Sunday, November 29, 2009

Grant Poetry: 1880


Her Majesty's Ship Bacchante, as a
Floating Aquarium Sails, Be-
cause She has on Board,
You see, a Couple of
Little Wales1.

The Injuns Again are on it2, and the
Wild Frontier it Riles3; They
Again must Learn the
Lesson That Bad Medi-
cine's Paddy Miles.4

The B. & O. Have Wages Raised5, for
the Same Longshoreman Try.6
Poor Wieniawsky's Gone
Aloft, to Fiddle in
the Sky.7

And Being Lately From the Earth,
Perhaps He'll Play This Chant:
"If You Want to be an
Angel, You Must Toot
Your Horn for


(The Argus, 7 April 1880.)



Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review: The Irish In Dakota, by David Kemp

The upper Midwest is usually considered the domain of Norwegian, German, and Swedish immigrants, but it turns out the Irish had far more impact on the settling of Dakota Territory during the late 19th century than I had ever realized.

The Irish in Dakota, by David Kemp, is a fact-laden chronology of the movement of Irish families into Dakota, but doesn't extend much beyond that. The book is short, and only rarely diverges into analysis or storytelling, but I can see why genealogy websites list it under Irish ancestry resources. The book moves quickly through the late 19th century, a cascade of names and dates and places, providing its own context while lacking much breadth. I'd also say that the book focuses more on the parts we now call South Dakota than the entirety of the territory. Since the author relied heavily on South Dakota's historical societies, it is to be expected.

I checked out the book from the public library because of my recent fascination with the Fenians, and the book devotes a large part to the Fenian presence in this area, which was more than I had even thought before. That's the book's strongest feature: it contains a lot of information that I hadn't read or heard before, so it did open my eyes to a facet of my region's history. The amount of information makes me feel there's a much larger book in there that hasn't been written, making this book short of what it could have become.

The Irish in Dakota, by David Kemp
ISBN 978-0962459313
144 pages, 5½" x 8½"
Rushmore House Publishing

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rogues and Rouge

Poe's Law states: "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing." The release of Sara Palin's memoirs has, amusingly, put Poe's Law on display for book lovers. On the same day as Going Rogue's release, a satirical memoir title Going Rouge hit the streets, too, using a strikingly similar cover. From USA Today to Fox News (yes, Fox News!), the media has accidentally shown the satire book's cover when intending to talk about Palin's book. While I'd like to think its outright inability to distinguish the books (I'm having trouble telling them apart), I'd lay the reason for the mistake to be poor spelling ability. "Rouge" versus "Rogue" is a common spelling mistake for everyone, including the Googling graphic designers of Fox News and their ilk. Keep in mind, O family members who read my blog: make sure you buy the right one when shopping for my Christmas present!

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Books v. Computers

Sergio Della Sala, Professor in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh (helpfully explained as a "brain doctor" by the BBC), has given a speech to school administrators in Scotland explaining that the use of computers does not improve or advance learning beyond what a traditional book might accomplish.

The headlines — "Computer consoles 'no better' than books for learning," "Brain boffin calls for schools to get back to books" — are a bit of an exaggeration; the direct study is regarding the use of the Nintendo DS as an education tool, and although schools have seen improvement in mathematics in the use of the DS, it isn't particularly better than in those students without the math video games in their pockets. Nintendo has been looking towards the future of the DS in the education environment, and Scotland has one of the earliest attempts to test the DS in the classroom, so the use is very embryonic at the moment and doesn't indicate all learning is going to migrate to a gameboy.

In the few articles about Dr. Della Sala's statement, I can hear the hand-wringing of the books-are-best groups. Add the DS to the list of electronic equipment that is slated to cause fewer books to be printed; iPhones and Kindles and books-on-CD and fax machines, there's been all sorts of machines which simplify or replace the usefulness of books, but a bit of perspective is useful here. A book is simple, portable, and easily interpreted. A book has physical mass, which is something that electronic formats replace: not a condemnation of books, but an attempt at improving the format. A book has minimal interactive engagement, which is something the DS does well. The anecdotal evidence in the BBC article is not that a DS can teach more than a book can, but that the game engages the students and catches their attention better than the book or teacher can directly. Certainly, if the DS-based math education takes off, fewer math textbooks will be printed, there's no changing that. It isn't a case of bells-and-whistles winning over a tried-and-true technology; it is using technology to more productive ends.

