Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

May 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dotPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan

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I read something recently about Carl Sagan and atheism. I always suspected he was adamantly atheist, but it turns out that he avoided labeling himself as such. In short, Sagan’s position was that he didn’t have enough evidence to say God didn’t exist, so he couldn’t say for certain that he wasn’t. Those close to him said that he was as close to atheist as one could get without using the word, but that he didn’t do so tells us a lot about how he viewed the world — with evidence.

Pale Blue Dot seems, to me, to focus heavily on atheism. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy (if you haven’t read it, look it up; it’s freely available on the web) strongly suggests it, and Sagan himself dances around the idea that there is no God, even though he never comes straight out and says so. He looks at how our Solar System developed, how life developed on Earth, and how we’ve explored the Solar System, all from a very humanist, look-what-we’ve-accomplished perspective. Most of the book is Sagan explaining how we explored and examined our Solar System, but the first two chapters take a very careful, affirming look at atheism.

As much as I enjoyed learning about the other planets and how we explored them, I found myself missing the historical, philosophical perspective Sagan brought to science through Cosmos. Where there is history to discuss, Sagan does so, but it’s not on as grand of a scale as it is in his most famous book. We learn of the search for life in the Solar System, the highs and lows of discoveries and failures, and the persistence of humanity to want to get the answers to the question, “What’s out there?”

Four years ago, when we landed Philae on comet 67P/Churyamov-Gerasimenko, I said to some co-workers, “Humanity just landed a science lab on a comet traveling over 41,000 miles per hour, over 317,000,000 miles from Earth.” I was excited and inspired, seeing what the combined intellects of so many people from so many different countries could accomplish, and it was probably as close as I’ll ever get to a religious experience. One doesn’t need religion to feel inspiration or affirmation; sometimes we can get it from our major accomplishments. This, I think, is what Sagan is telling us through Pale Blue Dot.

Started: March 16, 2018
Finished: March 28, 2018

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Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher

May 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixSix Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher by Richard P. Feynman

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About twenty years ago, I read Feynman’s two memoirs based on a co-worker’s recommendation. He led an interesting life, enough so that even when he came across as self-serving, it was still hard to resist his anecdotes. Since I’ve started listening to science audiobooks, I figured it would serve me well to listen to some of Feynman’s lectures. Six Easy Pieces seemed like the place to start.

On the one hand, the best way to absorb these lectures is by listening to them. You get to hear Feynman himself, complete with his sense of humor and somewhat irreverent approach to science, and you can hear the sound of the chalk when he sketches something on the blackboard. On the other hand, you discover that Feynman was a very fast talker, and you don’t get to see the sketches he makes on the blackboard. It doesn’t help that the first lecture had deteriorated so much by the time they produced the audiobook that digital recovery was almost impossible, making the audio muddy and difficult to hear.

It’s also interesting to discover just how Feynman sounded. He was articulate and knowledgeable, of course, but he also had a thick New York accent that belies his appearance and background. I think I’m too used to folks like Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, people who have worked to develop a public personality as well as a scientific background, to expect that to be how Feynman sounded. I don’t want to say it detracts from the subject matter, but I did get pulled out of the lecture whenever I heard him say “yuman”.

Along with Cosmos and A Brief History of Time, Six Easy Pieces is a classic of scientific literature. It doesn’t delve as deeply into some concepts covered in those books, but since these lectures were from a Physics 101 class, it’s hard to fault Feynman for not going into more detail. Given in 1961, the lectures are dated in some ways, but what makes this book important is seeing how Feynman taught these difficult subjects. He taught them without complexity, giving examples that were easy to understand. Hearing excerpts from those lessons tells us a lot about science and about Feynman himself.

Started: March 12, 2018
Finished: March 15, 2018

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A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes

May 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

timeA Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen W. Hawking

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I’m not going to lie: I was a little intimidated going in to this book. I had thought about reading it years ago, back when I started to get an understanding of relativity, and I put it off, knowing it was going to be dense and nigh-incomprehensible. Some twenty years later, having listened to two books about astrophysics, I decided to give it a go. As an audiobook.

Surprisingly, the book wasn’t as dense as I expected. I think it helped that I had listened recently to the books by Tyson and Sagan, but I had a pretty good understanding of the concepts Hawking covered in the book. There were a few chapters that eluded me (I think I’m going to need to read a whole book on quantum physics before I get a good grasp of it), but for the most part, I felt comfortable with the content. It was a good mix of familiar and challenging.

I was less impressed with Hawking’s obsession with who won which award, how often he collaborated with his graduate students, and how frequently he disproved other scientists. He comes across as petty and arrogant. I know Hawking is a smart man, and I know he’s accomplished a lot, but I prefer science books that talk about past theories and accomplishments, not the personal tally of the author. Neither Tyson nor Sagan came across that way, despite them both having (and discussing!) their own successes, so it’s definitely a personality thing, not a content thing.

