Thursday, December 31, 2009

Demon-Haunted World, The (Sagan, Carl)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1995
Genre: Nonfiction / Science
Read again? Yes.

It took 3-1/2 weeks to get through this one; it's not a quick read, but it's a damn good one. After four crappy B-grade sci-fi books masquerading as readable fiction, I needed something solid. I didn't roll my eyes once or wonder _why_ Sagan would write _this_ this way. His writing is friendly, approachable, every bit like his presentation in "Cosmos."

"World" is an indictment of the state of scientific literacy and critical thinking in the United States and (to a lesser extent) the rest of the world. It should be required reading for any teacher or administrator--but for that to happen we'd have to clear the anti-science kooks out of the system.

His prose is eminently quotable:
If we teach only the findings and products of science...without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience?

Given that a hefty percentage of people in this country believe we were magicked into being just a few thousand years ago; given that a hefty percentage of people in this country claim that the moon landings were faked; given that medical quackery such as accupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy are taken seriously...alien abduction...demonic possession...psychic phenomena...ghosts...crop circles...even when the science is THERE and showing these things to be wrong...even then, people buy into it whole-hog.


It has to start with education. Sagan voices concern that this country will become an information economy, with its industries moved offshore--the things we need if we are to prosper, let alone survive, as a scientific power, whilst the navel-gazers sit and watch Oprah, letting their critical faculties wither and die.

[I think we've long since been headed in that direction. Our politicians and their corporate pals have been selling off chunks of our industrial base for decades: home electronics in the 1970's and '80s, the clothing industry in the '90s. Did you know the VCR was developed by an American company? Did you know that they didn't see how to make a quick profit, so they sold it to Japanese interest? Did you notice that no American company ever manufactured a VCR? How much of the clothing you buy is even made in America?

For all their talk about buying American, conservatives never did anything to bring that industry back home, did they? No, they waved their flags and proclaimed their devotion to them--without checking to see whether those flags were Made in Taiwan.

He delves into the similarities between today's "alien abductions" and tales of demonic interference in human lives from centuries past:
...sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species."

He discusses education and how the simple act of reading led a slave named Frederick Bailey into freedom. He changed his name, then: Frederick Douglass became one of the greatest political leaders, writers and speakers in American history. He was an advisor to President Lincoln. How cool is that?

Sagan details the _need_ for critical thought--and then he takes us to a principal cause for the lack of it: the schools. He reprints letters, some barely literate, in which he is criticized for "bashing" America. There's no problem! We need gawd in the schools! The ACLU is the problem! Socialism!

Sagan wonders why excelling in science is "elitist"...yet varsity sports--the "best of the best"--is not.

And there's more, so much more to "The Demon-Haunted World." Hypnosis, religious whack-jobs, crop-circle kooks, psychics, ghosts, witch-hunts.

As I said before, this is not a fast read; there's a density to his narrative that makes me want to read "Contact" (also by Sagan) to see how his fiction works. Sagan doesn't swamp the reader with science and equations, nor does he hold your hand and condescend.

Monday, December 28, 2009

American Lighthouses (Krutein, Wernher)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2008
Genre: Photography / Lighthouses
Read again? Yes

Another bargain-bin beauty. Ten bucks.

This book's a lot thinner than it should be, at just over 140 pages. But it's got plenty of spectacular photos of lighthouses in natural poses.

Krutein's got a damn good eye; he shot all the pics, and there's not a bad one in the lot.

We begin in the Northeast and Great Lakes, then move down the East Coast to Key west, Florida; then along the Gulf Coast to Texas--but there's no pause at Mobile, Alabama, where the Sand Island light guards the entrance to Mobile Bay; there's no Middle Bay light, either. We skip right past the Biloxi, Mississippi light, still standing in the midst of traffic on Highway 90.

I would have loved to see my favorite: the St. George Reef light, too, but on our trip north along the West Coast, we pause at Crescent City's on-shore light without a glimpse of this granite beast 6 miles out in the Pacific.

Even with the "missing" items, this is a gorgeous book.

Lighthouses (Linford, Jenny)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2006
Genre: Photography
Read again? Yes

I'm STILL not done with Sagan's "Demon Haunted World." So in the meantime, lighthouses.

I found this one in the bargain bin for eight bucks.

