Archive for the 'reading diary' category

Reading Diary: Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It by Marc Goodman

There's kind of two theories of the web. The first theory is that it's the best thing ever, the culmination of human civilization, incapable of being anything negative in anyone's lives. Proponents of this theory can't stand it when anyone says anything mean about the web (or usually any technology) in public or especially online.

The other theory is the chicken little theory. According to this theory, the web (and usually any technology) is the reason the world is going to hell in a hand basket. All the bad things in the world are because the web is disrupting science and art and culture.

Needless to say, neither of these caricatures is wholly true or false. Each have their famous online proponents. You probably know who I'm talking about. Personally I'm in neither camp. Both seem kind of like a technology religion. Personally, I'm kind of a technology agnostic. I take no particular absolute position on the goodness or badness of the web (or any technology, really, from 3d printers all the way to lead pencils). Technologies are good or bad mostly in how they get used by human cultures, with obviously some technologies easier to misuse that others.

And so it is with Marc Goodman's new book, Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It. For such a sobering book about such an alarmist topic, I kind of think that Goodman might actually identify himself more as a technology agnostic rather than any particular fundamentalist sect. Since he's a former cop, it might be expected that he would come down on the more alarmist/law and order side of things but thankfully that was not the case.

To be honest, I was expecting Future Crimes to be quite alarmist, even scaremongering, about the threats of computer crime and perhaps much harder on "hackers," phishers and other bad actors in the tech world and perhaps a little too soft on just as serious threats from government, tech companies and big business. I was pleasantly surprised. At the end of the day, he's fairly even-handed in his treatment of all the various threats out there in the technological wild west. Sure, maybe he's a bit gentler with Big Tech and Silicon Valley and their government lapdogs (or is that the other way around?) than he could have been but in his rather exhaustive cataogue of all the bad things that bad people can do to you with all the various emerging technologies out there, he definitely doesn't give them a pass. Which is great, given that his focus is obviously on explicitly criminal activity he probably could have easily passed over those other threats and most probably wouldn't have noticed.

And Goodman also has a fairly broad definition of "crime." His general treatment of threats to our safety and privacy also includes the kinds of spying, data gathering, side-effect, unintended consequences and manipulation -- again, by bad guy hackers as well as government and corporations or even caused by accidents or bugs -- that are deeply invasive but not really against any laws. Let's just say Google, Facebook, the NSA and all the rest do not escape unscathed from Goodman's chronicle.

Goodman also does the world a huge service by going through all those shiny new technologies that the disruptophiles want you to embrace in your blind rush to an online and totally exposed and commercialized identity -- 3D printers, mobile phones, home automation, driverless cars, big data, social networks, mobile payment, GPS, airport security, gamification, drones & robots, wearable computing, biometrics, facial recognition, autonomous killing machines, brain computer interfaces, nanotech, and all the rest. And one by one, he shows how all these technologies have been hacked and compromised by someone. And he gives examples. It's sobering stuff.

Does he have solutions? Not really, but he does devote the whole final section of the book advocating for a more human-centred design, with an emphasis on both recognizing that the human factor is the weakest link in any security system and without victim-blaming that there is a part we can all play in learning to take reasonable precautions. Playing our part in surviving progress and the way forward, to combine the last two chapter titles. There's nothing revolutionary in that section at all, but while completely recognizing that the genie is out of the bottle and none of these technologies are going away, he does make a very clear call for all the stakeholders to get together and formulate a kind of Manhattan project of cyber security and human-centered design.

A few quibbles. This is a long book, so I did tend to suffer a bit of threat exhaustion after a while, so perhaps a narrower but less comprehensive coverage would have been better. Related to that, some parts of the book did seem a bit too skimmable for comfort, the sections tended to be quite predictably structured so there was a bit of sameness after a while.

Overall, I recommend this book as a good introduction to online security and crime issues. While perhaps not academic enough for many university library collections, it is a good enough popular introduction for institutions that collect those sorts of treatments of technology topics. This book would probably fit better in public library collections.

If this book is a cyber threats 101 course with a very broad coverage, I definitely look forward to reading Bruce Schneier's Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World for an more in-depth treatment of data security.

Goodman, Marc. Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It. New York: Doubleday, 464pp. ISBN-13: 978-0385539005

(Review copy picked up at Ontario Library Association publisher booth.)

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Reading Diary: Zombies & Calculus by Colin Adams

Colin Adams's Zombies & Calculus is one of the coolest, funniest, most creative science books I've read in a very long time.

