Northland

Of the many great things about visiting the library, one of my favorites is being able to browse the collection. You can throw caution to the wind and select a title based on whimsical things like the look of a cover, an interesting title or even the number of pages. Blame it on the whole ‘being a librarian thing’ but I usually like to do a bit of research on a title before borrowing it. Every so often, however, I succumb and just can’t resist a title I see while out in the stacks. Happily, a recent impulse borrow introduced me to a really great book.

Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox initially drew me in with its interesting cover. The fact that I’m also a sucker for borders, weird I know, and partial to the northern climes, sealed the deal.

The basis of the book is Fox’s three year journey traveling along the U.S. and Canadian border from Maine to Washington. But this work isn’t a simple travelogue (even though the characters and incidents he encounters would be worth reading about on their own). Instead, the author intersperses his travel experiences with the surprisingly contentious history of the border as well as contemporary issues unique to each northern region that he visits. In this way, Fox brings out a lot of intriguing and vital facts about this often forgotten border that you may not know:

12 % of Americans live 100 miles from the border, 90% of Canadians do.

A 2010 Congressional Research services report stated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains “operational control” over just 69 miles of the 3,987 mile border.

The border cuts the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation, Niagara Falls and the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in two.

In the end, however, the human element is what makes this book so worthwhile. Whether visiting with lodge owners in Maine, bulk carrier captains on the Great Lakes, fishing guides and adventurers in Northern Minnesota, members of the Sioux nation protesting the XL TransCanada pipeline in North Dakota, or the leader of a ‘constitutional militia’ in Idaho, Fox captures the unique feel of sharing a border and the experiences of those living in the Northlands.

I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.

Part of the Reading Challenge for August is to read a Science Fiction book. While I do watch a lot of Science Fiction TV and movies, I’ve never been a big reader of the genre. But there is one type of character found in Science Fiction that always draws me into actually picking up a book and reading it: An Artificial Intelligence.

I’m not talking the sexy android type of AI, though that can be fun as well. I prefer the disembodied voice emanating from a series of computer banks that is self-aware and trying to figure out the nature of its existence. Of course, ever since HAL refused to open the pod bay doors, AIs in science fiction tend to produce a sense of unease and, often, a body count.

So, to help you choose a title for the Reading Challenge, let me introduce you to a few Artificial Intelligences from my recent reading. To aid in your selection, I’ve listed them from least to most dangerous. While I’m pretty forgiving when it comes AI ‘errors’ in regards to human casualties, I can see how it might be a bit off-putting for some.

Ship from Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Threat Level: Minimal to None

Ship, the name this AI prefers, has a lot on its plate. In addition to being an Artificial Intelligence, Ship is also a starship on its way to Tau Ceti, 12 light years from earth. It is responsible for caring for the multiple human generations that inhabit its artificial biomes and trying to ensure their safe arrival. As you might guess, humans being humans, many problems arise. Ship actually narrates large sections of Aurora so you get to learn its thought processes as it deals with human characters over their life span and different generations. It is a great device for examining human motivations and one of the most sympathetic portraits of an AI that I have come across.

IAN ‘Integrated Adaptive Network’ from Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Threat Level: Unknown

In this intriguing mix of Science Fiction and locked room mystery, IAN, the artificial intelligence running the starship Dormire, is just one of seven suspects that might have committed murder. While most of the crew is in cryo-sleep, six caretakers are assigned to work with IAN during the multi-year journey. In the world of Six Wakes cloning is the norm and upon your death, human consciousness can simply be transferred to another clone using a ‘mindmap.’ Usually a clone will remember how the previous body died, but in this case all six crew members wake up in a new clone body with no memory of their demise. There is ample evidence, via their blood-stained former bodies, that they were murdered. Suspiciously, IAN’s memory has also been erased and the ship is off course. Let the sleuthing begin!

