Category Archives: On the Bookshelf

weeds galore

Here is a lavishly illustrated new book:  WEEDS OF THE SOUTH.  Published by the University of Georgia press, this looks like a highly reputable reference work. Which is deliciously ironic, because the subject matter is rather disreputable.

The English language has amazing names for weeds.

  • Lesser Swinecress.  What a name!  Presumably pigs find it tasty.  It’s a native of Europe.
  • Daisy Fleabane.   It’s native to North America.
  • Annual Fringerush.
  • Crowfootgrass.
  • Shattercane.
  • Blessed Milkthistle.
  • Henbit.  Cute little purple flowers.  Originated in Eurasia.
  • Beaked Cornsalad, a North American member of the Valerian family.
  • Purple Deadnettle.  It’s a relative of henbit.
  • Jimsonweed a.k.a. Purple Thornapple.
  • Bitter Sneezeweed.
  • Catchweed Bedstraw.
  • Clammy Groundcherry.  This belongs to the nightshade family, other members including Horsenettle, Silverleaf Nightshade, (ahem) Nipplefruit Nightshade,  and Hairy Nightshade.   Most of this family is prickly, toxic, or both.
  • Nightflowering Catchfly.
  • Morningglories – a pretty name for delightful plants (although my friend who grew up on a farm weeding these out of the corn field would disagree.)  Well, well, well.  Here is one called  Cypressvine Morningglory.  Mom used to have this in her front yard.  She said it was called Cypress vine;  it atttracted  hummingbirds.   I’m glad to know more about this nice little vine!
  • Common Chickweed a.k.a. starwort and winterweed.  It’s a native of Eurasia.  Under Toxic Properties, the book says “None reported.”  I certainly hope not – I’ve had this stuff in a salad.
  • London Rocket a.k.a. London Hedgemustard.  So that’s what the mystery weed  in my front porch planter last year was!

Klingon on the New Book Shelf

Just added to the Rice University Library’s collection:  a Klingon translation of Hamlet by Wil’yam Shex’pir (sic!)

The Klingon Hamlet was published by the Klingon Language Institue in 1996 and evidently reprinted by Pocket books in 200o.  The  trade paperback has Shakespeare’s English on the left-hand pages, and the Klingon translation  on the right-hand pages.  The cover illo is a rufflle-collared Klingon holding up a skull with a ridged forehead….


I like working in a library.  You meet the most interesting books.  Here’s another one:  Enough:  Breaking Free From the World Of More, by John Naish (London:  Hodder & Stoughton, 2008.)  Naish is a journalist for The Times.  Contrary to the stereotype of the adrenaline-addicted, hyper-connected modern journalist, he and his wife opt for voluntary simplicity of life, and in this book he advocates that all of us  do  exactly that.  With more of everything than we can ever use, enjoy or afford, he says, we urgently need to develop a sense of ‘enough.’  Not that it’s easy.  In the first place, our brains evolved in the Pleistocene when avidly seeking all things novel and edible was a survival tactic.  And:  “we are girdled by multimillion-(dollar) industries that use an ever-growing array of overt and hidden persuaders to get us to want things, work for things, and buy more of them.”

Naish breaks our surfeit down into categories:  Information, Food, Stuff, Work, Options, Happiness, and Growth.  I’m still in the Information section  and enjoying the read.  Naish writes well, and as  a palliative to our plight in which more and more has become way too much, he recommends steps to take.  Here’s his advice on digital infotainment:

“The only sane alternative (to 24/7 multi-channel consumption of entertainment) is to create your own enoughist policy.  Many of us already try to do this by imposing a quality threshold – namely, the ‘I don’t watch crap’ rule.  But quality is such a slippery thing, and the gravitational pull is always downwards.  Anyway, what’s wrong with slumming it in front of some junk every now and then?  Instead we can take a much more pragmatic approach to infotainment by appeciating its true nature and enjoying it for what it is – a pleasurable yet habit-forming, mind-altering and potentially depressing substance that is evermore cheaply abundant.  This description may sound rather familiar.  It’s just like alcohol.  Treating infortainment with the same cautious hedonism that we employ with booze offers a sustainable answer, because we are at least already practised at this approach. Amid all the headlines about binge drinking, the vast majority of us manage to use alcohol to lighten our lives without completely lacerating our livers.”

Never thought of it that way.  Not a bad comparison at all.

