American Rifle

American Rifle: A Biography
© 2008 Alexander Rose
512 pages

rifle

The quintessential American firearm is the rifle,   which through centuries of colonization and growth,  has served in both myth and fact.  I use myth not in the modern disparaging sense, but rather its traditional and valuable sense:   myth as meaning. The rifle is the perfect complement to the American legend of the  ‘rugged individualist’ — whether he’s a sharpshooter,  taking down British officers in the Revolutionary War, or a plains pioneer,  defending his family from wolves or bringing home supper.  American Rifle: A Biography is a fulsome history of how rifles in America evolved and entrenched themselves, and grew both in culture estimation and in technical sophistication.   The rifle’s technical maturation is the book’s primary focus, but culture enters in often, as we learn about the NRA originally organizing to train the American public into marksmen,  and the German military’s influence on American military organization.  German arms also inspired one American rifle, as well as a Soviet piece, the AK-47.  Slowing the book down atimes is the extensive coverage of  sludgy bureaucracy  that new advances had to get through to become the official service weapon of the military, and this sludge becomes progressively thicker throughout the years. It’s thus a… challenging read for the potential reader who isn’t a total rifle enthusiast, and my interest peaked with the M1 Garand.  I spent two months trying to move from 1940 to 2003, through the mire of extensive debates  between Europe and America on what should be the official round of NATO, followed by the problems of the M14.

Related:
American Gun, Chris Kyle

 

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The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World
© 2016 Peter Wohlleben
288 pages

trees

Joyce Kilmer offered that he had never seen a poem as lovely as a tree —  and I for one can’t remember reading a more fascinating science and nature book for a few years.   Peter Wohlleben is a German forester who began his career not being able to see the forest for the trees. He saw the trees themselves, of course, in their neat and orderly rows so amenable to easy harvesting —  but he didn’t realize how complex and deep a system a natural forest really is.    Neither did I, frankly.   In The Hidden Life of Trees, Wolhleben takes us into a world where trees share information and resources, not only with themselves but with an underground network, a world where trees are less insular  towers and more members of varied and complex local ecosystems.

Let’s start with the coolest part of this book: the mycelial web.  In a natural forest, trees are connected to one another through an underground network of fungi, an underground mesh that allows individual trees, even from different species, to share resources.   Although above ground trees do compete for light, below the dirt is where deals are done.    Trees don’t just swap resources throughout the year, taking turns to support one another as each reaches its strength in different seasons: they also release scents to allow their neighbors to know when predators are around, chewing leaves and branches: enter each tree’s self-defense system, making themselves unpalatable to the predator.  So enmeshed are trees together that when one is stricken by lightning or some plague of bugs,  others may suffer for its absence —  robbed of its particular contributions to the underground exchange.

Although we tend to see individual trees in a forest, Wohlleben argues that trees have relationships, that older trees play a role in their offspring’s lives, if they’re nearby. While we may regard a fast-growing tree as a positive sign, to Wohlleben this is in fact an aberration: in the world of trees,   those saplings that grow slowly under the shadow of their forebears  prove to be the hardiest, while the energic young turks all die fairly quickly. There’s a circle of life in the forest:  even a dead tree feeds and protects its survivors,  making it more difficult for predators like deer to move through the forest, and slowly decomposing into a rich humus that the neighbors draw strength from.

Wolhleben’s book explores far more than this, of course, but learning about the communal relationships between trees fascinated me like nothing else.  The author also explores trees’ live cycles,   and how they “move” their ranges over the year. Other chapters delve into how animals make use of trees,  to the detriment or advantage of the trees themselves.  Wohlleben’s review also includes sections on why urban and transplanted trees struggle, and why it’s hard for humans to understand the slow pace of arboreal evolution. (A ‘natural forest’ takes at least five centuries to truly mature!) It’s all-around fascinating. I’ve long appreciated trees for their beauty and the bounty of life they can support – the birds and squirrels and such  —  but now every bit of them, brims over with new fascination.

 

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The Ice at the End of the World

© 2019  Jon Gertner
418 pages

ice

My reading journeys have taken me to Greenland recently, but instead of reading more about the Viking settlements there,  I wanted to read about another tribe:   the explorers and scientists who willingly endured months of supremely hostile terrain for both glory and science.   The Ice at the End of the World is one half history of Greenland’s early exploration, one half chronicle of its role as a site for constant scientific investigation.  The latter is particularly important given the poles’ roles in regulating our global climate – and their testimony, buried in ice, as to how much has changed and how quickly.

