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May 03, 2004
Dr. Joe and What You Didn't Know: 177 Fascinating Questions and Answers About the Chemistry of Everyday Life
Today I read Dr. Joe and What You Didn't Know: 177 Fascinating Questions and Answers About the Chemistry of Everyday Life
by Joseph A. Schwarcz. It's a compilation of questions that aims to make chemistry interesting and relevant to a wider audience (for example, "What did Moses have to do with anthrax?" or "How was O.J. Simpson's defense team helped by their client's taste for tacos?"). I was surprised to learn that nickel can provoke allergic reactions, and that before the late 1800s, aluminum was more valued than gold. A question on prohibiting the display of hare and rabbit carcasses by Scandinavian and German butchers to prevent cleft palate, or harelip, complements the Mary Toft incident discussed in Dennis Todd's Imagining Monsters
(a more in-depth book on the belief that seeing shocking things could cause birth defects). Overall, Schwarcz succeeds in showcasing the science around us, especially when describing serendipitous accidents that have led to new chemical and biological discoveries.
April 04, 2004
You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
Yesterday and today I read You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
by Wesley Gibson. The book chronicles the author's return to New York, detailing his adventures in work -- catering, telemarketing, teaching a writing class, trying to finish his novel -- while dealing with the illness of his new roommate John, who reluctantly accepts his care. Gibson recalls other experiences as well, like his first wanton journey to New York as a younger man, his life as a hypochondriac, and his rejection as a potential roommate for not being gay enough. He's not the polished adult that society tells him to be; I like how he reveals this in his relationship with writing:
"I lacked some faith in ordinary life that would have suited me for ordinary life. I was twisty inside, and in the past year it had dawned on me that I was only happy -- though anyone with a dictionary open to the Hs would never describe me as that -- when I was trying to squeeze the twistiness out of me and onto the page. I was starting to realize that, like it or not, I was chained to myself like escaped cons in a thirties movie who were wading upstream to throw the bloodhounds off the scent; and that the biggest part of myself was, regrettably, this writing thing, which felt more and more like an addiction, and less and less like anything as noble as a vocation or a calling" (p. 86).
Despite this conflict, Wesley Gibson has surely put together something worthwhile: a tragicomic view on strangers becoming family, family becoming strangers, and finding a way to fit in for the time being.
March 31, 2004
A Field Guide to the Invisible
Yesterday and today I read A Field Guide to the Invisible
by Wayne Biddle. Each entry in this book focuses on microscopic or subatomic things around us, some of which are harmless, even helpful, but most of which are dangerous, to put it mildly. We are surrounded by countless inescapable hordes of bacteria, mites, and fungi, but the threats posed by these are minuscule compared to the damage humanity has done, and continues to do, to itself. And even if we were able to erase the vast environmental damage humans have wrought, there's always cosmic radiation and naturally occurring chemical menaces -- at least, that's the view I got when emerging from this fascinating book.
Biddle, however, presents his topics with little editorializing, allowing scientific and historical data to shock and terrify you. For example, compounds called dioxin -- the worst of which is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) -- are totally useless chemical byproducts that bioaccumulate, primarily through the food chain. Experiments with TCDD identified it as "the most potent animal carcinogen ever tested," and "no 'safe' low dose has ever been established." According to an EPA estimate, people consume on average 119 pg/day -- "more than 280 times the 'acceptable' dose" (p. 42). Swell. Further, the section on fallout is pretty horrifying, focusing on the coverup of the March 1, 1954 H-bomb explosion over Namu Island. Top officials perpetuated ignorance, lies, and death in the years following that event; shockingly, we still live with the results of nuclear weapons testing: "Fallout is the reason almost every person on Earth carries a bit of plutonium in their bodies" (p. 55). Goodbye, natural living.
Although one might expect a book like this to be alarmist or paranoid, Biddle takes a different approach, explaining the dangers we face with a sense of wonder. Further, there are rare occasions when things aren't as bad as some believe: I was surprised to learn that electromagnetic fields (EMF) don't appear to be harmful (pg. 48-50). And as a slight respite from the bad, the author includes lighter, more benign topics, such as B.O. and noise; even God, thoughts, and zeitgeist receive some attention, though it tends toward brief philosophy.