In the later chapters, Hawking focused on his own theories almost exclusively, to the point where it felt like he was jumping to conclusions based on what I thought were some tenuous theories. Granted, I don’t spend all of my time thinking about theoretical physics, but it felt like Hawking was too eager to accept his own theories. As much as he admits changed in as little as ten or twenty years in the field, I would have expected him to show some more skepticism.

Also, the narration of the audiobook was strange, in that it sounded like it was recorded all in one take, without breaks or edits. The narrator stumbled over the pronunctiation of some words, slowed down at some words, as if he were sounding out the word, and there was even one moment where he was supposed to say “sixteen”, but started out saying “nineteen”. I don’t know if the production was pressed for time, or was low budget, or what, but it doesn’t sound professional.

If you’re interested in space and time and the science of both, A Brief History of Time is a book to read. I’m not sure I would recommend it as an audiobook, partly because of the sloppy narration, and partly because the concepts might be better absorbed through reading. If I have to make the choice between this and Cosmos, though, I’d definitely go with Cosmos. Not only is it more approachable, but its scope is also far more interesting.

Started: March 1, 2018
Finished: March 6, 2018

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Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

May 1, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cosmosCosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan

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Cosmos is 38 years old this year. A lot has happened in astrophysics since 1980, enough so that I was somewhat concerned that parts of the book would be dated. They are, but the good thing is Sagan doesn’t write from a purely technological or scientific perspective in this book. For each concept he presents, he puts it into a historical and philosophical perspective to show not just how far we’ve come since the original scientific thinkers, but also how much alike we are with them.

Take, for instance, space travel. Sagan likens the modern-day scientists creating vessels to traverse the cosmos to people like Christopher Columbus, who weren’t content just to settle for what was immediately around them. They felt the need to travel, to explore, to send themselves into the unknown to find what was there, and how it might affect our own lives. Columbus’ legacy hasn’t aged well into more progressive times, but that desire to journey, to discover, existed then, and it exists now.

The entire book — all thirteen chapters of it — takes this approach. Like Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (in retrospect, I listened to these books out of order), the book avoids digging into a lot of math and instead focuses on concepts. Sagan takes the approach a step further, though, by delving into history. We learn of the ancient Ionian intellectual revolution, we learn of the Library at Alexandria, and Eratosthenes, the Greek thinker who calculated the circumference of the Earth, along with its axial tilt, to a remarkable degree of accuracy, over two thousand years ago. It’s a brilliant approach to modern science, and it makes the book relevant now, almost forty years after its first publication.

I would recommend this book to anyone. Science and space enthusiasts will enjoy it the most, but Sagan’s approach to science makes it easy to understand the ideas behind complicated theory. He discusses these topics with a great passion, and LeVar Burton, the narrator, brings that passion across in his narration. This book would make an excellent primer into science and space, as well as make a valuable read for anyone already familiar with some of the topics of discussion.

Started: February 15, 2018
Finished: February 28, 2018

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

April 26, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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DOES WHAT IT SAYS ON THE BOX.

To wit, the book tells you pretty much everything you need to know about astrophysics. It tells you about the Big Bang, black holes, quantum mechanics, relativity, and anything else you could think about physics as it applies to the universe. Tyson avoids talking about math and formulae, focusing instead on the concepts instead of the proof. It’s a great introduction to astrophysics, though I wonder if it will prepare the reader enough to make the leap to, say, A Brief History of Time.

I listened to the audio edition of the book, narrated by the author, and it was a fun listen. Tyson has a fun charm, which carries over to how he narrates the book. For me, Carl Sagan will always be “my” astronomer, just because of my age, but Tyson does a great job relaying the larger points of his science, delivered in short, easily-understood chunks. It’s a perfect book for people who look at the title and think, “Hey, that’s me!”

Started: February 7, 2018
Finished: February 12, 2018

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Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film

April 23, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

fiendSilver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt. I find that people either love or hate him. He’s outspoken, ascerbic, and unrelenting, but he’s also loyal, apologetic, and self-deprecating. It’s an odd mix of characteristics, but they help to put me firmly on the “love” side of that spectrum. This was my first foray into his memoirs (on audiobook, narrated by Oswalt, which was a huge plus), and I can say that I’ll likely listen to the rest of them.