Murderbot from the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells

Threat Level: High (but less than you might think from an AI named Murderbot)

Murderbot, the name it uses for itself but never shares, is a semi-organic sentient android known as a SecUnit. SecUnits are created and controlled by big corporations to do their bidding. This usually entails long hours of guarding corporate assets, with a little lethal force thrown in. Murderbot has hacked its Governor Module, however, and is now completely independent from its corporate overlords. So what does it do with this newfound freedom? Go on a murderous rampage perhaps or take over the world? No, Murderbot just wants to watch as many video serials as possible, especially its favorite space soap opera, Sanctuary Moon. Sadly, events force Murderbot to not only interact with humans, who it doesn’t understand and wants to avoid at all costs, but also engage with a world far different from its beloved fictional programs.

The Chimp from The Freeze Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Threat Level: High, especially if your actions fall out of mission parameters

The construction starship Eriophora is on a whopping 66 million year mission. The mission brief is to create interstellar wormhole gates so that humanity, if it still exists after all this time, can explore the universe. Overseeing the project is an Artificial Intelligence dubbed ‘the Chimp’ by crew member Sunday Ahzmundin. The Chimp requires human assistance, however, since it was designed to be efficient but not smart enough to question the mission or its own purpose. The Eriophora’s human crew is in stasis for millions of years at a time and only awaked for brief periods to assist the AI. As you might guess, many members of the crew do not consider this an ideal existence. The question is: how do you incite a rebellion in such a fragmented time frame against an AI slavishly adhering to mission parameters?

AIDAN ‘Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network’ from the Illuminae Files series by Amie Kaufman

Threat Level: Extreme. Seriously, just run.

At one point AIDAN was just a simple AI charged with protecting a fleet of military spacecraft. But then it got damaged and went a little crazy. Well, crazy by human standards. Adhering a little too closely to the classic Vulcan principle ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’ ADIAN’s logic ends up getting a lot of people killed. And I mean, a lot. This trilogy is told through ‘found transcripts’ so AIDAN does get to explain his reasoning, it just might seem a little faulty. Especially if you think human life is actually precious or something. This is a young adult series, so there is also a lot of young love, snarkiness and moral outrage at a corrupt universe. Whether this helps you cut AIDAN some slack when it comes to the high body count is up to you.

Electric History

I’ve always been a big fan of science, but to be honest I don’t always get it. Perhaps it comes from being a humanities major, or simply the limits of this Homo sapiens brain capacity, but after a certain threshold I have serious trouble comprehending certain concepts. Newtonian physics seems to be my limit: Force equals mass time acceleration? Got it. Once you start talking quantum mechanics things start to go off the rails: An object can be in two places at the same time? Sorry, my mind just exploded. In Star Trek terms, I suffer from Khan’s weakness for two-dimensional thinking and share Captain Janeway’s dislike of time travel.

One of the scientific ideas that I can actually comprehend and enjoy is electricity. While it might seem basic and thoroughly rational today, when electricity was first discovered it had a whiff of the magical about it. Eccentric inventors harnessing an unseen force that traveled through wires generating light, power and a potentially lethal charge was hard to resist. To judge by the number of books still being written about the discovery and harnessing of electricity, the interest continues to this day. Here are a few titles that you might also find enlightening as well as entertaining:

Making the Monster: the Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup

Can an electrical current actually reanimate a corpse? Well, no, but a defibrillator sure comes in handy when someone is having a heart attack. While the science reflected in Mary Shelley’s classic work may not stand up to modern scrutiny, the core concepts are surprisingly sound. It is clear that Shelley had an excellent knowledge of the scientific ideas percolating in 1818 relating to electricity and physiology. In this work, Harkup gives the reader an intriguing and entertaining overview of the often gruesome and peculiar scientific endeavors that Shelley drew on for her famous novel. Just in time for its 200-year anniversary.