I'm not a devoted lighthouse hunter, but they are beautiful buildings, usually in beautiful and/or spectacular settings, and if you can get a sunrise, sunset, clouds or fog somewhere in the shot you've got photographic gold.

This book is gold.

Linford offers nearly 200 pages from around the world (mostly Europe and the U.S.): sunsets, crashing waves, rocky cliffs, snow, mountains.

Come for the architecture, but stay for the view!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Top Ten Sucky Books of 2009

As long as we're looking at the top books, might as well look at the bottom.

10. Back to the Future (George Gipe)

9. Back to the Future II (Craig Shaw Gardner)

8. Aliens (Alan Dean Foster)

7. Splinter of the Mind's Eye (Alan Dean Foster)

6. Alien (Alan Dean Foster)

5. Han Solo and the Lost Legacy (Brian Daley)

4. Han Solo's Revenge (Brian Daley)

3. Han Solo at Star's End (Brian Daley)

2. Tregarde 03: Jinx High (Mercedes Lackey)

1. Valdemar 07: Brightly Burning (Mercedes Lackey)

0. Star Trek #65--Windows on a Lost World (V E Mitchell) It took a lot to out-suck Lackey's offering. Congratulations to Mitchell for writing the worst book of 2009!

Top Ten books of 2009

Everyone else seems to be making lists and I'm STILL reading Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World" after nearly 3 weeks.

10. Final Approach (John J. Nance)

9. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Richard Feynman)

8. Star Trek: Imzadi (Peter David)

7. 2010: Odyssey 2 (Arthur C. Clarke)

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke)

5. Valdemar 12: Exile's Valor (Mercedes Lackey)

4. Valdemar 11: Exile's Honor (Mercedes Lackey)

3. God Is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens; audiobook)

2. The Jungle (Upton Sinclair; audiobook)

...and even though I'm still working at it:

1. The Demon-Haunted World (Carl Sagan)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Apollo 11 Moon Landing: 40th Anniversary Photographic Retrospective (Jenkins, Dennis & Frank, Jorge)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2009
Genre: History / Space
Read again? Yes

I was disappointed by the lack of proper attention given to the 40th anniversary of a couple of guys walking on the FREAKING MOON.

There should have been a years' worth of build-up, partying and meet-ups galore, and carryings-on fit to drown out the moonie idiots who say it never happened. The Onion did a pretty good job of summarizing how excited everyone should have been. Seriously.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner President Obama should have at least held a press conference on July 21, 2009 to say, "My fellow Americans...40 years ago, man walked on the f*cking MOON!!!"

I wasn't even 2 years old when Armstrong and Aldrin (in that order) set foot on the airless regolith a quarter-million miles away from everything we know on Earth. These two men did what's still the coolest thing ever--at least until the later missions where some other guys drove a freaking dune buggy on the moon.

HERE'S your "ultimate driving machine," you BMW losers.

On to the book. It's not a coffee-table photo album, but it makes up for its small size in the quality of the pictures. Most of them are in glossy full color and show excellent detail--more than enough to serve as a detailing guide for a model builder, and plenty for a space geek to drool over.

The narrative takes us from the beginnings of the Apollo program to the days after the astronauts' return home, where they were quarantined in a modified Airstream camper.

As much as I love the space shuttles--they were "my" space ships, as the Apollo craft were for older kids who were lucky enough to see those missions--I gotta say, the Apollo ships and their missions are a damn sight higher up the "awesome" scale.

They went to the FREAKING MOON. 'Nuff said. Great book.

Ansel Adams: Landscapes of the American West (Morgan-Griffiths, Lauris)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 2008
Genre: Art / Photography
Read Again? Yup

Since it's taking so long to get through the current read (Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World), I need to fill in some space.

This book will fill in a lot of space. It's big. An inch-thick hardcover that weighs a couple of pounds and at won't fit on any bookshelf you've got!

It needs to be big. It's overflowing with 120 of Adams' gorgeous black & white landscapes, clouds, structures, plants, and water photos. The Grand Canyon. Yellowstone Lake. Burned trees in Glacier National Park. Every picture is crisp, distilled to the essentials.

I got a good deal on it--$20 in a bargain bin, in the year it was published. As eye-popping as Adams' work is, that feels almost criminal.