Category Archives: book review

“Innovation and its enemies” and “Science in Wonderland”: a commentary on two books and a few thoughts about fish (1 of 2)

There’s more than one way to approach the introduction of emerging technologies and sciences to ‘the public’. Calestous Juma in his 2016 book, ”Innovation and Its Enemies; Why People Resist New Technologies” takes a direct approach, as can be seen from the title while Melanie Keene’s 2015 book, “Science in Wonderland; The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain” presents a more fantastical one. The fish in the headline tie together, thematically and tenuously, both books with a real life situation.

Innovation and Its Enemies

Calestous Juma, the author of “Innovation and Its Enemies” has impressive credentials,

  • Professor of the Practice of International Development,
  • Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Better Science and International Affairs,
  • Founding Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi (Kenya),
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and
  • Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Even better, Juma is an excellent storyteller perhaps too much so for a book which presents a series of science and technology adoption case histories. (Given the range of historical time periods, geography, and the innovations themselves, he always has to stop short.)  The breadth is breathtaking and Juma manages with aplomb. For example, the innovations covered include: coffee, electricity, mechanical refrigeration, margarine, recorded sound, farm mechanization, and the printing press. He also covers two recently emerging technologies/innovations: transgenic crops and AquAdvantage salmon (more about the salmon later).

Juma provides an analysis of the various ways in which the public and institutions panic over innovation and goes on to offer solutions. He also injects a subtle note of humour from time to time. Here’s how Juma describes various countries’ response to risks and benefits,

In the United States products are safe until proven risky.

In France products are risky until proven safe.

In the United Kingdom products are risky even when proven safe.

In India products are safe when proven risky.

In Canada products are neither safe nor risky.

In Japan products are either safe or risky.

In Brazil products are both safe and risky.

In sub-Saharan Africa products are risky even if they do not exist. (pp. 4-5)

To Calestous Juma, thank you for mentioning Canada and for so aptly describing the quintessentially Canadian approach to not just products and innovation but to life itself, ‘we just don’t know; it could be this or it could be that or it could be something entirely different; we just don’t know and probably will never know.’.

One of the aspects that I most appreciated in this book was the broadening of the geographical perspective on innovation and emerging technologies to include the Middle East, China, and other regions/countries. As I’ve  noted in past postings, much of the discussion here in Canada is Eurocentric and/or UScentric. For example, the Council of Canadian Academies which conducts assessments of various science questions at the request of Canadian and regional governments routinely fills the ‘international’ slot(s) for their expert panels with academics from Europe (mostly Great Britain) and/or the US (or sometimes from Australia and/or New Zealand).

A good example of Juma’s expanded perspective on emerging technology is offered in Art Carden’s July 7, 2017 book review for Forbes.com (Note: A link has been removed),

In the chapter on coffee, Juma discusses how Middle Eastern and European societies resisted the beverage and, in particular, worked to shut down coffeehouses. Islamic jurists debated whether the kick from coffee is the same as intoxication and therefore something to be prohibited. Appealing to “the principle of original permissibility — al-ibaha, al-asliya — under which products were considered acceptable until expressly outlawed,” the fifteenth-century jurist Muhamad al-Dhabani issued several fatwas in support of keeping coffee legal.

This wasn’t the last word on coffee, which was banned and permitted and banned and permitted and banned and permitted in various places over time. Some rulers were skeptical of coffee because it was brewed and consumed in public coffeehouses — places where people could indulge in vices like gambling and tobacco use or perhaps exchange unorthodox ideas that were a threat to their power. It seems absurd in retrospect, but political control of all things coffee is no laughing matter.

The bans extended to Europe, where coffee threatened beverages like tea, wine, and beer. Predictably, and all in the name of public safety (of course!), European governments with the counsel of experts like brewers, vintners, and the British East India Tea Company regulated coffee importation and consumption. The list of affected interest groups is long, as is the list of meddlesome governments. Charles II of England would issue A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses in 1675. Sweden prohibited coffee imports on five separate occasions between 1756 and 1817. In the late seventeenth century, France required that all coffee be imported through Marseilles so that it could be more easily monopolized and taxed.

Carden who teaches economics at Stanford University (California, US) focuses on issues of individual liberty and the rule of law with regards to innovation. I can appreciate the need to focus tightly when you have a limited word count but Carden could have a spared a few words to do more justice to Juma’s comprehensive and focused work.

