January 18, 2011

2010 In Review – My Unwieldy Bookshelf

Image by Maciej Szczepaniak from Wrocraw, Poland
(Books Uploaded by guillom) [CC-BY-2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

What have you read this past year?

Looking back at 2010, I hadn’t expected that I’d read the volume of books I have during the course of the year. For one thing, I’m not a very fast reader — I tend to savor the language, unless the book is a work of non-fiction. Jeanette Walls happily changed that outlook with her memoir. For another, I tend not to read while I’m working on a project, since I have limited time to begin with, and I try to shoehorn my reading in after dinner and before bed.

I also tend to purchase a lot more books than I have time to read, and that pile is growing almost uncontrollably. As a result, I have no less than a dozen books on my bedside table that I started reading during 2010, their dust jackets neatly tucked into the page I left off. (I generally don’t use bookmarks, since the metal ones tend to tear and bend the page, while the paper ones get bent and damaged, and I can’t bring myself to spend $3-$5 on a paper bookmark, especially since it would remain in the book indefinitely. If I really need a bookmark, I’ll use a plastic post-it tag.) So, ignoring my current reads, here’s an abbreviated list of some of the books I’ve devoured in 2010.

Armageddon In Retrospect
by Kurt Vonnegut.

This is a post-mortem collection of stories, essays, and miscellany that Vonnegut wrote about his experiences in World War II, among other things. The part that sticks with me is his exploration of his time as a POW under Nazi Germany, and the Dresden fire bombing. Not a cheery book by any means, but is full of the venomous double-speak that Vonnegut is famous for, and a damn good read on a subject that no one else ever talks about.

Bible Code III: Saving the World
by Michael Drosnin.

A quick read, Bible Code III is the third in Drosnin’s bestselling series. The first two were much more entertaining in the way the Bible Code was described, and the controversies surrounding the code coming to light. This particular edition does little to follow up on those prophesies that may or may not have come to fruition in the intervening decade since the first book was released. I read it simply because I read the first two and felt I needed a followup appointment. Would I recommend it? Only if you’re into the end-of-the-world zeitgeist that seems to be dominating the media, since the book will probably be viewed as a passing curiosity in a few years.

The Brain That Changes Itself
by Norman Doidge, M.D..

This was a fascinating read covering the issues of brain plasticity, its discovery, current research, and breakthroughs. The book is well documented with references to studies in peer reviewed journals of psychology and medicine. One important note, however, is that Dr. Doidge’s chapter on sexual addiction only references his own works. This is not to say wether I agree or disagree with the author, or whether the author is correct in his assertations, but it suggests that his views put forth in the book on that particular topic are unsubstantiated by any peer-reviewed studies. The remainder of the book is excellent and well worth a gander for anyone who has relatives suffering from brain ailments.

by Christopher Moore.

Having previously read Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (and nearly pissing my pants with laughter in the process), and fresh off reading his holiday zombie tear, The Stupidest Angel, I dove right into this off-color retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and was not disappointed. I highly recommend it, especially if you like to see the Bard’s works colorfully deconstructed.

The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls.

A journalist and news-writer for one of the cable news outlets (I believe it was CNBC), Walls’ memoir about her childhood in Arizona and West Virginia is mind-blowing from the get-go with it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire style and story. If you don’t like memoirs, you’ve never read The Glass Castle.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens makes an excellent case against religion in this to-be-classic modern manifesto of atheism. But be warned — don’t read it unless you’re prepared to set your religious beliefs aside to consider his reasoning. (Of course I’m also reminded of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where he describes the case of the philosophers who successfully argue that black is white and get themselves trampled to death at the next zebra crossing…) There’s another remarkable thing about this book — it’s publisher. Twelve is an odd little company that’s decided to only produce 12 books a year. The result of this more focused approach is a larger than normal bestseller rate than other publishing houses in the industry.

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This is the second or third time I’ve read Gatsby, and I still feel like the story’s a little too simple. It’s not a big book to begin with, clocking in at a mere 133 pages. The supporting material in the edition I read was an additional 40 pages, increasing the size of the book by almost a third. As far as the novel goes, it’s a fine piece of work, and very much a product of its time. Because of this, and a lack of context on the modern reader’s (my) part, I still don’t think I’ve connected with the story’s zeitgeist, so I’ll probably be reading it again in the future.

The Map of True Places
by Brunonia Barry.

Brunonia Barry’s second book focuses on one of my favorite cities, Salem, and a psychological mystery. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say the story has a nice clever twist to it that doesn’t cheat the mystery reader.

A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemmingway.