What's interesting about that statement is that we're not talking a non-fiction book here. We're talking a novel. Yes, a novel. Zombies & Calculus is pure fiction. Fortunately. Now I'm a big fan of the Walking Dead tv show and the comics too (though I'm a bit behind on the trade paperback collections) so I"m quite glad it's fiction. Basically, the premise of this novel is, "What if Rick Grimes had been a university math prof instead of a police officer."

The opening scene is a college math lecture hall where a couple of zombies wander in and start chowing down on the students. Chaos ensues but our hero Professor Williams, rallies the students and escapes. The rest of the novel is Williams using his math abilities to figure out what is happening to them all -- growth rates, zombie wandering trajectories, how hard you have to smack a zombie to kill it, predator-prey oscillation curves -- and hopefully increase their odds of survival because of that knowledge.

The story itself is pretty amusing, with quite a few of the bizarre and grotesque touches you would expect of any zombie novel. The body count is pretty high. The author isn't a brilliant novelist but easily has enough facility with both prose and narrative storytelling to make the book very entertaining. The characterization is a bit basic and one-dimensional but serviceable. The novel part is only about 150 pages and the relative brevity of the story definitely contributes to the success. Adams also manages to put in a few humourous jabs at academic life and campus politics, from the checked-out senior prof to the incompetent administrator, to give the story some satirical sting. There's even a touch of romance, if you can believe it. Not to mention, extended calculus lectures delivered in deadpan style while holed-up and hiding during the zombie apocalypse is in-and-of-itself flat out hilarious. (Some of the conversations with fellow survivors can be a bit laboured, especially in the appendices.)

As for the hard-core math part, there is quite a bit of very real calculus both embedded in the novel itself and in some rather more detailed appendices. If you're not comfortable with at least some level of equations and graphs, then this probably isn't a book for you. However, Adams does do a decent job of keeping the story flowing without too much digression into long info-dumps. One of the most interesting math parts was about the growth rates of the zombie population and how potential equilibrium of zombies and humans might be reached. Colin Adams definitely needs to be a math consultant on The Walking Dead, especially as the show gets further into the time scale of their apocalypse.

Overall, I can't recommend this book enough; it was one of my favourite science books of 2014. The more math you know, the more you will enjoy this book. The main audience is probably university math students and professors, so if you know one of those, this would make a great gift. As for library collections, this would be a great addition to any undergraduate math collection and could even be used as a teaching tool in first year calculus. Large public library systems would probably also find an audience for this book.

Adams, Colin. Zombies & Calculus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 240pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691161907

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

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Reading Diary: AsapSCIENCE: Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumors, and Unexplained Phenomena by Mitchell Moffit and Greg Brown

Imagine a world where two guys, graduates of the University of Guelph, a mid-sized university in southern Ontario, are able to parlay a series of funny and cool whiteboard-style science explanation YouTube videos into a global science communication empire. Without even "forgetting" to give credit to science illustrators in the process.

Don't imagine too hard, because I think we're almost there.

And what is it about Ontario and humourous science communications anyways? Is it something in the water? At least the most recent incarnation seems to be a little clearer on how things should be done.

And what in tarnation am I even talking about, you ask? I would freaking love to tell you.

No, not that one.

I'm talking AsapSCIENCE!!!!!

AsapSCIENCE is the YouTube channel brainchild of Mitchell Moffit and Greg Brown which has branched out into the worlds of Facebook, tumblr, Twitter and now, a real paper, ink, electrons and pixels book. And I'm no doubt missing a few services and channels...

So what is AsapSCIENCE? Basically the idea is presenting useful scientific ideas in a lighthearted, interesting mostly very accessible way via brief whiteboard illustrated and narrated YouTube videos. Sounds easy, but not really. And to be honest, the AsapSCINCE team do a very credible job of producing a video every week. A good recent example is their video on that damn dress.

Which brings is to the latest stage in Asap world domination -- the book.

Get ready, take a deep breath, the title is a bit long...AsapSCIENCE Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumors, and Unexplained Phenomena by Mitchell Moffit and Greg Brown (Illustrations by Mitchell Moffit, Jessica Carroll and Greg Brown).

The book definitely channels the same spirit as the videos with a series of very short, punchy, illustrated chapters divided into sections such as Resolving Persistent Questions, Rumors, and Weird Phenomena; Body Talk; Hypotheticals; Sensory Perceptions; Hot Sex and other Amorous Pursuits; Getting to the Bottom of Bad Behavior; Dreaming, Waking, Napping, Sleeping.

