Tag Archives: books

Book Review: The Ends of the World

I'm going to open with, this book is flat out amazing. In school, or even through popular science journalism, we learn a bit about some key points of geologic time. But these are snap shots, Dinosaurs, Ice Ages, even Snow Ball Earth. Really interesting things on their own, but they all seem a little disjoint.

This book brings an incredible visual narrative through life on Earth, by looking at the 5 mass extinction events the planet has experienced. An extinction is only emotionally meaningful if you understand what is lost, so the author paints an incredible picture of the aliens worlds that were Earth in these previous eras. Worlds without life on land, worlds of giant insects, worlds of bus size armored carnivorous fish as apex predators. He does this by road tripping to the scientists and fossil sites where this story is being assembled, talking with experts along the way. A story as old and hidden in the fossil record needs lots of lines of evidence to point to answers, and the author does a great job of doing that, and pointing out what we seem to know, and what we've only got guesses on.

The story of life on earth is the story of carbon and climate. As volcanoes stirred up carbon from the deep, and life reclaimed it, died, and sunk it back into the Earth. When this cycle gets really out of whack, the climate goes nuts, and life is paused on planet Earth, and taken tens of thousands of years to get back on track. There are many points of reflection about how our current mining and burning of ancient sequestered carbon is impacting our world today.

There are also just incredible moments that make you sit and think. The death of the land based mega fauna, 12,000 years ago, in North America, that still leaves ecological holes.

But the menagerie lives on in evolutionary ghosts. In North America, the fleet-footed pronghorns of the American West run laughably faster than any of their existing predators. But then, their speed isn’t meant for existing predators. It might be a vestige of their need to escape constant, harrowing pursuits by American cheetahs—until a geological moment ago. The absence was palpable to me as I rode a train past New Mexico’s Kiowa National Grassland, an American Serengeti, windswept and empty except for a lone wandering pronghorn still running from ghosts.

Other evolutionary shadows of the Pleistocene live on in the produce aisle. Seeds in fruit are designed to be eaten and dispersed by animals, but for the avocado this makes little sense. Their billiard ball–sized cores, if swallowed whole, would at the very least make for an agonizing few days of digestive transit. But the fruit makes a little more sense in a land populated by tree-foraging giants, like the sometimes dinosaur-proportioned ground sloths, who swallowed the seeds and hardly noticed them. The ground sloths disappeared a geological moment ago, but their curious fruit, the avocado, remains.

It will make me never quite look at an avocado the same way again.

There are so many things I learned which made me reconsider my whole view of dinosaurs. Like Dimetrodon, the creature with a large sale on it's back for temperature regulation, is more closely related to mammals than dinosaurs. And without the 3rd mass extinction, we'd never have seen Dinosaurs, and mammals might have ruled the Earth much earlier. And that T-rex showed up really late on the scene, filling the niche that that much more successful Allosaurs held as apex predators for most of the Jurasic era (the Allosaurs all disappeare in a more minor great extinction).

It's not often that you find a non fiction book that both reads fast, and dumps such an incredible amount of information on you. The jumping back and forth from road trip, chatting with scientists, facts, and painting pictures of the world that was, works really well. There is never a dull moment in it, and you come out the far end for a much greater appreciation for life on Earth in all its forms.

The Martian

"I'm stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I'm dead. I'm in a Hab designed to last 31 days. If the Oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I'm fucked." - Mark Watney

The Martian is one of my favorite books that I've read in a while. I've always felt that the "man vs. environment" theme was far under explored in scifi. Space is deadly. Most of the universe is completely hostile to life. And yet when major motion pictures do Mars movies they invent killer robots to trigger the suspense.

The Martian is a straight up hard scifi book about being stranded and surviving on Mars. It's got a great mix of problem solving, the unexpected, and a wise cracking protagonist. Every challenge he has to overcome is completely realistic. No crazy deus ex machina to inject suspense where this is none. If you like hard sci fi, you'll love this book.

And it's being turned into a major motion picture this October, hopefully landing before our drive in closes for the year. So if books aren't your thing, you could wait for the movie. But, you should really read the book. It's a lot of fun.

