the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Posts Tagged ‘science

New in Paperback for February

with 6 comments

Here are just a few paperbacks coming out this month that have caught my eye.

Artful by Ali Smith
Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world—it is about the things art can do, the things art is made of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. A magical hybrid that refuses to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature. Ali Smith’s heady powers as a novelist and short story writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.

Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self by Jennifer Ouellette
me myself whyAs diverse as people appear to be, all of our genes and brains are nearly identical. In Me, Myself, and Why, Jennifer Ouellette dives into the miniscule ranges of variation to understand just what sets us apart. She draws on cutting-edge research in genetics, neuroscience, and psychology—enlivened as always with her signature sense of humor—to explore the mysteries of human identity and behavior. Readers follow her own surprising journey of self-discovery as she has her genome sequenced, her brain mapped, her personality typed, and even samples a popular hallucinogen. Bringing together everything from Mendel’s famous pea plant experiments and mutations in The X-Men to our taste for cilantro and our relationships with virtual avatars, Ouellette takes us on an endlessly thrilling and illuminating trip into the science of ourselves.

The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner
Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by editor Philip Gove, Webster’s Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating “artificial notions of correctness,” basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary’s revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called “the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars.” Critics bayed at the dictionary’s permissive handling of ain’t. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the abandonment of the old standard represented the unraveling of civilization.

Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain’t describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.

What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson
Bankers prowl Brooklyn bars on the eve of the stock market crash. A debate over Young Elvis versus Vegas Elvis turns existential. Detoxing junkies use a live lobster to spice up their love life. Students on summer break struggle to escape the orbit of a seemingly utopic communal house.

And in the title story, selected for The Best American Short Stories, two film school buddies working on a doomed project are left sizing up their own talent, hoping to come out on top–but fearing they won’t.

In What’s Important Is Feeling, Adam Wilson follows the through-line of contemporary coming-of-age from the ravings of teenage lust to the staggering loneliness of proto-adulthood. He navigates the tough terrain of American life with a delicate balance of comedy and compassion, lyricism and unsparing straightforwardness. Wilson’s characters wander through a purgatory of yearning, hope, and grief. No one emerges unscathed.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Electric, exhilarating, and beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go introduces the world to Taiye Selasi, a novelist of extraordinary talent. In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from Accra to Lagos to London to New York, it is at once a portrait of a modern family and an exploration of the importance of where we come from to who we are.

A renowned surgeon and failed husband, Kweku Sai dies suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of his death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Moving with great elegance through time and place, Ghana Must Go charts their circuitous journey to one another and, along the way, teaches us that the truths we speak can heal the wounds we hide.

Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production by Nato Thompson
A fog of information and images has flooded the world: from advertising, television, radio, and film to the information glut produced by the new economy. With the rise of social networking, even our contemporaries, peers, and friends are all suddenly selling us the ultimate product: themselves.

Here curator and critic Nato Thompson interrogates the implications of these developments for those dedicated to socially engaged art and activism. How can anyone find a voice and make change when the world is flooded with images and information? And what is one to make of the endless machine of consumer capitalism, which has appropriated much from the history of art and, in recent years, the methods of grassroots political organizing and social networking?

Highlighting the work of some of the most innovative and interesting artists and activists working today, Thompson reads and praises sites and institutions that empower their communities to see power and re-imagine it. From cooperative housing to anarchist infoshops to alternative art venues, Thompson shows that many of today’s most innovative spaces operate as sites of dramatic personal transformation.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide; Eric Selland (translator)
A bestseller in France and winner of Japan s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat, by the acclaimed poet Takashi Hiraide, is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living. A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo; they work at home, freelance copy-editing; they no longer have very much to say to one another. But one day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. It leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. Soon they are buying treats for the cat and enjoying talks about the animal and all its little ways. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife the days have more light and color. The novel brims with new small joys and many moments of staggering poetic beauty, but then something happens

Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic; David Williams (translator)
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.

Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.

Glyph by Percival Everett
glyphBaby Ralph has ways to pass the time in his crib—but they don’t include staring at a mobile. Aided by his mother, he reads voraciously: “All of Swift, all of Sterne, Invisible Man, Baldwin, Joyce, Balzac, Auden, Roethke,” along with a generous helping of philosophy, semiotics, and trashy thrillers. He’s also fond of writing poems and stories (in crayon). But Ralph has limits. He’s mute by choice and can’t drive, so in his own estimation he’s not a genius. Unfortunately for him, everyone else disagrees. His psychiatrist kidnaps him for testing, and once his brilliance is quantified (IQ: 475), a Pentagon officer also abducts him. Diabolically funny and lacerating in its critique of poststructuralism, Glyph has the feverish plot of a thriller and the philosophical depth of a text by Roland Barthes.

