Monday, September 30, 2013

W39: Earth’s Bug-Eyed Monsters

After a run of dense scientific works, the Biblio-Mat sent a (most probably temporary) reprieve with an interesting biology piece that stared at me from the machine as much as I stared at it.

Either sepia tone or sun fading.
Earth’s Bug-Eyed Monsters by Alice L. Hopf was 129 pages on animals that were seen as freaks of nature, even by nature’s standards. A solid hardcover with a sepia toned dustjacket, it appeared at first glance to be a 60’s/70’s book, which was the right assumption as it was published in 1968. Interestingly enough, although the pages were printed on high quality thick stock, all the photos were in black and white, which was a shame as the subject matter would lend itself well to colour.

The cover of the book was interesting as it presented a variety of different animals as these bug-eyed monsters. While half of them, like praying mantises and chameleons, could be classified as such, I think people are familiar enough with octopi and ostriches to consider them too mundane for the designation. Bug-eyed was also not completely suitable to describe crabs as their ocular organs are merely on a stalk. With this in mind, I was skeptical of the potential false advertising of the title.

Monster or misunderstood?
The introduction to Earth’s Bug-Eyed Monsters explained why the subject held fascination with so many people as it merges the familiar with the unknown. In what would become a running theme in the book, Hopf states that sci-fi writers take their inspirations for otherworldly beings from exaggerated perceptions of the creatures of our own planet, which makes a lot of sense when you think of Cthulhu as a giant squid and the aliens from Alien as large bugs.

The first chapter covered the octopus and was actually quite amazing in the sheer amount of information given on the cephalopod in the span of a few pages. Diet, predators, prey, mating habits, history, and psychology of the animal were all covered, along with an exploration of a few of the different subspecies. Although some of the information may have been a bit outdated, ex: there’s about 300 species that we know of today while the book puts the number at 150, the details were presented in such a way that they still held fascination even in today’s world. The chapter ended on an anecdote of people tying octopi to ropes and lowering them down into the water to salvage porcelain bowls from a shipwreck off the coast of Japan which is both absurd and brilliant.

I'm imagining this, with a live octopus as a claw.
The following chapters were less entertaining, mainly as they were much shorter, clocking in at four to five pages versus the fourteen on the octopus. The chapter on the Portuguese man-of-war was a bit of stretch as though it could potentially fit a loose definition of ‘monster’, it can’t be bug-eyed for the simple fact that it has no eyes. It did present a relatively useless but interesting fact, though, on how the treatments for jellyfish stings in the 60’s were simple doses of morphine and not the solution proposed by Friends.

Innocence lost.
The section on the crab reaffirmed my suspicion of the sensational false advertising of the book title as the chapter was called ‘The Stalk-Eyed Monster’ – clearly not bug-eyed. While volumes could be written on the subject of crabs, the book decided to narrow its focus to the land crabs of Miami, which was specific enough to cover in depth but eschewed cooking methods.

Following this were two more eyeless creatures – the sea anemone and pitcher plant, which were low for shock value as neither really looks menacing since static creatures make poor monsters. The book then turned its supposed bug eye on actual bugs, covering leaf hoppers, tarantulas, and praying mantises in disturbingly fascinated ways, going as far as recommending keeping praying mantises as pets. The sections on wasps and dragonflies that came after, though, were quite mundane as Hopf doesn’t go into much detail beyond what anyone who has seen one would already know – they fly and they bite.

Adorable as far as creatures of hell are concerned.
Chameleon and Moloch lizards came next, which I would say were the closest animals in the book that I would classify as bug-eyed monsters as neither looks cute nor cuddly and would most likely cause me to burn my house down should I find one inside. The chapters on Komodo dragons and Gila monsters seem to pale in comparison as they look like actual lizards instead of the stuff of nightmares.

Step on it... oh wait.
The later chapters seemed unfair in grouping in ostriches, road runners, and giraffes in with the previous animals as by comparison, they were pretty far removed from the grotesque and danger of the things that prey on fear. The book even describes giraffes as gentle animals that tolerate other beasts, which makes one wonder what they’re even doing in this book. The bats and tarsiers that close up the text, though, will probably keep me up for a while.

While Earth’s Bug-Eyed Monsters was enjoyable, the title was ridiculously misleading as more than half the creatures covered don’t fit into the category. Most disappointingly, though, was that each chapter only had one photo of the animal it was covering and in the case of the six headlining creatures, it was the same photo used on the cover.