That isn't to say the DS will be always applied conservatively only to those tasks to which it is best suited; U.S. schools have been devoting a lot of money to strive for the goal of one laptop for every student, and colleges have often been requiring students purchase a laptop. Like the DS, the report is that students are more engaged, are able to communicate with teachers and other students better, and remain productive outside of the classroom. Once laptops begin to replace large chunks of the learning experience — regardless how many books it eliminates — I worry that there will be a loss of learning skills. Laptops spellcheck, substitute for a calculator, pre-organize outlines and workflow, perform slideshows, and encourage internet-based research instead of library-based research. Students are more engaged, more productive, because the computer replaces the boring, tedious parts of learning, but I cannot accept the idea that this is a better state. Up to a certain level, the computer is allowing the student to focus on the important parts of their education, the memorization and the analysis, but there is a point beyond which the computer is performing the majority of the skills of learning so the student can simply repeat what the screen says. The student is not really learning once they have reached that threshhold, and computers make it very easy to approach and cross that line. I believe that is Della Sala's point: learning occurs when a student is able to take in information, analyze or research it themselves, and respond with a correct answer, and that is a fixed commodity in a student, unimproved by a computer. Computers, by nature, are entirely capable of collecting, analyzing, and learning from information on their own; educators need to watch that students are the ones learning, whether it comes from a book or a computer, because teaching a child how to get a computer to do their homework for them is a disservice to education and students alike.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grant Poetry: 1880

Byfour The Battle.

The Equine Dark Appears at Last,1
by Milton Turner Groomed,
Who Thinks to Have a
Colored Vice, by Dele-
gates Assumed.

Some British Tars Who Sail the
Blue, Cremate Themselves With
Oil.2 Liberian Emigrants
Set Sail, 'neath Tor-
rid Skies to

Four Points There Be, the Game
Within, for Victory Quite
Enough—Conkling Has
High, and Don Holds
Low, While Jack's
Up Logan's

By Playing These Right Carefulee,
So Count the Kickers Can't, the
Other "Pint" is Ours
You Bet, To-witly,
Game and


(The Argus, 17 March 1880.)



Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jacket Blurbs 11-16-09

  • "But, since it was just the two of us, he had additional questions. So I told him: "Father, I cannot tell a lie. As I've already told you, I cut the tree." [Sarah, this seems somewhat similar to a story about George Washington. – eds. THAT'S VERY COOL. – SP]"Editing Going Rogue;
  • "Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important…" – Kim Stanley Robinson on utopias, via;
  • "I'm sure he only used to buy books about macho detectives who murder people mindlessly and sportsmen who have recovered from alcohol dependency and significant injury." – Chris Matyszczyk, on Kindles and covers;
  • "…that as long as they are carrying books that affirm homosexuality as moral, you will not purchase books from them." – easily offended bigots respond to Scholastic's inclusion of a 'pro-homosexual' book in their catalog;
  • "…the two revived one of the old characters and added in a few, including a Scotland Yard detective and a lesbian vampire countess." – A Stoker writes a Dracula sequel, with some help;
  • "…someone with a 'personal blog, writing a genuine or organic review,' did not need to disclose how they got the book or assign it a value." – the FTC, on pay-per-post reviewing;
  • Edison’s Concrete Piano: Flying Tanks, Six-Nippled Sheep, Walk-on-Water Shoes and 12 Other Flops from Great Inventorsthe best book title of the year, per the LA Times;
  • "If you can’t discount books, how can you get customers and market share? This is some communist-style shit…" – Chad Post, on French book discounts;
The 'book burning' mentioned in "Hard on the Bible", via:


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Acquisitions: Keep Your Volkswagen Alive

Last week we hit the Lake Agassiz Regional Library book sale; this week was the Fargo Public Library book sale. The website was very clear: the sale started at 9. When we arrived, we found all the posters said the sale would begin at 10. So, after filling 45 minutes with people-watching and being obnoxious in public, the Wifey and I finally got to be one of the first people into a book sale. The first thing I grabbed was the book to the right — I'm certain it would have been gone seconds later had I not headed tight for nonfiction. How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, by John Muir, must've been a good manual if they recently came out with a 30th Anniversary Edition.