Some of the chapters include: Does being cold make you sick? Are silent farts more deadly? Brain farts, Could a zombie apocalypse happen, Why do we get pins and needles, The science of sexy, The science of swearing and The scientific power of naps. In particular, I've always wanted to know why spicy food makes you hiccup. (It happens to me sometimes if I get a real spicy jolt while eating.) The chapters are a mix of adaptations of videos and totally new content.

Overall the quality of the chapters is very high, with great explanations of genuinely interesting -- if whimsical and naughty -- topics (Some of the evolutionary psych stuff I could do without, but that's a quibble.). The illustrations are great, the text snappy. It's a quick read, to be sure, you could get through the whole thing in one sitting. Although I would suggest dipping in for shorter hits as you can maintain the funny better that way.

I recommend this book without hesitation. It's a fun combination of sugar and medicine to make the scientific information go down. It would also make a great gift for just about anybody. While probably not appropriate for most academic collections, this would be a great addition to the humourous science collection of any public library. While the content itself is definitely appropriate for a middle or high school audience, some of the fairly risque chapter titles might make selectors in those types of libraries pause. For example, Which is worse, childbirth of getting kicked in the balls; The science of orgasms, Will dancing get you laid; The science of morning wood, The scientific hangover cure...

You get the idea.

While this is certainly a good book for young people in terms of content, but sadly misplaced sensitivity on the salty nature of some of those chapter titles may, as I mentioned, make collections people hesitate. Don't. This is a very fine book. It's slightly scatological nature isn't that must different from the Captain Underpants books, but for an older audience. And we know how popular those books are.

Moffit, Mitchell and Greg Brown. AsapSCIENCE Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumors, and Unexplained Phenomena. New York: Scribner, 2015. 256pp. ISBN-13: 978-1476756219

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Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:

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Reading Diary: Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada by Elizabeth May

For those that don't know, Elizabeth May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada and one of only two Greens in the Canadian Parliament -- and the only one elected as a Green. As such, you would expect that she would be a strong advocate for democracy and the environment, willing to stand up to the current Conservative government of Stephen Harper and tell it like it is.

In her latest book, Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada, she does just that in an entertaining and inspiring amalgamation of memoir and manifesto.

This is an amazing book, sarcastic and hopeful but still witty and smart and sharp and inspiring. This is a book that instantly sprints to the top of my list of best books of 2014. While not quite a science book, I like to think of it as a "let's pay attention to science" public policy book, kind of like the recent This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (a book I'm in the middle of and will review soon).

The book really has three main narrative strains. First of all, a rather brief recounting of May's life and career, from growing up in the States to moving to the Maritimes as a teen all the way through her work in various NGOs and to the present as leader of the Greens. The second thread is a clear-eyed, honest and rather bleak presentation of the facts about the climate crisis that we face, how dire it is and how urgent it is for us all to start acting rather than talking. And yes, she does have some ideas for how to act.

The third and perhaps most important narrative brings those two together and in great detail explicates exactly how the Harper government is failing us all. The the attacks on science and the environment to the census and the various proroguings and other assaults on democracy, May lays it all out in plain, accessible language. But not pulling any punches by any means. This is a rather short book, only 200 or so pages, so she really hits the high points and tells the stories that need to be told quickly and efficiently.

One of the areas she highlights most effectively is how parliament has become increasingly nasty, dysfunctional and hyper-partisan under Harper, even compared to the Mulroney government where she worked as a time as an aide to the Minister of the Environment. So she knows whereof she speaks. The lack of collaboration among the parties, the petty slights and major ad hominem attacks that are part of the perpetual election campaign all figure into it. And quite a depressing story it is.

But Elizabeth May is nothing if not hopeful and optimistic, if cautiously. And that comes out in every page. She brings a lot of wit and sarcastic humour to the tales she tells, but never in a mean or unkind way. She obviously knows where a lot of bodies are buried and has taken part in a lot of personal conversations with members of all parties where they have bared their souls.

But exposing those confidences isn't the point. Telling the larger story is.

And she does that wonderfully. I recommend this book without hesitation for all Canadians. Buy it for everyone you know on our holiday lists. This is a must for virtually any Canadian library, public or academic, that collects in politics or any branch of public policy, especially around science or the environment. Beyond Canada's borders, any library that is interested in collecting on the environment or public policy should probably also consider this book for it's general coverage of climate issues and it's inspiring story of the life of an activist.

Elizabeth May is a wonderful writer. And since her book is so sharp, witty and biting, with so many zingers, I thought I'd share a few.