Connecting Copyright and Love

“Jaron Lanier, 49, is many things — composer, performer, computer scientist, philosopher — but one thing he is not is a machine. His book You Are Not a Gadget, published this year, compels readers to take a fresh look at the power — and limitations — of human interaction in a socially networked world. ” – Dan Reed in Time Magazine’s 2010 list of 100 people who most effect our world.  Below is a poignant excerpt from You Are Not a Gadget.

What Makes Liberty Different from Anarchy Is Biological Realism

The open culture crowd believes that human behavior can only be mod­ified through involuntary means. This makes sense for them, because they aren’t great believers in free will or personhood.

For instance, it is often claimed by open culture types that if you can’t make a perfect copy-protection technology, then copy prohibitions are pointless. And from a technological point of view, it is true that you can’t make a perfect copy-protection scheme. If flawless behavior restraints are the only potential influences on behavior in a case such as this, we might as well not ask anyone to ever pay for music or journalism again. According to this logic, the very idea is a lost cause.

But that’s an unrealistically pessimistic way of thinking about people. We have already demonstrated that we’re better than that. It’s easy to break into physical cars and houses, for instance, and yet few people do so. Locks are only amulets of inconvenience that remind us of a social contract we ultimately benefit from. It is only human choice that makes the human world function. Technology can motivate human choice, but not replace it.

I had an epiphany once that I wish I could stimulate in everyone else.  The plausibility of our human world, the fact that the buildings don’t all all down and you can eat unpoisoned food that someone grew, is immediate palpable evidence of an ocean of goodwill and good behavior from almost everyone, living or dead. We are bathed in what can be called love.

And yet that love shows itself best through the constraints of civilization, because those constraints compensate for the flaws of human nature.  We must see ourselves honestly, and engage ourselves realistically, in order to become better.

Technical Absurdities

Here’s another instance of scan-to-gibberish in a chapter title from Jaron Lanier’s 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, followed by completely intelligible points he makes in the subsequent paragraphs.

an apocaLypse of seLF-aBDicanon  (Make that:  An Apocalypse of Self-Abdication)


“The Singularity is an apocalyptic idea originally proposed by John von Neumann, one of the inventors of digital computation, and elucidated by figures such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil…  In some versions of the story…. the internet itself comes alive and rallies all the net-connected machines into an army to control the affairs of the planet. Humans might then enjoy immortality within virtual reality, because the global brain would be so huge that it would be absolutely easy—a no-brainer, if you will—for it to host all our consciousnesses for eternity.

“The coming Singularity is a popular belief in the society of technolo­gists. Singularity books are as common in a computer science depart­ment as Rapture images are in an evangelical bookstore.

“(Just in case you are not familiar with the Rapture, it is a colorful belief in American evangelical culture about the Christian apocalypse. When I was growing up in rural New Mexico, Rapture paintings would often be found in places like gas stations or hardware stores. They would usually include cars crashing into each other because the virtuous dri­vers had suddenly disappeared, having been called to heaven just before the onset of hell on Earth. The immensely popular Left Behind novels also describe this scenario.)….

“The difference between sanity and fanaticism is found in how well the believer can avoid confusing consequential differences in timing. If you believe the Rapture is imminent, fixing the problems of this life might not be your greatest priority. You might even be eager to embrace wars and tolerate poverty and disease in others to bring about the conditions that could prod the Rapture into being. In the same way, if you believe the Singularity is coming soon, you might cease to design technology to serve humans, and prepare instead for the grand events it will bring.

you  aRE hot   a  gaDset  (the hapless scanner’s rendering of the book’s title in the chapter header with its eccentric font)

“But in either case, the rest of us would never know if you had been right. Technology working well to improve the human condition is detectable, and you can-see that possibility portrayed in optimistic sci­ence fiction like Star Trek.

“The Singularity, however, would involve people dying in the flesh and being uploaded into a computer and remaining conscious, or people simply being annihilated in an imperceptible instant before a new super-consciousness takes over the Earth. The Rapture and the Singularity share one thing in common: they can never be verified by the living.”

Technical Difficulties

This is an amazing book.

Lanier, of Virtual Reality fame, slams a) the rampant digitization of everything;  b) the quasi-religious impulse on the part of some digerati to anticipate a Rapture-like upload of human minds into digital existence;  c) the open, information-wants-to-be-free approach to creativity, along with the popularity of mashing up existing creative artifacts – books, movies, photos – into new, derivative works;  d) Google’s goal of digitizing every book it can grab,  e) Net anonymity that breeds trollishness, and f) numerous other errors and sins of computer culture.  Along the way he debunks the idea that creators can make a living with digital distribution.  He did a survey of musicians and found precious few who made any kind of money with digital distribution!   This does not bode well for authors.

