Books: Olafur Eliasson In Real Life edited by Mark Godfrey

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life
edited by Mark Godfrey
published by Tate Enterprises, Ltd.
2019

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life isn’t a conventional art show catalog, if you can’t already tell that from my other two or three notes about this book here. Yes, it does include photographs from the remarkable exhibition of the same name at the Tate Modern, which had adults saying “WOAH!” out loud while walking blindly through bright rooms, staring at mirrors and lenses and wave machines, and playing in colored lights like happy children. A conventional catalog would describe what we would have seen and experienced if we’d visited the exhibit in person, with some essays to understand the work better in retrospect. This book is instead is a supplement (and according to the artist, part of the exhibit itself) that pulls together interviews with scientists, artists, chefs, musicians, designers, and others to discuss a broad range of approaches to human engagement with the world.

Yes, the pictures are PRETTY, but that’s just to lure you in to thinking about the world more broadly. 🙂

Studio Olafur Eliasson isn’t just one person or particular pieces of art: it’s a large team of people with a range of specialties who are exploring all sorts of ways to engage with the world, from eating (yes, the studio has a vegetarian restaurant to feed the team; they’ve published a cookbook AND ran a cafe at the Tate Modern during the exhibit), to coloring rivers to raise your awareness of them (and what they should look like when they aren’t harmlessly-but-vividly-colored), to being aware of light (those yellow rooms are really more interesting in altering perception than you would guess), to producing solar products, to displaying remarkable rooms of geometric models that form the various presentations of the Model Room (which remind me of something one would make at SF’s own interactive science museum The Exploratorium), and include many great works by the late Einar Thorsteinn

This book packs in a lot of concepts, extensive discussions about the role of culture, the false split between culture and nature, some disturbing descriptions from a chef about duck brains (Scandinavian food has never sounded more alarming), that amazing Fab 5 Freddy interview that delighted and amused me (and inspired me to watch some of F5F’s film, Wild Style, on YouTube), ideas that sent me off to order books and read up on random topics…

This book is an engaging work/collection in its own right even when separated from the exhibit, and supplements the gorgeous visuals and experiences of the show with lots of in-depth research. I feel my mind has been enriched by having spent time with it.

Book: Anni Albers edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck

Anni Albers
edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck
published by Yale University Press
2018

Anni Albers, a gorgeously printed exhibition catalog and book of essays, shows off the work of phenomenal modernist Anni Albers, and her work in design, weaving, painting, and printmaking.

Those of us who have been fans of the pre-war Bauhaus school in Germany may know her work from compilations of the school’s many famous graduates and teachers; we may also know that women were sent off into the weaving department regardless of their design interests to an extent that raises questions about the motivations of the male staff. Albers really took to it, produced some fantastic, ultra-modernist work, and raised the profile of textile design at a time when it was profoundly under-appreciated.

The hair on the back of your neck may rise up a bit when you read about the punch cards that were used to set the patterns for jacquard looms… The Bauhaus operated in a time where mass production seemed like an opportunity to democratize access to basic goods, like shoes and housewares, and that good design could directly improve day-to-day life. (Yes, of course the Nazis shut them down.)

The details of Alber’s work are beautifully reproduced in remarkably color plates, often showing both the entire work (ranging widely in scale) plus details that allow you to appreciate the craft.

And there is more to her work! As an aspiring pattern designer, I love seeing how she worked out some of her designs on grid paper. As a textile lover, the reproductions thrill me. And as a print-maker – HEY, she does those really well, too!

Details of the remarkably high quality reproductions of Alber’s sketches, textiles, typewriter art, and the lovely binding, which does my book-binder’s heart glad.

She even has some typewriter art, which makes me think of Mira Schendel (different continent, later time), and of how my fellow geeks should really appreciate where the roots of ASCII art came from. (Geek joy!)

