Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Create-to-order children's books; used books; and an online "book bank" to encourage literacy

I still get pestered about why I am not more aggressive in pushing my books as “commodities”, which might help others make money.  My “Do Ask, Do Tell” series does lend itself to development of other media, including music, screenplays, and film.  It’s true that the “upward affiliation” psychology in my material might lead to less than happy endings for some people. But there are ideas that so far little explored in more adult film.  How would society really handle a public alien encounter or landing? (Yes, there is “Close Encounters”, “Contact”, and now Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”, while “Rendezvous with Rama” is still stuck in early development.) How would people live together in family units or communities for generations on a space ark going to another planet? (There is the film “Evacuate Earth”, cf blog Aug. 20, 2013, which doesn’t say much about the voyage once it starts.)

I get a lot of emails with “childrens’ books” for review, which I usually don’t do (and some literary agents don’t work with them).  There’s a clever entrepreneurial idea of generating a print-on-demand book for a child where the child finds his or her name based on animals he or she meets, or his or her home from a space voyage based on various information about his hometown specified by parents.  It’s “Lost MY Name” Personalized Children’s Books.   The company has taken on the obvious responsibility for protecting PII of children (which can run into COPPA considerations; see my COPS blog Oct. 27, 2015).  Hayley Tsukayama has a story on the company on p. A11 of the Dec. 29 Washington Post on the Switch Blog here.
Then check Michael S. Rosenwald in Sunday’s Post, “Paper is back: In the age of Amazon, secondhand shops are thriving and opening around the nation”. There was an indie film in 2000, “Book Wars” by Jason Rosette, related to this topic.  I can remember back in the 1970s, one of the founders at the Ninth Street Center ran a bookbinding business somewhere in the East Village.

There is a charity in Washington DC, “First Book”, which aims to provide books to underprivileged children and promote literacy.  The Washington Post has a story Monday Dec. 28 Lyndsey Layton, “Binding publishing, philanthropy” with a hyperbolic back page byline
“There’s a profound need that is really unprecedented”  First Book manages an “online book bank” that sounds like an analogue to a food bank. It’s hard to see how real this is.  Back around 2011, Reid Ewing made a short film mockumentary satire on wanting things in life to be free with a setting in a public library where “It’s Free” (access to books), but there was no sense of how valuable this might become to some people.  In late 2014, I remember seeing an athletic looking undergraduate on the Metro in the GWU area with a case of textbooks and reading “A History of Philosophy”, recalling my days in Minneapolis when a philosophy major at Hamline helped me promote by own first book. But we had a “book bar” at Dan Fry’s Understanding conventions in Arizona and California throughout the 1970s.

A librarian, Amy McLay Pteerson in Halifax, Nova Scotia writes in Vox, "I read 164 books in 2015 and tracked them all on a spreadsheet; here is what I learned." Publishing is dominated by white people, and fiction does teach empathy?

Oh, how I remember that first day of high school sophomore English class in 1958, when we saw in hardcopy the “good books” we would read like “Julius Ceasar” and “Silas Marner”.  In ninth grade, it has been “The Three Musketeers” translated to English (even though I was taking French I). Nevermind, we read most of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” in twelfth grade French.

Update: Jan. 18, 2016

While in southern Maryland today (MLK Day), I saw a sign for "Book People Unite" or "Reading Is Fundamental".  I'm not sure how the group actually works.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Are We Alone?" NatGeo asks and tells in a new glossy booklet

I’ve reviewed a few books on cosmology here, but I wanted to note the National Geographic magazine-sized book “Are We Alone? And Other Mysteries of Space”, edited by Bridget A. English, available in a lot of supermarket checkout lines.

The book has an Introduction and five major sections.

The most immediately interesting part is its evaluation of the likelihood of our finding life on alien worlds (the first section is “Strange New Worlds”).

The book maintains, surprisingly, that life could exist in the high atmosphere of Venus (still) and atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. In general, it sees the finding of methane on Mars as an indication of a pretty good likelihood of some sort of bacteria-like subterranean life.  It gives some hope to the idea of finding something in subsurface oceans on Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Enceladus, maybe Titan, but dismisses the idea of life on the surface of Titan, the only moon in our Solar System with a thick atmosphere, quite interesting as it is (with proto-organic compounds) but too cold.

It explains the Drake Equation to estimate the number of planets with life in our Galaxy, but the range of expected numbers of lifelines runs from less than 1 (us) to over 70,000.  An argument favoring life however, is that it arises under extreme circumstances on Earth and that intelligent species (like primates and cetaceans) can evolve separately and converge to have similar cognitive skills.