In some ways, Stephen Harper may have done us a favour. We have been knocked out of complacency as he held up a mirror to our collective face, and taunted us "This is what you really look like." (p. 6)

This is a book about how to fix what is wrong, rescue democracy from hyper-partisan politics and put Canada, and the world, on the path to a secure, post-carbon economy. (p. 7)

Public relations spin developed by Big Carbon started trumping science in the United States under George W. The same thing did not begin to happen in Canada until a public relations spin master manipulator arrived at 24 Sussex Drive (p. 55)

At every COP since Stephen Harper became Canada's Prime Minister, Canada has received the Colossal Fossil. That's quite the statement when one considers that, until 2008, his competition for Colossal Fossil was George W. Bush. (p. 56)

If the debate of the twentieth century was the relationship between the economy and humanity, the debate of the twenty-first century is the relationship between the economy and the planet. (p. 76)

Somehow I convinced myself that a political leader who told the truth all the time, even if it meant defending people in other political parties, might just be the wild card that restored public faith in Canadian politics. (p. 88)

Protecting the environment through the steady and time-worn methods of building a case, launching a campaign, getting public support, and persuading people in power to change gad plans into good ones had become a Monty Python sketch. It was a Dead Parrot. (p. 92)

As part of my activities in the school environment club, I bought every paperback I could [of Limits to Growth] and maintained a lending library for activists in one corner of the science lab where we tested the pH levels of various detergents. (p. 130-131)

Global supplies of coal are so enormous that counting on coal scarcity to reduce greenhouse gases is a bet we can make on a dead planet. (p. 132)

The new public relations industry makeover has mysteriously decided that anyone who calls bitumen-rich soils "tar sands" is being disrespectful to Alberta. The politically correct term is "oil sands." I don't want to be disrespectful to anyone, so I call them oil sands. Given that bitumen is neither tar nor oil, I decided to use whatever term offends the fewest Albertans. (p. 134)

No one in the environmental movement would ever have predicted that Chretien's environmental record would make us nostalgic for Brian Mulroney. (p. 142)

Our job is to move government from the problem side of the ledger to the solution side. (p. 160)

To watch Question Period on television is enough to make most people want to change the channel. I see school groups come into the house only to have teachers shepherd their young charges out of the chamber as MPs descend into behavior no teacher would allow in the classroom. (p. 168-169)

The outward appearance of a functional cabinet government supported by a non-partisan civil service is being maintained, but the reality is that nothing is normal. It reminds me of the movie I ever saw: Invasion of the Body Snatchers...Ottawa is experiencing metaphorical alien invasion. Environment Canada may look like Environment Canada, but it's not. It's a pod department. (p. 174)

We need to encourage all MPs to speak up, to speak their minds, and to stop accepting the tyranny of whiz kids and spin doctors who ply their craft in all the other parties...[the whiz kids] have their place: during elections. Once a political campaign is over, they should be working in ad agencies or consulting firms, or even as baristas to improve their people skills. (p. 201)

Ok, more than a few.

And before I forget. Elizabeth May for Prime Minister. This is what compassionate, visionary leadership looks like.

May, Elizabeth. Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada. Vancouver: Greystone, 2014. 214pp. ISBN-13: 978-1771640312

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Reading Diary: The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders edited by Melissa K. Aho and Erika Bennet

Melissa K. Aho and Erika Bennet's anthology The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders is pretty good for what it is, in some ways better than I expected. It's a guide for maneuvering office politics and advancing your agenda, big and small, with the stakeholders and influencers that matters in your environment. Sadly, this book fails for what it isn't: a book that tackles the issues and trends where librarians really need to advance our agendas and make ourselves key "thought leaders" and "influencers."

The book is a collection of 25 chapters, each presenting the authors experiences and views on applying the principles of Machiavellianism to the library world. Of course, a quick trip through Wikipedia (sorry...) gets me up to speed on Niccolò Machiavelli and some of the thoughts and philosophies in his most famous work, The Prince. Machiavellianism seems to be mostly about "the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct." Some further poking around gets me to the psychological concept of the Dark Triad with its three basic personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. The Machiavellian trait is defined as "by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception."

Heavy stuff for librarians, I guess, but on the other hand I guess we live in a world where you have to Machiavelliate or be Machiavelliated.

But let's get back to the book. To get a sense of where they take it, here's a few chapter titles:

  • One Machiavellian librarian's path toward leadership
  • Weasels and honey badgers: networking for librarians
  • Influence without authority: making fierce allies
  • Prince or plebe: success at all levels of the library hierarchy
  • Mixed monarchies: expanding the library's sphere of influence to help student-athletes
  • Breading the mold: winning allies via self-discovery
  • Slybrarianship: building alliances through user engagement and outreach

You get the idea. While mostly focused on academic libraries other setting are featured and most of the advice and recommendations are broadly applicable. Generally, the individual articles are pretty good: lots of serious thought and effort went into them without a doubt.