At the same time, Lanier  has insightful, occasionally wistful, hopeful, and profound observations about technology and life.  The book transcends screed.  It’s one to read and heed.

Yesterday I scanned some pages of You Are Not a Gadget into Word.   My purpose was to put a few of Lanier’s choicest pages into my files for further study and easily quote a paragraph elsewhere, like here.   The scanner I used is a wonderful piece of tech:  it readily scans books and magazines and converts them into PDF, Word, jpeg, or tiff, and you can e-mail the results to yourself by touching your e-mail address into an alphabet touch screen or save to flash drive.  The scanner is a good instance of digital technology being highly and almost magically useful.

Interestingly, the scanner had trouble converting Lanier’s book to Word.  The book has atypical chapter and page header fonts and an offbeat approach to sidebars – so the Word version of the pages had some really odd glitches:

you  aRe  nox  a  gangeT


bll HaiL THe MeMBRane

__ ..,„,.. , ,e,i.!Mm.,„^u^.–l garage to bring the entire human story to a

THe nODSPHeRG IS JUST anoTHeR hbme for eveRyone’s inneR troll

THRPB WclRniri95 have been presented in the pre­vious chapters,

«The alternative to wide-open development is not neces-_,warily evil. My guess is that a i”poorly* encapsulated com- • munal gloop of organisms lost but-to closely guarded

‘species on the,”primordial Earth for the same reason that-the Linux community didn’t come up with- the iPhone: encapsulation serves ^ a purpose.-   ,


The Shallows

This is an emphatic book – not quite strident, but assertively thought-provoking.  It insists that computers and the Internet undermine the human mind’s ability – hard won ever since the advent of the printing press and wide-spread literacy – to pay deep and reflective attention.  The book is The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (W. W. Norton, 2010.)  His thesis may be overstated, especially in attributing deep, sustained, and reflective attention primarily to reading.  After all, native peoples with oral traditions, craftsmen, and ascetics have always practiced  intense attention.

But I think Carr is right when he says that computers and especially Web surfing have a destructive effect on attention.  He laments the “permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life.”  He’s right about that! He accuses the Net of being a nexus of ‘interruption technologies’.”  I can’t quibble with that assessment.  I’ve watched myself flit around the Net and respond to e-mails that interrupt excursions on the Net that have interrupted something I should be  concentrating on….  Carr’s provocative book has me re-examining my Net habits.  Fortunately, I’ve never fallen into the habit of Net-surfing while writing, and I’m not going to let that camel get its nose in the tent of my vocation.

Carr isn’t sanguine about e-books either.  I hope he’s wrong, but this what he asserts:

“When Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, introduced the Kindle, he sounded a self-congratulatory note:  ‘It’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as a book and improve on it.  And maybe even change the way people read.’  There’s no ‘maybe’ about it.  The way people read – and write – has already been changed by the Net, and the changes will continue as, slowly but surely, the words of books are extracted from the printed page and embedded in the computer’s ‘ecology of interruption technologies’.”

Making Rounds with Oscar

When somebody may be suffering from Alzheimer’s,  neurologists and geriatricians administer certain cognitive tests.  Some of these tests are devastatingly simple.  One such test asks  the patient to draw a clock face when the time is 2:45.  People with Alzheimer’s are very likely to draw a clock with the short hand on 2 and the long hand between 4 and 5.

I learned this in a remarkable little book.  Making Rounds with Oscar (Hyperion 2010) was written by David Dosa, a geriatrician who works in a nursing home in Rhode Island.   Oscar is a tabby cat who also works in the nursing home. . . a resident companion animal along with several other animals and birds.  (Enlightened nursing home!)  Oscar has a unique talent.   He knows when somebody is dying.  He  goes and stays with them until the end, whether they are all alone or surrounded by grief-stricken loved ones.

This is a helpful, healing book about Alzheimer’s,  the end of life, and the mysterious connections between people and pets.  The savory irony is that Dr. Dosa is not a cat person.   He never gets to the point of doting on  Oscar – but he comes to respect the reality of the comfort Oscar brings to the dying and their loved ones.


brave new word

From an article in a prediction that academic libraries will soon have less to do with curating physical materials, and more and more to do with digital resources; that e-books and e-journals are poised to turn librarians into e-sherpas; and that instead of being ensconced at the traditional Reference Desk, librarians will be embedded in academic departments.  And that these embedded librarians will be (in fact at Johns Hopkins University Medical library, they already are) called informationists.