The Expanse

Early in January I found out that the SyFy channel has a new TV series coming this year, called The Expanse. It's a story that takes place 200 years in the future. Humanity has colonized Mars, which has become independent, and set up mining / science operations on a number asteroids and moons. It's all based on a series of books that started publishing in 2011.

I decided to not wait for the series to air, and dive in on the books. 4 have published so far, and they all follow a narrative style, where the chapters flip back and forth between different character's perspectives. The first book is two character perspectives, all the later ones are four. Some people that have distinctly small sub roles in early books become a main point of view later. The way it's done makes it feel like a rich environment, you'll never know when players will return in the future.

I've really enjoyed the series so far, can't wait for book 5 to come out this summer. There are lots of really neat ideas in the books so far. The time delays on communication throughout the solar system, and what that causes. The "spinning up" of Ceres and Eros to provide centripetal artificial gravity on the inside. The use of Ganymede as both a Farming Planet, and where all the Belters go to carry their children to term (because it has a magnetosphere). And many more really interesting ideas that provide spoilers to  the big story arc.

Definitely worth a read.  And check out the trailer below for this coming to TV later this year.

The Future of Libraries

The metafilter comment that's been circling about what the massive cut to library funding in California really means:

Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive. Forget trying to form grass roots political activism by creating a society of computer users, forget trying to be the 'people's university' and create a body of well informed citizens. Instead I helped people navigate through the degrading hoops of modern online society, fighting for scraps from the plate, and then kicking back afterwards by pretending to have a farm on Facebook (well, that is if they had any of their 2 hours left when they were done). What were we doing during the nineties? What were we doing during the boom that we've been left so ill served during the bust? No one seems to know. They come in to our classes and ask us if we have any ideas, and I do, but those ideas take money, and political will, and guts, and the closer I get to graduation the less and less I suspect that any of those things exist.

I'm a big supporter of libraries. We give annually to our local library (both financially and books and DVDs). I think Librarians are some of the few folks that really get what Copyright should be, and are very reliable advocates for sane copyright policy.

But at the same time I've got substantial frustration with parts of our libraries. I'm involved with multiple organizations that create really high quality educational content (MHLVUG and the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association being the topic examples). For 9 years we used the Mid-Hudson Library System space (for a fee) with MHVLUG. It was a great space, but there was a huge missed opportunity, as our relationship with MHLS was always just that of a tenant. At the end, MHLS cutbacks meant we had to find another space, where we moved to Vassar College.

Contrast this with the Astronomy events I've led at Vassar College's Farm Preserve. Not only were we given space, but we were wrapped into their series of events on the Farm Preserve, with joint advertising by the College. That led to huge turn out, and lots of positive feedback for both the College and our group.

The Library could be this kind of thing. And if it was, it would have the Hubble effect, where the citizenry were so invested in the organization that they wouldn't let it get cut. There are some libraries that are thinking about, and embracing these kinds of ideas. The Fayetteville Free Library is doing some amazing things with setting up a Fab Lab. Lauren Smedley is an inspiration to what the future library could be, and lots of kudos to FFL for hiring her to try to make this happen.

I'm hopeful by nature, and I think our libraries will transform, eventually. But I do think it's going to take a new generation of librarians to think past just books, and think about community at a broader level.

The Ugly Business of Books

There is a pretty interesting look at the CEO of Barnes & Noble this week in the NY Times. It shows how much of a David and Goliath fight B&N is in for, with 1% of the valuation of Amazon who they are trying to compete with.

I have very mixed feelings about Amazon, and continue to have mixed feelings about my kindle, and the closed nature of the device. But I'm becoming less and less a fan of the book publishers. They seem to just be missing the point that their old pricing model, and scarcity model, doesn't work any more.

Their insistence on pricing control dramatically makes me buy less ebooks. An unlendable ebook has an intrinsic value of $5 or less to me. They are priced typically at 3 times that, which has made me a frequent buyer of used hardcover from ... Amazon, where no one other than Amazon is making any money on it.

