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01-05-12: Adrian Bejan and J. Pedar Zane Reveal 'Design in Nature'

First Law of Flow

We're always seeing pictures in the clouds; shapes in the riverbed, outlines in the map. We are a pattern-matching species, stringing together ideas like beads on a necklace to explain our world. Our first shots at explanation tended to be supernatural; gods and monsters (often the same thing) done it.

Then we discovered science, which enabled us to not just explain what had happened, but predict what would happen next, and that proved to be useful. But we can always fall back on the supernatural when the patterns don't match, when the story makes no sense. Until, eventually, phsyics has its way.

'Design in Nature: How the Contructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology and Social Organization' by Adrian Bejan and J. Pedar Zane posits a law of physics the authors call "the constructal law," which, "dictates that flow systems should evolve over time, acquiring better and better configurations to provide more access for the currents that flow through them."

Which, according to the book, covers pretty much about every damn thing, from snowflakes to football teams. The contructal law was first proposed in 1996 by Adrian Bejan and has its own website, which gets updated every time another prediction made using his law proves to be relevant and, well, right. This happens a lot more often than you might expect with a new law of physics and has a much bigger impact on everyday life as well.

'Design in Nature' makes it clear from the outset that the authors are not making a spiritual argument. This is not a stalking horse for "intelligent design" or creationism; if anything it is the opposite. And while the book has enough pictures to leaven the text, there's a fair density of actual science in here; taking it just over the edge of what usually gets classed for "popular science." And given the authors' stance on matters that some would certainly prefer to see as spiritual, popular is clearly not what this book is going to be in a culture that is leaning perilously away from science.

The kernel of most interest here is the manner in which the authors extrapolate their law to see its effects beyond the world of physics — in biology and indeed, even in societal organizations. The authors are not shy about making grand claims. It's provocative reading that will have you matching patterns in the chaos — and perhaps, for a moment or two, making a bit of sense out of your own unruly life.

01-03-12: Tom Standage Unveils 'The Turk'

The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine

Editor's note: I've been wanting to resurrect this review from the archives for a while, not, but it wasn't easy finding the book in the stacks to scan a new, larger cover image. Here is a book that is suitable for just about any reader. It's compelling and fascinating and weird, and with the current interest in proto-Victoroian technology, very timely.

True life situations that are stranger than fiction often end up getting turned into fiction. That's the case with the story of the Turk, an eighteenth-century clockwork machine that has been the subject of numerous novels and movies. But who needs fiction when the real story is so entertaining? In 'The Turk', Tom Standage recounts the journey of this important machine through the decades between its debut in 1769 and its demise in 1854.

Thought provoking even now, the Turk was an intellectual hand grenade when it first appeared, and the reverberations still ring out across our mindscape. Standage has done a fantastic job in his recreation of its life. It's a page-turning, pulse-pounding tale that reads like an elaborate steampunk fantasy. It's also likely to inspire another round of fictionalizations, but it's hard to imagine that anything could be more compelling, more entertaining, more interesting than the truth as written by Standage.

Standage starts with a brief history of 18th century 'automata', in itself quite fascinating. Any reader who enjoyed the 'toy shop scenes' in 'Blade Runner' will find its distant ancestors even more intriguing. In 1769, Hungarian nobleman and engineer Wolfgang von Kempelen was asked by Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary to attend a magic show, so he could explain to her how the tricks worked. At the conclusion of the show, Kempelen said that he could make a device far more amazing than anything on display. Six months later, the Turk debuted.

The Turk was a life-sized figure of a man, carved from wood, who was seated behind a cabinet with two doors and bottom drawer. It was dressed in a fashionable "oriental" costume. Inside the cabinet, easily opened and viewed, was complex clockwork machinery. On top of the cabinet, In front of the Turk was a chessboard. It was wound up, set in motion and played immaculate chess, beating most opponents.

The implications of a chess-playing machine were immense. The reaction was incredible, and the Turk became a very popular attraction. Standage follows it throughout its history and its 85-year career. And he never misses out on the import of the very ideas the Turk suggested. Standage quotes David Brewster, a British popular scientist of the 1830's, who says, "'Those mechanical wonders which in one century enriched only the conjurer who used them, contributed in another to augment the wealth of the nation; and those automatic toys which once amused the vulgar, are now employed in extending the power and promoting the civilization of our species."'

The Turk inspired many creations as a result of its own unique technology, from Edgar Allen Poe's format for the detective story to Charles Babbage's Difference Engine. Finding out how this happened is part of the fun of this book. But Standage doesn't linger anywhere too long — he keeps his eye on the prize, which is the Turk itself. And yes, you do eventually find out how the Turk operated, thanks to copious notes kept by the owners and a recent reconstruction.

While this book is non-fiction it will have a great appeal to a wide range of genre fiction readers. The story itself has a very "steampunk" feel. In its lurid detail it almost reads like Tim Powers or James Blaylock. Readers who enjoyed 'Carter Beats the Devil' will find the engineering details of great interest, while the Turk's touring life was not that different from that of a stage magician. It also qualifies as a historical mystery, and readers of that genre who find the premise intriguing are also likely to enjoy this book.