On Loving Women by Diane Obomsawin; Helge Dascher (translator)
loving womenOn Loving Women is a new collection of stories about coming out, first love, and sexual identity by the animator Diane Obomsawin. With this work, Obomsawin brings her gaze to bear on subjects closer to home—her friends’ and lovers’ personal accounts of realizing they’re gay or first finding love with another woman. Each story is a master class in reaching the emotional truth of a situation with the simplest means possible. Her stripped-down pages use the bare minimum of linework to expressively reveal heartbreak, joy, irritation, and fear.

On Loving Women focuses primarily on adolescence—crushes on high school teachers, awkwardness on first dates—but also addresses much deeper-seated difficulties of being out: fears of rejection and of not being who others want one to be. Within these pages, Obomsawin has forged a poignant, powerful narrative that speaks to the difficulties of coming out and the joys of being loved.

Her first English-language work, Kaspar—a retelling of the life of Kaspar Hauser, the mysterious German youth who was raised in isolation and murdered just a few years after emerging from his imprisonment—was critically lauded for its simple but expressive storytelling, and for the way it portrayed traumatic material compassionately but without self-indulgence. Preview.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

Advertisements

Written by Gabrielle

February 5, 2014 at 6:48 am

New in Paperback for January

with 4 comments

Ring in the New Year with these new paperbacks.

Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap
Rosie Schaap has always loved bars: the wood and brass and jukeboxes, the knowing bartenders, and especially the sometimes surprising but always comforting company of regulars. Starting with her misspent youth in the bar car of a regional railroad, where at fifteen she told commuters’ fortunes in exchange for beer, and continuing today as she slings cocktails at a neighborhood joint in Brooklyn, Schaap has learned her way around both sides of a bar and come to realize how powerful the fellowship among regular patrons can be.

In Drinking with Men, Schaap shares her unending quest for the perfect local haunt, which takes her from a dive outside Los Angeles to a Dublin pub full of poets, and from small-town New England taverns to a character-filled bar in Manhattan’s TriBeCa. Drinking alongside artists and expats, ironworkers and soccer fanatics, she finds these places offer a safe haven, a respite, and a place to feel most like herself. In rich, colorful prose, Schaap brings to life these seedy, warm, and wonderful rooms. Drinking with Men is a love letter to the bars, pubs, and taverns that have been Schaap’s refuge, and a celebration of the uniquely civilizing source of community that is bar culture at its best.

The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life by Luc Ferry
A fascinating new journey through Greek mythology that explains the myths’ timeless lessons and meaning.

Heroes, gods, and mortals. The Greek myths are the founding narratives of Western civilization: to understand them is to know the origins of philosophy, literature, art, science, law, and more. Indeed, as Luc Ferry shows in this masterful book, they remain a great store of wisdom, as relevant to our lives today as ever before. No mere legends or cliches (“Herculean task,” “Pandora’s box,” “Achilles heel,” etc.), these classic stories offer profound and manifold lessons, providing the first sustained attempt to answer fundamental human questions concerning “the good life,” the burden of mortality, and how to find one’s place in the world. Vividly retelling the great tales of mythology and illuminating fresh new ways of understanding them, The Wisdom of the Myths will enlighten readers of all ages.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor
In the not-too-distant future, competing giant fast food factions rule the world. Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, in a lonely but highly surveilled home office, answering calls on his complaints hotline. It’s a boring job, but he likes it—there’s a set answer for every scenario, and he never has to leave the house. Except then he starts getting calls from Marco, who claims to be a thirteenth-century explorer just returned from Cathay. And what do you say to a caller like that? Plus, Neetsa Pizza doesn’t like it when you go off script.

Meanwhile, Leonard’s sister keeps disappearing on secret missions with her “book club,” leaving him to take care of his nephew, which means Leonard has to go outside. And outside is where the trouble starts.