At first, they came only to see if it was possible for a man to cross the ice. Human settlement in Greenland, even among the Inuit who are well accustomed to its severities, is limited to the coastal fringes.  When explorers like Peary and Wegener landed in Greenland and began preparing for their expeditions – learning as much as they could from the Intuit, who had centuries of accumulated knowledge for how to move and survive in daunting near-polar conditions – their native hosts could only think them lunatics for  wanting to trespass into the wastes haunted only by gods and death.    The early expeditions first accomplished simply getting across the great ice in the midst of Greenland without perishing; later ones would push north in an effort to determine the  land’s boundaries.  Did the ice go ever north, linking with the north pole? Or were there limits?

Although scientific research was conducted in these early jaunts – explosives were  used to set off seismographs and monitor how long it took the sound waves to radiate down to bedrock before rebounding to the surface again —   intense efforts to map the thickness of the ice sped up after World War 2,  in part because of  advance of air traffic infrastructure into Greenland during the war, and in part because of the United States’ sudden strategic interest in the area.  Greenland may have been useful during the war for protecting shipping traffic, but in the next war, against the Soviet Union – it would be vital.   The north may very well be the front lines, and bases couldn’t be built without really understanding the science of the ice sheets  — how they moved, settled, grew.  So began Project Century,  which combined science and military aspirations: the United States’ fondest hope was to base nuclear weapons in Greenland in case the Cold War became an active conflict.    This project would result in extensive ice core samples being taken and analyzed.

Ice at the End of the World begins with journeys of physical exploration, of men trekking the interior of hitherto-unseen ice sheets….but page by page, it transitions slowly into a journey of mental exploration, of men and then women searching for answers, and finding them. They realize that Greenland’s ice cores carried the history of past temperatures with them,  because different isotypes of oxygen appear at differing frequencies at greater or lower temperatures. That ice told a story – one that challenged the idea that climatic shifts were bound to be slow and gradual. They could be, in fact,  fast and disastrous – and  that was true not only of the past, but of the future.  Could global civilization survive a shock imposed by some of the radical climate shifts they’d seen in the ice?

We’re still working on the answer to that one. In an age of growing awareness regarding our role in atmospheric instability,  some people believe we’re doomed, that Earth will become unlivable. Others simply believe we’ll watch cities like Miami became new Atlantises (Atlantii?), but otherwise adapt.

What is known is that The Ice at the End of the World is a terrific read, combining the best parts of an adventure novel – the exploration of the unknown, the endurance of hard ship, the celebration of ingenious adaptations to severity  — with  a history of a paleoclimatology, and the dawning of one of our age’s most talked-about scientific issues.

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IRL

irl
© 2014 Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang
192 pages

I happened to see Cory Doctorow’s name on the cover of this graphic novel, and had to take a look.  The plot is heavily based on a short story of Doctorow’s,  although it’s been too long since I read the story I have in mind to know for sure how closely they follow one another.   According to ComicsAlliance, Jen Wang adapted the novel from Doctorow, although he’s still directly involved in the book, with an introduction that encourages young readers to get interested in the world of behavioral economics.   But enough of that, on to the story!

We begin with Anda, a girl with poor self esteem issues, whose school is visited by a woman who wants to build a girls-only gaming clan on the story’s resident MMO, “Coarsegold”.   Anda finds the idea of a gaming clan interesting, and tries it out. She flourishes, developing a friendship with a fellow clan member and growing in skills and confidence – the latter, even offline!   When Anda and her sister-in-arms are offered an opportunity to make real money by killing the avatars of players involved in gold farming – that is, doing lots of low level work to gain experience and items that are sold for real money through ebay and such–   she chances to meet an English-speaking player whose knowledge of the game impresses her. She learns that he is a kid just like her, but instead of being in school, he works 12+ hours a day  in the game, developing characters to be sold by his boss.  Inspired by her father’s firm going  on strike for increased health benefits, Anda does research into China’s local labor laws and urges her friend to do the same. It doesn’t work out quiiiiite the way she expects.