And that thought certainly shines through in what's good about this book: practical real world advice on how to work the system and make things happen, mostly through outreach, hard work, gentle and not-so gentle persuasion. For the most part, the individual articles are well written and make compelling cases, either in a general way or connected to a particular real-world experience of the authors. A couple of them might make good Harvard-style case studies in fact, the kinds of things that could be analysed and dissected in library management or marketing classes. The focus on assessment and self-study, while a bit unhinged at times and not always applied critically, is also a positive. Many of the articles try to make sure the maneuvering is grounded in some sort of data or community research. Gathering information, looking inward as well as outward, are fairly common strategies for the Machiavellian planning process.

And a lot of being in the right place at the right time, especially in the sense that we should always keep a keen eye on making sure we're in the right place at the right time. In a sense, this is a book that doesn't believe in luck so much as making your own luck. It's all in the title. It's about winning, combating and influencing. Making sure the library is there to fight, influence and come out on top when tough decisions have to be make. And you, the librarian, you can be the hero of this story, the one that plants the library flag on the hilltop, that vanquishes the enemy.

So yes, this is a bit of a book on how to weasel your way into becoming the hero librarian of your institution's story. And while "weasel" is a tough word to use, part of making sure you're there when the deeds get done requires being a bit pushy and perhaps a bit sneaky. Something the book doesn't shy away from at all -- weasel is in one of the article titles after all.

Because at the end of the day, many of these articles are little more that "just-so" stories of "how I did good winning the day against the forces of evil." Which is a grand tradition in the library literature to be sure, but a little unsatisfying in the end. Because sometimes that end seems to justify the means. These tales of librarian heroism may be "just-so" but they are also the winners' version of their particular history. Not surprisingly, we don't get the version of history written by the colleagues, community-members and most of all the employees who were the subject of these experiments. No one wants to be "that person" in an employment setting, but some of these stories seem to be encouraging a kind of uncritical zeal for success.

None of which come easy for the stereotypical librarian, of course. One of the areas touched upon but not explored as fully in the book as it needed to be were some of the gendered aspects of the kinds of power dynamics involved in being sneaky and pushy and Machiavellian. Power dynamics generally could have been explored much more critically.

But perhaps where the book comes most short, as I imply way back at the beginning of the review, is again all about what isn't explored.

Have you heard me mention scholarly communications? Open access? Publishers? Recalcitrant faculty? Author rights? I searched through the text of the book -- the advantage of ebook copies for reviewers -- and my initial reading impressions were correct. These concepts are almost completely absent. In my humble opinion, for academic libraries these issues are at least as important as any other when it comes to using our powers of persuasion and manipulation. American Chemical Society vs. SUNY Potsdam? The Research Works Act? Big Deal journal pricing deals? Ebook licensing insanity? Encouraging, implementing and enforcing institutional and national open access mandates? These are some oft the issues that I would really have wanted to see attacked and persuaded. And I'm sure librarians in other contexts, such as public, institutional or corporate librarian may have also wanted to see a few different case studies explored too

Wait a sec...oh yes. Now I recall. The publisher of the book is Chandos, a imprint of Elsevier. It all makes sense now. They certainly don't want librarians to train our Machiavellian powers back on them. Blowback, as it were.

Now the scholarly communications issues are just the ones that are nearest and dearest to my heart. There's a much larger world out there in which librarians can have an important impact. How about larger social issues like climate change or vaccination denialism, the digital divide, economic and gender inequality, ubiquitous government surveillance? All of these are issues that are pretty well ignored in the book. The explicit focus of Machiavellian Librarian is library stakeholders, so perhaps these are issues for another book, but I couldn't help but notice their near complete absence.

I will cautiously recommend this book for LIS collections, both at library schools and libraries which support their staff of librarians librarians. There's enough good for educational use and it'll spark some ideas and conversations among practitioners. Individual librarians may want to pick this up and flip through it for ideas, but there are likely better leadership and entrepreneurship books out there.

Aho, Melissa K. and Erika Bennet, editors. The Machiavellian Librarian: Winning Allies, Combating Budget Cuts, and influencing Stakeholders. Oxford: Chandos, 2014. 340pp. ISBN-13: 978-1843347552

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Reading Diary: Really Big Numbers by Richard Evan Schwartz

Sep 15 2014 Published by under book review, reading diary, science books

This one's a bit of a head-scratcher.

