Yearly Archives: 2008


yiddish Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: the perfect gift for people who don’t think they like genre fiction • The best Latin name for your little toe is porcellus plorans domum, lit. piglet crying homeward; porcellus fori, domi, carnivorus and nonvoratus are left as an exercise for the reader • Hard-nosed advice on how book publishing works (and something I wish I’d read before starting the process) from Mark Hurst • Seeing to the “Dark Knight” with someone who rants about tardive dyskinesia and how it’s mean to pick on the mentally ill • Rediscovering that A Pattern Language is a wonderful cult, an architecture book that solves the problems of the world, like Ayn Rand for grownups • Sure, a minus sign isn’t the same as a hyphen or an en dash, but ditto marks are different from double quotes. Who knew?mtgoatspresskit.jpg • The new (and superb) Mountain Goats album Heretic Pride and especially its comic-book press kit • The cunning laser printer trick of sticking a little piece of tape over the toner sensor to get 1000 or so more copies–sticking it to the Man indeed • Kate Atkinson’s crime fiction: funny, novelistic, rich in character, full of ludicrous coincidence–everything crime fiction isn’t supposed to be • And lightning shot in slow motion, more awesome than I can describe.

Good Stuff

charango.jpg New Zealand being the world’s oldest democracy (Icelandic women didn’t get the vote until 1915, and the Isle of Man is not a country, thank you very much) • Jessica caring about apostrophes as much as I do • You Look Nice Today, world’s funniest podcast, is what you would expect from three yappy geeks combining potty humour with Voltaire • “May the sinews of his hams snap suddenly in moments of achievement!”, chant the artisans in Ernest Bramah’s delectable chinoiserie, the Kai Lung stories I recently unearthed from storage • The charango, a ten-stringed South American ukulele played to excellent effect on the latest Minisnap album skull.jpg• That pleasing moment-without-a-name when the song on your car radio and your turn signal are in perfect rhythmic synchrony • The anachronistic typography in the Indiana Jones movie maps (I was proud I spotted the Avant Garde in Crystal Skull) • Having the hatefulness of Comic Sans rudely recognised in the comic Achewood • The disadvantage of an elite American education persuasively argued by William Deresiewicz • Using a true “et” ampersand like Trebuchet’s to write et cetera as etc.gif


corite_rules_illo.jpg Sister Corita Kent’s Immaculate Heart College Art Department rules • Seth Godin’s unconventional and clear-headed Advice for Authors: publishing is venture capital, and books are souvenirs of your ideas • Taking a photo every day: doesn’t matter what of, just carrying a tiny camera everywhere and getting into the noticing habit • The Design Police’s Visual Enforcement Kit of design warning labels, like KERN THIS and BAD LOGO • Nina Simon’s splendid blog Museums 2.0, showing someone is thinking hard about museums and the Net (my favourite is the teen-mag-style flowquiz on how your museum should blog) • Some good tips from Ed Boyden on “How to Think”, including drawing while explaining and photographing the results • brill.jpgBuying a fresh brill from off the fishing boat, scaling, filleting, and frying it that same night in a white wine sauce; we called ours Brian • The moment when playing Spoon’s “The Underdog” on the ukulele where you realise you’re not sure if this is about the other person, or about you–the test of a good bitter love song • My favourite photographer Peter Peryer‘s plain-spoken and thoughtful blog, where he mulls over photos that didn’t make the cut. Why don’t all artists do this? • Migas made with good chorizo and old bread, both from the Farmer’s Market: a no-fuss weekend lunch for friends

Good Stuff

sydney.JPG Wallowing in the seriously comprehensive art and design bookstores of Sydney • J. G Ballard’s 1964 collection Terminal Beach, just for the story “The Drowned Giant” • Buying DRM-free Amazon MP3s; part of the satisfaction is watching iTunes sweating • John Crowley’s reading list of human cultures far weirder than fiction • Clive James’s poetry, particularly “The Pilgrimage of Peregrine Prykke”, and “The Book of My Enemy has Been Remaindered” • Re-reading Code of the Woosters and rediscovering its small and cheerful perfection kete.JPG • The beautiful plating of the ratatouille in the movie of the same name, for which I gather we must thank Thomas Keller • If you have so many fonts they’re effectively incomprehensible and unusable, and start using proper font management software like FontAgent Pro with auto-activation, the scales are lifted from your eyes and you feel ten feet tall • Getting a Christmas kete from your bosses of yummy local and organic treats, including home-made hummus • Buses that don’t just say SORRY, but alternate by flashing NOT ON SERVICE (Christchurch) or NOT IN SERVICE (Auckland)—Mike Bradstock drew my attention to this prepositional shift with latitude. • John Scalzi’s photo-essay of his visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky

Wincing Whirligigs, Batman!

jacket_the_canon.jpg The Canon
Natalie Angier
Houghton Mifflin, 2007
ISBN: 0618242953
A whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science. The subtitle says it all. Natalie Angier provides a one-chapter crash course on each of the natural sciences, and the scientific method and probability to boot. Worthy stuff, and I’ve been looking for a single volume like this; something I can give to my friends and family, not too demanding, but enough science to excite them and help them see things a little bit from my nerdy point of view. It’s not a long book (although the designer cheats with very tight linespacing), and Angier is a New York Times reporter with a Pulitzer. So why did it irritate me so much that I reached the end only through sheer bloody-mindedness, audibly wincing every few pages?

Like I said, the subtitle says it all. We know what a whirlwind tour is, but what the heck is a whirligig tour? Poetically, one that’s hectic and constantly changing; literally, it’s a pinwheel, a brightly-coloured child’s toy that’s amusing and pointless. An unfortunate metaphor, and the first of many. Angier loves slapdash metaphors. Also flowery turns of phrase, obscure and only somewhat-appropriate words, zany non-sequiturs, and alliteration (e.g., the beautiful basics in the subtitle). Here’s a typical paragraph.

Scientific notation works just as well for the furtive as for the discursive, although in this case you’re talking about powers of one-tenth rather than powers of ten. One-tenth of one-tenth is one-hundredth, written as 10-2; one-tenth of one-hundredth is one-thousandth, or 10-3. Keep biting the right-handed bit of Alice’s toadstool. Down you go, you’re a fractionated Italianate family. You’re milli — a thousandth, 10-3; or micro — a millionth, 10-6; or nano — a billionth, 10-9; or pico — a trillionth, 10-12; or femto — a millionth of a billionth, 10-15.

Some people might like this sort of wordplay, but it gives me hives–and it’s not even good wordplay. Furtive for small is nice, but since when did discursive mean big? Meandering and full of digressions, like Angier’s metaphors, yes, perhaps expansive, but only incidentally large. And what’s up with Italianate? Does she mean Latinate (although the prefixes are actually Greek)? Or do Nano and Pico sound like comical Italian names? (Pico Iyer’s the only Pico I know of, and his name’s Indian.) Lastly, the Lewis Carroll reference is just a bit too sloppy: it’s a mushroom, not a toadstool (an important distinction, if you’re eating it). And it makes you grow taller and shorter, not bigger and smaller–in the original, Alice elongates and contracts like a caterpillar.

Every page is like this. Angier plunders the dictionary for shiny words: proptosically, vinculum, slub, and surl. As she flails for synonyms, the soup of particles in stellar formation becomes a cosmic chowder or a plasmic bisque, until the star and the metaphor collapse in a ball of baklava, whatever that’s supposed to look like. Every page has its pun, mostly lame. Pop culture allusions abound but are random and baffling rather than illuminating. And lists of three or more things always, without exception, conclude with something wacky.

…one might find organisms that take in nutrients, excrete waste, replicate, and actually use the fondue set they got as a wedding present.…

As for Pluto and Sedna and others of their subcompact class, whether you consider them planets, dwarf planets, planetismals, planet parodies, or Planters party mix…

Dave Barry it’s not. Which is a shame, because if you can get past the florid language she does a pretty good job of explaining one or two core concepts from each of chemistry, physics, astronomy and so on. There are some factual blunders, as you’d expect in a book covering all of science–I only picked up the biological ones. She says the platypus comes from New Zealand, and the carpal is just a single bone. Those hackneyed tetrapod forelimbs get trotted out again (she’s got me doing it now), and they’re poetically called homonyms–words that sound the same but have different meanings–but her metaphor is almost exactly backwards: bat and cat forelimbs are superficially different but share a deep, homologous, structure. Most importantly, she constantly confuses the fact of evolution (using examples from the fossil record) and Darwin’s theory; the fossils she cites support descent with modification but not natural selection.

It’s a shame. Angier is an great science journalist, but The Canon‘s enthusiasm has a whiff of anxiety, as if she was so worried about getting through to the science-averse that her entire rhetorical bag of tricks was upended on the table. If you’re happy to sort though the pile for the good stuff, you’ll enjoy this book more than I did. But I’d still rather recommend Bill Bryson.