John Muir, who is in fact a descendant of the conservationist Muir, wasn't your average VW-driving hippie. A skilled engineer, Muir worked for Lockheed for years, until deciding late in life to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to lead a simpler life. Muir started working on Volkswagens, eventually acquiring a level of expertise that he felt he needed to share, so he self-published the first edition of How To…Volkswagen Alive. The book quickly became the go-to reference for VW repair, and combined a sensible readability, including humor and philosophy, that appealed to VW owners. The illustrations are by "Juniperus Scopulorum", a/k/a Peter Aschwanden, and add a very R Crumbish feel to the book. Trippy imagery, trippy writing, and a counterculture subject all make this book probably the mosy hippyish book I own — but being a mechanic's reference, it's going next to my Chilton's. I had originally intended to sell it, thinking it was obscure and desirable, but mine's a 4th printing of a quite common book, so whenever I get around to reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I may have to read this one, too, and actually get some mechanical learning out of it. From a young age, my daughter said she wanted a VW Beetle when she got of age, I might as well start preparing now.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Weirdness at the Scholarship Book Sale

The Exotic Menial has a bunch of fun books found at a scholarship book sale. They were donated, and all are just a bit 'off', and most seem to have fire-and-brimstone religious content. We've been to two library book sales in the past week, and didn't find anything near as much fun as these.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Farewell Atlantis, by Jackson Curtis

Today marks the debut of Jackson Curtis' first science fiction novel, Farewell Atlantis. Curtis has formerly distinguished himself as an above-the-fold writer for the LA Times, Harper's and Esquire, and there has been no question that his career was headed in this direction. The novel isn't to be confused with Terry Bisson's new short story of the same name in the upcoming Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. Given the literary buzz around Curtis' new novel, it appears to be nothing more than an attempt by Bisson to capitalize on the confusion.

Farewell Atlantis begins with an accident in low-Earth orbit — or is it? The space shuttle Atlantis has been sent into space to study the effects of the gravitational influence of the Great Alignment on the Earth and our solar system. The shuttle is making amazing discoveries regarding the affects of the solar storms on the Earth's magnetic field, but they are unable to communicate with Earth: radio is being jammed, equipment has been sabotaged, and it appears there's a traitor on the shuttle's crew.

The book packs a lot of exposition into its first chapter (Google Books version): Curtis' background in short-form magazine writing betrays his stronger abilities. Just listen to how we meet the recently deceased astronaut:
Commander Martin H. Intersoll — 48-years-old, father of three girls ages 16, 14, and 9, fly fisherman, amateur watercolorist, enthusiastic home brewer of beer, PhD. in astrophysics from the University of Wisconsin, and devoted husband to Sally Weaver-Ingersoll — was about to suffer one of the worst deaths imaginable.
Rule Number One, Jackson: show, don't tell. Already filling an ambitious 2,732 pages (although I have an advance reader; indications are that when it goes to press it will be heavily edited), Farewell Atlantis is quite an undertaking to any reader, but it couldn't have hurt to add a bit more background in the beginning, some vignettes which debut each character in greater detail through creative staging of their Earth-bound lives. Curtis liberally made use of flashbacks throughout the tome, going so far as to flashback one character into the transdimensional dreams of another character's imagination, which makes it surprising that he failed to use them for more backstory in-fill.

Criticizing the first chapter over the clumsiness of a first-time novelist is a disservice to the rest of the book. Over nine hundred of the pages are devoted to ancient wisdom and lost forms of cosmic spirituality, most described in their original languages, which makes the book at once frustrating and awe-inspiring. As the book proceeds into apocalyptic satire of man's political environment and the scope of the conflict of id and superego, the book reaches a singularity of postmodern expressionism couched in a wrapper of absurdist picaresque, alienating and beckoning forth the philosophical ends of mankind's worldly panorama. This is the kind of life-changing book, like Catcher in the Rye, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Donald Kaufman's The Three — it's not the end of the world if you miss it, but waiting until the paperback comes out in 2013 might mean you'll miss out.