Book rating: 7.5/10 (Could use more visual aids)

Random quote: “But all egg cases harden into tough shelters that will protect the eggs in the coldest winter until spring comes and once more a swarm of little mantises burst forth to fill the insect world with some of the most extraordinary creatures that nature has evolved.” (Yep, definitely chestburster material)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

W38: The Scientific Basis of Illuminating Engineering

Those that have used the Biblio-Mat more than once will no doubt have noticed that the clicking of the machine gears directly correlates to the size of the book about to be dispensed. This week’s offering clicked long enough for a coffee break and a half.

Like a Dover Thrift Classic, without the thrift or classic.
Originally published in 1936, this edition of The Scientific Basis of Illuminating Engineering by Parry Moon was a 1961 Dover reprint. The simplistic blue soft cover hid the true nature of the tome well until it was opened. Razor thin pages contained bricks of text that bled through to the other side in regular light. At 596 pages, it was the longest book to have come out of the machine thus far. The back cover, though, assured that the paper was of the utmost quality and made to last, probably as there will always be a need for doorstops.

"Use" of some sort anyway.
596 pages was a lot for a book, but having read Stephen King novels in elementary, Moby Dick in highschool, War and Peace in university, and most recently George R. R. Martin’s 1016 page Dance with Dragons, sheer page counts had never scared me. 596 pages of textbook, though, was a different story. Or lack of, in this case. The reason I was an English lit major was that despite many attempts, science did not find me agreeable. Don’t get me wrong, I love and appreciate the sciences, but the feeling has never been reciprocated. Reading through this textbook made me glad I choose the arts.

Playing with radiation and carcinogens was encouraged.
In addition to having an amazing name for a scientist, Moon was also a professor. An MIT professor. Yes, this was an MIT textbook. I budgeted four days to read this book through, twice as many as usual, and still barely finished it in five. The amount of information and scientific equations in it was enough to fill an undergrad and if I retain more than ten percent of the knowledge gleaned, I would have enough facts to kill the life out of any party outside of a science convention.

Because numerical facts are fun.
The opening chapter plunged into various fundamentals of lighting. Interestingly enough, the first few pages were about justifying the role of an illumination engineer, comparing it to other schools of engineering. It did not bode well that at the time they were looked down upon as lighting people that add the d├ęcor touches once other more useful engineers have built the buildings.

The next section delved into the question of ‘What is light?’. Forty pages of extremely convoluted explanations seemed to point to the answer of it being manipulable radiation, though it never outright said it for a single sentence explanation would be too simple and concise. The sections on wavelength and frequency were slightly more digestible, but this may have been due to the fact that I remembered enough about light spectrum, and how little of it was actually visible to the human eye, from high school to read the charts properly.
This was a cribsheet.
This was followed by a section on how said radiation is created from an atom. To understand this though, one would need to understand how atoms work, thus ensued a wild tangent that finally came back to how we can produce radiation from atoms in controlled environments. Thirty pages to explain how a light bulb works.

But that was not all there was to the light bulb apparently. Forty more pages followed in the chapter titled ‘Incandescent lamps’, going over details such as heat generation and lifespans of various filaments. This lead to a chapter on the measurement of light, which was littered with floating graphs and equations that charted out a variety of numbers. I read it over twice and still have no clue what I was looking at. Candlepower was brought up at one point as a measurement of intensity but the subsequent explanation of the calculations culminated to I = ED12 followed by some drawings of triangles and light bulbs.

Yep, that's a bulb.
Following this was an actual useful chapter – calculating illumination from surfaces. Various formulas and diagrams were given on how to reflect light off different types of surfaces to manipulate the amount of luminosity desired. Along with that came a section on shortcuts for the calculation of illumination that was anything but short.

The Scientific Basis of Illuminating Engineering did take a break from the mathematics, though, in a chapter called ‘Elements of Lighting Design’. Or it would have in a just and merciful world. Apparently cartloads of numbers were considered design elements back in the 30’s. It did, however, drift off into biology in the sixty pages dedicated to vision and the human eye. How it explained physiology with numbers and equations was truly impressive and utterly useless to anyone who hadn’t memorized all the formulas in the first five chapters.

