Thursday, September 18, 2008

818: Braaaaaaaaains!

Of course, zombies do not really say that, as Max Brooks explains in The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead. This is just one of the many Hollywood myths that he debunks in his tactical manual to surviving a zombie outbreak.

The book is a very handy size 8"x5" size, and weighs only 10.7 oz. It will fit nicely into a backpack, or a pocket on your scavenged army surplus fatigues. Inside, this text is packed with down-to-earth, battle-tested zombie fighting advice with some simple but effective illustrations.

This is a book about surviving the outbreak, plain and simple. Not fighting the outbreak, not controlling the zombies, but keeping yourself safe. All of his advice follows a simple plan: avoid attention, fight quietly and effectively, and get away fast.

Overall, this is a very good introduction to the dangers of a zombie-infested world, and belongs on the shelf of every survivalist. His section on underwater zombie eradication is fantastic, and contains information I have never seen published before.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

091: Bacon and Books

The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World has the longest title of all the books I've read so far. I'm glad to finish it, since now the "currently reading" box on the website won't be so stretched out.

This book reminded me a lot of Descartes' Notebook, for obvious reasons. The subject in both titles is a mysterious manuscript written in code or cipher by a medieval scientist who feared oppression by the church.

In both books, the authors' approach was similar. Introduce the medieval manuscript, then launch into a biography of the manuscript's author so that we understand the context in which it was written, then return to reveal what is known of the manuscript today.

Unlike the Descartes notebook, the book in The Friar and the Cipher exists today and is still being researched and studied. The Voynich Manuscript, named after the English bookdealer who discovered it in 1912, has defied scholars for more than 400 years. The authors recount fascinating attempts to decode the book ranging from World War II code breakers to the NSA and super computers. All have ultimately failed, and the attempts to read the book continue to this day.

There are undoubtedly better biographies of Roger Bacon, and better books on the Voynich manuscript, but this book provides an excellent introduction to both subjects. The writing is very clear and enjoyable, and manages to cover an astounding range of topics along the way.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

529: Tick. Tock.

The clock of the long now : time and responsibility attempts to explain the philosophy and goals behind the Long Now foundation.

The foundation is concerned about the increasingly short-term vision of modern life. The book was written in 1998, when the Internet boom was driving everything at "Internet time", but even today it is clear that long term planning is constantly discarded for short term returns in everything from corporate strategy to politics.

I was particularly struck by the author's examples of long-term scientific research. Longitudinal studies have produced some of the most valuable research in a wide range of topics from biology to genetics. Yet it's almost impossible to fund and continue such research in the paper-driven research environment today. Studying slash and burn agriculture in Africa over 9 years led to the conclusion that it did not work to stop woods from taking over open grasslands. Studying the same fields over 40 years led to the reverse conclusion. It turns out that it takes about 10 years of repeated burning to finally destroy the rootstocks.

The clock alluded to in the title is partially an engineering challenge, and partially an exercise in thinking long term. Can a clock be made that will work for 10,000 years -- as long as human civilization has existed? The clock itself runs incredibly slow. It will tick once a year, and bong once a century. It will last for entire lifetimes. It may even outlast our entire civilization. Just to conceptualize the clock is to force the mind to think long-term.

The book is an interesting and evocative read. The chapters are more like separate mini-essays, and accordingly, the book does not have a flowing narrative. In parts, the book reads like a conversation between friends, which is not surprising. Much of the content evolved out of long-running discussions on the subject. While not every chapter is successful, I found most gave me something to think about.