So much of her work is understated in that she uses muted colors, or relatively few colors – it never shouts. Which means it might have a hard time getting attention in our current, loud, shiny, sequined art world – but the design is BOLD. And the quality! The detail! The attention to everything! The essays follow her career from Germany to the US; from teaching at colleges and universities; from the loom to the press. It shows evidence of her processes (which were key to the experience for her, as an artist and as a teacher), of the interests in Central/South American textiles and collecting, and of her design approaches. (There is a white-on-white printed plate that I just ADORE…) This woman had RANGE.

This is one of those, HOW COULD SHE NOT BE BETTER KNOWN, TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS, AND SHOUTED ABOUT IN CAFÉS kind of revelatory books. Albers herself was a bit frustrated that she could earn so many paid commissions, design textiles for Knoll (ooooooh!), and yet people would only get excited when she worked on paper – when she created art that could not possibly have any utilitarian application. Fabric had been seen as TOO USEFUL, even though it is a brilliant technology – its association with women goes back to ancient times (see another favorite book of mine: Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Barber), and that seems to have held textile art back. Wrongly. SO WRONGLY.

The book – essays, production, binding, range of work included – is of the highest quality. The exhibition must have been phenomenal!

Book: Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

Cover of Woman World

Woman World
by Aminder Dhaliwal
published by Drawn + Quarterly
2018

This graphic novel is ADORABLE and funny!

Set here on earth, Woman World tells the story of how a mysterious biological problem in humans means that all new babies are born female. Natural disasters destroy much of so-called civilization; years pass, and we find ourselves in a village where the children have never seen a human man, and the women are dreaming, falling in love, managing anxiety, being baffled by male-centric artifacts from the past, and making a new community under a Beyonce-loving banner.

It is also laid out very beautifully. The full pages are thoughtfully done; the spreads are used for optimal effect. A lot of thought went into the design, and the more I think about it, the more I am impressed at how each layout is used for best effect.

Did I mention adorable? ADORABLE. And witty. I laughed out loud repeatedly, and it brought joy to my heart.

Film: The Booksellers by D.W. Young

As part of my ongoing efforts to support my ICONIC local non-profit movie theater, The Roxie, I paid an indie ticket price through this link, so the money is split 50-50 with my local theater. How nice is that?

This is a documentary film about the rare booksellers of New York City, who are themselves becoming rare.

The film allows you to see their shops, their warehouses, and a completely over-the-top private library as you learn about the rare book business, and how difficult it is (and in some ways, always has been, Internet notwithstanding).

Books: The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation, edited by Mathieu Lommen

Cover of The Book of Books

The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation
edited by Mathieu Lommen
published by Thames & Hudson
2012

I hand-sew and bind books, I read books, I buy books, I have books printed, I fill blank books, I collect books, I study books, I LOVE BOOKS! So it feels inevitable that I would find this book, which is about the printing technologies, fonts, and design of books, with an emphasis on Europe and/or printing that uses European alphabets.

This is a MASSIVE tome, and has reproductions of MANY books, with remarkable examples of everything from bibles to scientific texts to art books to books on how to break into castles. Which was apparently a really big thing. A thing that was important enough to buy books about. (My gift subscription to Castle Raider Monthly must have expired: I’ve been missing out.) If the term “siege engine” immediately came to mind, you win 500 Geek Points.

Collage of sample images from the Book of Books; older samples above, gorgeous Emigre image to the lower left, gorgeous Maria Merian image to the lower right.

The fonts are GORGEOUS. GORGEOUS! I would use some of them today! HOW DID WE EVER STOP USING SOME OF THESE!!! GAAAAAH! Sorry. I’ll pull myself together now. But really – such beauty! The folks who set this type, and who designed it – I hope they were lauded in their day!

Illustrated books and printing technologies are also discussed, and printing of this sort – etching and hand coloring and tipping in scientific illustrations – was once the key way to study sciences and the natural world in a time of limited travel opportunities. Books as a way to transmit key knowledge, not just as entertainment – that is so exciting!