Simply Electrifying: the Technology that Transformed the World by Craig Roach

Providing a well-written overview, Roach tells the story of the discovery, harnessing and regulation of electricity in its 200 plus year history. It is a story that involves many different aspects including science, technology, history, recreation and business but is all brought together here. The author primarily takes the ‘great person’ view introducing the reader to luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla emphasizing their impact on how electricity was discovered and distributed. It is a story that is surprisingly fraught with controversy and competition and full of unsung heroes and bitter rivalry.

Tesla: Inventor of the Modern by Richard Munson

When it comes to scientific geniuses that many considered wronged by posterity, Nikola Tesla is one of the greats. We have many books about him, but Munson’s is the most recent and an excellent addition to the collection. An inventor of all things electrical including motors, radios, and phones, one of Tesla’s incredible discoveries was AC electrical current. AC current was far superior at delivering electricity to people over long distances, especially compared to the DC current promoted by Thomas Edison. Despite this, and in combination with a poor business sense, Tesla ended up penniless during his later years. This book gives Tesla his proper due and provides insight into his genius and life.

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes

If you want all the gory details, and they do get gory, about the brutal competition to capitalize on the invention of electricity and control its distribution to the masses, Jonnes’ book is the one for you. In the last decades of the 19th century, Edison, Tesla and George Westinghouse all tried to forge their own business empires by cornering the market on the production and distribution of electricity. The author argues that all three started out with good intentions, wanting to harness electricity for the betterment of humanity, but greed eventually won out. The invention and use of the electric chair as a way to ‘demonstrate’ the danger or advantage of AC current being a prime example of this slide to the bottom.

Edison vs. Tesla: the Battle over their Last Invention by Joel Martin and William Birnes

Leave the scientific realm and enter the spiritual plane by reading this work about the purported battle to create the ‘spirit phone.’ (Librarian pro tip: when a scientific sounding book is in the 133 Dewey range something mystical is afoot) As you might guess from the name, the spirit phone was designed to allow you to talk with the dearly departed. The authors do their due diligence to prove that both men actually worked on such a device by researching the later journals of both men and demonstrating the thin line between spiritualism and science in some circles at the time. They also make some educated guesses as to how the device might have worked and which spirits it was meant to contact.

Empire’s Edge

Historical borders, and the walls that often accompany them, have always been fascinating to me. They pose so many interesting questions: Why were they built?  What was their purpose?  And what was it like to live along them? Plus, for those of us who like order and method, they always look pretty cool on a map. A seemingly clean and simple separation of different entities. Of course, as with most things, when you look a little closer it is way more complicated than that.

One of my favorite historical boundaries is Hadrian’s Wall, built during the Roman occupation of Britain and situated in the borderlands between present day England and Scotland. Chock it up to reading a lot of Rosemary Sutcliff in my youth, but I’ve always found Roman Britain fascinating and the idea of its northern boundary wall is just one of its intriguing mysteries. While you might think that all has been said and done concerning Hadrian’s Wall, nothing could be further from the truth. Three recent books about the wall, and Roman Britain, prove the point.

Hadrian’s Wall by Adrian Goldsworthy

If you fear lengthy historical tomes, this is the book for you. Clocking in at a mere 169 pages, plus illustrations, this is a quick and enlightening read. While this work is loosely chronological, the main emphasis is on social history: trying to discover the motives, experiences and daily life of those who lived and worked on the wall. While there is very little that survives from the written historical record concerning the Wall there is a lot of excellent archaeological evidence. One example is the dig site at the Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda. In addition to extensive structural remains there are actual letters, written on wooden leaf tablets, which have been preserved in the muddy soil. It is with evidence such as this that the author is able to make some credible guesses as to what life was actually like at the fort and beyond. While this book reveals that there is a lot that is unknown about Hadrian’s Wall, that just adds to the mystery.

