Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Book: Dilla Time

Don’t sweat it if you don’t know who hip hop producer J Dilla is. I only had a rough understanding of who he was, and what his impacts on music were, before I read Dan Charnas’ amazing biography.

Dilla was a hip hop producer in the 90’s whose programming of drum machines brought in a style of drumming which nobody had ever really heard before. His beats were erratic and off time, which on those early drum machines took some effort to achieve. They weren’t quite straight time, and they weren’t swing time. They were in Dilla Time. He used this technique to give his music a slightly off, slightly drunk, even slightly unsettling feeling.

A great read, especially for those who love 90’s hip hop and sampling. Buy it at your small local independent book store.

Book: The Lost Supper

Friend of Elsewhat’s Taras Grescoe‘s new book, The Lost Supper, follows the author as he tries to track down foods which have been lost to history, or otherwise forgotten or neglected by humanity. His journey is also a lens through which he looks at our own modern diet and its various impacts.

This has changed my day-to-day relationship with food, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Before this journey began, I flattered myself that, with my diet heavy on small fish, vegetables, grains, and pulses, I was one of the world’s responsible eaters. My thoughtfulness, though, was limited to my consumer choices the items I picked off the shelves of local stores and markets. Thinking about the past of food has made me think harder about what I eat in the present, and every trip has changed the way I cook and eat.

Among the lost food he looks at are Garum (previously mentioned on this blog). He also looks at the (mostly) lost practice of eating insects, which lead to this little jab at paleo dieters:

“Paleo dieters are one of my favorite groups to pick on,” Lesnik added, with a chuckle. “They don’t have any real knowledge of what the paleo diet actually was. I always ask them, “Oh, so you eat a lot of insects?’ Consistently eating almond milk and bacon is not reflective of any form of the actual paleo diet. Eating bugs is.”

This was a great little book which combined food history with some healthy reflection on our modern diets, combined with some neat detective work and travel writing that is definitely off the beaten path.

Book: Gathering Moss

A couple of years after reading Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s Braiding Sweetgrass, I returned back to her 2003 debut non-fiction book Gathering Moss. Kimmerer is a Bryologist, or someone who studies moss. This short book gives an overview of these under appreciated organisms. Mosses don’t tend to get the sort of love or attention larger plants get. Kimmerer writes:

We carefully catalog the positions of all the moss species, calling out their names. Dicranum scoparium. Plagiothecium denticulatum. The student struggling to record all this begs for shorter names. But mosses don’t usually have common names, for no one has bothered with them. They have only scientific names, conferred with legalistic formality according to protocol set up by Carolus Linnaeus, the great plant taxonomist. Even his own name, Carl Linne, the name his Swedish mother had given him, was Latinized in the interest of science.

Her book explores many, many facets of mosses, from how they reproduce, to how peat bogs are formed. As in Braiding Sweetgrass, she also brings a perspective that blends science with an indigenous point of view. For example, this section where she describes her experience trying to figure out why a certain moss reproduces in a counterintuitive way:

But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from the woods, it’s that there is no pattern without a meaning. To find it, I needed to try and see like a moss and not like a human.

In traditional indigenous communities, learning takes a form very different from that in the American public education system. Children learn by watching, by listening, and by experience. They are expected to learn from all members of the community, human and non. To ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken; it must instead be given. Knowledge is bestowed by a teacher only when the student is ready to receive it. Much learning takes place by patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience. It is understood that there are many versions of truth, and that each reality may be true for each teller. It’s important to understand the perspective of each source of knowledge. The scientific method I was taught in school is like asking a direct question, disrespectfully demanding knowledge rather than waiting for it to be revealed.


Soviet Space Dogs

When on vacation in a new city I always make sure to drop into a used book store (if it has books in a language I can read). While visiting Portland, Maine in late summer, I visited a narrow shop with books piled high to ceiling. While in line to purchase a book, I stumbled on this little book about dogs going to space as part of the Soviet space program. Of course I had to buy it, and was not disappointed.

The Russian space dogs were all strays taken from the streets of Moscow, which they believed made them hardier than house dogs. They were chosen for health and size (they had to fit into a small suitcase-size habitat), but also for looks, as the USSR would end up putting them on all sorts of propaganda. See below, for example, Laika-branded cigarettes, or the matchbox label on the right.

Laika was the most famous of the soviet cosmonaut animals, but close behind her were the pair of Belka and Strelka, who grace the cover of the book. While Laika met a rather horrible end when the cooling system of her Sputnik capsule failed, the two cover dogs landed safely back on earth and were heroes in the USSR.

The Whole Earth Catalog Goes Online

Stewart Brand’s classic Whole Earth Catalog, a sort of 70’s proto-blog in paper about building, the environment, crafts, and more, has made all their issues available online for free. This is something I’ve heard referenced in books and articles many, many times, but only now can I actually read them all.

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Do You Remember Being Born?

The first time I heard about language-based AIs, I was sitting in a beautiful Montréal park, and friend of Elsewhat Sean started talking about what AI could do with language. This was years before GPT got its “chat” prefix and became the sensation it has since become. I remember being baffled by hearing about GPT could take long strings of text and near-instantly rewrite them in a different style, or summarized shorter, or expanded, or just write from scratch. I felt somewhat in awe of the description of this technology, which took a few more years to go mainstream, but the impression he gave was that this was going to have a big impact on society.

Sean was then, and continues to be, way in advance of other artists in his understanding, and use of AI. This novel, years and years in the making, is testament to that. It feels like it could not be timed any better—Right as people are discussing what AI will do to art, here comes a beautiful book about, and partially written by AI.