As a matter of fact, this is simply one of the most enjoyable books I've come across in a long time. Where other non-fiction gets tedious, 'The Turk' is fleet. Where other non-fiction bogs down, 'The Turk' bucks up. It's nicely illustrated and laid out so it's easy to read, but the small format does make the book practically impossible to lay down. That's just as well — most readers won't want to put this book down until they're finished.

01-02-12: Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith 'Van Gogh: The Life'

"As my work is, so am I."

The very title of the book is audacious. The project planning seems almost insurmountable, even if the subject were a contemporary man of no accomplishments. After all, how to capture "a life" in non-fiction? There's definitely a "Heisenberg uncertainty effect" in biography; observing the subject changes him or her, perhaps in the same manner as pinning a live butterfly to a canvas background. The subject remains beautiful, but dies.

If the subject is an artist, then the death of both the subject and their beauty seems all but assured. On one hand, if you are writing non-fiction, you must by definition, stick to the facts of the matter. On the other, if you are trying to re-create a human life, the facts alone simply will not do. Even if the subject is not an artist, the biographer(s) must use art to bring the subject from history into story — into narrative. Humans are, after all a narrative species, roughly speaking, a right-hand side of the brain that observes the facts, and a left-hand side of the brain that assembles them into story.

'Van Gogh: The Life' manages the breathtaking success it achieves, living up to the subject, creating the life of the artist by virtue of the fact that the team who wrote it comprise a sort of gestalt entity, a left and right half of the brain that can properly assemble and bring life to those whom it observes. Steven Naifeh is the researcher, the observer, who records the facts and hands them to Gregory White Smith, the storyteller. Of course, as in the human mind, there's clearly got to be a lot of cross-talk, cross-over, back and forth, but the result, as in our human experience, is a single, unified narrative that as much as possible compellingly, engagingly creates, in a reading experience, the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Not surprisingly, given the effort and artistry on display here, the work in prose rivals the best of its subject's work.

'Van Gogh: The Life' clocks in at 879 reading pages, with about a hundred pages of notes in the book itself. Remarkably, the rest of the research, over 6,000 pages, is available online, at Van Gogh: The Life Biography. But here's the question you, the potential reader have to ask yourselves, and it is an important question, to be sure: Is this enormous book worth your valuable reading time? What is the compelling draw to pull you through nearly 900 pages? It's as long as a Tom Clancy or Stephen King novel, and does not involve time travel or blowing up the Kremlin.

But the mystery here is every bit as compelling as the Kennedy assassination, and the narrative pull more engaging than blowing up the Kremlin. The impact that Vincent Van Gogh had upon this world, the beauty and joy and sadness he expressed in his art is universal. It needs no translation. The power is undeniable. How did these paintings, these images come into this world? 'Van Gogh: The Life' can and should be read as a page-turning mystery. How did this odd-looking, mentally ill young man create images that may well last beyond what we politely call modern Western civilization? His life, we come to discover, was an absolute mess. But from it emerged starry nights and self-portraits that sear our souls.

Soul-searing is relevant in this work, and in this life. Van Gogh always lived beyond his means, always pushed to the extremes. Naifeh and Smith give us every detail that we need, and that's a lot of detail, but no more. We meet his grandparents and parents, his mother in particular. Then we're off into a life of grit, failure, compulsion, family, mistakes, sex, disease and art. White's prose is precise and passionate. You'll need to remind yourself that you're reading non-fiction, as White has a talent for immersing you in character arcs and plot points that is very novelistic. But all those great details, the plot points that amaze you — his faux-marriage to a prostitute, an intense set piece that takes place after a devastating mining disaster — as unearthed by Naifeh, are the stuff of corroborated fact, and literally years of research.

Naifeh and Smith were given access to papers and letters that have not yet been integrated in the manner of this work, and the depth they add is clearly important, both to our understanding of Van Gogh and the readability of the book. 'Van Gogh: The Life' lets us walk in his parents' shoes, feel their love for him, their exasperation with him. This is a book that many parents will find particularly poignant; Van Gogh was a hard-knocks guy, and he usually set himself up. There were certainly mental illness issues that tugged him down, and the authors document this but do not dwell on it. They have a different vision of his death than the standard-issue, which has made headlines. Well it should, but the point of the book is that as a reader, you get to know Van Gogh, and by the time the revelation is made, readers will have made that leap themselves, by virtue of how deeply we are invested in his character.

While we do get to literally live Van Gogh's life, Naifeh and Smith make that life come to life by giving us the properly shaded vision of those who surrounded Van Gogh. These characters — his family, his friends, some famous, some not — figure into plot arcs that keep the pages turning as fast possible to bring readers to those penultimate moments when Van Gogh literally changed the world. It's every bit as earth-shaking as any fictional construct and grippingly-plotted in this well-constructed biography.

Reading 'Van Gogh: The Life' is not a trivial investment of the time you will spend in this life. Give it an hour a day, and you'll easily finish it in a month. The return is two-fold. The satisfaction of joining Van Gogh as he realizes a success that will go unrecognized while he is still alive is palpable, tremendous. It is a moment before the moment. When you see his works, you will know the man, and know the works; "As my work is, so am I."

But the success of the biography is that readers will know more than the man and his work; they will know the world, their world, this world, as Van Gogh knew his, to the extent that is possible. You will see a starry night, yourself in the mirror, fields in the sun, and know that terrible beauty there, in our own hearts.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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