At the risk of being accused of the fault I’ve attributed to Carden, I must mention the printing press chapter. While it was good to see a history of the printing press and attendant social upheavals noting its impact and discovery in regions other than Europe; it was shocking to someone educated in Canada to find Marshall McLuhan entirely ignored. Even now, I believe it’s virtually impossible to discuss the printing press as a technology, in Canada anyway, without mentioning our ‘communications god’ Marshall McLuhan and his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Getting back to Juma’s book, his breadth and depth of knowledge, history, and geography is packaged in a relatively succinct 316 pp. As a writer, I admire his ability to distill the salient points and to devote chapters on two emerging technologies. It’s notoriously difficult to write about a currently emerging technology and Juma even managed to include a reference published only months (in early 2016) before “Innovation and its enemires” was published in July 2016.

Irrespective of Marshall McLuhan, I feel there are a few flaws. The book is intended for policy makers and industry (lobbyists, anyone?), he reaffirms (in academia, industry, government) a tendency toward a top-down approach to eliminating resistance. From Juma’s perspective, there needs to be better science education because no one who is properly informed should have any objections to an emerging/new technology. Juma never considers the possibility that resistance to a new technology might be a reasonable response. As well, while there was some mention of corporate resistance to new technologies which might threaten profits and revenue, Juma didn’t spare any comments about how corporate sovereignty and/or intellectual property issues are used to stifle innovation and quite successfully, by the way.

My concerns aside, testimony to the book’s worth is Carden’s review almost a year after publication. As well, Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the federal government of New Zealand, mentions Juma’s book in his January 16, 2017 talk, Science Advice in a Troubled World, for the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

Science in Wonderland

Melanie Keene’s 2015 book, “Science in Wonderland; The scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain” provides an overview of the fashion for writing and reading scientific and mathematical fairy tales and, inadvertently, provides an overview of a public education programme,

A fairy queen (Victoria) sat on the throne of Victoria’s Britain, and she presided over a fairy tale age. The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented interest in fairies and in their tales, as they were used as an enchanted mirror in which to reflection question, and distort contemporary society.30  …  Fairies could be found disporting themselves thought the century on stage and page, in picture and print, from local haunts to global transports. There were myriad ways in which authors, painters, illustrators, advertisers, pantomime performers, singers, and more, capture this contemporary enthusiasm and engaged with fairyland and folklore; books, exhibitions, and images for children were one of the most significant. (p. 13)

… Anthropologists even made fairies the subject of scientific analysis, as ‘fairyology’ determined whether fairies should be part of natural history or part of supernatural lore; just on aspect of the revival of interest in folklore. Was there a tribe of fairy creatures somewhere out thee waiting to be discovered, across the globe of in the fossil record? Were fairies some kind of folks memory of any extinct race? (p. 14)

Scientific engagements with fairyland was widespread, and not just as an attractive means of packaging new facts for Victorian children.42 … The fairy tales of science had an important role to play in conceiving of new scientific disciplines; in celebrating new discoveries; in criticizing lofty ambitions; in inculcating habits of mind and body; in inspiring wonder; in positing future directions; and in the consideration of what the sciences were, and should be. A close reading of these tales provides a more sophisticated understanding of the content and status of the Victorian sciences; they give insights into what these new scientific disciplines were trying to do; how they were trying to cement a certain place in the world; and how they hoped to recruit and train new participants. (p. 18)

Segue: Should you be inclined to believe that society has moved on from fairies; it is possible to become a certified fairyologist (check out the fairyologist.com website).

“Science in Wonderland,” the title being a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, was marketed quite differently than “innovation and its enemies”. There is no description of the author, as is the protocol in academic tomes, so here’s more from her webpage on the University of Cambridge (Homerton College) website,

Role:
Fellow, Graduate Tutor, Director of Studies for History and Philosophy of Science

Getting back to Keene’s book, she makes the point that the fairy tales were based on science and integrated scientific terminology in imaginative ways although some books with more success than other others. Topics ranged from paleontology, botany, and astronomy to microscopy and more.

This book provides a contrast to Juma’s direct focus on policy makers with its overview of the fairy narratives. Keene is primarily interested in children but her book casts a wider net  “… they give insights into what these new scientific disciplines were trying to do; how they were trying to cement a certain place in the world; and how they hoped to recruit and train new participants.”

In a sense both authors are describing how technologies are introduced and integrated into society. Keene provides a view that must seem almost halcyon for many contemporary innovation enthusiasts. As her topic area is children’s literature any resistance she notes is primarily literary invoking a debate about whether or not science was killing imagination and whimsy.

It would probably help if you’d taken a course in children’s literature of the 19th century before reading Keene’s book is written . Even if you haven’t taken a course, it’s still quite accessible, although I was left wondering about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and its relationship to mathematics (see Melanie Bayley’s December 16, 2009 story for the New Scientist for a detailed rundown).