The booklet also tries to define life.  Is a virus alive?  What about a fire, since it can grow and consume?  Could processes that form and destroy stars involve their own form of consciousness?
The rest of the book gets into matters like dark matter or energy, black holes, the nature of gravity, sub-atomic particles and their relation to forces in physics, quantum mechanics, and space-time. The booklet accepts a relatively conventional theory behind black holes (which some physicists now say may not exist at all, but then what?)  You could wander into a sufficiently large and massive black hole and not notice that anything had happened until it was “too late”.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Taylor Wilson is "The Boy Who Played with Fusion" (by Tom Clynes)

Authors: Tom Clynes (and Taylor Wilson)

Title: “The Boy Who Played with Fusion

Subtitle: “Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star” (pun)

Publication: New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Eamon Damon Books, 2015; ISBN 978-0-544-08511-4; hardcover, 303 pages (plus 5 roman Introduction pages); four parts, 29 chapters, indexed.
also, e-book and audio format are available.

The cover of the book is yellow – the brightest color, in the center of human visible spectrum, because Taylor likes the uranium compound mix called yellowcake (the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 mystery “Notorious.”

Taylor isn’t just a “brain”, but he is very good working with his hands “in the lab” – something I was not, when I encountered college organic chemistry in the fall of 1963.  By age 14, he had built his first fusion reactor near the family home, relocated to the Reno, Nevada area so that he (and brother Joey) could attend the Davidson Academy.  (See Issues blog, Nov. 7, 2015 and TV blog, report by Sanjay Gupta on the Academy, Dec. 6.)

I’ll leave readers to go through the book (or look up on Wikipedia) to meaning of fusion and fission.  Clynes discusses Taylor’s gradual accumulation of hardware and the chemistry and physics or his experiments in great detail.  Often Taylor is in yellow protective clothing (in the book and Internet pictures, and in videos).

Yes, Taylor literally created a star of plasma (the fourth state of matter and most common in the universe) in his garage.  One wonders, could he create a black hole or wormhole?  Is this the first step in playing god?  It seems the natural progress of the universe (if there is intelligent design from a creator) for new independent conscious lives to form, with free-will, that will try to master creation on their own.

Clynes does discuss the safety issues, and it is more “legal” to acquire these raw materials than one might think. It’s easy to imagine the potential security problems in housing them.

Taylor, 21 now, and often speaking in Ted talks and at all kinds of events, has apparently “skipped college” and with the help of investors like Peter Thiel (maybe Mark Zuckerberg but not Donald Trump) started laying out his plans for innovation, including the necessary patents (which apparently have to be secured early).

His ideas touch many areas.  He wants to make the electric power grids safer (more resilient from cascading failures, which could be caused by cyberterror, as in Ted Koppel’s book Nov. 10) by providing electric utilities with the ability to build small backup fission reactors, which he says could have prevented the disasters in Japan after the tsunami in 2011.  He wants to improve screening of cargo by Homeland Security with newer devices that don’t depend as much on very rare materials (like an unusual isotope of helium). The book, by the way, goes into some detail on how interdependent we are on other countries (from Canada to China) to get the rare minerals that new green power sources will require.  Clynes spends some space on the dirty bomb threat and believes Taylor’s ideas could make a future incident much less likely. The also has ideas for innovation in nuclear medical (especially cancer) diagnosis, which may be in some part inspired by Jack Andraka.  The book describes his “loss” to Jack in the “Science Fair Superbowl” in 2013.  (Jack’s book is reviewed here March 18.)

Clynes gives a lot of space to the education of gifted children, including Taylor and his brother Joey (described as more introverted), who could be compared to the Andraka brothers, or Param Jaggi. Clynes discusses Malcolm Galdwell's earlier writings ("Outliers", Nov. 27, 2008) that include, with a moral perspective, life circumstances and luck (even birth order or time of year) as to the opportunity to make the most of one's gifts.  But Taylor’s capability to make stuff requiring intricate knowledge and manual skill is so amazing that one wonders if he acquired the knowledge in a past life.  (One of his videos seems to give a subtle hint.)  It sounds like a pretty good deal, to trade in a 90 year old body and start adulthood again at 14 (after a short respite in the Afterlife at the appropriate Focus Level).  Maybe there is a way to have a  21-year-old body forever (drinking age), or 25 (car rental age).  But the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) gets in the way. Hence, biological life must reproduce.
If you can make a fusion reactor, can you possibly make a black hole?  Then could you generate a universe and become a god?

The book describes his attempts at relationships, and gradual improvement in personal life.  Like Jack Andraka, he reminds quite articulate and charismatic in public appearances.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

NatGeo: "Strange But True: Secrets of the Supernatural Revealed": Best article is one about near-death experiences

National Geographic offers an interesting supermarket gloss paperback, “Strange, but True: Secrets of the Supernatural Revealed”, 112 pages, edited by Bridget A. English.