Richard Evan Schwartz's Really Big Numbers has a great premise. A kids book that takes some fairly advanced mathematical concepts and presents them in a lively, engaging and understandable format. So far, so good.

Schwartz does a commendable job of taking the concepts surrounding Really Big Numbers and explaining them in a fairly comprehensible format, from simple counting to very high numbers, visual representation of big numbers, conceptual representations when there's no more space for dots on the page, an explanation of powers of 10 all the way to tree stuctures and networks, recursion, plexing and really big numbers. So far, so good.

Well, maybe not so good.

I think the confusion for me comes in the format of the book versus the age range it seems to be aiming for. The book itself, with its size, sparse text, simple vocabulary and colourfully childish and wacky art seems aimed at perhaps the under 10 set. Really, books with a similar look and format are often aimed at very young children, under 5 even.

But the context itself, especially by the second half of the book seems more appropriate for 10 and older.

So while I would definitely recommend this book for mathematically inclined and interested from the ages 10 and up, I would caution that they may look at you funny because the book does very much look like it's aimed at younger kids. Younger kids may appreciate the artwork, but all but the very most precocious will find the level too high for most of the book.

While admirable, this book needed to either make the content more appropriate to the format or change the format to something that would appeal to older kids, like the Survive! series I reviewed a while back.

Schwartz, Richard Evan. Really Big Numbers. Providence: American Mathematical Society, 2014. 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-1470414252.

Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:

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Reading Diary: Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni

Aug 28 2014 Published by under book review, environment, reading diary, science books

"Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked...We’re on a trajectory to an unmanageable heating scenario, and we need to get off it. We’re fucked at a certain point, right? It just becomes unmanageable. The climate dragon is being poked, and eventually the dragon becomes pissed off enough to trash the place."
- James Box

The climate crisis is serious, no doubt about it. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth from nearly a decade ago was a kind of rallying cry for the reality-based community but it appears that we might need another rallying cry as Gore's seems to have gone largely unheeded by major policy-developers the world over (mostly).

What could be that new rallying cry? I'd love to see Philippe Squarzoni's Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science be that book. In other words, Climate Changed just might be important in a way that graphic novels very rarely are, books that can become part of the public conversation about social and economic issues on a large scale. In that sense, perhaps the only graphic novel to compare to Climate Changed is perhaps Art Spiegelman's Maus, though obviously in a completely different way.

[V]oluntary sacrifices are particularly difficult to make without an assurance that other people will follow suit or that the sacrifices serve some purpose. It's not possible to break away from the fundamental pillars of our civilization if the rest of society stays put. Changing all by yourself does nothing. (259)

How can a society structured politically and economically to produce more and consume more, whose development is dependent on fanning the desire to possess reconcile itself to a culture of sobriety and collective responsibility. How can a system dedicated to letting individuals freely maximize their personal advantages be compatible with any sort of self-restraint and material moderation. In the end, the freedom touted by a free-market model has become a symbol of rugged individualism. It is the freedom not to be held accountable. The rejection of all constraint. Of any limits. The rejection of a collective responsibility. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "You know, there is no society." Increase taxes to ensure future public services? Increase contributions to help poorer populations? Reduce consumption to preserve the planet? The exact opposite of the cynical message that is repeasted to us daily. Climate change is also a symptom of a breakdown of solidarity, a sign of collective selfishness. Ironic hedonists, trained by the free downloads. Reckless and thoughtless consumerism. The rise in global warming reflects the rise of our desires. And of our indifference to the threat the world is facing. The rise of insignificance. And because we are innocent and heartless...because we think the climate crisis is only out there someplace else...but because it is inside us...we've created a monster. (288-294)

- Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

The format is quite interesting. Basically, it's the story of the author making some travel choices about his work as a writer/illustrator and how he's going to approach the book on climate change that he's struggling. At the beginning he's lamenting that he really doesn't know what he's talking about. And how he solves his problems dealing with the book -- the one we're reading, of course -- is to start talking to experts, a whole bunch of them. And as he educates himself, he educates us too. The book is basically the story of all the various conversations he had researching the book. A bit odd, in that the book itself ends up relying rather a lot on illustrated talking heads coolly and calmly discussing very distressing facts. But it works. The talking heads are talking about very important issues. Step by step, conversation by conversation, we're riveted.

At the same time, the imagery that Squarzoni uses to accompany a lot of the damning explication of just how fucked we are is spare and beautiful line drawings of nature on the one hand. To contrast, he'll also use looming symbols of our overindulgence that will dominate pages, like SUVs or sports cars or fast food. The art is a perfect accompaniment for a book that is very dry and intellectual and yet very emotional and hard.