The Edge of the Empire: A Journey to Britannia by Bronwen Riley

This creative and entertaining work gives you the closest thing to a travel guide for the Roman Empire, circa 130 C.E., that you will come across. Riley admits up front that while grounded in the historical facts we have, many of the events and descriptions she provides are along the lines of an educated guess. That does not dissuade her from giving the reader a grounds eye view of Sextus Julius Serverus’s journey from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall to assume his post as the Governor of Britannia. While you might think such a high status person would have a smooth and luxurious trip, there are perils and indignities aplenty. Shipboard life is far from ideal: camping out on the deck for the entire trip with no restroom facilities does not make for happy passengers. In addition, the inns and taverns offer dubious food and the bedding can be crawling with many unwanted guests. But hey, the roads are good and there is almost always a bathhouse around. The author’s creativity and attention to detail make you feel like you are actually on the road with Severus. Admittedly, a dubious honor at times but never boring.

Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins

One of the undeniable facts about Roman Britain, and Ancient Rome in general, is that only a small fraction of the written sources and physical evidence survives to this day. While this is frustrating, it also produces endless speculation and a sense of mystery that is quite irresistible. Part travelogue and part analysis of this sense of mystery, Higgins’ work is as much about how we create the past as it is about the physical remains of Roman Britain. Setting out in a VW Camper van over the course of several years, she visits both the major and minor archeological sites of Roman Britain. While at times this is only a few stones and, lucky day, possibly an inscription, they still generate wonder and enthusiasm among historians and the local population. Long after the Romans have left, people find their lives entwined with an imagined past. While walking along Hadrian’s Wall the author encounters Marcus Aufidius Macimus:

He had borrowed the name of a real Roman, who had dedicated alters at Bath. When in civvies he was Steve Richardson, from Newcastle: he was he said, ‘a full-time Roman centurion.’ The souvenir stall was just for the summer; usually, he said, his work was school visits and events at archaeological sites and museums. At primary schools, he and his wife Lesley kitted out the children in uniforms and then ‘I take them out on drills.’

With many examples such as this, both current and historical, Higgins maps out the remains of Roman Britain as cultural artifacts that are very much alive.

Loving the Alien (or Not)

Spring has sprung. The earth renews itself and the grand cycle of life continues. And, oh yeah, the damn weeds are taking over the yard again. While definitely not rational (nature always wins after all) I’ve always thought there was a certain doomed nobility in taking up arms, in the form of spades and shovels, against the weedy invaders in my yard.

But does my relationship with weeds and other ‘undesirables’ need to be adversarial? Recent books about our relationship with nature have opened up a debate about the whole concept of defining species as desirable or undesirable, native or invasive. Maybe the problem isn’t in the yard, but in my head. Here are three newer titles that explore the line between good and bad in the animal and plant kingdoms.

Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction by Chris Thomas

This provocative work states that the widely accepted idea of human activities causing the destruction of the environment and the loss of species is actually looking at the situation incorrectly. Humans are altering the environment for sure, but, Thomas argues, this new environment actually benefits certain adaptable species. The end result?  More new species will be created than destroyed. The key to his argument lies in examining the animals and plants that are labeled invasive. For the author, these species are simply the ones that successfully exploit the new environment and survive. For Thomas, nature is ultimately more resilient and adaptable than we think.

The Aliens Among Us: How Invasive Species are Transforming the Planet—and Ourselves by Leslie Anthony

Anthony has little sympathy for those who refuse to see invasive species as a threat or who downplay their impact on the environment. Instead, he advocates for a vigorous defense of the native and an eradication of the invasive. To prove his point he goes on the frontline with the scientists and environmentalists battling undesirable species (such as Scotch Broom, Lampreys and Pythons) and celebrates their hard work and dedication to the cause. He also goes into an enlightening history of specific species and how they ended up in the wrong places: the Norway Rat owes its presence in 90 percent of the world to trade by sea for example. This book is an entertaining call to arms.