The three sections are “Animals, Myths and Monsters”; “Sci-Fi, Folklore and Ghost Stories”; and “Ancient Legends and Sacred Places”.

I’ll mention a few articles of most interest to me. The tone of the articles that most "strange" phenomena do have natural explanations within known science if we look hard enough.
One is “Are we on the brink of a zombie apocalypse?”  The article notes that the rabies virus is capable of inducing zombie-like crazed behavior as the brain is destroyed. Mutation to create new zombie viruses is practically very unlikely. However, the behavior of some people belonging to cults seems almost zombie-like.

“The truth behind alien life on Mars” looks at the significance of methane found there.  Volcanism stopped on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago, so that enhances the likelihood that the methane has an organic source.  But there are inorganic processes involving strong sunlight (in a thin, dry atmosphere) that might explain it.

The article “It’s a UFO, It’s a Bird, It’s a … Cloud” examines the odd-looking holes in cirrus clouds with rainbows inside.  They could be caused by aircraft inducing short-lived snowstorms (not reaching the ground) high in the atmosphere when flying through it.

One of the most interesting is “Looking deeper into near-death visions”. The article notes that as someone passes away, carbon dioxide accumulates in the brain.  Although most people have never reported NDE’s, most NDE cases seem to relate to periods where CO2 accumulated.  However a very few may be different, such as Eben Alexander’s (March 30, 2013) where he had a long-lasting NDE (starting in a blank “Core”) when supposedly completely brain-dead from massive meningitis. There are good arguments in physics that suggest that consciousness somehow continues, possibly as part of a “group”.  There’s the logical observation that it is impossible to conceive of not “existing”.  Some observers note that the brain may be able to function for several hours after the heart stops, which could argue that family members need to stay present and accompany the departing person.  The person may know he or she has passed, and the sense of passage of time (since time is a flexible concept in physics) may be distorted and seem to take infinitely long.    

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The physical hardcover and softcover book is still alive and well, thank you

Will physical books go out of fashion because of e-books (Kindle, Nook) and video?

Someone might have asked a question like this in the 80s when audio-books became more popular.  I even recall, when living in Dallas, a friend’s going to a day-long seminar in Waco learning how to promote them!

Nearby, a home has a yard sign “This family is reading with Arlington Public Library”.  Yes, actually going there physically and checking out books (where, “It’s Free”).

There’s another wrinkle to mention, and that is that since 2000 or so, the Library of Congress has paid attention to whether a new book is likely to be purchased by most local public libraries for collections.  Print-on-demand usually is not, so since then most POD books have not gotten catalogue entries there.

I can remember the protocols, back around 1960 or so, as a high school student writing a term paper, the issue of interlibrary loans, and getting on the bus to go downtown (DC) to the main library (near Mount Vernon Place) because I couldn’t find enough at the local county library.

And there was a preference for hardcover, basically because of durability among many uses, as well as more cover art.

Slate has an article in 2013 by Katie Arnold-Ratliff, explaining that publishers see e-books as a boon compared to paperbacks, because used e-books can’t be sold.  Geekwire has a 2015 story explaining why paperback has rebounded.

Quora has a discussion of paper v. hardcover here.

On Sept. 26, 2014, Jim Milliot wrote in Publisher’s Weekly that hardcover and paperback together still outsell e-books, link here.

I recently broke my Kindle on a trip and replaced it with a newer model --- and Amazon refreshed it for free.  I find the newer one, with fewer buttons, less easy to use, actually (even if it’s fast).   A few books are available only on Kindle, and it’s a great way to get classic novels (like Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi, or even high school literature stuff) for almost nothing.

Over the years, I've tended to prefer to have paper copies of books, particularly if they have illustrations, have complicated content-structures, or are long.  I typically use a printed index to fund stuff again, and sometimes make hand-written notes before doing a review, on the inside cover.  I'm not likely to pimp them at used-book sales (but I know a lot of people do).

All of this relates to pressure on me in recent months from POD publishers to push sales of my own books specifically in retail stores.  In my case the Kindle and Nook prices are much cheaper than even the paper.  It’s easy for me to encourage people to buy Kindle (at $3.99), but not to buy a 2000 non-fiction policy book in paper at $27.95 (it doesn’t appear to be discounted on Amazon right now, although it sometimes has been).  (My third book is available in hardcover, for $29.95, and hardcover is a must these days with libraries, I have found.)   And, frankly, my kind of content, with its “moralizing”, doesn’t tend to become popular quickly. “Writing to Sell” is a whole topic in itself (and that’s a book by Scott Meredith, literary agent, 1996, from Writer’s Digest).  Some of it is “Write what other people want.”  This whole idea has long been controversial, and was especially so with a NWU group in Minneapolis that I used to attend around 2002-2003.