A dazzling debut novel wherein medieval Kabbalists, rare book librarians, and Latter-Day Baconians skirmish for control over secret mystical knowledge, and one Neetsa Pizza employee discovers that you can’t save the world with pizza coupons.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips
All of us lead two parallel lives: the one we are actively living, and the one we feel we should have had or might yet have. As hard as we try to exist in the moment, the unlived life is an inescapable presence, a shadow at our heels. And this itself can become the story of our lives: an elegy to unmet needs and sacrificed desires. We become haunted by the myth of our own potential, of what we have in ourselves to be or to do. And this can make of our lives a perpetual game of falling short.

But what happens if we remove the idea of failure from the equation? With his flair for graceful paradox, the acclaimed psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests that if we accept frustration as a way of outlining what we really want, satisfaction suddenly becomes possible. To crave a life without frustration is to crave a life without the potential to identify and accomplish our desires.

In Missing Out, an elegant, compassionate, and absorbing book, Phillips draws deeply on his own clinical experience as well as on the works of Shakespeare and Freud, of D. W. Winnicott and William James, to suggest that frustration, not getting it, and getting away with it are all chapters in our unlived lives—and may be essential to the one fully lived.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction, or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and at home?

We can, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, and in Mastermind she shows us how. Beginning with the “brain attic”—Holmes’s metaphor for how we store information and organize knowledge—Konnikova unpacks the mental strategies that lead to clearer thinking and deeper insights. Drawing on twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology, Mastermind explores Holmes’s unique methods of ever-present mindfulness, astute observation, and logical deduction. In doing so, it shows how each of us, with some self-awareness and a little practice, can employ these same methods to sharpen our perceptions, solve difficult problems, and enhance our creative powers. For Holmes aficionados and casual readers alike, Konnikova reveals how the world’s most keen-eyed detective can serve as an unparalleled guide to upgrading the mind.

Written by Gabrielle

January 2, 2014 at 6:54 am

Link roundup for the week of September 2

with 2 comments

MegaphoneHere’s some of the publishing and book news that caught my attention this week. Link to your finds in the comments.

E-books and Readers

  • Amazon is launching KindleMatchbooks, a program that bundles print and e-books. It’s retroactive. Forbes
  • The history and future of color e-paper. Engadget
  • Cory Doctorow has some thoughts on libraries and e-books. Locus
  • Esquire is launching a weekly tablet edition to reach a younger audience. The Guardian
  • Tablet owner demographics 2013. Pew Internet
  • Nicholas Carr talks about the history of paper and how we read digitally. Nautilus Magazine

What we’re learning now is that reading is a bodily activity. We take in information the way we experience the world—as much with our sense of touch as with our sense of sight. Some scientists believe that our brain actually interprets written letters and words as physical objects—a reflection of the fact that our minds evolved to perceive things, not symbols.

Apps and Tech

  • Apps are on the rise, possibly because they match the way our brain works. Wired UK
  • Google just launched “Chrome Apps.” Techland
  • Clive Thompson on Google Glass New York Times Magazine
  • Farhad Manjoo heads to The Wall Street Journal to report on tech. Digits

Social Media

  • Heineken and Weiden + Kennedy New York devised a scavenger hunt using Instagram. Digiday
  • Twitter is preparing to go public. Bits
  • You might be tweeting your location. Huffington Post

Media and Publishing

Writing and Grammar

Lifehack and Business

  • Advice to freelancers for pitching stories. Useful for placing op-eds and articles. The Atlantic
  • Magazines are experimenting with various subscription models. People is the latest. AdWeek

Podcasts

  • BookRiot has a podcast. It’s good. BookRiot

Misc.

  • Rebecca Solnit on technology’s influence on time. London Review of Books
  • Joan Juliet Buck on interviewing Bashar al-Assad’s wife for Vogue. Newsweek
  • Frank Bruni on bringing your digital comforts with you while traveling. New York Times
  • Take the Ishihara Color Perception Test. io9

Written by Gabrielle

September 6, 2013 at 7:01 am

New in Paperback for July

leave a comment »

July is an exciting month in the world of paperbacks. These are the new releases I’m looking forward to seeing hit the bookstores in the next few days. Look for them as you wander around the front tables this weekend. The comments are open below, what paperback releases are you looking forward to?

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
by Cheryl Strayed

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.

Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond.  Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

Dear Sugar columns at The Rumpus
An interview with the Other People podcast
An interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition
An interview with TIME magazine

The Nervous System
by Nathan Larson

After a series of large-scale terrorist attacks, New York City is reduced to a shadow of its former self. As the city struggles to dig itself out of the wreckage, a nameless, obsessive-compulsive veteran with a spotty memory, a love for literature, and a strong if unique moral code has taken up residence at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Dubbed “Dewey Decimal” for his desire to reorganize the library’s stock, he gets by as bagman and muscle for unscrupulous politicians and underworld figures—as detailed in the first book in this series, The Dewey Decimal System.