Farewell Atlantis, by Jackson Curtis
ISBN 978-0-13-135074-9
2,732 pages, 6.14" x 9.21" hardcover
$18.99 cover price, published 2009
Hudson Cameron Press

(Today is the first day you can go see Roland Emmerich's explodurbation film 2012. What you might not know is that the Everyman in the film, played by John Cusack, is science fiction author Jackson Curtis, and this is that character's in-story novel. As with a lot of other big-name, fan-driven scifi media these days, 2012 comes with an ARG, and part of that ARG is the website of Curtis' new novel, Farewell Atlantis. I am not part of the the 2012 ARG, I just like imaginary books. Via.)

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Grant Poetry: 1880


A Reverend Gent in Richmond Town,1
By Forgery's Made a Livin',
But Being Dropped in
He Admits, He's wil-
ling to be For-

Fiend in Wayensfille, O - hi - o, Scarce
any Crime Could Match It, Con-
structs and Angel from
His Wife, With His Lit-
tle Hatchet.3

Belva Lockwood Takes A Whack4,
Facts to a Senator Slammin',
Says it's not His only Case;
That He Is Ben-

Minneapolis Beer Mill Blaze5--Ocean
Steamer Stranded6--Slippery
Crook Four Stories Drops7,
and Leaves the Cops
Bare Handed.

Shout our War Cry o'er The World,
Every One that this sees;
Yankee Doodle Rides the
Boom, His Other Name's


(The Argus, 17 March 1880.)



Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Smell of Books

When a book lover talks about their passion, smell often comes up. Old books have a distinct smell, which is surprising given the wide variety of materials and binding techniques used over the past few hundred years, and especially in the time-range most book collectors have. Rag paper, wood pulp, natural glues, synthetic glues, animal fibers, leather, burlap, all sorts of inks — I'm tempted to claim the smell is the combined layer of finger oils on each page, but that'd be getting gross. That ongoing change in materials and progressive smell-inducing decomposition has given an idea to researchers: A new test has been developed to determine a book's age by it's smell (full abstract here). This measures the kinds of organic compounds that an aging book is giving off, and determines its age by comparing to the known components of books. It's a much better process than the destructive tests, requiring parts be cut out of the book for analysis.

As you might guess, if they can test for the 'volatile organic compounds' that a book emits, then they know what those are, right? Well, those compounds must be useful for something - and here comes the science: you can now buy that book-smell in a convenient spray-can. It seems kinda hoaxey, but, people, the science is there: book apologists have long claimed the smells involved in reading are a reason to avoid eBook readers, but if technology has overcome that obstacle, there's no stopping them. Well, nothing other than a product recall.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Acquisitions: Dali's As You Like It

You don't get a cover image for this one, and that's probably the only reason I got this book. This weekend, the Lake Agassiz Regional Library had one of their book sales,and we arrived at opening time — which, we knew, meant we were competing with book dealers, book collectors, and frugal packrats (of which we could be considered any of the above). The sale was in the basement, in a poorly-vented windowless room, making it claustrophobic, hot, and everybody seemed ruder than I would have usually expected. Considering how rude some of the local book dealers are on an average day, it wasn't the kind of fun book-browsing shopping trip we usually enjoy. In that first hour, you need to grab what you can, as soon as you can, because if it's that good, you're not going to see it again.