If ebooks came without DRM, so I was sure I'd still be able to reread it in 4 decades, or could lend my mom & dad the book once I was done with it, then the current $10 - $15 range would be something I'd be fine with. Though I expect I'd still purchase more dollars worth of books over all if they were priced closer to $5.

And then, there is the scarcity issue. Richard Wiseman, an established author, couldn't get his book Paranormality published by any of the american publishers because it says ghosts aren't real. American publishers are so focused on cranking out supernatural to their readers, that they block out anything that calls that into question. Failing to get an american traditional publisher, he self published on Amazon and Apple in ebook form.

All of which makes the book publishers look, feel, smell, a lot like other big media, and completely out of touch with what their paying audience is interested in.

If you have a website, read this book

If you have a website, or have any creative input into a website, this is a book that is a must read. When people come to your website, they are looking for something. And the number one lesson is don't make them think, make it obvious.

Through repeated examples, Krug will show you sites that look nice, but that completely confuse their users, and how he would correct them. You will immediately want to redo your site navigation after reading this. And you'll have a much cleaner overall look once you are done.

Buy this book, read it, and make your little corner of the inter webs a better place.

Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon

"It's a book about the periodic table of elements" got me an odd look from my wife, when asked what I was reading on my kindle. Yes, I'm a geek.

But this isn't the dry kind of chemistry book that you might imagine. This is a series of tales of history and intrigue. The author goes through the periodic table in chunks, where elements are similar, and tells the tales unique to those elements. There is a chapter on the elements that give rise to life, with another look at why Silicon based life is really fantasy. It's followed up by a chapter called the poisoner's corner, showing how one column in the periodic table is so hostile to life, and has been known to assassins for years.

There are tales about how one of the battles of WWI was fought in Colorado over a German owned mine for an element that only the German scientists had figured out that the previously thought useless element Molybdenum made an excellent hardening agent for steel. You'll learn that once Aluminum was once more precious than Gold, and why the Brits insist on having another "i" in that word. And all throughout the book you are actually getting a feeling of what the periodic table really means, as the chapters are always written as clumps; be them columns in the table, or other logical groupings.

A really fun book, that I think anyone with a curiosity about the world will enjoy.

Ebook pricing

I really love my Kindle, and I'm happy I bought it. I haven't completely given up on real books though. One of the reasons why is evident below:

This is not a new book, it's a year and a half old. The Kindle price is higher than a brand new hardcover. This isn't actually Amazon's fault, the price here was set by the publisher. If Amazon had it's druthers all these ebooks would be $9.99 or less (and they were until they lost that fight with publishers).

I'll probably read this book, but I won't buy it for the kindle. I'll either get this from the Library or buy a used hardcover which I can then give to my parents as reading material. No incremental revenue to publishers, no additional sales.

Book Review: Moby Duck

A couple weeks ago I went to a lecture by the author of Moby Duck, Donovan Hohn.  I was interested in this because of a story that I remember reading a few years ago. The story was about a flotilla of 1000 ghost rubber ducks, bleached by the sun, about to invade the coast of the UK.

That story turns out to have been false, part of the growing myth surrounding the Friendly Floatees. Much like the white whale, a figment of the collective imagination.

This book tells the story, as best can be reconstructed, of these toys. They weren't made of rubber, and the ducks only accounted for 1/4 of the toys (lost in the creating of the myths were the turtles, frogs, and beavers).

The story is incredible. In an attempt to find the full lifecycle of these toys Hohn goes up and down the Alaskan coast looking for the toys cast upon the rugged north Pacific beaches. He goes to sea, many times, including joining scientific expeditions looking at the plastic content of the Pacific, meso scale currents in the North Atlantic, and crossing the North West Passage (now possible due to a rise of 5 degrees C at the poles) all exploring the possible tracks these toys could have taken. He even goes to China to find the birth place of these toys, and crosses the Pacific on a container ship not unlike the one the Floatees fell off of.

His style is very much like that of Bill Bryson, though his mind drifts and wanders in a really interesting way that gives you a sense of the drifting and wandering of these toys at sea. It's an incredible lens to look at our Oceans, a largely unexplored part of our earth, the impact we are having on them, as well as the dangers that still lie out to sea.

Highly recommended.