We live in a world of fictions. A fable, disconnected from reality. The material prosperity we've enjoyed over the last two centuries has been dependent on abundant and cheap energy, the accumulation of consumer goods and the destruction of nature. Whether we like it or not, our way of life and CO2 emmissions are inextricably linked. Whether we like it or not, there are greenhouse gas emmissions in every part of our lives, from our food, our homes, our pastimes. All our activities are part of the climate crisis, all our wants, every product we purchase, the way we eat, get around, keep warm. Eradicating so much CO2 from our way of life won't be easy. What do we cut out first. (215-217)

Devoured in advance by multinational corporations, the renewable energy sector exposes the true nature of "green capitalism," less concerned about climate change than about comfortable financial niches. This little game of "green capitalism" looks on to change the means of energy production, not question the overall issue itself. The thing we need to question is consumption. Why does our society need so much energy? Without profound changes in our way of life, wind turbines will remain an alibi for not changing the underlying issues. And we forge ahead. For how much longer. (334-335)

Whatever alternative energy sources or technologies are being considered, there are no replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas that would allow us to maintain our current level of energy consumption. (363)

- Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

Squarzoni makes sure to go through the science very carefully, sketching out the realities of human-caused climate change. It talks about the numbers, the trends, the cold hard facts. But mostly Squarzoni very clearly and carefully reasons with himself about the consequences of climate change, the challenges of slowing it down and adapting to what is inevitable. Basically, that personal choice, greed and inertia and capitalism and rampant consumption are the problem and that "solutions" like the three Rs and renewables are not the answer. The tone is very quiet, maybe sad even, elegiac and tired, not really frustrated but heart sick and defeated.

And although he can really come to no answer for his own life, like us he's confused about what any one person can accomplish, he does frame the problem for society as a whole very clearly: how do we reconcile the climate crisis with a globalized hype-capitalist consumer economy that runs on carbon?

"If you stand to lose everything, then even a low probability event is high-risk. That's why people fund armies—just in case they get invaded. We need to invest in decarbonizing our energy system. We've got to keep this fucking carbon in the ground." - James Box

Ably translated from the French by Ivanka Hahnenberger, Philippe Squarzoni's Climate Changed is the kind of book that can make a difference, that can help us keep all that fucking carbon in the ground. If you've never bought any of the graphic novels I've recommended, pick this one. Read it, buy it for your library, buy another copy and donate it to your library, give it to all your friends, talk about it, blog about it, do what it takes. If you're a Canadian, give it to your local Conservative MP. Australians, well, you know you're just starting on your road to getting fucked, so maybe send a copy to your local Conservative as well.

Naomi Klein's forthcoming book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, looks to be a book that will take up the challenge and advance the what-do-we-need-to-do-as-a-society debate even further. It will certainly help frame climate advocacy towards a lower-carbon future in a new way, perhaps controversially but I think very usefully. Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein's The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change also looks interesting.

Squarzoni, Philippe. Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2014. 480pp. ISBN-13: 978-1419712555.

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Reading Diary: Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey by Nick Bertozzi

Aug 15 2014 Published by under book review, reading diary, science books

First Second Books has done it again!

They've published another wonderful science-themed graphic novel that belongs on every bookshelf.

(Of course, they publish tons of other non-science themed graphic novels too. One of my particular favourite recent ones in the biography of Andre the Giant. The Zita the Spacegirl series is also wonderful beyond words.)

This time Nick Bertozzi's Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey brings us the history of Ernest Shackleton's crazy epic Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17. And epic is about the understatement of the century in describing this multi-year voyage to Antarctica and attempted trek across the continent and the pole itself. All the while the crew maintains a serene kind of old-fashioned stiff upper lip that seems almost comical if it wasn't so heroic.

I have to admit that it was a voyage I didn't really know that much about before reading this book -- the shear length of the voyage coupled with the combination of being essentially stranded in the south seas & polar area for literally years, trapped in an ice-locked vessel, floating at sea on ice floes and life rafts, in remote camps. Insane stuff, really. To say the least, this graphic novel has really piqued my interest to pursue the topic more. And handily, Bertozzi provides additional resources at the end! Nothing like a book with a good bibliography at the end.

Bertozzi does a great job of telling the story of Shackleton's voyage, mostly concentrating on Shackleton himself but allowing some of the other crew members some time in the spotlight. His story telling is crisp and to the point, picking various high lights of the ordeal ("Endurance crushed by ice" or "Escaping an ice run" are examples) and letting those incidents move along the narrative. His art is also clear and clean, a straightforward vehicle for pure storytelling.

