Thursday, 18 December 2014

Book Review--Knowledge is Beautiful

I am awed, overwhelmed, intrigued, challenged and critical of this book.

Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless is a stunning display of information; each page is packed with the same amount of information found in a chapter or even the entirety of a book.  But all of this information is represented with color, shapes and arrangements to demonstrate, not just the pieces of the facts but also their relationship to each other.

That’s a lot to ask from a bunch of shapes on paper but with the field of infographics, that is the ultimate goal.  Represent as much information as possible with as few words as possible.  Show ratios, proportions and relationships all on a 2D plane.  And David McCandless is a master artist within this medium.

The challenge for me, however, is that I am a very verbal person.  I compulsively read words; signs, subtitles, menus, anything!  So I often look over the illustrations in a book because they don’t have the same impact for me.  This was first challenged when I read the fantastic book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick which is a wonderful interpretation of the concept of a “graphic novel”.  The detailed illustrations are woven into and tell the story in between the text.  If you don’t “read” the pictures, you can’t really follow the book.  Great practice for me but not quite enough to prepare me for McCandless’ onslaught of pictorial stimulation.

A dizzying array of subjects is offered, loosely separated into four categories which are themselves shuffled like a deck of Vegas cards so that examples from each section are combined, seemingly at random.  Even looking at the table of contents is somewhat confusing when you are trying to find the category for a certain infographic and have to search for the page number because the table is not sequential. When flipping through the book, you will find a graph on the statistical probabilities of things happening to you; a one in “X” chance of correctly guessing a roulette number twice in a row or dying in a car crash driving to buy a Lotto ticket.  The next page features simple sketches of famous people (Jesus and Gandhi at the top) with ratings of their viewpoints along an oppression/progression continuum.  I would advise taking a deep breath before turning pages to prepare yourself for the next assault of information.

That being said, this is chock full of great information, and once understood these facts and relationships are remembered quite vividly because of the visual representations.  I think the key is to have a few guidelines before setting out on the adventure:

  • Remember that each infographic will have its own color scheme and legend of icons
  • First look at the title and read the legend to find out what the colors, images and sizes represent
  • Check to see how many pages a related infographic takes up.  Some only 1, some 2 and some more; there might be page flipping involved
  • Take a deep breath and move your eyes to something neutral in between disparate graphs
  • Take it slowly, trying to read the entire book at once is like trying to listen to 7 college lectures simultaneously on different subjects.
  • Try to appreciate both the informational aspects as well as the conceptual design at the same time

Factoid aficionados will find their match in this densely represented set of information; no quirky sayings, no snarky one-liners to memorize and toss out to unsuspecting bystanders but a satisfying baseline of information on hundreds of different subjects.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Name That Tune

Datdat DAT dat DAT dat…

Tap that rhythm… Do you recognize the tune?

Or are you looking at that string of letters wondering why you are reading this post in the first place if it doesn't make sense?

This is actually a representation of a concept commonly known as the “Curse of Knowledge”.  I absolutely know what song that is; I’m the one who chose it.  Where does the breakdown in communication happen?  Between you, the reader, and me, the author, because I know what I mean but you don’t live in my head (ha! You’re thankful for that, trust me).  I knew that I was giving you the rhythm for “Happy birthday to you…” but you did not have all of the relevant information to give it enough context to understand.

In a fantastic book about what makes ideas memorable (Made to Stick 2007), Chip Heath and Dan Heath explore concepts such as this one, the Curse of Knowledge.  This idea is that the “tapper” has all the pertinent knowledge that they are trying to get across to the “listener”. The difficulty lies in the tapper remembering that the listener doesn't have the same information and figuring out how to “un-know” a lot of that so the person they are communicating with can understand them.  The Heaths take a look at a 1990 psychological study by Elizabeth Newton who had a whole slew of volunteers be tappers and listeners.  One of the most notable points of this study is that the tappers estimated before they started that 50% of the time, the listener would guess the song being tapped.  Turns out, that was overly optimistic and the actual percentage hovered around 2.5%!  What does that mean for you and me?