As an added bonus, fairy tale illustrations are included throughout the book along with a section of higher quality reproductions.

One of the unexpected delights of Keene’s book was the section on L. Frank Baum and his electricity fairy tale, “The Master Key.” She stretches to include “The Wizard of Oz,” which doesn’t really fit but I can’t see how she could avoid mentioning Baum’s most famous creation. There’s also a surprising (to me) focus on water, which when it’s paired with the interest in microscopy makes sense. Keene isn’t the only one who has to stretch to make things fit into her narrative and so from water I move onto fish bringing me back to one of Juma’s emerging technologies

Part 2: Fish and final comments

Book announcement: Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny

The book has a pretty cover (carbon nanotubes in the left corner, nanoparticles? next, and a circuit board to complete the image),

NanowerkBook_NanoFutureIsTiny

The book, written by Michael Berger, publisher of the Nanowerk website, was announced in an Aug. 31, 2016 Nanowerk Spotlight article (Note: Links have been removed),

“Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny” puts a spotlight on some of the scientists who are pushing the boundaries of technology and it gives examples of their work and how they are advancing knowledge one little step at a time.

Written by Nanowerk’s Michael Berger, this book is a collection of essays about researchers involved in all facets of nanotechnologies. Nanoscience and nanotechnology research are truly multidisciplinary and international efforts, covering a wide range of scientific disciplines such as medicine, materials sciences, chemistry, biology and biotechnology, physics and electronics.

Here’s more about the book before I comment on the marketing (from the Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny webpage on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s website),

Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny introduces 176 different research projects from around the world that are exploring the different areas of nanotechnologies. Using interviews and descriptions of the projects, the collection of essays provides a unique commentary on the current status of the field. From flexible electronics that you can wear to nanomaterials used for cancer diagnostics and therapeutics, the book gives a new perspective on the current work into developing new nanotechnologies. Each chapter delves into a specific area of nanotechnology research including graphene, energy storage, electronics, 3D printing, nanomedicine, nanorobotics as well as environmental implications.

Through the scientists’ own words, the book gives a personal perspective on how nanotechnologies are created and developed, and an exclusive look at how today’s research will create tomorrow’s products and applications. This book will appeal to anyone who has an interest in the research and future of nanotechnology.

Publication Details
Print publication date: 30 Aug 2016
Copyright: 2016
Print ISBN: 978-1-78262-526-1
PDF eISBN: 978-1-78262-887-3
EPUB eISBN: 978-1-78262-888-0
DOI:10.1039/9781782628873

According to Berger’s description of his book (from the Aug. 31, 2016 Nanowerk Spotlight article),

Some stories are more like an introduction to nanotechnology, some are about understanding current developments, and some are advanced technical discussions of leading edge research. Reading this book will shatter the monolithic term “nanotechnology” into the myriad of facets that it really is.

Berger has taken on a very challenging task for a writer. It’s very difficult to produce a book that will satisfy the range of audiences described. Appealing to a different audience in each chapter is probably the only way to approach the task.  I think the book may prove especially useful for someone who’s more of a beginner or intermediate because it lets you find your level and as you grow in confidence you can approach more challenging chapters. The mystery is which chapters are for beginner/intermediates?

A rather interesting marketing strategy has been adopted, which has direct bearing on this mystery. The publisher, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), has made some material available for free (sort of). There is no direct charge for the Front Matter, the Preface, the Table of Contents, or Chapter 1: Generating Energy Becomes Personal but you do need registration to access the materials. Plus, I believe they’re having a problem of some kind as the same information was accessed each time I clicked whether it was on the Front Matter, the Preface, or the Table of Contents. As for Chapter 1, you will get an abstract only.

You can purchase chapters individually or buy the hardback version of the book for £66.99 or the full ebook (EPUB) version for £200.97. Chapter 2: No More Rigid Boxes—Fully Flexible and Transparent Electronics (PDF) is available for £28.00. The pricing seems designed to encourage hardback purchases. It seems anyone who only wants one chapter is going to have guess as to whether it was written for an expert, a beginner, or someone in between.

Depending on your circumstances, taking a chance may be worth it. Based on the Nanowerk Spotlight articles, Berger writes with clarity and understanding of his subject matter. I’ve found value even in some of his more challenging pieces.

Oscar of Between: a commentary

Whether it’s a piece of visual art, a musical performance, a dance performance, a theatrical performance, or a work of literature, material which comes from the soul deserves a degree of vulnerability and a willingness to confront the self from its reviewer.