The copy I read was of a new edition restored from Hemmingway’s notes and edited by his grandsons. The language is as spartan as I remember his short stories being, adding to the feeling of being personally tutored by Papa Hemmingway in writing, even though there’s plenty he did that modern writing pundits disagree with, not the least of which was his heavy drinking.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on these titles and authors. What did you read during 2010 that you found memorable, humorous, provocative? Please share your thoughts and opinions.

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January 12, 2011

Life as Art, or Catch a Shooting Star

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 11:13 am

Image from Wikipedia.
Art, or garbage?

Image from Taglialatella Galleries.
Also, you can paint your own Marilyn at WebExhibits.
Art, or mass production?

Image from ObeyGiant.com.
Art, or graffiti?

Image from Microscopesblog.com.
Art, or life?

What is Art? Is it true that art is better defined by what it is not than what it is?

We believe that garbage is not art, but Marcel Duchamp proved that wasn’t true when he displayed a urinal as found art with his piece, Fountain, back in 1917. Andy Warhol went about proving that mass produced items can be art with 100 Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych in 1962. Shepard Fairey has echoed the same theme in a new way begining in 1989 with his André the GIant Has a Posse street art sticker campaign, and more recently with his Urban Renewal Kit, which makes people part of the performance aspect of the art by allowing individuals to download, print and paste up copies of his André Obey images.

Usually, one can label things like urinals, mass produced paintings, and graphics as “design.” But the fact that Duchamp’s urinal, the Marilyn paintings, and the André graphics are considered art, points to a more subtle idea: the definition of what is art changes over time. Art is actually a moving object, defined by what has come before. Anyone else, at this point, simply displaying a urinal is a plumber, anyone making block prints is a factory worker, anyone posting an André sticker is a defacer of property.

(The exception to this seems to be when a work is a commentary on a previous work of art, but even then, isn’t it in fact further defining the previous work rather than defining itself? Examples of this are Stieglitz’s photo of Duchamp’s fountain, and Fairey’s self referential Giant Star. But this is a digression…)

The same might also be said of “Life.” Is it easier to define life by what is not life, honing in on the true definition (as science has over the ages), the definition adapting and evolving like life itself? In fact, can’t life be defined more by the questions surrounding its negative space than the answers that fill its matter?

Scanning electron microscopy works similarly, by measuring the angles of bounced electrons to discover what is not under the lens, just as photons bounce off objects to reveal what is not being viewed. And isn’t Duchamp doing the same with his urinal, by allowing it to define negative space, just as Warhol defines what isn’t mass produced, just as Fairey defines what isn’t street art, just as life defines what isn’t inanimate?

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January 4, 2011

Fastener Fascination

Filed under: Current Research,Mark Ix — Tags: , , — Brian Triber @ 8:26 pm

Swingline stapler image from ACCO.
How did offices manage before the desk stapler?

Image from Wikipedia.
One of the oldest staplers invented in 1879 by McGill.

Image from ThinkGeek.
And one of the newest, an oxymoron called the “staple-free stapler”, that punches a tab through the paper and tucks it through a slot. Strangely enough, this particular model is not available through Staples.
  • In the 18th century, King Louis XV of France used the first stapler as a royal seal for his documents.
  • 1866 saw the manufacture and sale of the first modern stapler, mass-produced by Henry R. Heyl.
  • The first staple remover was not invented until 1936, which makes one question how documents were unfastened in the intervening 70 years, as brute force would shred the document. Thankfully it wasn’t necessary to retain originals in pristine condition for photocopying until 1959.
  • Other office fasteners include the rubber band (created in 1845), paper clips (1899), the binder clip (1910), Scotch tape (1930), the bulldog clip (1944), screw posts, brass split-pin fasteners, loose-leaf binder rings, and the OIC prong fastener (dates unknown).
  • Staples actually date back as far as the 6th Century BCE, when large metal dovetail staples were used to fasten together stone construction in ancient Persia. Staples, usually applied with pneumatic or electric guns, are still used in construction for holding things like vapor barriers in place on housing exteriors prior to finishing.
  • Not to be outdone (or undone) the surgical stapler was invented in 1908. Surgical staplers weren’t, however, mass-manufactured and widely available until 1964.
  • Surgical steel staples are also used in the BME subculture in trans-dermal and staple piercings, both with pins terminated in screw-on balls to retain the piercing (as in eye-brow piercings), and in a skin-pocketing technique referred to as flesh stapling.

Back in high school, I used to help out in the Education Director’s office during lunch. One student who hung out during lunch with me was so fascinated by the office stapler that she intentionally drove a staple into her finger. (It was 1983, so staples in fingers were unusual, but much tamer than what some of the other kids were doing.)

On a somewhat related note, I also have a friend whose pain threshold is so high that he used to drive Swingline staples, five at a time, into his forearm and pluck them off like burrs. I still wonder that he never contracted tetanus.

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