Elsewhere, I like what Biddle says about neutrinos: "A veritable gale of neutrinos spewed out by nuclear reactions in the Sun, as well as by the collapse of distant stars and other cataclysmic cosmic events, continually roars through our planet. It has been said that neutrinos are about as close as something can come to being nothing, yet they are one of the most pervasive forms of matter in the universe" (pg. 94-95). In fact, out of the 60 billion supernova-produced neutrinos sent through the Earth in February 1987, only eleven were detected (pg. 97-98). I also learned that "cooties" refers to body lice, and that after you remove a cat from your house, it takes at least five months for the cat allergens in the dust to return to non-cat-infested levels (p. 47). If another book with such an eclectic mix of information on invisible things exists, I haven't seen it.
March 25, 2004
Today I read Numerology
by David V. Barrett, a small guidebook that serves more as a brief introduction than as a thorough resource. I was unfamiliar with the Arrows of Pythagoras grid; the interpretations Barrett gives for such seem vague enough to be useless, however. The author advises the use of one's commonly used name when figuring out one's numbers, rather than one's name at birth -- I think it's worthwhile to check both. There's also a short section on colors and gemstones associated with numbers.
February 29, 2004
The Best American Science Writing 2003
Yesterday and today I read The Best American Science Writing 2003
, edited by Oliver Sacks. This anthology of science writing from 2002 covers a variety of topics, including the mating habits of voles and lobsters, the complexity of indigenous civilizations, and a chimp retirement facility. The personal accounts from doctors reveal their humanity, and the physics articles explore recent developments in that field. I had not thought of deafness as a culture, but Liza Mundy's "A World of Their Own" shows part of it through a deaf couple who hopes that their newborn child will be deaf as well. That may seem barbaric, but how many parents hope or ensure that their children will have certain "normalized" traits that they themselves have, perhaps as a way to feel more connected to them? I enjoyed "Notes from a Parallel Universe" by Jennifer Kahn, about eccentric scientific theories and the kooks who propose them. Kahn makes some good points about the plastic nature of science -- many firmly held theories were once ridiculed as impossible. Finally, "Disorders Made to Order" by Brendan I. Koerner is a disturbing look at the pharmaceutical industry's marketing of drugs by marketing mental disorders. Certain disorders may not be as prevalent -- or real -- as SmithKline Beecham, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer claim. Koerner gives the facts with a minimum of editorializing, clearly showing the rise in "mental illness" and marketing brought on by doctors who are corporate consultants and a commercialized culture that pushes drugs as the preferred panacea in times of stress. Overall, this book shows science writing can be both informative and engaging.
February 24, 2004
Digital Photography Special Effects
I read Digital Photography Special Effects
by Michael Freeman today. It's mostly an overview of digital photography and the use of Photoshop filters and techniques. The explanations on how to accomplish the profiled effects are often brief and geared toward readers with a background in photography; this is certainly not a definitive how-to guide. Viewing the images may spark one's creativity, however -- I especially like the unrolled human head and the blended glove/hand and finger/candle.
The Big Red Fez: How to Make Any Web Site Better
Today I read The Big Red Fez: How to Make Any Web Site Better
by Seth Godin. This short guidebook contains screenshots of problematic websites and Godin's thoughts on why they don't work as well as the could. He also gives examples of websites that do work. The big red fez in the title refers to the one worn by a monkey, a monkey who'll perform only if he sees his banana, his reward. It's Godin's advice on website design: Make it simple, make it obvious -- show your audience where the banana is, and they'll be more likely to buy into your message. Perhaps it's a little simplistic, but any book that tries to cut down on bloated, plugin-dependent sites that crash your computer is worth a look.