This book, one of its illustrations at the right, is in a very plain library binding, a few generic gold-leaf feathers on the front, and the spine says just As You Like It. In fact, the spine is printed upside-down; if shelved with the text the same direction as the books around it, the front is on the wrong side. Generic Shakespeare play, unimpressive binding, stains on the cover, it's no wonder it had been passed over. Inside, however, is why this is was such a find, and completely worth it all — and the book's introduction explains it all:
Imagine someone picking up this edition of As You Like It: he reads the words 'Folio Society': Folio — the word conjures up ancient manuscripts…of Shakespeare played in Shakespeare's way: he opens the book, there are designs by Salvador Dali, the notorious surrealist: one who is famous for his intimate knowledge of the anatomy of spiders but not for his interest in the structure of the sixteenth-century playhouse.
This is pretty much how my experience went. "Ah, Shakespeare…Folio Society, nicely typeset—wait, Salvador Dali?!?" In the 1940s, Dali was closely involved in the theatre, designing costumes and sets for operas and plays. In 1948, for the Teatro Eliseo in Rome, Dali designed costumes for Shakespeare's As You Like It. In 1953, The Folio Society produced combined the New Temple Shakespeare edition of the play with Dali's sketches of costumes and backdrops. My edition is the third printing, from 1965, but both D and I are Dali fans, and I haven't seen these designs before. The first printing is quite valuable, and ours is a little beat up, but from the start this was intended to go on my Shakespeare shelf and the interior is excellent: it is to my advantage that, rather than the quick dash-and-grab through the library book sale like the dealers and collectors, I stopped to open the cover and look closely at the book's contents, despite rude elbows and invasion of my personal space.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Hard On The Bible

The world has been pretty hard on the Bible lately. Banned Books Week was just a month ago, a time when the Bible figures prominently (on both sides of the argument). This past Saturday, pastor Marc Grizzard held up the King James Bible and declared it holy…then tossed all other versions on to the book-burning pyre. It was "a great success" according to their website. Recently in New Zealand, actor Sir Ian McKellen said in an interview that he was presented with a fork in the road: destroy the whole book, or just the offending parts? He chose the fractional destruction, physically removing the parts of Leviticus that condemn homosexuality from the hotel-friendly Gideon's Bibles. Also in New Zealand (maybe there's something in the water these days), student Hanahiva Rose was asked by her art teacher to produce a controversial work of art. Hanahiva created The Rose Bible, a torn and wrinkled copy of the Bible resembling a blooming flower. When it came time to show off her portfolio at the end of the year, however, the teacher excluded the Rose Bible due to its controversial nature.

At its core, of course, the Bible is a book: pages, signatures, binding, page numbers and paragraphs, leather and gold leaf on the spine. Sir Ian's Gideons are some of the shoddiest books on the market, but they endure, despite page-ripping revisionists. Book lovers are often ready to condemn the cutting or destruction of a book, despite the beauty of the art produced, but this urge for intactness isn't connected to censorship. There's something sacred about the structure of a book itself. A long time ago, a company I worked for was pitched a book-binding machine for doing proposals. The main selling point was that people may throw away some spiral- or comb-bound photocopies, but when it has a hard cover and a spine, it's a book, so it goes on the shelf. It was a strong point: nobody throws away a book.

The Bible, therefore, gets a double-dose of sacredness: its format and its function are all beyond the nature of an inert inanimate object. Of the events above, two of the three aren't exactly censorship. Sir Ian, sadly, is the promoter of censorship: his intent is to alter and remove offending content. While I agree with Ian's take on the offending passage, he is behaving no better than the mystery Tennessee marker-wielder. The other two, however, do result in removal one or more books from circulation, but their intent is different: they are trying to make a point, which is a First Amendment issue. The book-burning church's point, however, is to express their view that some books are unworthy of existing; they've crossed the Nazi line into expressing their intent to purge the world of certain thoughts, which may not be censorship directly, but their intent is clear and downright anti-intellectual. I sympathize with Sir Ian's intent, I refuse to accept the Bible-burning church's intent, but the poor New Zealand student whose art was excluded from her portfolio gets my utter support. Her controversial act was one of creation, and artistic expression. Destroying a book for the purpose of art, despite making me cringe at the demise of a poor unsuspecting tome, is a worthy form of free-speech communication. Tearing out unacceptable pages and burning unacceptable editions are destructive acts, resulting in a lesser form than it started with. Hanahiva Rose, in the act of damaging the book, created art, so she deserves a break, no matter what book she used.

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