After seeing remarkable samples of so many older works (going back to the late 1400s), thanks to the editor’s access to special collections in the Netherlands, I was beyond delighted that he extended all the way into the 2010s, and included the work of Emigre Fonts , an SF Bay Area-Local font foundry that arose with the Apple Macintosh back in 1984. The work of founders Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko has always been impressive and presented brilliantly (in their magazines, catalogs, and in active use), so I was thrilled to see their inclusion here.

I’ve spent some quality time with this book, and there is so much in it, I need to return to it repeatedly to process all that I’ve seen. It’s quite a work!

(Yes, I also have the Parr & Badger Photobook history, all the volumes, since photo books are their own design challenge…)

Books: Department of Mind-Blowing Theories by Tom Gauld

Cover of Tom Gauld’s latest book

Department of Mind-Blowing Theories
by Tom Gauld
published by Drawn + Quarterly
2020

This is a charming book of science cartoons, which had previously appeared in New Scientist magazine, collected here by the excellent comic/graphic novel publishers at Drawn + Quarterly. They are subtle, funny, brainy cartoons with really fantastic contraptions, many explosions, heartless thesis committees, and at least one appearance of Cthulhu.

This book is for you if: you wish the text message “LOL!” really stood for “Let’s Observe Lobsters!”

(Speaking of LOL, I did laugh out loud at the bear cave strip, and several others.)

I want all of the contraptions.

Book: Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

Cover of Martha Wells’ Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries)
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
2018

Book 4 in this delightful series of novellas about a cyborg-ish Security Unit who has been through some very bad situations, has liberated itself from human control, has some natural-feeling human-saving habits continues!

This volume has everything you’ve come to love Murderbot for, from its amusement at silly humans, its irrepressible desire to hack systems, relationships with differently-abled bots, a bit of time to enjoy new entertainment media, and…. okay, there was some unexpected shopping, which was brief, and didn’t appear to be habit-forming. But all the stuff you really want to know about Murderbot’s fondness for some special humans from the first book I’m going to withhold, so you can enjoy finding out what happens on your own.

I enjoyed it, and now I’m ready for the full length novel!

(Yes, you need to start reading the stories from the first novella, silly human. Go do that.)

Book: Rogue Protocol (the Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Rogue Protocol (the Murderbot Diaries)
by Nancy Wells
published by Tor
2018

As you know by now, I love me some Murderbot. Martha Wells’ stories about an unauthorized / independent, telenovela-addicted android-cyborg security unit trying to understand its situation and cope with fragile humans who put themselves into dangerous situations are delightful, and this is the third novella in the set. There is a full length book that was released THIS WEEK, and so of course I am changing my strategy from doling the novellas out to myself slowly to catching up quickly.

In this exciting episode, Murderbot has a suspicion that its favorite human could use some evidence against the corporation that tried to kill her and her team. So, being a very direct kind of SecUnit, it goes to the scene of a potential crime.

There are bots! Drones! Weapons! Heavy equipment! Various combinations of nice and dastardly humans! The story maintains an engaging pace, is well-written, and… is it just me, or is Murderbot developing a soft spot for people? No, I don’t mean where it was shot or caught all that shrapnel, I mean… oh, I can’t spoil it for you.

It is another fun episode. 🙂

Book: The Power by Naomi Alderman

Cover of The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power
by Naomi Alderman
published by Back Bay Books (Little, Brown and Company)
2016

What would happen to the structure of society if women had the physical power to defend themselves, or even routinely overpower men?

In this engrossing novel, women develop the ability to generate electricity. Humans already have a lot of electrical wiring internally, but in the book, a scientific intervention intended for one purpose may have inadvertently given rise to the ability for women to generate and control electricity, an have the ability to taze at will from puberty onward.

This changes the world.

The story follows several women, both privileged and disadvantaged, comfortable and abused, in the spotlight and sidelined, who find different ways of utilizing this development to influence the direction their societies evolve in. The story of an intrepid male reporter from Lagos also provides a sympathetic (and at times, alarmed) point of view.