Written by Betsy Warland, ‘Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas’ seems as much a geography as it is a memoir.  Given that ‘in’ prefaces the word ‘between’ almost always the title ‘Oscar of Between’ draws attention to itself . The ‘of’  calls to mind naming conventions where geography (or place) play a role, Catherine of Russia, Henri IV of France, the Earl of Essex, and so on. Like Oscar, Catherine and her ilk also have a given name. In any event, the title seems to be notice that the author is staking a claim on her territory, a place called ‘between’. The allusion to geography doesn’t stop there, throughout the memoir there are  diary-like entries which include dates and places. The contrast between concrete locations such as Vancouver, Iowa, Berlin, etc. and the imaginary location ‘between’ is dislocating and there is more to come.

Oscar/Betsy maps a number of themes including but not limited to androgyny, camouflage, art and lies, war and violence, and recognition for one’s work.

Oscar brings to the forefront a disconcerting and delicately handled discussion about sexual identity where one is neither/nor. She is a lesbian who’s had a son but is frequently identified by others as a man (in part due to flat chest from a double mastectomy). What does it mean to be androgynous or perceived to be androgynous? There is no answer as this memoir is an exercise in geography, that is, exploration and naming followed by more exploration.

The war and camouflage themes make their appearances early on. Of course, war is part of the author’s name, Warland, and, as it turns out, a visit to one of the Imperial War Museum’s 2007 exhibitions in London inspires Oscar’s interest in camouflage and one of themes for this memoir.

While zoological and botanical camouflage occur in nature, Oscar’s focus is on military camouflage some of which has been designed by artists bringing thoughts of art and lies. (Before moving further with that, it bears noting camouflage, a form of deception, is about ‘seeing without being seen’, a description of sorts for the artistic process.)

Getting back to lies, early on in the book there’s a quote from the most famous literary Oscar in the English language, Oscar Wilde,

The final revelation is that lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art. (p. 21)

A reference to her own then unfinished essay, “Narrative and the lie,” is made on the previous page and when taken in conjunction with the quote appearing shortly after the question arises is anything in this memoir true? What is the lie or where are the lies?

It’s possible there are some factual lies in this memoir but the little I do know about the author that was mentioned in this work was factually correct.

There is other ways for a writer to lie. In one’s pursuit of the ‘truth’ there are many inchoate revelations that can only be inadequately put into words and sentences. In short, by trying to pin down the inchoate with words, you’re left with a partial truth at best.

Further, efforts to get the complete truth on the page can render it incomprehensible. (As a technical writer I once wrote up a process precisely and in complete detail then asked someone else on the team to read it. After, the other technical writer looked me and said something like this, “I didn’t understand anything.” I went back and edited out most of the detail so the description was no longer as accurate or complete but hopefully more helpful to the users.) There are lies of omission and commission and sometimes writers lie both ways.

In keeping with the military camouflage motif, Oscar’s foray into war and violence makes unheralded and unexpected appearances throughout much of the narrative which ranges from spare poetic lines and imagery to a denser style of text seeming to reflect an interplay between silence and communication and between feelings and ideas.

Throughout the work there is an emphasis on observation and questioning over explanations and experiential descriptions. Certainly, that’s how Oscar treats the issue of recognition. There are no recriminations or rants about why an artist with Warland’s body of work is not included in certain conferences and, until relatively recently, has never been awarded a Canada Council grant.

Ironic that a writer who wishes to see rather than be seen wants recognition. (The desire to see without being seen is true of all writers  who must always hold some part of themselves in reserve so they may observe the action for future reference.)

There are contradictions and ironies throughout ‘Oscar of Between’ some of which results in a kind of wry humour. There is also a sense of a distanced compassion perhaps most strongly conveyed by the pauses or silences (the white space between the lines) in the sections with sparse text. It’s those things which don’t fit so well, the descriptions of societal violence which give this memoir it’s dynamism.

For a memoir concerned with lies, camouflage, war and violence, and more, it is strangely contemplative. I do recommend reading it but be prepared to go down some unexpected byways and for a haunting experience which may end when you have finished reading.

Other reviews and commentaries

March 29, 2016 review by Julie R. Enszer for lambdaliterary.org

April 18, 2016 review by Julie R. Enzer for Gay Sonoma.com (not identical to her March 2016 review for Lambda)

April 20, 2016 review by Maree for Autostraddle.com

More Oscar from Betsy

Betsy Warland is hosting an Oscar’s Salon on her website where she invites other artists and writers to ruminate on ‘Oscar of Between’ (keep scrolling down to get to individual entries).

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of the memoir and was taken out to lunch.

