It’s Elemental

Does the world seem a tad chaotic lately? Whether it is the world of politics, social interaction or even the horrors of the recent snopocalypse, things definitely seem to be in a state of flux. But there is an order out there if you look for it. What if I told you that you could take all of the elements that make up you, the world and all of the universe and chart it all neatly and precisely on a table? Yes I’m talking about that grand creation: The Periodic Table.

2019 is a great year to rediscover the wonders of the periodic table. You see, this very year is The International Year of the Periodical Table as declared by none other than the United Nations. It is in honor of the 150th anniversary of the table’s surprisingly contentious creation. So why not light a candle against the chaos of our times and celebrate some order this year. As always, the Everett Public Library has your back with some excellent books to help you learn about the Periodic Table. Read on to learn more.

A great place to start when it comes to learning about the periodic table are the excellent works of Theodore Gray. Throw away your preconceptions about scientific information being boring and stuffy and revel in the gorgeous design, clarity of presentation, and downright intriguing facts presented in his books. Begin with The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe which includes a beautiful photo of each element, key facts and features, and the signature wit that Gray is known for.  Move on to Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything to learn how the elements combine to form compounds that clean, corrode and explode, complete with gorgeous pictures of course.  And complete your journey with Reactions: An Illustrated Exploration of Elements, Molecules, and Change in the Universe to see how the molecules react with each other to form the chemical basis of our very existence, all beautifully illustrated as you would expect.

Now that you have gotten an excellent introduction to the periodic table from Mr. Gray, it is time to delve into the shocking, at times seedy, and always fascinating history of the elements themselves. Learn how the Lewis and Clark expedition’s use of mercury laxatives allowed historians to discover their route across the west by mapping mercury tinged latrines in Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table. Cringe at the fashion for radium chocolate, beer and contraceptives after Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of that element in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Periodic Tales: the Curious Lives of the Elements. And finally, be horrified by the slaughter and cruelty that occurs during the Spanish Conquistador’s relentless pursuit of gold and silver in John Browne’s Seven Elements that Have Changed the World.

So revel in a little stability and learn more about the periodic table during its 150th anniversary year, even if you only consult it periodically (insert groan here).

The Benefits of a Classical Education

History is all in the telling. I’ve always enjoyed a good work of history, especially ancient history, but can understand if others are a bit hesitant. If a history book is an unending list of dates, a dry rendition of ‘what happened,’ or just an academic author trying to prove a point it can be annoying and, worse yet, deadly dull even if you enjoy the topic. The best way to guard against selecting historical duds, I’ve found, is to discover an exciting and intriguing history writer.

Mary Beard is one such author. A bit of an institution in the UK, Mary Beard brings a fresh perspective on classical history with everything she writes. She does this by bringing forward the stories of those groups often forgotten in history, classical or otherwise, and by showing history to be an ever-changing debate amongst those doing the telling. Being skeptical and critical of consensus when it comes to the stories we are told is her default position it seems.

So clearly, I like her stuff. But will you? Long works of history can be intimidating so why not try something shorter to start. Mary Beard has an excellent blog if you want to start electronically sampling her work. If a book is more your style might I suggest the very short, almost a pamphlet really, Women & Power: A Manifesto. Based on a series of lectures, this book is crammed full of intriguing concepts about the way classical ideas about women in power continue to affect our current culture, including the last presidential election. Try this excellent book and you will never look at Medusa (not a good thing to do to start with) the same way again.

Now that you have gotten your feet wet, it’s time to delve into a longer work. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is one of Beard’s best. Don’t be put off by the long time frame, almost 1000 years of history, since this is not a chronicle of what happened when. Instead, Beard illuminates the ideas and controversies that the Romans argued over and debated as they went from small city-state to far-flung empire. Many of these ideas have great resonance with issues we face today. The icing on the cake is how she clues you into the way historians actually put together the facts and lets you make your own decisions about what might have really happened and its significance.

There are many great books to highlight in Mary Beard’s collection, but let me just suggest two more that are exceptional:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations is an outstanding collection of essays on a diverse and intriguing number of topics related to the ancient world. She brings her signature wit and depth of knowledge to each essay and is always entertaining. Plus how can you resist essay titles such as ‘Alexander: How Great?’, ‘Who Wanted Remus Dead?’, ‘Bit-Part Emperors’, and ‘Married to the Empire’?

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found is an attempt, with no claims of certain knowledge despite what some other historians and archaeologists might state, to figure out how the residents of Pompeii lived before Vesuvius buried the town in ash. It was a city full of bright colors, noxious smells and sculpted phalluses, placed for luck that clearly ran out, everywhere.  Who better than Mary Beard to guide you through this fascinating, yet disturbing, place?

So there you have a few suggestions to get you started. Choose one that appeals and be confident in the knowledge that you will be in the hands of a master storyteller.

The Final Countdown

Are you ready for the final tradition of the holiday season? As I’m sure you are aware, groups large and small will gather tonight to count down the final moments of 2018. At the end of the countdown what do you get exactly though? Another new year sure, but we’ve all seen our share of those. This year, why not keep the countdown but break with tradition and mark the time to something super cool and meaningful.