It means that while we want and try to be good communicators, it takes more than desire and knowledge to get your point across.  You need to make sure that whoever you are communicating with has all of the necessary information to create a context so that they can understand the message.

This idea was brought back to me due to a string of texts from a friend of mine.  Texts and other forms of social media communication have done wonders for helping people stay connected, easily passing information and communicating jokes at lightning speeds (never underestimate the power of a good joke).  However, since both the senders and receivers of information are lacking a lot of other cues (tone of voice, body stance, facial expressions) miscommunication can be rampant.  Now, I can’t necessarily offer a tried and true method of sending understandable messages but maybe I can remind you that the person you are talking to doesn't have your frame of reference to work from so you need to create a shared one before you are communicating well. 

This is the holiday season and maybe many family uproars and Facebook dramas can be avoided if we make the effort to practice our own end of communication skills.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

To Snark or not to Snark... Book Review

Science… for Her! By Megan Amram

--Spoiler Alert—

I didn't like this book.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can tell you why.

Normally, I like satire and sarcasm and snarky comments.  There is an element of danger when putting it in writing, however, because snark doesn't always transfer from speech to text.  This book is an excellent example of how the intelligence and humor from sarcasm can backfire and make the author appear unintelligent, crass, and downright disgusting.

Laid out in a interesting hybrid of science textbook and glossy Cosmo magazine, Science… for Her! starts out visually interesting but the experience goes rapidly downhill from there.  I think part of the problem is that it appears to be one of the current crop of science and math books that presents dry material in fresh, colorful ways to entice potential learners who are anesthetized by the intense graphics of video games and television.  But, as our cataloger will tell you, nowhere in any of the subject tracings (different choices of things that the book is about to help us decide where to put it on the shelf) is there anything relating to science.  This “science” book is filed solely under humor.  But even that is debatable.

I've heard several different sides in the male/female debate about empowerment, male dominant cultures, male bashing, feminism… the list goes on.  But I contend that it doesn't matter your gender or orientation, crude is crude and disgusting has its limits.  There is a point at which humor is lost and it seems as though an author is racing to reach the limits of decency—this one won that race. Whether insulting religion, politics, personal preferences, or just talking about sex, Sex, or SEX, Amram shoots past humorously insulting and aims straight for offensive and disgusting, losing any credibility or reputation for intelligence in the process. 

Book Jacket for: Science...for her!

Agree or disagree?  Join the debate by commenting below...

Monday, 10 November 2014

Sci-Fi and Fantasy

It's Sci-Fi month!

Why?   (For those of you who don’t care why, skip this paragraph)

            30 years ago an author by the name of William Gibson wrote a book called Neuromancer [not to be confused with the term “necromancer” which is dealing with the dead].  The effect of this book is that this was the first time the word “cyberspace” was given form and presence and created the term “cyberpunk”.  You’ve got to celebrate a book that popularized a phrase that has become a household term for over 30 years!

Now one popular question is: What makes science fiction different from fantasy?

The most common explanation is that science fiction is based on the concept on what is actually possible, even if improbable.  Fantasy does not have to even touch reality and a of good fantasy has elements of magic.  Now, there can be quite a bit of overlap and many subgenres found under each category.  A good breakdown of these can be found here (SF Site) if you’re interested in the details.

One of the things about science fiction is that it is created based on what could be, scientifically speaking, but can become outdated when technology progresses or bypasses the proposed advancements.  However, it doesn’t have to detract from the entertainment value of the work.  I think our own reference librarian, Jean-Ann, sums it up quite nicely, “Fantasy is fantastical, like Lord of the Rings and magical.  But while the lines between fantasy and sci-fi are less important because we know some things are just impossible, it still adds to the fun.  Like Star Trek using a warp drive. It’s ridiculous* now but it wouldn’t be as much fun if they couldn’t go all over the place.”

In our collection at the Alamogordo Public Library, you will find Science Fiction and Fantasy shelved together in their own section so you don’t have to wade through the general fiction to find what you’re looking for.  So whether it’s space travel or magic, just browse the shelves to find it or come and ask us and we’ll be happy to help.