Why are there measurements on the characters of measurements?
All in all, The Scientific Basis of Illuminating Engineering was not the worst textbook I had read – that honour would go to the micro economics book used to cure insomnia in my first year of university. At least this one had some interesting illustrations. Practical use, though, was something that did not appear to have factored into Moon’s work. While it may be true that an illumination engineer would be able to get better lighting out of any setting, it would take days, if not weeks, to go through all the calculations and micro adjustments necessary. A salesman or trade worker would probably be able to fix up something presentable in a couple hours through trial and error. The propensity for overthinking is high in this field.

Book rating: 1.5/10 (A softcover - you can’t even use this as a weapon)

Random quote: "The basic difference between a trade and a profession lies in the training required in the two cases. A craft or trade requires a much less severe period of training than a profession." (One is useful, the other not so much...)

Monday, September 16, 2013

W37: Human Nature and the Human Condition

This week’s Biblio-Mat book was much heavier in tone than in previous weeks but I have never been one to turn down a good sociology text.

Just dropped in, to see what condition my condition was in...
Published in 1959, Human Nature and the Human Condition by Joseph Wood Krutch was a 211 page hardcover on modern values in 50’s society. The cover itself didn’t look retro as much as flat out outdated but the muted colors of the dustjacket gave it a no nonsense feel that did not betray the text. Interestingly, it had deckled pages, which seems extravagant for a book of this subject matter. While devoid of images inside, the back cover did have a full page photo of the author, who looked like a cross between James Joyce and John Cleese.

Sans eyepatch.
The opening chapter set the tone for the rest of the book by bringing up the question of why “the good life” is now associated with “the standard of living”, which is interesting as this has remained a constant question about society up to today. The idea that worth is measured in material goods is nothing new but Human Nature and the Human Condition approaches it not as a problem but an inevitable part of the evolution of humanity. Instead, the criticism is focused more on technology and how we are moving away from valuing artistic and cultural endeavors for scientific achievements that may do as much harm as good, culminating into a quote from Oppenheimer on how we will progress in the future at the cost of losing our humanity and civilization.

The book then proceeds to discuss the issue of superfluity and how we are at a better position economically than we have been ever before yet we have transitioned from the economy of scarcity to a new economy of abundance. Whereas we used to worry about too few of things, we now strive for having too much and our problem is no longer circled around production but now around consumption.

Hooray for progress!
Taking a moment to reflect back on this, it’s amazing how much more true this is today. As Krutch put it, waste has become not a threat to prosperity but an indispensible condition of it. Recently there was a project for a proposed cellphone that contained interchangeable parts that could be swapped out and upgraded at will. It brought to light not only how much waste we are generating buying into the hype of new technology that requires us to replace entire objects based on small upgrades, but also how controlled we are by mass market consumerism. It has gotten to the point where waste, whether manufactured and marketed as something normal or caused by world crises, is now generated to fix the problem of overproduction.

The natural progression of this critique in the book, of course, shifts to advertising and the ubiquitous nature of marketing. There was nothing new in this section for anyone that has ever glimpsed at an Adbusters magazine but it does hammer home how the idea of “love things above all else; learn to want more and more” is becoming increasingly ingrained into society as we progress.

In a nutshell.
From here, the next chapters delve on the idea of exploitation and how the desire to exploit is in human nature. Using marketing and packaging as an example, it’s funny how the exploitation of the masses has shifted from taking heavy advantage of a small group for profit, such as in the case of slavery, to taking slight advantage of a large group, such as convincing people to pay a bit more for a better packaged or even useless item, resulting in much higher gains.

Or you can combine the two.
Think about our current consumer culture and this has never been more true in terms of mobile applications and micro transactions. Games like Farmville and Candy Crush ding people for a couple dollars every now and then, which is insignificant to the individual but when collected from millions become a profit to be reckoned with. And while this may seem like a new epidemic, it shares the same age old psychology of pushing created false values as snake oil.

True story.
Strangely enough, this introspection into consumer culture left on a tangent as the book switched gears into discussing the issue of overpopulation. The dilemma, as Krutch puts it, is that “too few people are going to be left if we have a major war; too many will crowd the earth if we do not”. While this is a valid concern, the fact that it has been fifty years or so after the publication of this book and we’re not much worse than before makes this section more like a doomsday prophecy than a pressing contemporary issue. It’s definitely still a problem, especially in places like China that cannot support the increase in population, but it hasn’t gotten remotely close to starting a war over to cull the population. While the book doesn’t offer any solution to this dilemma, it brings to light that this is an issue we should at least be thinking of rather than overlooking.

