trouble slogging through; if you do, you'll be in hog heaven.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Atlas of Remote Islands: fifty islands I have never set foot on and never will

by Judith Schalansky

Holy-moly this book is awesome! I love to geek out over maps, but I'm often frustrated by the clutteredness of a lot of modern atlases, with so many roads especially but also too many small towns and other unimportant things. I probably shouldn't post this on the internet and let someone steal the idea, but I'd love to make an atlas that only shows the interesting stuff, just what's relevant to history or politics, exceptional geographical features, etc. — which is really just a way to introduce the description of this Atlas of Remote Islands as just nearly the exact oppposite of that idea, in some ways, and precisely the same in others, but correspondingly and contrastingly equally awesome in its own way(s). Each map provides a wealth of detail, but not every detail, and the details it does provide are somewhat estoric or anecdotal, and always delightfully interesting. You can tell the author really treasures maps and put a lot of that love into this book. If you dig maps, you need to read this book, and maybe even own it. The book itself as an object is beautifully designed, a true pleasure to hold and to read. It's on a very short list of books I'm actually interested in buying and keeping forever.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Zine Post Six

Dixon Ticonderoga, by Stevan Allred
Sort of a paean to pencils, with texts by several authors and some illustrations. The analog realness and old-school-ness of zine and of pencils complement one another in this digital, virtual age.

Moira: a sneak preview, by Chelsea Baker
Very thorough science comic about Down Syndrome, inspired by the author's sister. The illustrations and text work together very well, and I particularly was struck by the sperm "factory" drawing.

Dangerous Aromas, Chapter 1, Beans and Ambition, by the Soft Sciences
Globe-trotting intrigue from the dank jungle to the highest echelons of competitive coffee roasting. Kind of odd, sometimes awkward dialogue, but also some funny bits.

McGriddle Defense, edited by Ryan Gratzer
"Selected short works about the breakfast sandwich" and a must-read for anyone who's succumbed to the temptation of droplets of syrup embedded in fat little pancakes that embrace egg and sausage like delectable parentheses. Includes a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Somnambulist #15, Martha Grover
Grover's long-running series has covered a lot of ground and includes many genres. This edition is a collection of "minutes" from family meetings she attended after moving back home for a while as an adult. Laugh out loud hilarious, but lots of pathos too.

Ride the Lightning, by John Isaacson
Comics interpretation of Metallica lyrics. I'm not a fan of heavy metal (though I do like the long-haired dudes), so it didn't do much for me, and I'm not totally comfortable judging.

Alien Boy: a zine about the life of James Chasse, by Erin Yanke & Icky A.
In one of my other postings of zine reviews I said I was trying to learn when to shut up, so I'm going to say only that this tribute to Chasse comes with a CD.

Beard Month 2010, by Greg Hinkle
Nominated for an award at Stumptown Comics Fest, but it seemed kind of unfocused to me. I had a beard when I read this one, but I'm kind of over beards now.

Colophons, or a note on the type, by Vanessa Gelvin
I can totally dork-out over typefaces (and explain the difference between a typeface and a font), and I've always thought that if I ever get published I'll insist my book include "a note on the type," so I loved this zine a lot.

Trigger No. 1, by Mike Bertino, edited by Dave Nuss
Pleasantly bizarre and trashy comics about bars, teachers that accidently pick up hookers, unicorns, and buttheads. And then a dreamlike one about chronic pain and confronting an abusive past.

A History of Humans Breathing Underwater: an educational zine, by Owen Curtsinger
Very informative, but I wish it were longer. It's small, with drawings and text. The title is quite clear, and you'll get what it promises.

You Are Here, [anthology]
If I'm remembering the right zine, this is a collection of maps and map-related musings by a variety of contributors in a variety of formats: a map of smells and garbage in San Francisco, parallels between Oakland and Paris, different moons in NoLa and Minnesota.

Biophile #2, The scientific method
Biophile #3, Eels, the magic and the mystery
A Pocket Guide to Evolution: a Biophile special
, [author unknown]
Teeny but lovely, all three are great examples of science zines. Possible best quote ever in the history of the world: "We can put a man on the moon, but we can't force eels to make babies."

The Malaise Trap, by Jack Bracken and Reid Psaltis
An amazing and beautiful comic about collecting and compulsion, purging and emptiness, and bugs. If it's not a true story, it should be.

She's So Unusual #1, Cyndi Lauper, [author unknown]
A tribute to our favorite she-bopper, this zine includes hair dyeing tips, a recipe for "True Colors" cupcakes, and other Lauper-esque projects. Volume 2 is about Joan Crawford and has instructions for crocheted wire hanger covers.

The Life and Death of the X-Ray Cafe (Oregon History Comics vol. 2), by Sarah Mirk I moved to Portland long enough ago to have seen the X-Ray Cafe, but I never went there. Mirk's series of comics about lesser-known aspects of Oregon history is a great idea and a big win.

Astronomiae Instauratae Grylli, by J. Horn
Sound science and effective story-telling in a mini-comic about a photon traversing the universe and very, very creative integration of words in and around the drawings, although occasionally hard to read as a result.

The Lou Reeder, by Corina Fastwolf
You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory, by Matt Monochrome
Musical memories, drawings, lists, even a crossword puzzle by a dynamic duo of extreme zine fame. (For the record, I did not do the puzzle and do not condone writing in library material; if you want to do the puzzle, make a photocopy or buy your own.)

Brains vol. 1, by Jesse Harrington
Three short stories about punks, skaters, skater-punks and the zombies they battle, and sometimes become. Zombies are the new pirates (as of a couple years ago), so dive in before something else becomes the new zombies.