The book follows a successful poet in her mid-seventies, Marian Ffarmer, as she’s commissioned by a California big-tech company to collaboratively write a piece of poetry with the company’s cutting edge language-based AI, Charlotte. Marian is a beautifully rendered character, and her eccentric, mischievous manner makes her a perfect foil to the polished technocrats at the big California computer company.

This book is excellent, and a very timely contribution to the debate on how AI impacts art. The New York Times gave a glowing review, and I agree. This is a thoughtful work, which simultaneously looks back at the long life of an artist as she navigates a new technology, created in a few short years, which will forever change the craft she’s taken her lifetime to master.

It’s also, importantly, not a work that tries to predict the long arc of where the technology will go, or the possible impacts it might have on society. It’s foremost about the artist, and her act of using tech in creating something which was, until now, quintessentially human.

Buy the Book (Canada) →
Buy the Book (US) →

A Radical Distrust in Certainty

I’m a bit too snowed-under these past few days to post much. So here is something from the archives, a quote from Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems, a book about quantum gravity, which I thought was a great summary of science:

Though rooted in previous knowledge, science is an adventure based on continuous change. The story I have told reaches back over millennia, tracing a narrative of science that has treasured good ideas, but hasn’t hesitated to throw ideas away when something was found that worked better. The nature of scientific thinking is critical, rebellious, and dissatisfied with a priori conceptions, reverence, and sacred or untouchable truth. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical distrust in certainty.

Book: Uses and Abuses of History

A snappy history book from 2008 which I picked up on a whim based on the quality of the author’s stellar Paris 1919. This book is about how history is used, mostly by states and governments to justify actions. Think, for example, of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and war against Ukraine based on their claims that Ukraine was historically a part of the Russian motherland.

The timely theme of History being used to bolster nationalism is repeated again and again in the book. Take here, for example, MacMillan’s take on how Western democracies looked back at the Second World War:

Victorian historians too often depicted the past as an inevitable progress leading to the glorious present when Britain ruled the world. And French and German and Russian and American historians did much the same thing for their nations’ stories… Such histories, says Michael Howard, the eminent British historian, sustain us in difficult times, but they are “nursery history.”

The proper role for historians, Howard rightly says, is to challenge and even explode national myths: “Such disillusion is a necessary part of growing up in and belonging to an adult society; and a good definition of the difference between a Western liberal society and a totalitarian one-whether it is Communist, Fascist, or Catholic authoritarian is that in the former the government treats its citizens as responsible adults and in the latter it cannot.” After World War II, most Western democracies made the difficult but wise decision to commission proper military histories of the conflict. In other words, they hired professional historians and gave them unrestricted access to the archives. The results were histories which did not gloss over Allied mistakes and failures but which strove to give as full a picture as possible of a great and complicated struggle.

In short, history is incredibly complex, and we should resist attempts to oversimplify it. These oversimplifications are often done to help bolster political agendas or even injustices.

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On Adapting Manga for Western Audiences

Like many houses with preteens, my house has been increasingly inundated with more and more manga. One of my 10 year old son’s favourite activities is going to the library or manga store and reading for hours.

The New York Times has a beautifully rendered take on how manga are translated for western audiences. There are many subtle aspects, line onomatopoeia being different, and non-subtle ones like the structure of the books, which read right-to-left. Earlier books like Akira, pictured above, were flipped for Western audiences.

Since manga was first introduced to the U.S. in the 1980s, American companies have wrestled with how to adapt the genre for their readers. It requires taking into account not only art and visual concepts that are unique to Japanese, but also an entirely different system of reading.

Today manga is enormously popular in the U.S. and is published in something close to its original form: in black and white, on inexpensive paper stock, to be read in the Japanese style. But this wasn’t always the case.

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Book: Saving Time

Much like her previous book, How to do Nothing, Jenny Odell seems to have a knack of picking topics that are incredibly timely (forgive the pun). Seeing as we’ve all collectively gone through the time dilation of the Covid-19 pandemic, this topic feels perfect for the current moment.

Like How to do Nothing, this book reads as a patchwork of loosely-connected ideas and references based around the central theme. To be honest, it reads almost more like a blog—jumping between historical events, philosophers, magazine articles, and even at one point going so far as to recount a comedy sketch from I Think You Should Leave which was loosely related to the chapter at hand. The book manages to build up these scattered and nonlinear thoughts and observations into something bigger, though I think some readers may not be as forgiving of the lack of structure.

The subject of how people experience and interpret time is a topic not unfamiliar to this blog. In the early pages Odell discusses Ancient Greek views of time:

In Ancient Greek, there are two different words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos, which appears as part of words like chronology, is the realm of linear time, a steady, plodding march of events into the future. Kairos means something more like “crisis,” but it is also related to what many of us might think of as opportune timing or “seizing the time.” At the climate event, Salami described kairos as qualitative rather than quantitative time, given that, in kairos, all moments are different and that “the right thing happens at the right point.” Because of what it suggests about action and possibility, I too have found the distinction between chronos and kairos to be crucial when it comes to thinking about the future.

And finally, Odell touched on this again in an excerpt she included from the book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, which feels very much at home with with this previous post:

Explaining Aboriginal notions of time is an exercise in futility as you can only describe it as “nonlinear” in English, which immediately slams a big line right across your synapses. You don’t register the “non” only the “linear”: that is the way you process that word, the shape it takes in your mind. Worst of all, it’s only describing the concept by saying what it is not, rather than what it is. We don’t have a word for nonlinear in our languages because nobody would consider traveling, thinking, or talking in a straight line in the first place. The winding path is just how a path is, and therefore it needs no name.

Odell’s book is about much more than this, though these parts resonate with recent themes here. The book also covers capitalist views of time based from the early days of the Industrial Revolution, time zones, biological time, aging, and a lot more strands woven into one (somewhat messy) tapestry.