In The Nervous System, Decimal, attempting to clean up loose ends after the violent events in the first book, stumbles upon information concerning the gruesome murder of a prostitute and a prominent US senator’s involvement. Immediately he finds himself chasing ghosts and fighting for his life, pursued by Blackwater-style private military contractors and the ever-present specter of his own past. Decimal confronts a twilight world of Korean hostess bars, childhood bogeymen, and the face of the military-industrial complex gone haywire—all framed by a city descending toward total chaos.

Nathan’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to The Dewey Decimal System

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction
by Diego Trelles Paz (Editor); Janet Hendrickson (Translator)

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction brings together twenty-three Latin American writers who were born between 1970 and 1980. The anthology offers an exciting overview of contemporary Spanish-language literature and introduces a generation of writers who came of age in the time of military dictatorships, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the birth of the Internet, the murders of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the September 11th attacks in New York City.

The anthology features: Oliverio Coelho, Federico Falco, and Samanta Schweblin (Argentina); Giovanna Rivero (Bolivia); Santiago Nazarian (Brazil); Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Antonio Ungar (Colombia); Ena Lucía Portela (Cuba); Lina Meruane, Andrea Jeftanovic, and Alejandro Zambra (Chile); Ronald Flores (Guatemala); Tryno Maldonado and Antonio Ortuño (México); María del Carmen Pérez Cuadra (Nicaragua); Carlos Wynter Melo (Panama); Daniel Alarcón and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru); Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico); Ariadna Vásquez (Dominican Republic); Ignacio Alcuri and Inés Bortagaray (Uruguay); and Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela).

Dublinesque
by Enrique Vila-Matas; Anne McLean (Translator); Anna Milsom (Translator)

Dublinesque opens with a renowned and retired literary publisher’s dream: he finds himself in Dublin, a city he’s never visited, and the mood is full of passion and despair. Afterwards he’s obsessed with the dream, and brings three of the writers he published on a trip to the same cemetery where Paddy Dignam was buried in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where they hold a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age.” And then he notices that he’s being shadowed by a mysterious man who looks exactly like Samuel Beckett…

In this witty and poignant novel, perhaps his finest yet, Enrique Vila-Matas traces a journey that connects the worlds of Joyce and Beckett and all they symbolize: great literature and evidence of the difficulties faced by literary authors, publishers, and good readers, their struggle to survive in a society where literature is losing influence.

Read an interview with Vila-Matas on The Paris Review Daily
The Quarterly Conversation reviews Vila-Matas’s previews novels

Your Voice in My Head: A Memoir
by Emma Forrest

Emma Forrest’s memoir was called “a journey of healing” by Interview magazine and “a beautifully written eulogy for the doctor she credits with saving her life” by Los Angeles Magazine. The book received acclaim from reviewers across the country, the movie rights were snatched up quickly, and Emma herself enchanted audiences at readings in New York and Los Angeles. Brave, brilliantly written, and anchored in the reality of everyday life, Your Voice in My Head is destined to become a classic of the genre.

An excerpt at The Guardian
Emma’s essay in The New York Times
Emma’s essay in The Paris Review
Emma’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to Your Voice
Maud Newton reviews Your Voice in My Head at The Awl
An interview with Interview Magazine
An interview with Ron Hogan

The No Variations: Journal of an Unfinished Novel
by Luis Chitarroni; Rhett McNeil (Translator)

A cryptic, self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plot points, anecdotes and tales, literary references both real and invented, and populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and produce their own ideas for books, characters, poems . . . A dizzying look at the ugly backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, envied or undeserved prizes, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, with the author and his menagerie of invented peers fighting to keep their feelings of futility at bay. A literary cousin to David Markson and César Aira,The No Variations is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.

The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
by Keith Devlin

Leonardo of Pisa—better known today as Fibonacci—was the first Westerner to recognize the power of the Hindu-Arabic number system (featuring the numerals 0 through 9), which offered a much simpler method of calculation than the finger reckoning and cumbersome Roman numerals used at the time. His book Liberabbaci (The book of Calculation) remade the West as the dominant force in science, technology, and large-scale international commerce. Leonardo of Pisa is best known today for discovering the Fibonacci sequence of numbers appearing in biological structures throughout nature, but despite the ubiquity of his discoveries, he has largely slipped from the pages of history. Keith Devlin, NPR’s “Math Guy,” re-creates the life and enduring legacy of this brilliant yet overlooked mathematician.