February 22, 2004
Numerology: The Power in Numbers
Yesterday and today I read Numerology: The Power in Numbers
by Ruth A. Drayer. It's a fairly extensive examination of numbers and their influence in the world, focusing on the Pythagorean method of converting the letters in a word to digits and recursively adding until one digit remains (to convert a letter to a digit, add the digits in its ordinal value; for example, R
, the 18th letter in the English alphabet, equals 9). Working with a person's birth name and birth date, step-by-step instructions show how to produce a numerology chart that includes the numbers for Birth Path, Heart's Desire, Personality, Destiny, and Attainment, but also included are the Inclusion Table, Planes of Expression (Mental, Physical, Emotional, and Intuitive), Challenges and Pinnacles Timetable, and Table of Events. Cycles, Spiritual Birthdays, and Personal and Universal Years, Months, and Days are also covered.
What does it all mean? Drayer discusses each digit and provides explanations depending on where they appear in one's chart. In addition to master numbers 11/2 and 22/4 (the slash notation shows a number's unreduced and reduced form), she also covers 33/6 and 44/8, although I'd like to know more about why she feels these numbers aren't yet in use, and how 55/1, 66/3, 77/5, 88/7, and 99/9 will become future master numbers. I was pleased that Drayer senses the current sort of underlying chaotic tension and the need to uplift humanity. I was also interested in the examination of 11/2 -- its schizophrenic but potentially positive nature marks the gateway to a new world. As for accuracy, the interpretation of my chart fits more closely than I'd imagined; some details are truer that I would have liked. I've done some research into certain words and dates, and quite a few do seem to embody Drayer's numerical explanations (frequently, 4 and/or 11 appear in ordered or chaotic things -- I think this is roughly compatible with the text).
This is a great book. It's not always clear when one needs to reduce a number to a single digit (especially in intermediate steps), but the various formulas and detailed explanations often reveal new ways of seeing a deeper meaning.
February 15, 2004
Yesterday and today I read Messiah
by Andrei Codrescu. It centers on two young women, Felicity Le Jeune and Andrea Isbik, and their role in an apocalyptic conspiracy at the end of 1999. Felicity, a detective in New Orleans, is told by her uncle, Major Notz, about a missing Indian "Vanna White." He suggests that this game show hostess may have inadvertently activated the Language Crystal, an ancient relic that can reprogram the brain. Could Felicity's hated nemesis, the hypocritical Reverend Jeremy "Elvis" Mullin, be involved in the disappearance? In the course of the investigation, Felicity becomes immersed in a world of cults, mind control, modern-day slavery, spiritual street people called Shades, and a website where users can "interact" with Great Minds of the past.
Meanwhile, the mysterious and erotic orphan Andrea has been delivered to a Jerusalem convent where a multicultural group of religious scholars has gathered. Healing those around her with her sexuality, she heads to New Orleans with, coincidentally, Felicity's ex-boyfriend Ben Redman. What will their role be when the Great Minds gather and the end grows near?
The eschatological plot in this story is unique and interesting. The School for Messiah Development and the chlorophyll propulsion machine designed by an embodied Nikola Tesla are noteworthy, but I was particularly drawn to the Language Crystal. I like what Notz says about the hidden meaning of words: "There is a symphony going on within the din of our daily noise. We speak words that contain divine sounds, we write words within which lie hidden meanings. You can puzzle out the true nature of your life by simply hearing or seeing common words" (p. 38). I also like that Wheel of Fortune
takes on a literal meaning -- there's concern that on the Israeli version a contestant could accidentally spell the Apocalypse. Unfortunately, the plot on the power of language doesn't receive the attention it should.
is an important addition to an underdeveloped genre. However, it's also somewhat disappointing, as Codrescu either tries too hard or tries incorrectly: The text is frequently strained, muddled, or indulgent. At times it's offensive or blasphemous seemingly for no other reason than to prop up a plot that's meandering off track. And what's with all the references to blushing? This should have been a better book. It deserved to be a better book. But without the requisite editing and focus, it's a tantalizing journey that only partially satisfies.