Silver Screen Fiend is his second memoir, and focuses on his rise as a comedian, actor, and person, told against the backdrop of a self-destructive obsession with movies. If you don’t know much about movies before going into this book, don’t worry: Patton will fill you in. For several years in his formative career, he was obsessed with becoming a filmmaker, enough so that he watched as many movies as possible. Armed with his movie reference guides, he pored over the history of film, finding esoteric movies at small theaters, studying techniques and styles like they were providing him life. His knowledge of classics, modern and old, is extensive, and his love of the entertainment comes through in the book.

The thing is, an obsession with watching films doesn’t equate into making them, and the more Oswalt watches films, the less he finds himself making them. In fact, for the entire time of his life he covers in this book, he doesn’t make a single film. He continues to rise as a comedian, and even gets bit parts in movies, classic and otherwise, but he never achieves the dream he had for himself for so long. That, to me, is the point of the book: Do what you say you want to do, and don’t get caught up in the research.

Silver Screen Fiend is a book that will appeal to fans of Oswalt, fans of film, and anyone who has ever let an obsession with something override the desire to do that very thing. I regret that I didn’t start with his first memoir, but I’ll definitely add it to my audiobook list.

Started: February 5, 2018
Finished: February 7, 2018

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Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor

January 23, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) ()

chinHail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell with Craig Sanborn

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Have you read If Chins Could Kill? If not, then this book isn’t for you. It picks up where that book concludes, telling the second half of Bruce Campbell’s career as a B-Movie actor. Starting here would be unwise, since the bulk of what made Bruce Campbell a B-Movie star is covered in that book.

Also, if you haven’t read If Chins Could Kill, then you’re missing out on an entertaining yarn. It’s not the most well-written memoir on the market, but it’s honest, self-effacing, and a little bit egotistical (in other words, it’s Pure Bruce). Hail to the Chin is written in that same style, complemented with the snarky pictures that made his previous book even more entertaining. It focuses on his life as an Oregonian home-owner, his time making Burn Notice and The Man with the Screaming Brain (among other, lesser-known shows and movies), and takes us up to the revival of Evil Dead with the Starz show Ash vs. Evil Dead. It is, true to its subtitle, further confessions of what it takes to be a B-Movie actor.

Do yourself a favor and read this book, but only if you’ve already read If Chins Could Kill. If you haven’t do yourself an additional favor and read that book first.

Started: October 29, 2017
Finished: November 2, 2017

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Faces of Fear: Encounters with the Creators of Modern Horror

November 10, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

facesFaces of Fear: Encounters with the Creators of Modern Horror, edited by Douglas E. Winter

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The main reason I wanted to read this book is because I had recently finished Blackwater by Michael McDowell, and I saw he was featured as one of the authors interviewed for the book. McDowell wasn’t a public figure during his lifetime, and what I found about him online was slim, so I thought this would give me better insight into his life and his writing. Sure, there were other authors in there I’ve read, but it was McDowell who was the anchor for me.

Winter interviewed seventeen authors for the book, ranging from the masters (Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson) to the new kings (Stephen King and Clive Barker) to the popular (V.C. Andrews and William Peter Blatty). The interviews provide some insight, but, similar to any other anthology, the result is a mixed bag of personalities, some of whom are more interesting than others.

The book was published over thirty years ago, so almost half of the authors profiled here are dead, and the other half are made up of authors who even at the time didn’t write horror anymore (Blatty and John Coyne). When I think of who I was thirty years ago, I’m embarrassed, and I wonder if the still-living authors look back at these interviews without cringing.

Clive Barker’s interview struck me as the most removed. He exudes this kind of excitement over the perverse, giddily showing Winter a book of autopsy and medical photos and reveling over Winter’s disgust. Barker’s fiction at the time reflected that excitement, but his later and more recent fiction is a departure from that kind of splatterpunk. I’m not sure if he wishes to distance himself from who he was then, but I’ve seen him in interviews where he’s more constrained and less effusive about the dark, so it’s interesting to see him that way.

Conversely, I found myself annoyed at the authors who spoke negatively about horror and tried to distance themselves from the genre. Andrews, Coyne, Blatty, and Dennis Etchison all wanted to paint themselves as above the juvenelia of horror, even though their success depended on it. Even now, I look at what horror was and is, and find myself wanting more than just graphic violence, so I get it, but it put me off that in a book about horror, they want to wave their hands and present themselves as being too good for it.

Winter noted in his foreword that he didn’t ask a pat set of questions of the authors, but he did seem to want to learn more about the authors’ childhoods and their views on religion. Some of them, if you know the authors, is expected (Matheson’s revealed his woo-woo beliefs, and Whitley Strieber’s were such that it’s no surprise he went on to believe he was abducted by aliens), but others downplayed the role either play in their fiction. Ramsey Campbell’s story, though, is a clear influence on his fiction; his foreword to The Doll Who Ate His Mother would make an outstanding horror novel all on its own.