From here, Human Nature and the Human Condition moves to talk about what it means to be average or normal. Specifically, it critiques the academic world of children and how they are forced into a normalcy based on what the average child is capable of. Krutch observes that schools have been establishing norms to make sure that no individual is required or even encouraged to rise above them. While it paints a bleak view of the educational system of the 50’s it still feels like this is an issue in many schools where there is not adequate support for those that want to go beyond what is taught in the average textbook. Often, a system will elect to move at a slower speed to retain the majority rather than a faster pace that risks leaving a few behind.

Book is all over the place.
The book then abruptly switches to into a philosophical discussion of what it calls “the meaning of a meaningless question”. Chief among the various meaningless questions is “Does God exist?”. Bringing Locke into the discussion of tabula rasa, Human Nature and the Human Condition takes on almost an existential view of life before discussing the parts of human nature that can and cannot be changed. Coming full circle to present the idea that certain things, such as the desire for profit and personal possessions can no longer be abandoned, the conclusion that is drawn is that we are no longer born with a clean slate.

While there were a lot of points that are arguable, Human Nature and the Human Condition, serves its purpose in opening new thought and stirring debates. A surprisingly easy read for the subject matter, it held up well remarkably well through the years, which is both amazing and disturbing at the same time in how little human nature has changed.

Book rating: 8.5/10 (Fascinating read, even if you don’t agree with the points of view)

Random Quote: “In a society where we make more than we can use, it is important to persuade people to buy superfluities as to familiarize them with the best that has been thought or said.”

Monday, September 9, 2013

W36: Practical Anatomy of the Rabbit

To go along with the book on flora last week came a fauna book from the Biblio-Mat that was the antithesis of arts and crafts, or entertainment for that matter.

Would hate to see the Impractical Anatomy of the Rabbit.
At 293 pages, Practical Anatomy of the Rabbit by B. A. Bensley was a brick of a textbook that managed to suck the adorableness out of rabbits. Published in 1931, the book had a nice forest green cloth cover with the title only on the spine, as was the style of textbooks. Interestingly enough, the inside cover was signed ‘Murray Buchman’ four times in pencil and ink in four different writing styles, which leads one to believe that the guy had issues committing to a signature or was unfortunate enough to repeat this subject four times in university.

Maybe a sucker for punishment?
Having one of those great fathers that buy the fancy of a child’s eye at a farmers’ market before consulting the mother first, our family ended up raising colonies of rabbits when I was a child. Like many people, my first thought about this book was that it seemed absurdly long for a simple subject. Soft fur, wild eyes, long ears, and four quick legs pretty much summed up all one needed to know about the anatomy of a rabbit but this book decided to delve into covering every aspect of the animal down to separate sections for each of the legs.

X-ray of a chocolate bunny.
Accompanied by gray-scale illustrations, the pages were deceptive in being clean and organized in layout but filled with scientific phrases and dense sentences when actually read. On a positive note, though, I was traveling to Montreal and back this weekend and the text practically secreted melatonin.

Excitement abounds!
Split into three sections that covered the general structure of the rabbit, the osteology of the rabbit, and the dissection of the rabbit, the text turned out to be an extremely thorough account of not only the rabbit, but animals in general. Covering everything from the cell structure of every organ to bone growth and classification, it was a plethora of information that appeared to be still valid after over eighty years. While it was slow at first, it did seem to pick up a bit after the first few chapters.

Halfway through the book I realized why the text had a familiar feel to it – the dissection of the rabbit was written in a way not unlike an automobile repair book. Every single piece of tissue was described along with what it fits into and what fits into it. Once that was clear, it made following the descriptions a bit easier by conjuring up visual cues. I now feel confident that if someone were to give me a pile of rabbit parts I would be able to assemble a working rabbit in much the same way I rebuilt my old Fiat Spider as this text was a shop manual for the mammal.

How hard could it be?
All in all, this book turned out to be one of the hardest reads to come out of the Biblio-Mat and one would be hard-pressed to find someone reading this without the fear of a mid-term or final providing motivation.