Science, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes

GrrlScientist (Guardian science blogs) has written a review of a Sherlock Holmes book published last year in her Jan. 22, 2014 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

Breathless with anticipation, I breezed through a fun little treatise by James O’Brien, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics [Oxford University Press, 2013; …]. This book is an absorbing and scholarly exploration of the history of the science and forensics described in the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were written more than 100 years ago by Scottish physician and writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Written by an avid “Sherlockian” and emeritus chemistry professor from Missouri State University, this book shows that the fictional Sherlock Holmes characters, their stories and their crime-solving methods are all based in reality. …

….

I particularly enjoyed the history of using fingerprints to identify individuals, how fingerprint analysis became a science and how this new science inspired and informed the development of searchable databases containing millions of individual fingerprints. According to the author, this database provided investigators with the evidence — sometimes within seconds — necessary to resolve cases that had lingered for many years. Professor O’Brien also places fingerprint technology into its historical context, mentioning that fingerprints were recognised as unique identifiers as early as 3000 BC by the ancient Chinese and by the Babylonians in 2000 BC. …

The chapter on chemistry — Holmes’ first love — was, of course, quite good. Amongst the topics covered, the author examines the reference materials that were available during Holmes’s lifetime to specifically address the accusation by chemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov that Holmes was “a blundering chemist”. The author concludes that Holmes was neither as bad as Asimov argued, nor as good as originally claimed by Dr Watson, his crime-solving colleague …

While GrrlScientist enjoyed the book she does note this,

Overall, I thought this book was more heavily focused upon exploring the history of science and forensics than clarifying the details of Holmes’s scientific methodologies.

Matthew Hutson had this to say in his Jan. 11, 2013 book review for the Wall Street Journal,

Arthur Conan Doyle draws readers into the process of detection with what his biographer John Dickson Carr called “enigmatic clues.” Holmes signposts a piece of evidence as significant but doesn’t immediately reveal its use, leaving it as an exercise for the reader. “The creator of Sherlock Holmes invented it,” Carr wrote in 1949, “and nobody . . . has ever done it half so well.” In one of the most celebrated examples, Sherlock Holmes quizzes a client about the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” the man says. “That was the curious incident,” remarks Holmes.

Holmes’s supreme rationality is of a piece with his interest in science. “The Scientific Sherlock Holmes,” by James O’Brien, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Missouri State University, explores the forensic methods and scientific content in the Holmes canon as well as his creator’s own scientific background. Born in 1859, Conan Doyle took to books at the encouragement of his mother. Frustrated by the rigidity of his Catholic schooling, he moved toward science. At 17, he began medical school in Edinburgh. There his mentor was Dr. Joseph Bell, a man with sharpened diagnostic abilities who would serve as a model for Holmes. In one instance, Bell gleaned that a woman who had come in with her child was from the town of Burntisland (her accent), had traveled via Iverleith Row (red clay on shoes), had another child (a too-large jacket on the one present) and worked at a linoleum factory (dermatitis on fingers).

Hutson knows a lot about Conan Doyle and, thankfully he’s not shy about sharing;. Although he does mention O’Brien’s book, he seems not all that interested in it,

Mr. O’Brien spends most of his slim book, a volume most suitable for those already fond of Sherlock and not afraid of section titles with catchy names like “Section 4.2,” exploring the various fields that Holmes draws on—principally chemistry, with a little biology and physics. We learn about the use of coal-tar derivatives and handwriting identification in both Holmes’s world and ours. Some techniques, such as fingerprinting, appeared in the stories even before they were widely adopted by real police.

His real passion seems to be about thought processes,

Another look at the cogs under the deerstalker is offered by “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” by Maria Konnikova, a psychology graduate student at Columbia University. Following Holmes’s metaphor of the “brain attic,” she describes how Holmes stocks his attic (observation), explores it (creativity), navigates it (deduction) and maintains it (continuing education and practice). In the process, she lays out the habits of mind—both the techniques Holmes employs and the errors he avoids—that we might usefully emulate.

If you want to get a feel for how James (Jim) O’Brien, the author of ‘Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics’ writes,  you can check out his Jan. 25, 2013 posting about his book on the Huffington Post.

Two books: Science Ruining Everything and Nanoparticles before nanotechnology

With 20 days left of its Kickstarter campaign, the SCIENCE: Ruining Everything Since 1543 (an SMBC [Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal] Collection) has amassed $184, 562 for a project with a goal of $20,000.  Some of the more expensive incentives have been snapped but there are still lots of choices. From the campaign page,

SMBC (short for “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal”) is a daily-updated comic strip about all sorts of topics. Its author, Zach Weinersmith, is a giant dork who also has many other geeky projects such as producing SMBC Theater, writing for Snowflakes, his science blog the Weinerworks, and his science-themed podcast The Weekly Weinersmith (which he co-hosts with his wife, the parasitologist Kelly Weinersmith).