Where Do Camels Belong: the Story and Science of Invasive Species by Ken Thompson

Thompson argues that the real problem when it comes to invasive vs. native species lies in definitions. As the title suggests, he uses the camel as a prime example. We think of camels as native to the Middle East but in fact they evolved and lived in North America for millions of years, retain their greatest biological diversity in South America, and are currently only ‘wild’ in Australia. So where are they native exactly? He makes a convincing argument using other species as well. In the end he advocates for getting beyond the stark and illogical definitions of native and invasive and simply judging species by their impact on the environment as it currently exists.

So what is a conscientious gardener to do: take up arms against all that is invasive or let nature take its course? We all have to make our own choices, but as for me I choose to play favorites. The native Kinnikinnick is a great ground cover, but once it start encroaching on my beloved, and definitely introduced, Monkey Puzzle Tree the shears are coming out.

You Are an Obsession

Nowadays, openly proclaiming your obsessive allegiance to a beloved pop culture item is not only considered normal but celebrated. Be it a book, movie, TV show, graphic novel, album or almost anything, you can feel safe in declaring your intense admiration for it. As someone who in his youth had to hide his love of Star Trek (definitely team Spock), The Thing (the John Carpenter version thank you very much) and tactical board games (care for a game of Midway?) from the ‘norms,’ this is a welcome change.

But even today, some might argue that certain individuals take it a bit too far. While it is definitely subjective, since one person’s beloved hobby can be another person’s time wasting succubus, it is hard to deny that there is a line between really liking something and being obsessively, perhaps destructively, devoted to it. Here at the library, we have several newer books that examine both the objects of hyper devotion and the people who love them, and let you decide. Read on to learn more.

Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom by George Dohrmann

We’ve all seen them. In the panning shot of the spectators at a sporting event there is always at least one person in full body paint and no shirt screaming their support for the team. While many love the home team, some really, really, really love them. George Dohrmann sets out to discover what motivates a person to become a ‘superfan’ and how it affects their lives and the lives of those around them. While there definitely is a lot that is bizarre and funny here, the author does not exploit his subjects. Rather he genuinely tries to understand what motivates obsessive sports fans and conveys their humanity to the reader.

Elements of Taste: Understanding What We Like and Why by Benjamin Errett

Rather than focusing on one object of pop culture desire, this work tries to create a framework for understanding why we like certain things so passionately. The author cleverly equates our cultural likes to the sense of taste, breaking our passions down into Sweet (ex. Cozy Murder Mysteries), Sour (ex. Mad Magazine), Salty (ex. True Detective), Bitter (ex. Tim and Eric) and Indescribable (ex. Gilmore Girls). While this might sound highly regimented, it is actually quite fluid and a fun way to look at the cultural artifacts we so adore.

Furry Nation: the True Story of America’s Most Misunderstood Subculture by Joe Strike

This is not a critical examination of ‘furry fandom’, a fascination with anthropomorphic animal characters, but a celebration of the culture itself. The author is a longtime participant and well placed to report on its history and the many forms it takes: from well-known cartoon characters and sports mascots to individuals creating their own works. He also argues that the desire to emulate animals, and see them as equals, can be seen in the human species from early on in the form of cave paintings and ancient rituals.

Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life by Steven Hyden

The interesting premise of this book is simple but effective: a person’s true devotion comes out when threatened. Steven Hyden demonstrates this by exploring nineteen musical rivalries that prompt fans to defend ‘their band’ to the bitter end. All the classics, and some you may not know about, are here: David Lee Roth vs. the Van Halen brothers, Oasis vs. Blur, Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West, Dr. Dre vs. Eazy-E and many more. Hyden does not try to declare any winners, however.  He is more interested in the choices fans make and what that says about ourselves and what we choose to love.

People Like Us: the Cult of the Rocky Horror Picture Show by Lauren Everett

Perhaps one of the first groups that could be considered superfans, as well as cosplayers, devotees of the Rocky Horror Picture Show get the lovingly crafted photo-essay book that they deserve here. This work is a celebration of those who like to dress up as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Riff Raff, Brad, Janet and, who could forget, Magenta as well as other characters and attend midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show all while shouting back at the screen. While primarily made up of photographs of the participants, this work also touches on why people choose to participate and what they get out of it.