The big stars (Barker, King, and Peter Straub) were likely the draw for most readers, but even by the time the book was published, King was a huge public figure. He had filmed his American Express commercial, directed Maximum Overdrive, and starred in Creepshow by then, so most people already knew his story. Winter’s interview seems superfluous and redundant, but at the same time, he couldn’t have done this book without including him. The most telling part of the interview, though, is when he jokes about taking cocaine, since we now know that this era was when he was almost constantly coked up and drunk.

Another highlight for me was Charles L. Grant, who I’ve rediscovered and appreciate. It’s sad, though, to realize how much of a lech he was. I had an idea he was like that through his stories, but a large part of his interview is a rant against feminism where he embraces his own sexism without recognizing it as such. Yes, it’s partly the era and time of the interview, but it was held at the Playboy Club, and he even notes how other people will criticize him for going in just to look at the pictures and the women. It’s even more disappointing when you look at his fiction and see all the strong women there.

I can appreciate this book for giving me more of an insight into the authors I admire, but it still serves as a reminder to never meet your heroes. Few of the authors in the book are ones I would consider heroes (only one, Alan Ryan, was a complete unknown to me), but the arrogance and dismissals I found in a lot of the interviews put me off. This is an important book for fans of ’80s horror, but it should be read with a grain of salt. At the very least, readers should look at the interviews as products of their time.

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The Book of Lists: Horror

November 6, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

listsThe Book of Lists: Horror, edited by Amy Wallace, Del Howison, and Scott Bradley

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Things I wanted from this book: A list of horror novels I ought to read.

What I received from this book: 60% lists about movies, 15% lists about television shows, 10% lists about music (wut?), and 15% lists about books (10% of which were about what horror authors thought of the movie adaptations of their books).

On the one hand, I did get a list of books (ten of them); on the other hand, I spent a lot of time reading about movies I’ll never want to see. (Some of the list writers were a bit too excited about the level of graphic violence in the movies.) Had this been more then 99 cents, I’d be even more annoyed than I am with this book.

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How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records

August 30, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

ruinHow to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records by Larry Livermore

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I read Kevin Prested’s Punk USA, and was surprised to see that Larry Livermore was absent from the interviews included in the book. How could someone write a book about Lookout! Records without including Larry? Was it because he had removed himself from the label, or didn’t want to look back on what it had become? No, it turned out that he was writing his own book about his time at the label, and didn’t want to duplicate his thoughts. So of course once I finished that book, I had to move on to Larry’s.

If you want to know about the bands and the shows and the tours and the releases, Punk USA is the better book to read, because Livermore’s story is more personal. It makes sense — Prested was looking at the story from the perspective of a journalist, while Livermore is writing a memoir — but the two books pair well together. It’s still hard to tell if the two books comprise the complete story of Lookout! (there are a few contradictions between the two books, and the heroes and villains are portrayed differently), but together they tell a lot more than what a casual fan would already know.

Livermore tells his story in a self-effacing manner, mostly in the way he tells about the conflicts he had with other people on the label. Tim Yohannon and Ben Weasel get as much attention in Livermore’s book as they did in Punk USA, but Livermore relays his feelings with an amount of respect. He admires the people as much as he criticizes them, which isn’t always evident in Punk USA. Prested himself avoids comment, but those he interviews have some choice things to say. I preferred Livermore’s telling of those stories, just because it praised as well as criticized.

Strangely, the key moment of the book — when Livermore decides to leave the label — is told differently in each book. The way Livermore tells it, Chris Applegren came to Livermore when he was ready to have a legal intervention over a disparagement with Ben Weasel (Livermore stresses that it wasn’t suing, even though it was perceived as such) and basically gave him an ultimatum: Drop the proceedings or I quit. Instead, Livermore himself quit and let Applegren take over the label.

It’s clear that Livermore has fond memories of the label and its scene, even as he has no regrets over the decisions he made. As he sees it, the label’s focus changed after he left, similar to how Sub Pop changed when Bruce Pavitt left, and that’s ultimately what led to its downfall. It’s hard to say if Livermore staying on would have prevented the label’s demise (though the way Livermore tells it, it would have), but he does tell the story with reserved judgment. For that part of the story, he’s on the outside looking in, and his hindsight is 20/20.

The most remarkable piece of the story is in his postscript, where he writes about art and the scene and nostalgia, and sums it up in a beautiful way. Livermore is a talented writer, and his poignant look to the past and future is an effective way to wrap up his story. Prested’s book gives a better picture of the label overall, but Livermore’s memoir tells the story the way a biography can’t. They’re inseparable works, and anyone interested in the label and its history should read both books.

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