While aimed at a kids market, I would recommend this book to all audiences. It would make a great gift to any history, science or graphic novel lover. Any school or public library of any size would find an eager audience for this exciting story. Academic libraries that collect graphic novels would also do well to get this one.

Bertozzi, Nick. Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey. New York: First Second, 2014. 128pp. ISBN-13: 978-1596434516.

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Reading Diary: The Extreme Life of the Sea by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi

May 21 2014 Published by under book review, environment, reading diary, science books

Extremophiles are fun! Basically, they're the biggest, smallest, hardiest and definitely the oddest bunch of beasties to be found anywhere on this planet. The Palumbi father and son team -- one scientist and one writer -- bring us this fun little book on the extremophiles of the sea.

And literally, the book covers all the various sea creatures from the oldest to the smallest, to the ones that live in scalding hot conditions to those that live in the coldest conditions, so cold that the blood of normal creatures would freeze. We see the ones with the craziest migration patterns, the oddest family structures, the most sex changes, the most like "living fossils", the ones that live in the deepest water and the ones in the shallowest.

The best part of the book is that the authors do more than just recite oddball trivia, they really tell the stories of the animals in the book, a bit reminiscent of Rachel Carson's Under the Sea-Wind. If I have any criticism of the book, it's that it could have gone even further in that direction.

But make no mistake, this is by no means an oddball trivia/heartwarming Disney animal story book. As much as it seems like it might go there at times, at the end of the day the message is very strongly environmental. These creatures belong in the ocean. They are part of our planet and we as the human species need to become better stewards of the oceans. Loud and clear, the message is that we are the most extremely destructive species. If we want to continue to enjoy the bounty of the sea we need to do our part. The final chapter really ties all those environmental threads together. The ocean is cool and interesting and quirky. But it isn't ours. Human activity is putting extreme pressure on all the species in the seas.

This is a solid book, very informative and very entertaining but with a strong message. It would fit well in any academic library that collects popular science, especially around environmental concerns. The book is perhaps most appropriate for public libraries where just about any size library would find this a useful addition to their science collections. High school libraries might also find an eager audience for the rather bizarro quality this book exudes.

Palumbi, Stephen R. and Anthony R. Palumbi. The Extreme Life of the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 256pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691149561

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

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Reading Diary: Darwin: A Graphic Biography and Mind Afire: The Visions of Tesla

Apr 28 2014 Published by under book review, reading diary, science books

Two recentish entries into the growing field of graphic novel scientific biographies, both very good, both suitable for a wide audience: Darwin: A Graphic Biography by Eugene Byrne and Simon Gurr and Mind Afire: The Visions of Tesla by Abigail Samoun and Elizabeth Haidle.

If I had to count one of these a little bit better than the other, I would give that edge to the Byrne & Gurr's Darwin biography. It has a very amusing "Ape-TV" wrap around story conceit where an ape television program tells the life story of that strange human, Charles Darwin. As a result, the story never sags, the main points are told in a very engaging and entertaining way. Especially when you consider that the target audience for the book is probably middle school and slightly older and younger kids, the clear artwork and straight-ahead story telling work well. There's a bit of info-dumping at times, but the writing is clear and engaging. Overall, readers will get a very solid introduction to the life of Darwin with hopefully the more avid readers going the next step and seeking out more detailed information.

Samoun and Haidle's Tesla biography is also very good but not really aimed pre-teen or early teen readers. It's not a comics narrative to the same extent the Darwin book, more of an illustrated biographical essay. It works because the art is so gorgeous and Nikola Tesla's life was so bizarre and colourful. And the text is really just the right length: long enough to get a sense of Tesla's life and work but short enough to get through in one or two sittings. While the art is beautiful and perhaps the best thing about this book, the weakest is likely the decision to letter it in a fairly small cursive style. While it might have added to the old-timey feel of the book, it did make it more that a bit harder to physically read.

At the end of the day, both these books would be suitable for public library collections. Both books I would recommend for high school libraries while only the Darwin book would be suitable for middle school or younger children. Neither would fit that well in college or university libraries unless they were very serious about building a science graphic novel collection.

Byrne, Eugene and Simon Gurr. Darwin: A Graphic Biography. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2013. 96pp. ISBN-13: 978-1588343529

Samoun, Abigail and Elizabeth Haidle. Mind Afire: The Visions of Tesla. Sonoma, CA: Electric Pen, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1-60104-120-6

  
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