So it will come as no huge surprise that this, the third SMBC printed collection, is a compendium of his finest science-related strips.

Phil Plait in a Jan. 23, 2013 article for Slate.com describes the project and his involvement,

Today, Zach [Weiner] announced a new and exciting project: He’s collecting his science comics into a single compendium which he’s calling “Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543”. And it’s not just old comics; he’s also written some new ones for the book. He’s creating this book as a Kickstarter project. Give him money, and when it’s done he’ll send you the book.

And there’s more, too: He asked some well-known scientists on the web to send him a personal story about science in their lives, regaling how it’s affected them, and Zach will draw them up as a comic to put in the book. And guess who he asked? Well, the only one he told me about is me, but he assures me there are others. So I sent him an All-True Tale of Bad Astronomy Past, and he created a multi-panel comic about it.

Here’s a representative image of the artwork,

Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543. It's true. Image credit: Zach Weiner [downloaded from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/01/23/saturday_morning_breakfast_cereal_new_science_book_of_web_comics.html]

Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543. It’s true.
Image credit: Zach Weiner [downloaded from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/01/23/saturday_morning_breakfast_cereal_new_science_book_of_web_comics.html]

If you go to Phil Plait’s article , you can will find some panels from the collection or you can visit the Science: Ruining Everything campaign page to view a video presentation and learn more about the various incentives.

Meanwhile, the folks at the Nanowiki website have published their third book, Nanoparticles Before Nanotechnology. From the Nanowiki introduction page,

This year we chose the subject of Nanoparticles Before Nanotechnology simply because we were suspicious that nanoparticles are too often, in scientific and non-scientific circles, perceived as invented, while we think they should be understood as discovered.

Nanomaterials are claimed to be so new that people become scared. However, before nanotechnology, one can find nanoparticles in the works of both nature and Man, although they passed unnoticed by us until recently. The origin of nanoparticles in nature is basically i) biogenic, ii) geogenic (and also at the bio-inorganic interface), or iii) cosmogenic, while the nanoparticles produced by men come unintentionally from origins as burning wood and oil or unnoticed in crafted stuff such as cosmetics and colored glass and ceramics.

Additionally, to bring nano closer to society, following the same demystifying aims, we present a set of experiments, Hands On, in which some basics and useful nanoscale phenomena can be easily observed, such as preparing photonic crystals that look like opals, disinfecting water, or harvesting energy.

You can find many options (paper and various e-pub choices)  for getting the book if you follow the link provided previously or you can access the low res web version here as I did. Gorgeous images festoon the book and I wish they’d listed the sources or credits for them. They are truly stunning, even in low res. As for the text, I think they’ve provided a thoughtful compilation of information and organized it very well (I scanned the book quickly). I particularly appreciate having links so I can easily check out the sources for myself and I found a few things I didn’t know about, always a thrill.

In common with most emerging technology topics, knowledge about nanoparticles and other aspects of nanotechnology can change quickly as new data extends or contradicts what was previously believed. Within that context, this is one of the best resources I’ve seen and I’m thankful these folks took the time to pull this book together.

Get your question to Neal Stephenson asked at April 17, 2012 event at MIT

After reading Diamond Age (aka, The Diamond Age Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Prime; a novel that integrates nanotechnology into a story about the future), I have never been able to steel myself to read another Neal Stephenson book. In the last 1/3 of the book, the plot fell to pieces so none of the previously established narrative threads were addressed and the character development, such as it was, ceased to make sense. However, it seems I am in the minority as Stephenson and his work are widely and critically lauded.

April 17, 2012, Stephenson will be appearing in an event which features a live interview by Technology Review editor-in-chief, Jason Pontin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From Stephen Cass’s April 3, 2012 article for Technology Review,

With assistance from the the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, if you’re in the Boston area, you can see Neal Stephenson in person at MIT on April 17. Technology Review‘s editor-in-chief, Jason Pontin, will publicly interview Stephenson for the 2012 issue of TRSF, our annual science fiction anthology. Topics on the table include the state and future of hard science fiction, and how digital publishing is affecting novels.

The event is free and you can get a ticket here. For anyone who can’t get to Boston for the event, you can ask your question here in the comments section.

Michael Crichton publishes nano novel from beyond the grave

Michael Crichton died in Nov. 2008 and his latest book, published Nov. 22, 2011, is titled Micro. It’s being billed as a nanotechnology thriller. From the Nov. 27, 2011 article by Philip Sherwell for The Telegraph,

The result is Mr Crichton’s 17th novel, Micro. About the first third of the 424 pages were written by the best-selling science fiction author himself, the rest by Richard Preston, a former veterinarian turned novelist [best known for Hot Zone].