Listen to Keith on NPR’s Weekend Edition
Follow him on Twitter

What to Read: A Brief History of Clocks

with 2 comments

Normally, the most popular links I share on Twitter are the ones that direct people to “Top 10” lists. Going along with the nature of the rapidly moving news feed, these posts lend themselves to quick skims that are easily mined for fun facts. Knowing this trend, I was surprised to see that the other day one of the most clicked on articles I’d posted was about the history of clocks, a 4,300 word essay describing the way we’ve come to measure time.

That morning the headline, “A Brief History of Clocks,” had caught my eye because, apparently along with many others, I have a deep fascination with time. I often look for articles on how to make better use of my time. Lifehacker is a site I go to daily to look for the latest organizational software along with time-saving tips. I check out Behance’s 99% for productivity tips. One of my favorite articles, which I believe I found on DesignTAXI, was how best to use those few minutes in between tasks to get (even) more things done.

While I wait for friends to show up to restaurants, or for a coworker in the lobby of our office building for a coffee run, I’m usually early, I check my cell phone continually to see what time it is. Inevitably, as I hardly know anyone who uses a wristwatch, I think about how we all live on the same time now — no more need to “synchronize Swatches” as Parker Lewis and his friends once did in 1990: our cell phones, thanks to towers, are now uniform — or at least that’s my understanding of it.

If those who follow me on Twitter are anything like me, I shouldn’t be surprised by the interest in the article. However, I do wonder how many of those who clicked over actually read it. If I’m to be honest, I finally had the chance four days after finding it. “A Brief History of Clocks: Our Conception of time depends on the way we measure it,” is what one now calls a “longread”. As mentioned, it clocks in at a little over 4,000 words and these days you might as well ask someone to read Moby-Dick. However, I’m here to argue that it well worth the time. It may not help you squeeze in those few extra chores or errands but you will walk away with a few hard-earned fun facts to impress your friends.

Here are a few highlights but I suggest you read it in full.

  • Humankind’s efforts to tell time have helped drive the evolution of our technology and science throughout history.
  • [B]y the 13th century, demand for a dependable timekeeping instrument led medieval artisans to invent the mechanical clock. Although this new device satisfied the requirements of monastic and urban communities, it was too inaccurate and unreliable for scientific application until the pendulum was employed to govern its operation.
  • According to archaeological evidence, the Babylonians, Egyptians and other early civilizations began to measure time at least 5,000 years ago . . . They based their calendars on three natural cycles: the solar day, marked by the successive periods of light and darkness as the earth rotates on its axis; the lunar month, following the phases of the moon as it orbits the earth; and the solar year, defined by the changing seasons that accompany our planet’s revolution around the sun.
  • [T]he growth of urban mercantile populations in Europe during the second half of the 13th century created demand for improved timekeeping devices.
  • Because the initial examples indicated the time by striking a bell (thereby alerting the surrounding community to its daily duties), the name for this new machine was adopted from the Latin word for “bell,” clocca.
  • With uniform hours, however, arose the question of when to begin counting them, and so, in the early 14th century, a number of systems evolved. The schemes that divided the day into 24 equal parts varied according to the start of the count: Italian hours began at sunset, Babylonian hours at sunrise, astronomical hours at midday and “great clock” hours (used for some large public clocks in Germany) at midnight. Eventually these and competing systems were superseded by “small clock,” or French, hours, which split the day, as we currently do, into two 12-hour periods commencing at midnight.
  • The sectioning of the day into 24 hours and of hours and minutes into 60 parts became so well established in Western culture that all efforts to change this arrangement failed. The most notable attempt took place in revolutionary France in the 1790s, when the government adopted the decimal system.
  • [B]y the 15th century a growing number of clocks were being made for domestic use.
  • Astronomers in particular needed a better tool for timing the transit of stars and thereby creating more accurate maps of the heavens.
  • The advent of the pendulum not only heightened demand for clocks but also resulted in their development as furniture.
  • Before the expansion of railroads in the 19th century, towns in the U.S. and Europe used the sun to determine local time. For example, because noon occurs in Boston about three minutes before it does in Worcester, Mass., Boston’s clocks were set about three minutes ahead of those in Worcester. The expanding railroad network, however, needed a uniform time standard for all the stations along the line.
  • The U.S. established four time zones in 1883. . . . At the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., the globe was divided into 24 time zones. Delegates chose the Royal Observatory as the prime meridian (zero degrees lon­gitude, the line from which all other longitudes are measured) in part because two thirds of the world’s shipping already used Greenwich time for navigation.
  • The American Waltham Watch Company, as it eventually became known, benefited greatly from a huge demand for watches during the Civil War, when Union Army forces used them to synchronize operations.
  • With the help of a substantial marketing campaign, the masculine fashion for wrist­watches caught on after the war. Self-wind­ing mechanical wristwatches made their appearance during the 1920s.
  • The precise measurement of time is of such fundamental importance to science and technology that the search for ever greater accuracy continues.