February 07, 2004
Girlfriend in a Coma
Today I read Girlfriend in a Coma
by Douglas Coupland. It's a book that follows a group of high school friends through two decades, complicated by the fact that one of them, Jared, happens to be a ghost, and another, Karen, is the girlfriend in a coma. Most of the story follows Richard Doorland, Karen's boyfriend, as he and his friends try to go on with life, wandering from job to job, battling addictions and emptiness, trying to find stability. Karen does wake up years later; she reunites with Richard and her daughter Megan, who was born while Karen slept. All is not well, however: Karen finally reveals the terrifying end-of-the-world visions that caused her to go comatose. The story is darker, more supernatural than other Coupland books I've read. I like how the main characters are described with yearbook descriptions, and that the chapter titles are phrases meant to challenge beliefs ("Every idea in the world is wrong," "The future is more extreme than you think," "Nation or ant colony?"). There's almost no humor in the book, it's bleak, and it takes a while to get to the eschatological stuff, which is what I was reading for. But the pace does pick up, and when it does things get really interesting. The apocalypse Coupland presents is detailed and frightening, making what came before look jolly by comparison. When the climax comes I felt the author's struggle -- I know what he's trying to say about questioning everything and lifting up humanity, because I've grasped at those themes as well. I wish the text was tighter and more focused, though perhaps with the more tedious passages Coupland aims to lull us into the mundane before showing even greater horror beneath. There is a worthwhile message here, if only one has the patience to reach for it.
January 29, 2004
Today I read Microserfs
by Douglas Coupland. It's a novel in journal form about Microsoft expatriates who move to Silicon Valley to build -- and try to get funding for -- Oop!, a virtual Lego set. Spanning from 1993 to 1995, this book is a hilarious, convincing encapsulation of geek culture, the nouveau riche technorati, poor startups, and a time when multimedia was the Messiah and technology held so much promise. I think that last theme, that the next great killer app is just around the corner, is captured best by Karla, responding to a fellow developer who's looking for the deeper meaning of coding:
"Todd: you exist not only as a member of a family or a company or a country, but as a member of a species
-- you are human. You are part of humanity
. Our species currently has major problems and we're trying to dream our way out of these problems and we're using computers to do it. The construction of hardware and software is where the species is investing its very survival
, and this construction requires zones of peace, children born of peace, and the absence of code-interfering distractions. We may not achieve transcendence through computation, but we will
keep ourselves out of the gutter with them. What you perceive of as a vacuum is an earthly paradise -- the freedom to, quite literally, line-by-line, prevent humanity from going nonlinear" (p. 61).
Such lofty goals we had! (What would Karla think of the emptiness pervading today's technology?) Yes, this book focuses on the lives -- or non-lives -- of programmers, but practically anyone will find something to enjoy in it. Protagonist Daniel Underwood is a more upbeat version of the typical Coupland narrator, excited by the eclectic and quotidian. He seeks meaning in the surreal and subconscious, every so often showing us parts of his text file containing random words, phrases, headlines, and other found text (Coupland's novels frequently feature quotes to help us rethink our ideas; quotes in this book are stripped of context, free to associate with whatever the reader wishes). I liked the novel's presentation of love, family, time growing shorter, finding life in and out of work, and the connection between cognitive and computer sciences. There is, however, much more to explore. . . .
The book is stuffed with creativity and humor. Early in the book Daniel describes the main characters by each one's seven dream Jeopardy!