In the end, things work out: this is a YA novel, after all, and the point of it – going on Doctorow’s introduction – is to show how easy organizing for a purpose can be, and to encourage kids to do the same for causes they’re interested in instead of waiting until they’re adults.   We’ve certainly seen that happening with the recent  climate parade.  The art style is interesting; I’ve only read one graphic novel before (V for Vendetta),  and this one blended real life and online life seamlessly; in one panel Anda is her frumpy sweater-wearing meat self, in another she’s an Amazon warrior with a mane of fiery red hair.    Because of the online setting, we get treated to fantastical scenes – humans fighting monsters and such – with bits of GUI imposed on them, like health bars. And, in a nod to the short story being published in 2004, the monitors shown are all hulking CRTs instead of flatscreens.

Doctorow has expanded on the gold farming as exploited labor theme in another full-length novel, For the Win, and I  may get around to reading it. In the meantime, though, this was…fun. Definitely out of my usual reading zone!

 

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Needful Things

Needful Things
© 1992 Stephen King
940 pages

needful

A new shop has come to Castle Rock, one with a curious name: NEEDFUL THINGS. Its wares appear to run the gamut from cheap antiques to one-of-a-kind oddities. Even in a small town like the Rock, however, everyone seems to find a special something there, just the ticket for what they need. An embezzling politician in debt finds a toy that predicts horse races; a child finds the one card that will complete his 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers baseball card collection; a man who sorely misses his father finds an exact duplicate of the old man’s fishing reel. But it’s true, you know: the things you own end up owning you. And in the case of those items sold from Needful Things, they own you body and soul. Opening in early October, Needful Things is a thrilling novel from Stephen King chronicling the descent of a town into absolute mayhem when a literal merchant of death sets up shop.

When I first heard of this novel, its premise intrigued me, reminding me a bit of that early Twilight Zone episode in which a peddler sells people items they’ll need….in the future. But there is a great gulf between that kindly peddler and the owner of Needful Things, one Leland Gaunt. Even if a reader had never heard of Stephen King and didn’t realize they were bound for horror, Gaunt’s early characterization makes it obvious that something is very, very wrong. The kindly, wise shopkeeper seems to be able to put solitary shoppers into a bullying trance, and the items his victims regard as so precious are seen by others as cheap trash. Still more, Gaunt seems to acquire a power over his shoppers, bidding them to do little favors, pull little pranks. But what begins as a seemingly innocent, if mischievous, errand, may put the town on a course to utter chaos.

Needful Things builds as a novel, stewing all throughout the first half: both King and Gaunt work their magic, the author creating a map of the town’s people and their relationships with one another, the latter seeding his needful things among the populace at bargain prices and slowly getting the pot ready to boil. On Columbus Day, the action starts, and from there readers follow the town as it spirals out of control into a total bloodbath. The book certainly succeeds as a thriller, in part because of the light King puts human nature in. When Gaunt’s victims first see the items, they’re always shrouded in the promise of goodness: a drunk sees something that reminds him of his youth, and thinks if he can have it, he can take inspiration from it to start his life back over – to walk away from the bottle. But the promise is never quite fulfilled, and most of Gaunt’s customers are so obsessive and protective of their preciouseses that they never even use them, only obsess over them and keep them under lock and key. In the end, all are driven to madness. Desire and appetite are never satisfied here, only fed and engorged. I tired of the chronic carnage of the last two hundred pages, but the first two acts’ slow boil had me hooked too firmly to care at that point.

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Before and After “Break Up With Your Phone”: A Mindfulness Exercise

Wednesday, October 2 2019 

I’m about to read How to Break Up With Your Phone, and as an exercise in mindfulness,  I wanted to share my thoughts both before and after.

cellmonks

I believe I have a healthy relationship with my phone. Yes, we go everywhere together; my phone is invariably on my person or sitting on my worktable, but my phone mostly exists as an e-reader.  My phone’s size is perfect for one-handed reading, and  I love being able to carry a substantial library of titles in my pocket.  I also use my phone for taking photos (I was a shutterbug when it involved 27-shot rolls of film)  or keeping my pace at the gym. As I’m not one for texting or instant messaging on the phone (I prefer a keyboard for my  chatting), the only time-wasting app on my phone is “reddit is fun”.     Wary of becoming an addict, I deliberately avoid using my phone in company (and never while eating out with someone),  and keep it parked on the desk when I am sleeping to avoid reading/browsing in bed.   I keep the ringer and notification sounds off most of the time,   and squelch what app notifications I can.