Hyena in Petticoats: a Mary Wollstonecraft zine, by Alexis Wolf
An engaging biography of author, early feminista and liberated woman Mary Wollstonecraft, and her family, combined with a personal memoir of the zine author's immersion in all things related, including a pilgrimage to London.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Married to the Sea
by Drew

Just stumbled across this little thing, a collection of old-timey illustrations with captions added to make them funny to a modern-day reader. As you'd expect, some are super-duper funny and others are duds, with most in between. Definitely worth flipping through if you're looking for some chuckles.
Yakuza in Love, vol. 1
by Shiuko Kano

My favorite yaoi author hits it out of the park again! (Okay, well, maybe not the best this author has to offer, but still better than almost any other yaoi author I've read.) You can guess the general drift of the story from the title. Some characters are gay-gay, others are ambiguous, and the relationships haven't quite coalesced by the end of volume 1, but I sure am ready for the next book. (Sex scenes are medium-explicit, btw.)
Far Arden
by Kevin Cannon

Checked this out based on a review. It's a small, square, fat graphic novel that almost looks like a board book for babies, but in fact it's a relatively lengthy and sophisticated comics adventure that would probably be PG-13 if it were a movie. The title refers to a mythical (or is it real?) lost island in the Arctic; due to a quirk in the ocean and wind currents, it has a tropical micro-climate, so everyone's hunting for it. Abandoned children, evil geniuses, spies, broken hearts and long-held resentments are just part of the dramatic tension — some people are willing to kill to solve this mystery, and some people will die trying to uncover this secret.
Makeshift Metropolis: ideas about cities
by Witold Rybczynski

I've always thought the best part of Sim City is laying out the streets and water lines, deciding where to put the airport and the city hall. Did you know you can sort of cheat and make the game let you do all the building and landscaping you want without having to pay and without turning on the clock? I could do that for days and days.... I also have a thing for architecture and design in general, so I very much enjoyed this book about city planning. It's amazing how much historical overview and analysis, theory and practice, speculation and suggesting the author crams into a rather short book. Engaging and easy to understand, informative but not pedantic, this book is a real pleasure to read.

The author lives and teaches in Philadelphia, so it was additionally gratifying for me to read the many references to my home city's history, architecture and design (even the bad examples).
Someday this Pain Will Be Useful to You
by Peter Cameron

Once upon a time I wrote a short story. It started from an idea that didn't include an ending, and I stalled out after a few weeks of working on it. Seven years later, I had a sudden insight about how to end the story, and I finally wrote the ending. Several people to whom I showed it said I should keep going, that they wanted to know what happens to the character next. I didn't think I could, and I never have — in part because it took me so long to find the ending, but also because the story is about emotional paralysis, so the tension and impetus is lost (and the story ends) when the character finally breaks his paralysis (or so I intended).

Point is, I never understood until now how frustrating it can be to read a book whose protagonist is emotionally paralyzed. I can't recall reading any other gay teen novels in which the character isn't either traumatized by being gay and coming out or so totally okay and confident that other people can't help but accept him. This book's anti(?)-hero is disengaged and distant from everyone, alienated even from himself. Sort of reminds me of me at that age.

Although it was frustrating in many ways, I ultimately liked this book. It's easy to see, however, the reasons it won't appeal to many readers. Being a young adult book, it's pretty short, so there's that at least.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Free for All: oddballs, geeks, and gangstas in the public library
by Don Borchert

Having worked in a public library for 10 years, I entertained but not surprised by the shenanigans related by the author, himself a longtime library employee. I was more amazed by how different to mine were his library's circulation policies. Either way, it's a pleasant romp and a quick read, and you don't need to be a public employee to enjoy it.
Imperial Bedrooms
by Bret Easton Ellis

This author is not for everyone, but he's one of my favorites. I was already a bit obsessed with the movie of Less than Zero when I read the book — which I loved so much I read it twice in one weekend. I've also read American Psycho (NOW alleged misogyny, but, hello, he's a psycho and kills dudes and dogs too), The Rules of Attraction (also a great movie, that totally changed my mind about James Van der Beek), and Lunar Park: all amazing. He's a writer who would be a role model for me if I ever got serious about writing.

This book tells the further misadventures of characters from Less than Zero, and it similarly catalogs the debauchery and neuroses of individuals (a reflection of their morally bankrupt society) and, by refraining from explicit commentary, mounts a sly indictment of our wealth- and image-obsessed culture. I find this author's work much deeper and more litererary than most casual readers would, and I have a bachelor's in English lit (just sayin'). I like how he's built a universe of reusable characters, but the characters aren't really exactly the same when he reuses them, and he also plays with the imaginary barrier between writer and character, writer and reader.

Having said all that, I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who isn't familiar with this author's work. For those who are, it's a must-read.
Mirroring people: the new science of how we connect with others
by Marco Iacoboni

This book is very science-y but not too technical. Also, don't read this if non-lethal neurological animal experimentation will upset you.

It's about the discovery and study of "mirror neurons," which discovery has implications for the study of communication via facial expression; autism spectrum disorders; learning and cognition; physical coordination and proprioception; to name a few. Basically, in addition to the neurons that fire when you actually do something (move your hand, for example) you also have a set of mirror neurons that go off when you think about moving your hand or see someone else moving their hand. In a sense, these neurons allow you to practice mentally various movements. In terms of empathy, they are a step beyond simply imagining another person's feelings because your brain is actually physically pretending to have the same emotions by mentally mimicking the other person's facial expressions and body language.

More to it, of course, but that's kind of the nutshell version. Very interesting and not too long, so no need to be intimidated by the science-ness.