Alderman does a remarkable job of showing the RANGE of impacts that could arise, from fiercely patriarchal societies harming or killing women to maintain control, to government leaders militarizing this new ability; from women who use moderation in utilizing their new powers in societies that have included them, to women who wreak vengeance upon their captors and oppressors in societies were they functionally enslaved.

The way the book ends… just be sure to read what looks like an appendix, but is a key part of the story.

Yes, I’m sure Margaret Atwood is DELIGHTED that she got to make such a concise review-and-play-on-words about this book ON THE FRONT COVER.

As someone who has daydreamed of subtly engineering women to be stronger to decrease abuses, do I think that power struggles could play out as they do in this book? Yes, and perhaps Alderman is more realistic than I am, considering history. When have the powerful ever shared power willingly and peacefully? When have enslaved people ever received justice? When have oppressors ever willingly made amends? My own dark futures in fiction are dark DIFFERENTLY, but yes, I think we agree on the backlash. Because: humans.

Also note: read the acknowledgements. No, really.

Summary: a page-turner of a book with a thoughtful story arc for the characters, thoughtful (and very dramatic) implications across the wide range of conditions, and a dark view which is entirely fair, considering the state of the world. I’m glad I read it.

Book: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane

Cover of You Look Like a Think and I Love You by Janelle Shane

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You
by Janelle Shane, Ph.D.
published by Voracious (Little, Brown and Company)
2019

I’ve enjoyed Janelle Shane’s site, aiweirdness.com, for some time, and when she mentioned that she had published a book on the same themes, I couldn’t resist it.

What are her themes? Machine learning, mostly, and how difficult it is to train a neural network to do what you really want it to do. You THINK you are training your software to recognize cancerous lumps, and it does well with your training data, but it doesn’t work so well in real life. In retrospect, you trained it with images of cancerous lumps that have rulers next to them to show the size of the lump, while no one cares (or measures) what size benign lumps are. Your program relied on the rulers to know whether or not a lump is cancerous: ruler = yes, no ruler = no. You invented… a RULER-DETECTOR.

Why I am reading about this geeky, specialist topic? I have to deal with the limitations of “AI”s of various designs all the time. Voicemail hell? That’s a not-very-intelligent program imitating an AI, possibly with AI voice recognition. Applying for a job? Software is screening my resume. Getting a laboratory test? Software may be screening that for me, too!

If you’ve ever gotten into an argument with your phone, you know that these programs are… not perfect. Depending on whether you have a high or low voice, they may not seem to work at all. My father is still amused that one of his friends couldn’t get her voice assistant on her phone to understand ANYTHING she said, but my father (who sounds like Darth Vader) could ALWAYS be understood. Why? Because it was trained this way.

Janelle Shane finds amusing ways to talk about how neural networks and other near-AI programs work, what they are good at, why they fail at so many tasks, and how the data sets they train on can make them vulnerable to manipulation.

You will laugh, as I did, as an AI trained to generate metal band names learns to generate ice cream flavors! You’ll laugh often, really: Ms. Shane has some good stories, and good quotes from people who fought to teach their AI something specific, and their AI interpreted them literally and won. The challenges she sets up for the simple neural nets she build are VERY FUNNY.

It isn’t just jokes and witty examples: you won’t laugh at the idea of a navigation-bot telling you to drive TOWARD a fire (because there is less traffic in that direction!), nor at racial and gender biases that oblivious employees train software with, nor at the fact that image recognition programs that train on the same free (manipulatable) data sets can be mis-trained to see things that aren’t visible / obvious / correct to humans.

Maybe there’s a rare but catastrophic bug that develops, like the one that affected Siri for a brief period of time, causing her to respond to users saying “Call me an ambulance” with “Okay, I’ll call you ‘an ambulance’ from now on.”

Excerpt From: Janelle Shane. “You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/you-look-like-a-thing-and-i-love-you/id1455076486

It is good (and refreshing) to truly think about the serious implications of our rush to be dependent upon machines, and the hazy way we think that machines are neutral decision makers, when nearly every application we have developed for them is not neutral in inputs, programming, or impact.