Not only will you get an appreciation for other people’s passions after reading these books, you just might feel better about embracing your own.  Don’t dream it, be it, as they say.

Skin Deep

When it comes to animals, everyone loves cute. If you need proof just visit your local zoo. People will be lining up and jostling each other to see the bears, lions, elephants and monkeys but you will have no trouble getting into the reptile house. This phenomenon is reflected in the book world as well. The majority of titles seem to be dedicated to animals we can relate to and that many see as cute or lovable. But there are exceptions. A dedicated few choose to write about, and often champion, the animals that we find odd, frightening and sometimes disturbing. While I would hesitate to call it a trend, I have noticed a number of new books that seek to appreciate the animals many find unlovable. Read on for a few recent examples.

Vulture: the Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon

Often seen in films circling a dead or dying victim and, let’s be honest, not being the most photogenic of birds, vultures are definitely in need of some good PR. Luckily, author Katie Fallon is up to the task. She creates a sense of empathy by following a typical North American turkey vulture throughout the year. Along the way the reader learns of the crucial role turkey vultures play in cleansing the landscape of carrion and the dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, rabies and botulism that carcasses can harbor. You will also come to appreciate the vultures’ keen sense of smell and its ability to soar on six-foot wings for extended periods of time. While few will ever consider the vulture cute, this work will make you appreciate them and reconsider their negative stereotype.

The Secret Life of Flies by Erica McAlister

Getting readers to appreciate a creature that many swat without a moment’s hesitation is a tall order but Erica McAlister manages to do just that. While there is plenty here to make you a tad nauseous, with a whole chapter dedicated to ‘the coprophages,’ you will also learn of the important role flies play in pollination and as a food source. Most importantly, the author realizes that many see those who study flies, a dipterist for those in the know, as rather odd and the flies themselves as, well, pretty disgusting. She counters this with a healthy sense of humor and curious fly related facts: Flies were the first creatures sent into space and are still being studied on the International Space station; vinegar flies enjoy alcohol and when imbibing they become more amorous and less able to choose an appropriate mate; there is such a thing as the The Society for the Study of Flies. In the end, you can’t help but be interested.

Squid Empire: the Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods by Danna Staaf

Perhaps it is the tentacles or maybe the large, sometimes saucer size eyes that put people off, but squid, and cephalopods in general, don’t get a lot of love from humans. But as the bold title of this work implies, squid don’t need your love. You see, they have been around a long time and I mean a long time: before the mammals, before the dinosaurs, and even before the fishes. Sure there are fewer of them around today, but they had a glorious 400 million year run as the ruling class on the planet. Danna Staaf charts their rise, dominance, fall and comeback in this fascinating work with humor and narrative skill. The key to their survival turns out to be an amazing ability to adapt. Starting out in shells, the cephalopods went on to develop tentacles, beaks, ink, and a masterful camouflage ability all to keep one step ahead of the competition. Long live the Empire!

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald

While beautiful when seen floating behind plexiglas in a tank, getting close to a jellyfish in the wild can be a harrowing experience, especially while swimming. In this mixture of scientific inquiry, travelogue, and memoir Juli Berwald examines the prolific and ancient jellyfish and tries to allay some of those fears while describing its role in the ecosystem today. While this book is definitely packed with fascinating jellyfish facts, they are made of 95% water and have barbs that pierce with five million times the acceleration of gravity, it is also about the jellyfish as a bellwether of a changing planet. Their incredible success, with huge ‘blooms’ of billions of jellyfish causing damage to fisheries and infrastructure, says much about the acidification of the oceans and a warming climate. Finally, this book is also a tale of the author’s rediscovery of her love of science, and jellyfish in particular, after raising a family.