Set in the rainforest of Hawaii, the techno-thriller features murderous micro-robots, a villainous nanotechnology entrepreneur and Harvard biology students shrunk to less than an inch tall, then exposed to the terrors of killer bugs, among other lethal threats of the natural world. It is, in many ways, a miniature version of the man-versus-dinosaur scenario of the Crichton classic, Jurassic Park.

Crichton did write an earlier ‘nano’ thriller, Prey. (I read it but was not especially impressed.)

If you are interested in the writing aspect, i.e., what is it like to collaborate with someone when all you have are the notes, then Sherwell’s article provides some good insight. Hint: Having the dead author’s longtime personal assistant ready to help is a great advantage.

I did find a Nov. 28, 2011 review of Micro by Jeff VanderMeer for the Los Angeles Times,

What if we had the technology to miniaturize people and objects? That’s the central premise behind “Micro” by “Jurassic Park’s” Michael Crichton and “The Hot Zone’s” Richard Preston. Crichton wrote one-third of “Micro” before his death in 2008 — which third seems largely irrelevant, as the entire novel functions as a well-oiled but oddly soulless machine. All of the edges have been sanded off of prose that is supremely functional and most of the workmanlike characters seem resigned to being transformed into actors on a movie screen

The premise bears a resemblance to the  one they used for the 1989 movie,  Honey, I shrunk the kids. From the Internet Movie Database page for the movie,

The scientist father of two teenage boys accidentally shrinks his and two other neighborhood teens to the size of insects. Now the teens must fight diminutive dangers as the father searches for them.

Of course, Honey, … was a comedy while Crichton specialized in thrillers.

Henry Petroski, The Essential Engineer explaining why scientists need engineers to solve the world’s problems

The Pasco Phronesis blog (David Bruggeman) featured, in his Oct. 6, 2010 posting, some author videos from the 2010 US National Book Festival. From Pasco Phronesis,

Since there’s several hundred videos to wade through, here are the links to the four authors I saw on September 25. I strongly recommend you watch the Petroski video, though anyone familiar with the work of the other authors should enjoy listening to them. You’ll need RealPlayer to view.

* Edward O. Wilson

* Henry Petroski

* Richard Rhodes

* Harold Varmus

Since David strongly recommended the Petroski video, I searched for and found it on Youtube (didn’t want to bother with the RealPlayer plugin),

Petroski is an engineer who’s specialty is failure and he’s talking about his latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems (2010).

Mongoliad launch

I made mention of the Mongoliad writing project when it was first announced in late spring (my May 31, 2010 posting). The project features Neal Stepheonson and Greg Bear, both well known science fiction writers (in fact, both have written novels that incorporate nanotechnology), amongst a cast of other writers, artists, techno types, and others. They’re forging into 21st century publishing with a model that is lifted in part from the 19th century, stories produced serially and available by subscription, but made available with contemporary technology, the interrnet. I guess you could call it ‘steam punk publishing’.

Last week, a free preview was made available and registration was opened. Here’s the view from Andrew Leonard at Salon.com,

Behold the power of branding! Chapter I of “The Mongoliad” launched online this week, and I plunked down $9.99 for a year’s subscription, sight unseen, simply because Neal Stephenson’s name was attached. …

But after spending some time with the site and reading the first chapter, it is not exactly clear to me exactly how much Stephenson is baked into this project. He is the co-founder and chairman of Subutai, the start-up that is producing “The Mongoliad.” But the content-creation is a group effort. This serial digital novel is being produced online by a team of writers , artists, hackers and sword-fighting geeks — another big name involved is Greg Bear, also a veteran science fiction author. …

“The Mongoliad” is supposed to be more than “just” a book. Eventually the intention is to incorporate multimedia offerings, along with the hypertext-branching contributions of a user community extending far beyond the core team.

Leonard goes on to express his hope that Mongoliad will be a grand adventure. He really is a Stephenson fan and seems to be genuinely looking forward to reading this experiment in publishing/social media enhancing/serializing a novel. Kit Eaton at Fast Company (Neal Stephenson’s Novel-Redefining Novel, “The Mongoliad,” Launches, Online)  is another fan,

Ghengis Khan shook up the world in the 12th Century, and now in the 21st Century Neal Stephenson’s novel about him may shake up the publishing world: It’s partly interactive, partly social media, and wholly digital.