::[Futher Reading]::
Here are some books about time. They range from the scientific, to the philosophic, to the fantastic. Enjoy.

The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction by Leofranc Holford-Strevens
Why do we measure time in the way that we do? Why is a week seven days long? At what point did minutes and seconds come into being? Why are some calendars lunar and some solar?

The organization of time into hours, days, months, and years seems immutable and universal, but is actually far more artificial than most people realize. For example, the French Revolution resulted in a restructuring of the French calendar, and the Soviet Union experimented with five and then six-day weeks.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens brings us this fascinating study of time using a range of examples from Ancient Rome and Julius Caesar’s imposition of the Leap Year to the 1920’s project for a fixed Easter. Those interested in time, history, and the development of the calendar will enjoy this absorbing exploration of an aspect of our lives that we all take for granted. [via IndieBound]

Introducing Time: A Graphic Guide by Craig Callender; Ralph Edney (Illustrator)
Granted, philosophy professor Craig Callender’s Time: A Graphic Guide isn’t exactly a graphic novel, but it does borrow from the genre’s signature visual storytelling to explore the history of time with a fascinating philosopher’s lens, from Augustine’s contention that there is no time to Newton’s fluid time to the static time of Einstein to the contemporary theory that there is no time in quantum gravity, coming full circle. Callender covers a wide range of facets — clocks, psychological time, entropy, spacetime curvature, the Big Bang, Gödel, endocrinology, and just about everything in between — to deliver a sum total of illumination that will leave you with newfound awe for the intersection of philosophy and science. [via Brain Pickings]

In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension by Dan Falk
In his latest book, award-winning science writer Dan Falk chronicles the story of how humans have come to understand time over the millennia, and by drawing from the latest research in physics, psychology, and other fields, Falk shows how that understanding continues to evolve. In Search of Time begins with our earliest ancestors’ perception of time and the discoveries that led—with much effort—to the Gregorian calendar, atomic clocks, and “leap seconds.” Falk examines the workings of memory, the brain’s remarkable “bridge across time,” and asks whether humans are unique in their ability to recall the past and imagine the future. He explores the possibility of time travel, and the paradoxes it seems to entail. Falk looks at the quest to comprehend the beginning of time and how time—and the universe—may end. Finally, he examines the puzzle of time’s “flow,” and the remarkable possibility that the passage of time may be an illusion. [via IndieBound]

A Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, and the Pace of Life by Robert V. Levine
In this engaging and spirited book, eminent social psychologist Robert Levine asks us to explore a dimension of our experience that we take for granted—our perception of time. When we travel to a different country, or even a different city in the United States, we assume that a certain amount of cultural adjustment will be required, whether it’s getting used to new food or negotiating a foreign language, adapting to a different standard of living or another currency. In fact, what contributes most to our sense of disorientation is having to adapt to another culture’s sense of time. We travel back in time to ancient Greece to examine early clocks and sundials, then move forward through the centuries to the beginnings of ”clock time” during the Industrial Revolution. Levine raises some fascinating questions. How do we use our time? Are we being ruled by the clock? What is this doing to our cities? To our relationships? To our own bodies and psyches? [via IndieBound]

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination by Chrisoula Andreou
When we fail to achieve our goals, procrastination is often the culprit. But how exactly is procrastination to be understood? It has been described as imprudent, irrational, inconsistent, and even immoral, but there has been no sustained philosophical debate concerning the topic.
This edited volume starts in on the task of integrating the problem of procrastination into philosophical inquiry. The focus is on exploring procrastination in relation to agency, rationality, and ethics-topics that philosophy is well-suited to address. Theoretically and empirically informed analyses are developed and applied with the aim of shedding light on a vexing practical problem that generates a great deal of frustration, regret, and harm. [via IndieBound] You can listen to Chrisoula on PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge

Time by Eva Hoffman
Novelist, cultural commentator, memoirist, and historian Eva Hoffman examines our ever-changing perception of time.