I think the best rule of thumb to go by is: if you like it, read it!

*Disclaimer from Jean-Ann!! This is a debatable term in this context but read more:

Monday, 3 November 2014

Book Review: Hollow City

Hollow City—The second book of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children

So, ever finish a book and want to throw it across the room?

That was my reaction to Hollow City.  I had eagerly awaited it while it was on hold at the library for me, having finished the first one about a month ago.  I really enjoyed it without expecting to (see review) and was happy to get the second book.

Why violent reaction, you ask?

--Spoiler Alert (kind of)—

Because it’s actually the second book in what is becoming a series!  So while I got excited that the characters were developing and making progress, I neared the end of the book thinking, “Hmm, there seems to be a lack of closure.  Maybe this is one of those books that hits the climax and the resolution is only 1 or two pages.”  But I got closer and closer to the end until *BAM*, the last page sounded the knell of doom: “DON’T LOOK AWAY: The next volume of the Peculiar Children series is coming soon.”

Gaaaah!  I don’t want to have to wait for the next one to find out what is going to happen next because it left on a cliff-hangar.

Oh well, I’ll just have to wait it out until the next one comes out—whenever that is because I can’t find it listed.  The first book was published in 2011 and the second in 2014—I might have some time to wait.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Oooh... A Real Necronomicon!

Any Evil Dead/Army of Darkness fans out there?  If so, the following description might be familiar to you:

“Necronomicon Ex Mortis, The Book of the Dead.  Bound in human flesh and inked in blood.  This ancient Sumerian text contained bizarre burial rites, funerary incantations, and demon resurrection passages.  It was never meant for the world of the living.”

Now, although this name and concept have been tossed around for a long time, the word Necronomicon * was invented by none other than the grandfather of the horror genre, H.P. Lovecraft (if you’re not familiar with the name, he inspired Edgar Allan Poe).  However, it has become such a legend in its own right that many people think it real.  Now, there is an Egyptian Book of the Dead which some people may confuse with the Necronomicon.

This ancient text, preserved in papyrus for thousands of years, described rituals to be performed on the dead and instructions on the behavior of the deceased in the Land of the Gods.  Many copies and translations can be found today.  

These three examples are at the Alamogordo Public Library
(Call number: 299.31 BOOK)
Here is a close-up of the transliterated version.

So, besides Halloween coming up, what would prompt such a morbid topic?  Ah, I’m so glad you asked!  I found a blog post from the Houghton Library, Harvard’s repository for rare books entitled, “The science of anthropodermic binding”.  Anthropodermic binding… book covers made from human skin!  One of their books dating from the 19th century was bound in parchment but after several tests were done, it was determined that the covering was not sheep or goat skin, as is common with old parchment, but primate skin.  And since humans were pretty much the only accessible primate for most people, the deduction is that it really is human skin binding the book.
Destinies of the Soul at the Houghton Library
It is not really as rare as it sounds, though, this was a practice used for many years and often it was the bodies of criminals donated to science that ended up with their skin being used in tanneries and book binderies.  How’s that for a spooky thought, this close to Halloween?

Questions/comments?  Let me know!

*Disclaimer:  I usually don't use or endorse using Wikipedia as an authoritative source (as my students will tell you) but since this is a fictional book and I'm taking it from the context of a campy movie, I figured it was o.k. this time.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ahoy, matey! Pirates Spotted in Alamogordo!

Ahoy, matey! Pirates were spotted at the Alamogordo Library, on September 19th 2014. Staff and patrons gathered together to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day. While the children’s section of the library is alive with fun programs and arts and crafts, the adult side is quite a bit more staid and quiet. We sought to liven that up with a day of fun activities and costumes aimed at older teens and adults. Fully supported by our local Friends of the Library group, we offered several activities throughout the afternoon.
Participants were invited to join the Treasure Hunt which had them following clues through the stacks and every collection to get to the prize at the end (candy for those with a sweet tooth). There was challenging pirate trivia as well as a Create-Your-Own Pirate Flag station with historical depictions of actual pirate flags as inspiration.  We also touted our Mango Languages access with their fun options of speaking “Pirate”.
To make sure the children were not left out, though, there were puzzle sheets and a story starter as well as a fun pirate paper plate craft to enjoy. Children and adults were encouraged to come dressed in costume and staff members were authorized to wear costumes as well.
Learn more about the Alamogordo Public Library on FacebookPinterest, and Twitter!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Non-Book Review: Sherlock Season 3

Confession time: I fell behind on my self-imposed reading schedule for a few days.

Why, do you ask?

I got the BBC's Sherlock Season 3 at the library!!!!! I was responsible enough not to watch all three episodes in a 4.5 hour marathon but I did use my pre-sleep reading time to watch them three days in row.

Spectacular show; this season marks a departure from previous years because they didn't modernize the traditional cases but forged ahead into new ones. And things were a little darker in the last episode but just as wonderful as I'd come to expect.

Also, the finale had one of the most romantic declarations I've ever heard... any guesses on what you think it is?

Photo: Confession time:  I fell behind on my self-imposed reading schedule for a few days.

Why, do you ask?

I got the BBC's Sherlock Season 3 at the library!!!!!  I was responsible enough not to watch all three episodes in a 4.5 hour marathon but I did use my pre-sleep reading time to watch them three days in row.

Spectacular show; this season marks a departure from previous years because they didn't modernize the traditional cases but forged ahead into new ones.  And things were a little darker in the last episode but just as wonderful as I'd come to expect.

Also, the finale had one of the most romantic declarations I've ever heard... any guesses on what you think it is?

Monday, 22 September 2014

Book Review--Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

The first I heard of this book was from my sister who said she got it on her Nook and really enjoyed it, even though it was not her normal genre.  That is a pretty good endorsement to me--if someone enjoys a book despite it being out of their comfort zone.  Then I saw the cover… I know, I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. Have you seen it? 

A little odd.  Now, I don’t mind a bit of suspense, a good mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, romance but at first glance this seemed creepy/horror bound.

However, I read the summary and thought interesting.  Then I heard the premise behind how the author developed the story.  Gathering vintage photographs that have no easy explanation (no happy family pictures here… or even awkward family photos) Riggs connected these random images with a story.  Cool, I thought, I make elaborate stories out of just seeing scenes of people at the airport.  So, I tried it.

WONDERFUL!  This does have suspense, mystery and fantasy.  It just skirts the concept of creepy and flirts with horror but never really crosses the line.  The story is solid and the details are vivid and the vintage photos that illustrate the text blend together well.  The only problem is… the next one is checked out and I have to wait!  I’m putting Hollow City: The second novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children on hold so I can revisit The Bird and all of her special crew.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Book Review--The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon:  and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements by Sam Kean


Ever have to slog through a book to get to the end?  I did recently with The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean.  The premise seemed promising—a trek through historical events using the periodic table of the elements as touchstones.  I like science and I’m always looking for ways to peak my interest in history (not my favorite subject) so it seemed like a win-win.  Yeah, not so much.  I really had to force myself through the first half of the book; Kean went into great detail about the initial cosmic distribution of the elements and then into structural analysis of atoms and electrons.  Yes, necessary information to understanding the elements but did it really have to take half the book?  I’m not convinced.


Now, the second half of the book started to get interesting when Kean brought the elements into play during times of war and the great scientific races between countries to discover new elements and classify them in an understandable manner.  But I found it difficult to keep the strings of what he was discussing together because he jumped around from time to country and from scientist to principle with not a lot of tie-in between.  I did find interesting tidbits and the information matches up with what I know about chemistry and physics (more than average but definitely not an expert) but the muddled format was off-putting.


However; I finished, I felt good about it when I was done and now I’m rewarding myself with eye candy… the fun photographic collection of Underwater Dogs by Seth Casteel.  Seeing these canine faces stretched into grins just makes me smile J