categories (p. 3-32); later, Susan lists what their powers would be if they were on Star Trek
(p. 262-263). During a leisurely excursion to the Stanford Linear Accelerator, Ethan says, "Why is it that everything I'm truly interested in has the words 'Warning: U.S. Department of Energy' stamped all over it?" (p. 289) In response to Todd in his Marxist phase, Karla and Dan write a hilarious list of decadent cereals, including Trix ("Well-meaning rabbit, 'Trix,' kept in continual state of malnutrition/subservience by dominant children of the parasitic bourgeoisie"), Lucky Charms ("Man with no known adult friends lures children into forest for purpose of nutritional (ideological) seduction"), and Cocoa Puffs ("'I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs
'. . . is resonant with the insanity inherent in the needless enslavement of the proletariat") (pg. 265-266). There's a debate on the coolness of Fisher Price minifigs versus Lego minifigs: Fisher Price minifigs are cool because "limbless figures give children a feeling of helplessness," although "height/weight-disproportionate bodies imply eating disorders," while Lego minifigs are cool because "bodies can be incorporated into architecture," despite the fact that "clawlike hands are scary and potentially traumatizing" (p. 277). Susan forms Chyx, a support group for female programmers, after a lengthy discussion about "chunky" menstruation and the fact that Fry's Electronics doesn't sell tampons. The prerequisites for becoming a Chyk? "Fluency in two or more computer languages, a vagina, and a belief that Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in a slinky pantsuit is the worldly embodiment of God" (pp. 285-288). And that's just a sample.
There are other interesting parts: Dan says, "Speaking of the information superhighway, we have all given each other official permission to administer a beating to whoever uses that accursed term. We're so sick of it!" (p. 114) In my area, that phrase only began taking hold of mainstream media around 1997 or so, but it makes sense that it would be over and done with much earlier in Silicon Valley. Former Apple employee Anatole presents a Compare and Contrast of Microsoft and Apple that, if true, suggests that Apple began turning into Microsoft much earlier than I thought (pg. 121-122). Abe, who during much of the book communicates only through email (he stayed at Microsoft), sends Dan a list of ingredients and asks him to guess what the final product is (p. 276). I found this interesting -- it complements Dan's subconscious file, to just take random excerpts from the backs of packages, perhaps combining them to see what comes out. What would it mean to see the fat content of an unknown product? In a passage on corporate branding, Karla says, "I think that in the future, clocks won't say three o'clock anymore. They'll just get right to the point and call three o'clock, 'Pepsi'" (p. 131). Sadly, I think Karla's future is soon. Finally, Abe speaks a vital truth, not only within the context of the story and computer programming, but even in today's world of nullibicity: "People without lives like to hang out with other people who don't have lives. Thus they form lives" (p. 313).
is probably my favorite Coupland book so far. It's funny and intelligent, a dreamy slice of an auspicious period in the computer revolution. And how could you not love a book with a character named Bug Barbecue?
January 26, 2004
Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing
Today I read Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing
by Les Edgerton. It's basically about being true to oneself when writing, about avoiding the "beige voice" that can creep in when one focuses too much on pleasing critics or the marketplace. Edgerton encourages writers to be themselves -- you can't please all readers all the time, and trying to do so stifles one's unique voice, the truly compelling part found in any good writing. The book features exercises to strengthen voice, in particular to stay strong in the face of criticism -- both internal and external -- and to find the younger writer within, the writer who wrote without fear of breaking rules. There is much coverage devoted to breaking rules: Edgerton claims we should know the rules of grammar and storytelling, but also know when to break them. To do so we must develop our instincts by being avid readers, familiar with literature but careful not to let the voices of others take over our own. Most interesting to me was the claim that your reader is yourself: We should write for someone like us, someone who's had similar experiences to ours, who has interests that match our own (whether enough of those people exist, I think that's another matter). We then have a common knowledge base, so there's no need to write down to the reader -- respect your readers and your natural voice will come through. Unlike many authors who write about writing, Edgerton admits that he's not the final authority, encouraging us to take from him only what we find useful. That's good, because I disagree with his claim that semicolons and colons are basically obsolete: I like to have a range of available punctuation, because sometimes a dash, which Edgerton says is the preferred clause connector, just doesn't feel right. That's what my instincts tell me; that's how my voice comes through.