Time has always been the great given, the element that establishes the governing facts of human fate that cannot be circumvented, deconstructed, or wished away. But these days we are tampering with time in ways that affect how we live, the textures of our experience, and our very sense of what it is to be human. What is the nature of time in our time? Why is it that even as we live longer than ever before, we feel that we have ever less of this basic good? What effects do the hyperfast technologies–computers, video games, instant communications–have on our inner lives and even our bodies? And as we examine biology and mind on evermore microscopic levels, what are we learning about the process and parameters of human time? Hoffman regards our relationship to time–from jet lag to aging, sleep to cryogenic freezing–in this broad, eye-opening meditation on life’s essential medium and its contemporary challenges. [via IndieBound] Listen to Eva Hoffman discuss her book at the Los Angeles Public Library

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion, this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger’s cinematic storytelling that makes the novel’s unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant. [via IndieBound] Slate has a physicist take a look at the novel

Kindred by Octavia Butler
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin. [via IndieBound]

Written by Gabrielle

January 26, 2012 at 6:10 am

Posted in books, on the shelf

Tagged with , , , , , ,

On the Shelf :: On My List This Week

leave a comment »

Back once again with this week’s wants.

Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky with translation  by Tim Mohr
Another tantalizing one from Europa Editions. This one is all the rage with my local indie booksellers. They can’t stop raving about it—and facing it out on the shelves. In their review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn said, “Not only is The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine one of the finest examples of dark humor writing to come out this year, but translator Tim Mohr’s work from the novel’s original German is done so well that you practically expect English to be the first language of author Alina Bronsky.” I’m sure I’ll get around to this one before the end of the summer.

Townie: a Memoir by Andre Dubus III
Andre Dubus III grew up in depressed mill towns in Massachusetts and turned to drugs and violence. This one is getting a ton of praise and all the interviews with the author have been fascinating. Listen to him on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show.

Read Hard: Five Years of Great Writing from the Believer
Whoever designed the cover on this one was smart. The names alone in this collection are enough to make you run to the cashier. Jonathan Lethem, William T. Vollmann, Ben Ehrenreich, Sam Lipsyte, Rick Moody, Stephen Elliott . . . No really, must I go on or are you already lacing up your shoes?

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer
Another collection of essays that have caught my eye is by British journalist and novelist Geoff Dyer. I saw him in conversation with Sam Lipsyte the other month and found him incredibly charming and intelligent.  This is a roundup of Geoff’s work over the past two decades pulled from three of his other books. Check out these great interviews with him on The Marketplace of Ideas and WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show. You can also read the review over at The Millions.

The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Stories of Madness, Love, and the History of the World by Sam Kean
I’m kind of a sucker for science history books. I’d rather read about the characters than memorize the mathematical formulas behind their experiments. In The Disappearing Spoon, Sam tells us the stories behind the elements. Check out the series of posts Sam wrote for Slate.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut with an introduction by Neil Gaiman
Even before Dr. Kevorkian died last week this was on my list.
From the Seven Stories Press website: “What began as a series of ninety-second radio interludes for WNYC, New York City’s public radio station, evolved into this provocative collection of musings about who and what we live for, and how much it all matters in the end.”

Written by Gabrielle

June 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm

retro reads :: Player Piano and why it’s relevant today

with 2 comments

slaughter house five by kurt vonnegut wasn’t assigned to me in high school but if it had been, as with most books on the class reading list, i probably wouldnt have read it anyway. although i often prefer male authors to female, the hyper-masculine stories about war and hunting don’t appeal to me. i once heard hemingway described as a boy’s writer and that’s how i saw vonnegut, fairly or not.

it wasn’t until my early 20s that i deemed the widely-praised bestseller a cultural necessity. reluctantly, and only with a sense of duty, as opposed to pleasure, i hunkered down and slogged my way through it. 10 years later i couldnt summarize the plot or the name of main character; and i’ve since moved on without any interest in rereading, or picking up another book by the author.

that was, until i read an article mentioning player piano, vonnegut’s first novel. the description didnt fit my image of him, which now seems absurd after a quick online search to refresh my memory of slaughter house, but to my misinformed self i wasnt expecting a book that could stand side by side with the science fiction classics of philip k. dick, william gibson, and ray bradbury.