And now, to read the book and see if it brings anything I’m not aware of to mind!

Saturday, October 12 2019

type

When I  read How to Break Up With Your Phone, I finished the book feeling pleased with myself.   I, apparently,  didn’t have a problem!  Social media has nearly no presence on my phone; if it’s in my hand, chances are I’m reading or calling someone. A few more days of thinking about it, though, followed by a video on one man’s attempt to be a digital minimalist, made me aware that my preening was premature.  Specifically,  recently I watched a video by Matt D’Avella on his and his wife’s attempt to live a week as digital minimalists, using four rules:    no phones in bed,   only one session of checking email per day,  only thirty minutes of social media use per day,  and streaming media (Youtube, Netflix, Spotify, etc), only on one day.   The instant horror I had at the idea of only checking my email once a day — I keep a tab open whenever I’m at the computer, or only streaming once a week, was itself an alert as the source of my own addictions.  I wasn’t completely oblivious to them, particularly my YouTube habit,  but D’Avella’s approach really throws light on them.

While I’m not going to take on D’Avella’s own rules, I do want to try a…limited version of them, like  checking my email only at two or three appointed times during the day (with morning coffee, after lunch, and  after supper);  limiting my reddit/facebook time to a common hour per day,   and limiting my Youtube watching to….well, let’s do the other things first.   If I can do intermittent fasting successfully —     about to hit the two month mark on that —  I can fast from reddit!

 

 

 

 

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How To Break Up With Your Phone

How To Break Up With Your Phone
© 2018 Catherine Price
192 pages

adios

In just over a decade, smartphones have become ubiquitous and transformative. But for all the ease they add to our lives,   smartphones also have an inherent capacity to be abused. In How To Break Up With Your Phone,  Catherine Price  shares various psychological studies from the last decade covering wireless devices’  effects on memory, attention,  social skills, and users’ mental states, before offering a thirty day plan for phasing out some of the worst smartphone abuses and arriving at a more healthy relationship with our phones.

In the first half of her work,   Price draws on both formal studies and more popular works (The Shallows, for instance) to probe the more problematic aspects of global civilizations’ ubiquitous phone use.  In addition to the aforementioned coverage of memory, social skills, and mental health, she also argues that phones are addictive by design,   their constant stream of feedback and notifications keeping us wired, like gamblers fixated on a slot machine. It’s the unpredictability that’s irresistible: we don’t know if someone will have liked our most recent photos, or upvoted our snarky comment on reddit,  but there’s always that chance, that hope.  The addiction is made worse through its practical justification: smartphones, unlike gambling devices, are incredibly useful machines for communication, information, and entertainment.

Having served as a one-woman intervention for you and your devices,  Price offers a path out: a thirty day program in which the concerned reader tries one practice every day that will ease them out of their smartphone addiction,  downshifting to a healthier relationship with gadgets.  These include an initial period where the mindful reader is encouraged to install an app that will monitor how many times a day their phone is picked up, and how long the screen stays active, just to gauge their own habits.  Simply being aware of behavior often helps to curb excesses of it:  if we could see ourselves growing heated in an argument, or gorging on a plate of food,  or losing an entire hour cruising a facebook timeline, we’d be far more likely to pull back from the behavior.  She goes on to challenge the reader to think about the apps on our phones, and to sort them into different categories; some  apps, “junk food” apps  like mindless games, she encourages the reader to simply uninstall.  One of the practices introduced within the month is that of meditation,  which is not surprising given the general mindful emphasis of the work.

Although fairly brief, How To Break Up With Your Cellphone is definitely an eye-opener. I’m familiar with some of the research Price included here, but there were more studies which I wasn’t aware of it.   I don’t think the problem ends with our cellphones, however  — although they are the fast road to digital addiction, the same issues can occur on a computer just as easily.   Prior to reading this book, I  reflected on my own phone use, and while reading it I realized the parts that I resonated with most were so much about the phone, but about social media and email.

 

 

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