January 24, 2004
Surfing Through Hyperspace: Understanding Higher Universes in Six Easy Lessons
Today I read Surfing Through Hyperspace: Understanding Higher Universes in Six Easy Lessons
by Clifford A. Pickover
. It's about the fourth spatial dimension, a fascinating concept in theoretical mathematics and physics that increasingly has real-world applications. Pickover presents an eclectic examination of the topic, not only covering such things as hyperbeings, 4-D geometry, parallel universes, wormholes, quantum foam, and 4-D rotation, but drawing on spirituality, the occult, theology, and science fiction as well. Helpful graphics and an engaging X-Files
parody clarify salient aspects of the fourth dimension, and though this book contains mathematical formulas, puzzles, computer code, and a scientific bibliography on hyperspace, simply reading the story and Pickover's thoughts on the subject is enough to expand one's imagination (the extensive, descriptive appendix on fourth dimension science fiction looks promising as well).
So, what's so great about this extra dimension? The author posits two directions in 4-D space, upsilon and delta, and shows how four-dimensional hyperbeings would seem supernatural, able to see and move through anything, perform surgery without breaking skin, appear and disappear at will, perhaps even exist outside of time. He wonders: Are angels, demons, and God actually 4-D entities? (There's an intriguing section which compares string theory's ten dimensions and sephiroth, Kabala's ten divine numbers.) Further, perhaps our souls extend into the fourth dimension, and they travel upsilon or delta when we die. Beyond spiritual musings, Pickover contemplates the chemistry and biology of four-dimensional beings (they may have 3-D retinas instead of our 2-D ones). The discussion of hyperspheres and tesseracts surpasses 3-D geometry, but it helps one imagine what hyperbeings might look like in three dimensions: Extrapolating from the way a 2-D being experiences a 3-D one in Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland
, Pickover claims that to us, four-dimensional creatures passing through our three-dimensional world might appear as blobs of flesh and cloth, 3-D slices of 4-D objects. Most interesting, however, is that each of us could be part of a singular hyperbeing, appendages only conscious of the parts stuck in this dimension. This makes me wonder: What if all living things are one entity? What if inanimate objects are only inanimate in this dimension, objects meant for our use because they're actually part of us? (Perhaps when people say we're all part of God, it's more literal than they think.) It even seems possible that most of our universe, in the form of invisible dark energy and dark matter, exists primarily in the fourth dimension. Pickover's book has opened my mind to an exciting concept I'd never considered before. At least in this dimension.
January 21, 2004
Dreamcrafting: The Art of Dreaming Big, the Science of Making It Happen
Today I read Dreamcrafting: The Art of Dreaming Big, the Science of Making It Happen
by Paul Levesque and Art McNeil. It's a book about defining and achieving your big dream, whatever that may be. This is accomplished with macroskills: Aspiration (Igniting a Sense of Mission), Motivation (Intensifying and Maintaining Resolve), Projection (Linking Today with Tomorrow), Inclusion (Getting Others Involved), and Application (Cultivating the Dreamcrafting Habit) (pg. 9-10). Providing further inspiration are the included profiles of those who are well-known for their achievements. While not the best in its class -- it's a little corny in places and sometimes features what seems like general common sense -- the book makes some worthwhile points. It acknowledges the emptiness that's felt when people have no sense of purpose, and the role a meaningless job can have in exacerbating the problem. However, since people need to survive, it advises orienting responsibilities, if only in small increments, toward the big dream. Tracking progress and recognizing the power of slow growth are emphasized, and I was glad to see coverage of how time passes more quickly as one gets older. I was intrigued by the statements "Buckminster Fuller believed humanity's ultimate role in the universe is 'antientropic,'" and "This is a book about bringing life into alignment -- about bringing order and structure (antientropy) into what can otherwise become a random exercise in existence." (p. 153). The authors believe that little steps can add up to a big difference. If so, then perhaps reading this book is one such step.
January 10, 2004
A Brief History of Time
Today I read A Brief History of Time
by Stephen Hawking. The book examines a few major topics in physics: relativity and quantum theories, black holes, time, big bangs, and so forth. It's pretty readable, though there are parts that I didn't fully understand; although it's meant for a general audience, readers with little exposure to physics may find it difficult. Hawking does try to make the material accessible, leaving out mathematical formulas but including a glossary and helpful diagrams. I read the first edition; the newer one has apparently been updated to cover what's been discovered in the last few years.
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