set in an unspecified future, in an upstate new york town of Ilium, a place not unlike others in this dystopic america, player piano is a story of the struggle between man and technology: a workforce increasingly made up of machines displacing and degrading human labor.

this classic theme seems more relevant today than it did back when vonnegut penned the speculative tale nearly 60 years ago. in the midst of our technological revolution, fear of instability and cultural decline is working itself out in our news media. at the time of my reading, time magazine’s cover featured, in large bold type, the year 2045 over a photo of a hairless person with a cord plugged into the back of its head. it was, in part, a profile on ray kurzweil, possibly one of the more outspoken and recognizable touters of the singularity movement: a belief that in the near future people will create machines smart enough to create smarter versions of themselves. when this happens, human civilization as we know it will come to an end. in the same issue there was an article about social media and the rewiring of children’s brains; that same week the cover story of the atlantic was ‘artificial intelligence?: why machines will never beat the human mind,’ by brian christian, a journalist who took part in an annual turing test, an event where humans determine if a new crop of computers can act “more human” than an actual person. and, just in case we hadnt yet had our fill, leading up to the IBM supercomputer, Watson’s, appearance on the quiz show Jeopardy!, the airwaves, newspapers, and websites were teaming with commentary and interviews. one on NPR warningly called the dark side of watson, featured computer programmer martin ford who wrote a three-part series in the atlantic on artifical intelligence. the story presumes that “just as many jobs are being shipped overseas to cheaper workforces because they can be done by computer, Ford predicts the next step in that process: those same jobs will be done by artificial intelligence.” ford doesn’t have a specific date in mind but concludes that “one thing we can say though is that things are moving at a faster and faster rate. Technology — and in particular, information technology — is accelerating … and it’s going to have a very big impact at some point, a disruptive impact, I think.”

on the coattails of these provocative stories was the new yorker’s adam gopnik with an essay on the myriad of new books about technology and the transformation of our society. in the article he coins the terms “Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers.” according to gopnik who has now increased our lexicon by three:

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

in the dystopian future of player piano all three perspectives are represented. separated from those whose lives have been destroyed by a river and armed guards, the elites hold that everything is the the way it should be; the former workforce, its numbers decimated by machines, live in abject poverty and with an overwhelming sense of alienation, see the advancement of technology only for its catastrophic consequences; and the conflicted protagonist, paul proteus, a man born into privilege and kept there by name and blood, senses something fundamentally wrong but, unlike the dejected anarchists with nothing to lose, doesnt quite know what to do about it.

neither orthodox nor overwhelming in its approach, player piano, much like other works of classic scifi, infuses a religious element into the story. early on is a thinly-veiled buddha analogy. like siddhartha, who would later become more commonly known as buddha, paul crosses the river from his cushy engineering life to a dive bar in Reeks and Wrecks territory—the name given to the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, the organization of manual labor—where he hopes to keep his identity under wraps so as not to invoke the wrath of forgotten victims. having been shielded from the horrors of his time, like the BC-era spiritual leader, when paul goes out into the world, beyond the well-guarded gates, he has an eye-opening experience. now seeing the destruction done to his fellow man he can’t go back to the way things were, even with his upwardly mobile wife planning every action and reaction for him. delivered with growing indifference, paul’s gestures come across empty, dispassionate. further fowling up the goodwill of his superiors is his continuing friendship with former engineer ed finnerty, believed to be involved with a group of saboteurs.

paul has one hesitant foot in the Reeks and Wrecks and the other, uncomfortably, in the life he’s always known. ultimately, he needs to make a choice, or have one made for him, because in this divided society the two cannot coexist—and therein lies the problem.

player piano is based on the age-old theme of haves vs. have-nots. the underdog, the irrelevant workers left without occupation, dignity, and purpose by a country that no longer deems them necessary, cuts to the core of our anxiety. vonnegut’s world is thoroughly enjoyable with its comical moments and strong characters but perhaps becoming a bit too familiar.

::[sources]::

adam gopnik :: the information
adam gopnik discussing his article on WNYC’s brian lehrer show
the dark side of watson on NPR’s all things considered
brian christian’s mind vs. machine in the atlantic
wired for distraction?
in time magazine
2045: the year man becomes immortal, a profile on ray kurzweil and the singularity movement, in time
player piano
at dial press
vonnegut’s official website

 

Written by Gabrielle

March 6, 2011 at 7:06 pm

%d bloggers like this: