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book review: the triumph of human empire

I’m reading more nonfiction this year and stuff like The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams is why. I mean, this is a good justification for the trend unlike the dopey baseball book I also just read (but that gave me the difference between a 2-seam and a cut fastball in a way that feels like it’ll stick, so maybe I’m too harsh).

Williams compares the writing and other work by Jules Verne, William Morris and Robert Louis Stevenson with the frame of how the three felt about and responded to the massive shift in how the world worked at the end of the 19th century when Earth’s maps were getting filled in and human empire was everywhere. Williams argues that these writers were sensitive to the idea that the imperial west and its technology was now on its way to pushing up against each other more and more and relying on interconnections and brutality in dealing with those connections. Density was going to build and things were going to get much more complicated and these three wanted to resist the way things were going. Williams doesn’t make them unvarnished heroes or anything; they were still privileged white dudes and were racist and sexist and otherwise problematic in their own ways, especially in regards to colonialism.

The idea that we’re now in a similar kind of era, when we’re anxious about the end of the world through climate change and that it’s something we caused because we couldn’t stop digging coal out of the ground so we could cross huge distances easily, made the whole thing hang together really well. It’s clearly written and doesn’t plod. It’s also nice to have words for some of what I love about Verne and science fiction in general (the distancing mechanisms for the heroes in his geographic romances). I didn’t know as much about Morris or Stevenson, but I was glad to learn.

I had to get this as an interlibrary loan, because our public library doesn’t seem to grab random University of Chicago Press books, but hooray for the interconnected apocalypse we live in where it was possible to snag.

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book review: ultralight bike touring and bikepacking

My girlfriend and I are thinking about bike-touring more. Since we’re librarians that tends to mean research. One of the books that has thus found its way to our coffee table is Justin Lichter and Justin Kline’s guidebook Ultralight Bike Touring and Bikepacking.

The idea of going on a bike trip with pretty minimal stuff is very very appealing to me. I don’t like schlepping non-book stuff around and I like going places. So I’ve been reading a lot of blogposts about this kind of stuff, and not a lot was completely new. The bike models they talked about and the wheel-sizes and the companies making the bike equipment were all things I was familiar with. One of the people from Rivendell bikes was in here, which I appreciated since they make machines I dearly covet (my present to myself when I hit 40 will probably be a ridiculously pretty bike like a Hunqapillar).

One thing that made this book better than the blogposts was that it felt a little less manipulated for ad-dollar page-views. I mean, the writers talked about specific products probably about the same amount that a bike-blogger does but it feels different in pages somehow. And the fact that they have contributors talking about foraging for food on the side of your trail and taking less stuff makes me get my hackles up a bit less when they’re praising certain ultralight tarps (’cause tents are heavy luxuries).

There’s a lot in this book that could be ridiculous to follow along with too closely. It’d be easy to work too hard at being some sort of perfect ultralight gram-counter, and yeah it’s promoting a certain kind of consumerism that’s trying to be something more than it is. But in general, I liked this book, especially in the practical aspects of what to pack in your frame bag and what to sling behind your seat. And they say Tajikistan would be a good place to ride it.

book review: rocannon’s world

Rocannon’s World is another Ursula K Le Guin paperback (I told you I recently bought a trove of these things). This one is a science fiction story about Rocannon, a high tech surveyor of planets and cultures, who gets trapped on a primitive world when the high tech enemy destroys his ship and crew. He and some stalwart companions must voyage across half the planet to find the enemy’s faster than light radio to get a message out to his allies. So yeah, it sounds like a basic colonial quest narrative.

What I loved about it was the long prologue, which is about a princess from one of the poor scrabbling cultures who travels to the stars to reclaim a treasure the colonialists stole from her ancestors. When she returns with the jewel, the vagaries of lightspeed travel mean that it was all for nothing and everyone she loves is dead. I love this because it puts the reader first in the head of the people who live on this world, and what their concerns are, before moving to the great scientific hero who must lead the primitives to save them from themselves.

Also, the quest is much more of a fantasy story than a technological one. Rocannon has an impermeable suit of protection, but he carries no weapons. At one point he is burned at the stake for days because his captors don’t understand it and think him magical, but he wins that confrontation by standing without water for that time, which is killing him just as surely (though slower).

The climax is a little anticlimactic, but I liked the book as a whole.

storytime review: chu’s day, stop snoring bernard & mattoo let’s play

This week I hosted two preschool visits to the library on consecutive days. They were the same adults but different kids (mostly – a couple were there both days). I liked that arrangement because I got to directly fix things that went less well the first time through.

So here are the books I used. Neil Gaiman’s new picturebook Chu’s Day was our opener (after our welcome to storytime rhyme). It worked well with both groups, who really got into the “Ah ahhh ahhhh… No.” conceit. The only problem is that the “bad things that happen” probably require a bit closer examination to really admire the art. And the ending seems to leave kids wanting more.

I tried using Never Take A Shark to the Dentist the first time, because the cover was really attractive to the kids. The book ended up being a little high-concept for 3-4 year olds, but it was super easy to skip pages when that became apparent.

Stop Snoring Bernard worked really well in both groups. I got the kids to help with the snoring noises and in each group someone had one of those Cosby moments when they told everyone about one of their family members who snored. They also got to name some zoo animals, which helped keep everyone involved.

We did Shapes That Roll in the first session, but it was our last book and I think it would have played a bit better with more time to really get into all the shapes and explore them a bit. As it was we just kind of went with the rhyming.

In today’s session I replaced a couple of the less well-received books with a couple about trying very hard to be quiet. Mattoo, Let’s Play is about a loud little girl with a pet cat who forms a bond once she learns that some animals are best attracted by being quiet. We also did Read to Tiger which is about a tiger being very distracting when you’re trying to read. Everyone had fun making the loud distracting noises.

We did a dinosaur song both sessions it all worked out pretty well. Even the kid who was mad he wasn’t there to see a puppet show was unsullen at the end (that could have been because he was finally able to leave).

I’m going to try doing a few more of these types of storytime post-mortems because of something I took away from Miss Julie’s blog post where she mentioned:

In a profession that’s supposedly dominated by women, I find it sad that the librarians who get the most attention are mostly men (and, admittedly, some women), men who very rarely write about honest, simple, day to day issues in librarianship.

She goes on to discuss how technologists get all the “rockstar” status in our profession and no one cares about the bloggers who write practical things about doing the feminized work of dealing with kids. Since I’m guilty of writing the odd impractical technology rabblerousing bit, I want to make sure I’m also blogging some of these more practical day-to-day things too. It’s part of that whole advocacy for the importance of libraries and librarians thing to show that the non-technological stuff is important too. So here we go.

Helpdesk 01 by Peter Cuhalev on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/skatey/3489345666/ shared under a CC-BY-NC-2.0 license

i left my heart at the refdesk

Helpdesk 01 by Peter Cuhalev on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/skatey/3489345666/ shared under a CC-BY-NC-2.0 license

Helpdesk 01 by Peter Cuhalev on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/skatey/3489345666/ shared under a CC-BY-NC-2.0 license


The last in a short series of posts where I talk about what exactly I do in my new job as a Children’s and Youth Librarian.

The best part of my job isn’t telling stories to preschoolers, surprisingly. It’s sitting at the information desk for people to ask me questions. As I see it my job is out on the desk, and anything that isn’t directly helping people find what they’re looking for is just killing time till the next question.

Helping people find books we have or placing holds on books that are at a different branch is the quick stuff. I also place Inter Library Loan requests when our branches don’t have items. That’s when people have specific books they’re looking for.

Sometimes people have questions about more specific things that we don’t have books about, like “How do I make a fire the way First Nations people used to?” or “What should I look for in an HDTV?” For those kinds of things I get to be a bit more of a librarian superhero and find a decent website or use our databases to find and print off an article from some magazine. Most of our patrons are not used to the modern research process so I get to do the balance between finding things for people and teaching them how to use resources a bit more efficiently. And after a few months in this job there are members who come by to chat because we’ve used the internet to figure out the bus schedules in Prince George and Powell River together.

Plus, the info desk is where I get to be the resident technology wizard. I spend 20 minutes helping members set up their Kobos to work with the library’s ebooks. I help people with the arcane ridiculous process to print documents and show people alternate ways to share NFL videos when the Email button stops working.

These are the tasks I missed the hell out of when I was in library school and not working a refdesk. And I’m glad I get to do them now, rather than being locked away in an office. Even now I spend about 20% of my work week in the office and it makes me itch. There’s a bit of a perception, in our branch at least, that when it’s quiet or you’re in the office you can get some work done. In my head that’s not the work I’m a librarian to do.

Now, I like doing programs, and programming is what employers want (in public libraries at least). If program planning (including storytimes) was cut out of my job I’d be disappointed. If my on-desk time was excised I’d have to find a new job. This is just too much of what being a librarian is to me. Eventually this may prove to be my undoing career-wise since it seems like on-desk time is the first thing you lose when you get promoted in libraryland.

But I’ll deal with that if it comes. For now I’ll be helping answer questions like I was born to do.

book review: wizzywig: portrait of a serial hacker

WIZZYWIG is Ed Piskor’s comic about a hacker named Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle. It tells the story of how he grew up and learned to become a phone phreaker and scammed long distance companies and became a fugitive hunted by the FBI.

It’s an interestingly told story because Phenicle is a fictional amalgam of all the famous hackers of the 20th century (or he at least knows them a la Forrest Gump). The way he’s interwoven with the real history (including the Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, which was my personal introduction to how governments can freak out about hacking) makes it feel very real. It also helps that Piskor is a guy who’s drawn historical work before (including Harvey Pekar’s The Beats).

So yes, a well-told story that is a good jumping off point for further research of how hackers actually did things (as opposed to their portrayal in ’90s movies about cyberspace). And in the end the parallels to Wikilieaks and Bradley Manning contemporizes it nicely. Well-done.

book review: terminal world

Terminal World is another one of these Alastair Reynolds books that reminds me why I read him sporadically. There are neat science fictiony adventurous ideas in his books but the writing makes me clench my teeth. No one behaves in a neurotypical fashion: everyone’s dialogue is clichés or exposition-speak. It feels more like the transcription of a bunch of socially-awkward 14-year-olds role-playing. Which is a shame because the plot and setting would be pretty spiffy if it was described by someone with a bit of flair for language.

It’s thousands of years in the future, on what appears to be Mars, even though everyone calls it Earth (I think that’s supposed to be clever, to show that they’ve forgotten they were once colonists). In the giant spire city of Spearpoint there are different zones of technology, from the Celestial levels where the angels who can fly and are filled with nanotech live, down to Neon Heights and Horse Town. These zones aren’t just stylistic; the rules of physics are different in each zone, making the technology from a higher zone cease to function in lower ones. It’s a pretty clever idea that gets developed as the story goes on, and is a good excuse for energy weapons and dirigibles to coexist.

Quillon is on the run from the angels so he’s heading out of Spearpoint for a while. He has a guide and they rescue a woman and child who will “change the world forever” (of course). There’s nothing really surprising that happens in the book. And the prose is boring. But it would make a pretty good RPG setting to play in.