The Mongoliad promises to be unlike any other book ever written. For starters it’s written, in part, by Neal Stephenson, whose ideas in earlier novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age have contributed to many modern marvels like Google Earth and augmented reality. When you learn sci-fi writer Greg Bear is contributing to the team effort too, it makes the whole thing even more promising.

The innovation in The Mongoliad isn’t in its team writing effort, however: It’s in the entire concept of a serialized, dynamic, digital “book” that includes video, imagery, music, and background articles among the text of the storyline and comes with a social media companion, with which fans/readers can comment and interact.

In fact it looks as if they are incorporating fan fiction into their overall plan. If you go to the Mongoliad website, you are encouraged to add your stories and artwork to the site.  This is from their ‘terms of service’,

Contributor Submissions

1. Policy. We welcome the submission of text, stories, vignettes, paragraphs, concepts, characters, ideas, poems, songs, images, animations, or interactive features submitted by registered contributors for potential publication on the Site (“Contributor Submissions”). Subutai grants you a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable and revocable license to modify, broadcast, and transmit Content solely in order to create and submit Contributor Submissions to Subutai.

You understand that whether or not such Contributor Submissions are published, Subutai cannot guarantee proper attribution with respect to any submissions because of the interactive nature of the Site.

It’ll be interesting to see whether or not this works purely from the perspective of its business model. As for the story itself, I’m not loving it so far.  First, a précis. It’s the thirteenth century in Europe and the Mongolians have a conquered a chunk of it. (Apparently, they did conquer a good chunk by 1241 and were about to conquer the rest when Ögedei Khan, then current Mongol ruler, died and their general,  Subitai, according to custom had to return to Mongolis.  See: Wikipedia essay)

In Mongoliad, there is no withdrawal of the Mongol forces and they are poised to sweep Europe meanwhile a small band of European knights gather to fight (from the Mongoliad Welcome page),

It’s spring of 1241, and the West is shitting its pants (that’s “bewraying its kecks” for you medieval time-travelers).

The Mongol takeover of Europe is almost complete. The hordes commanded by the sons of Genghis Khan have swept out of their immense grassy plains and ravaged Russia, Poland, and Hungary… and now seem poised to sweep west to Paris and south to Rome. King and pope and peasant alike face a bleak future—until a small band of warriors, inheritors of a millennium-old secret tradition, set out to probe the enemy.

Their leader, the greatest knight of their order, will set his small group of specially trained warriors on a perilous eastern journey. They will be guided by an agile, elusive, and sharp-witted adolescent girl, who believes the master’s plan is insane. But this small band is the West’s last, best hope to turn aside the floodtide of the violent genius of the Steppes kingdoms.

In the preview chapter (which is free), we meet Haakon who’s obviously one of the small band of warriors fighting for Europe. At this point,  he’s engaging in some sort of sword fighting duel in a Mongol arena while the crowds roar for blood.  We never learn much more about him or any of the other characters we’re introduced to as the preview is designed to draw us into buying a subscription so we can find out more.  I’m not a big fan of the writing that I see in the preview,

Haakon wanted to roar with anger, but it came out as a strangled laugh. “I am about to do battle with a demon,” he complained, “and you want me to–”

“It’s no demon,” Brother Rutger said, and spat on the loose ocher ground that had been tracked down the tunnel on the boots of surviving combatants. “It’s a man dressed as one.” He rammed the helm down onto Haakon’s head and slapped him on the ass. Even through surcoat, chain mail, gambeson, and drawers, the impact came through solidly. “Oh yes,” he added, “and the Red Veil. We would also like to know what is on the other side.”

Haakon grunted as he adjusted the helmet to suit him. The mysterious Veil. He might have seen it several weeks ago when a group led by the physician Raphael had been sent to retrieve Illarion, the ailing Ruthenian.

Now, their party had divided again, and Feronantus and his team were off on their secret mission–while Haakon and the rest of the Shield-Brethren remained to compete against the champions of the Mongol Empire.

Rutger put his hand on Haakon’s shoulder. They regarded each other silently. Saying goodbye would be worse than useless, since Rutger and the others would see it as a premature admission of defeat, and it might demoralize them. Haakon knew he would be back among them in less time than it took to run out to the gutter and take a shit.

I also have some questions about the politics of it all. Here are a couple pictures from the site, Haakon first,

Art by Jamie Jones (from Mongoliad site)

And here’s one of the two Mongolian thug images currently available,

Concept art from Aleksi Briclot (from Mongoliad site)

This is just the beginning of the series and I’m hoping they head away from seems to be a pretty standard storyline where pretty, blond, white people struggle and eventually turn the tide against a demonic, dark-haired and darker-skinned people.