Book rating: 4/10 (Might as well be reading a dictionary)

Random quote: “At the dorsal border of the ischium, in front of the ischial tuberosity, it receives the lateral caudal and internal pudendal veins.” (I’m an English major and understood less than 20% of these words)

Monday, September 2, 2013

W35: The Driftwood Book

When I walked into the Monkey’s Paw this week I noticed a familiar book on one of the tables:
So we meet again...
As you might recall, a few weeks ago I had received a book called Wood’s Natural History and jokingly remarked that I was worried theBiblio-Mat had given me a book about wood, since the very subject just screams awe and excitement. With that at the back of my mind, I put my two dollars into the machine only to have it pop out this:

Popular enough for a second round.
Printed in 1966, The Driftwood Book by Mary E. Thompson had a nice retro feel to it from the cover design to the interior layouts and paper quality. Filled with over a hundred and sixty photographs, it was quite a visual book. Sadly, outside of the vibrant dustjacket, the interior 244 pages were all black and white, even though the descriptions below the photos pointed out the colour schemes and pairings that make the piece work.

Either that or I'm selectively colourblind.
The Driftwood Book started off with a foreword that talked about the art of driftwood arranging but somehow switched to the importance of having an amazing photographer halfway through, which was a bad sign not unlike a cookbook talking about how to make the pictures look good more than the actual preparation of food itself.
The first section covered how one would obtain the driftwood, followed by the preparation of the wood, then the art of creating a piece, and finally accenting it with other elements. For a book that marketed itself as a tutorial book, though, there was very little instruction given on how to actually arrange pieces. 

Every other piece had small Chinese figures.
There were a few bits on design theory as well as current trends and creative freedoms but it was greatly lacking on how to actually build a piece. Focusing on the photos of the author’s work, The Driftwood Book seemed to believe in case studies more than exercises. That or the author just wanted a platform to showcase her work.

Captures the essence of the abandoned lot.
Nonetheless, I decided to follow the information in the book to create my own piece of driftwood art, section by section.

Part 1 – Acquiring the driftwood

According to the book, the best places to find good driftwood were ocean beaches. Living in Ontario, this was not an option. The book described lakes as decent sources, but only in late fall or early winter due to water conditions. It also advocated sawing and hacking off interesting looking exposed tree roots, which I feel is against the spirit of “driftwood” art, and environmental conservation for that matter.

After walking up and down the beach at Polson Pier, I realized the pickings were slim at best. There were a lot of branches and logs but not a lot of driftwood and definitely none of the interestingly shaped ones shown in the book. I ended up picking up the least slime-covered piece that wasn’t harbouring parasites. Extremely lightweight with a patina that could be best described as dirt-covered, I settled with the notion that it looked like it could have one-time been in the water. In hindsight I should have gone to the island.

Then again, “getting wood” has a different interpretation on the island.
Part 2 – Preparation

The preparation phase was a bit easier. Soap, warm water, and an old toothbrush cleaned up the driftwood along with other pieces of materials that was picked up at the beach – a piece of brick and some clippings shrubbery by the beach. Using a utility knife, I followed the book’s instructions of trimming away all the parts of the wood that didn’t look like art.

The piece of brick surprisingly turned out to be red after washing.
Part 3 – Assembly

In this section, The Driftwood Book provided guidelines on: 

Framework: The piece should flow with the shape of the driftwood.
Scale, proportion, balance: The elements used should not look out of place.
Use of different materials: Should compliment or contrast without clashing.
Accessories: Figures are good. Chinese figures are better.

As the book suggests, I tried two different setups. The first arrangement:

Figure 1.
For this piece, I wanted to capture the seemingly unnatural lines that occur in nature as this piece of driftwood had a grain that ran almost ruler straight. Flanked by the red man-made brick and the still green unmodified branches, the lightly trimmed driftwood bridges the two aspects of nature that are constantly at odds with each other - man versus wild. The slight tilt upwards symbolizes progress in that the more we build the further away we move from the land.

The second arrangement:

Figure 2.
I just wanted to use the Thor figure.

Book rating: 5/10 (Not that useful or pretty)

Random quote: “I have found three things to be most pertinent to the art of flower arranging, and especially to driftwood arranging. They are creative imagination, courage and freedom of expression.” (1 and 3 are related, 2 not so much)