What might that be you ask? Well tonight the scrappy New Horizons probe, last seen passing Pluto, will be making a close flyby of a mysterious object 4 billion miles from the sun. Virtually nothing is known about this object, which has been given the kick ass name Ultima Thule, so everything New Horizons records and sends back will be brand spanking new science. In addition, this will be the most distant planetary flyby that has yet to be attempted.

In a happy coincidence, New Horizons will be closest to Ultima Thule at 12:33 AM Eastern time (9:33 PM for us on the west coast) to coincide with the new year. You can countdown and follow all the action at the New Horizons website. While you are there, investigate all of the great accomplishments New Horizons has already achieved, including spectacular images of icy Pluto. If you prefer your information in book form, of course we have you covered here at the library with Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern.

So create a tradition of your own and count down to New Horizon’s flyby of Ultima Thule. As a bonus, you can forget trying to remember the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne.

An Inconvenient Woman

For good or ill, the shopping season is upon us. As you finally find that perfect gift, and this is assuming you actually go out into the world to do your shopping, it is easy to forget about the employee ringing up your purchase. Retail work is not an easy gig, so it seems totally normal to me if a store employee just goes through the motions or does the bare minimum to collect a paycheck. The workers that stand out for me are those who seem super happy with their job, the store, and the whole retail experience. For some reason, that attitude has always seemed a little ‘off’ if not downright creepy. After reading the excellent Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, however, I think it’s time for me to reassess my reaction.

Keiko Furukura really, really, really likes her job at the Hiiromachi branch of the ‘Smile Mart’ convenience store in a suburb of Tokyo. She enthusiastically greets the customers, makes sure everything is stocked correctly for the season and always adheres to the company’s newest edicts. She is far from a mindless automaton however. She has used her 18 years at the Smile Mart to observe others’ puzzling behavior and learn how to be normal.

From an early age Keiko realizes that her way of thinking and feeling just doesn’t adhere to societal standards. When she sees two students fighting and the teacher orders them to stop, she hits one of them over the head with a spade, stopping the fight but winning no accolades. She simply does not understand human emotions and reactions. Worse still, she finds out that society will single you out and punish you for not fitting in. Her solution? Bury herself in her job at the Smile Mart, learn what is considered normal from other employees, and apply that knowledge in order to be left alone.

This all works pretty well until she reaches the age of 36 and her family begins questioning why she is still working at an entry-level job and has no boyfriend/husband. Enter Shiraha, a fellow employee who is lazy, misogynistic and prone to endlessly spouting out simplistic ‘ideas’ about the Stone Age and modern society. The one thing they have in common: a mistrust of normalcy. Perhaps Keiko can use that to her advantage…

Convenience Store Woman is told using a straightforward, yet elegant style that conveys Keiko’s unique perspective. While the ideas presented might be a bit off-putting for some at first, the author packages them in such a way as to make Keiko ultimately seem sympathetic. You come to see her as a somewhat damaged, by societal standards, individual carving out a tolerable existence in a hostile world. This short novella is well worth your reading time. Plus it will give you a new perspective while doing your holiday shopping.

One Word

The reading challenger for October is an intriguing one: read a book with a one-word title. There are so many choices. You could go classic (1984, Emma, Nostromo), popular (Outlander, Allegiant, Twilight), by color (Blue, Green, Grey) or throw caution to the wind and just plug in a word in the catalog and see what comes up. For my selection, I went with a book that has been generating some positive reviews lately: Florida by Lauren Groff. Luckily, I was not disappointed by my choice. Read on to find out why.

While the short stories in this collection aren’t connected plot wise, there is one place at the center of all of them: a fevered, humid, beautiful and dangerous imagining of the Sunshine State. Even in the few stories that aren’t actually set there, Florida is always in the mix, lurking in the background. In addition to setting, many of the characters in these stories are dealing with an unfocused anger produced by living in a world they see as being on the verge of collapse and not being able to do a thing about it.

But it is Groff’s ability to set a scene and her use of language that really steals the show. Take this quote from the story ‘Ghosts and Empties’:

The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one. We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead. The only other illumination is from the windows in the houses I pass and the moon that orders me to look up, look up! Feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.

Just as intriguing are the stories she tells. All are gems but here are four that you definitely shouldn’t miss:

‘Dogs go Wolf’ is the tale of two young girls apparently forgotten in a cabin on a small Florida island. Their efforts to survive are harrowing, but the real danger arrives when the adults come back.

‘Eyewall’ depicts a woman who stubbornly decides to ride out a hurricane alone. The conditions outside do not inspire fear in her but rather trigger thoughts of her past life that begin to blend with the present.

‘Above and Below’ chronicles a young woman who decides to quit college and survive free from any attachments. Without realizing it, she begins to fall farther and farther down the socio-economic ladder until deprivation feels normal.

‘At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners’ follows a young boy from his youth to middle age with a particular emphasis on the troubled relationship he has with his tyrannical herpetologist father. His attempts to distance himself just draw him further in.

While there are many single worded titles to choose from to fulfill the reading challenge for this month, why not give Florida a chance. If you do, you will be introduced to an intriguing cast of characters and a memorable setting. All without having to shell out for airfare or applying copious amounts of mosquito repellent.

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.