24 January 2011

Rediscovering The Lorax

Yesterday, as I was surveying the contents of the new CD/DVD/book store in town, I happened across a hardcover copy of Dr Seuss' children's book The Lorax. All I could remember of the story were the truffula trees and some sort of vague environmental message. But I remembered loving it and decided, on impulse, that I had to buy it.

The sales assistant joked that I had "a serious night of reading" ahead of me. Well, I don't know about "night" - it did only take 15 minutes - but it was the best book I've read in I-don't-know-how-long. The Lorax beats The Forever War (which I've been crawling painfully through for over a month now) hands down. And that's supposed to be a science fiction classic.

The Lorax may be a children's story, but it's also "serious" storytelling of the highest order. Seuss' joyfully poetic writing...
"I am the Lorax," he coughed and he whiffed.
He sneezed and he snuffled. He snarggled. He sniffed.
"Once-ler!" he cried with a cruffulous croak.
"Once-ler! You're making such smogulous smoke!"
carried me right through to the end I knew was coming in one beautiful, imaginative burst of narrative. Without any of the tortuous mind-battle to continue reading I often experience with inferior (adult) fiction - as if reading a book, whatever my response to it, is good for me.

So honestly, if January is getting you down - which it is, according to BBC news - curl up with a good children's book. Read it out loud; as if you were telling the story to an *actual* child. This was easily the most entertaining, most uplifting thing I'd done all month. Medicine for the soul. And bloody good inspiration for some proper storytelling if you've any writer-ly inclinations.

21 January 2011

Epic beginnings

Well, I've seen some epic beginnings to scientific papers in my time, but this one takes the cake. Writing about legal rights in relation to quarantine during a potential influenza pandemic, Belinda Bennett kicks off the discussion by re-telling scenes from José Saramago's Blindness. And I quote:
"In his book ‘Blindness’, José Saramago tells the story of a city struck by an epidemic of ‘white blindness’... Those who are blind are placed in quarantine in a disused mental hospital, with food delivered to the main entrance three times daily. Inside the hospital, the ugly side of humanity is revealed as the strong take control of the food supplies and assault the  women. Beyond the hospital walls, the epidemic, initially a trickle of baffling cases, spreads to affect the whole city until, finally, soldiers no longer maintain the quarantine and the blind leave the hospital. The story follows a small band of people as they venture back into the city, led by one woman who still has her sight. Through their experiences, we see the chaos of a city where all social infrastructures have broken down and people do their best to survive in their new grim reality."
To be fair, she does go on to point out - on the following page - that the social disruption caused by a flu pandemic would be "considerably less", but, well... yikes! Is this an appropriate way to introduce the issue? I mean, it's attention-grabbing. You might at least read the rest just to see what the hell she's going to say next. But it's a little frightening, to say the least. It's pretty much like saying "When the apocalypse comes..."

Has anyone else come across an epic beginning to a scientific paper? I'd be interested to see others referencing fiction, and particularly science fiction. And what do we think about the "epic" approach to writing papers?

Bennett, B. (2009). Legal rights during pandemics: Federalism, rights and public health laws - a view from Australia. Public Health, 123, 232-236. DOI: 10.1016/j.puhe.2008.12.019

12 January 2011

A brief musical interlude

I know I usually blog about science and science communication, but since this is about technology, I feel legitimate in squeezing this in here.

I've recently read a couple of articles about the state of the music industry and the rise of digital music.

A transformed musical landscape -

State of the indy music industry looks rosy, so why all the doom-and-gloom about music?
 - Cory Doctorow (BoingBoing)

Given that only yesterday I was Skyping Spotify lists to a friend and sharing them on Facebook, I can't pretend I haven't bought into the whole digital music scene. But I still feel the same nostalgia as Manzoor about record shops.

After a particularly meagre pre-wedding Christmas this year, myself and Mr Hayley headed to Fopp in Bristol and, in about an hour, spent most of the money we had saved DIYing our Christmas presents. But wow, it felt good. I left the store triumphant with a stack of shiny new CDs and all the pleasure of combing through the lyrics and artwork to look forward to.

Three of the albums I bought were ones I'd previously downloaded (and paid for, I might add) - thus, the record industry is actually making more money out of me than pre-digital era. These were three albums that I'd grown to feel I needed on my shelf, in physical form, and not on a stark white CD burned in iTunes. I don't like flipping through a CD storage wallet. I like to be able to run my finger along the spines of my CDs, all neatly organised by genre on the shelf next to my sound system. (Call me a geek, but... well, I am.)

Don't get me wrong: I do use iTunes, MixCloud, Bandcamp, You Tube, Spotify and the rest - all the time. But the possibility that in the age of the iPod, we'll see the demise of the album is one thing that really does make me sad. As much as I've been enjoying arranging our favourite tracks into a four-hour long Spotify list for the aforementioned wedding (when I could have been organising flowers, photography, invitations... and about a hundred other things we haven't even started on yet), I also value the lesser known tracks on every record - they're all part of the journey.

That afternoon I rejoiced in slowly and carefully peeling the plastic wrapping and price labels off my new babies, and then scrutinising the photos, illustrations and credits in the artwork. This is all part of the ritual. It's just not the same waiting for a bunch of digital files to drop into your "purchased" folder. I've even been known to buy two physical copies of the same album - one for playing, one autographed and never played... until ten years later, when Mr Hayley went rummaging through my CD collection without my consent. Well, I can tell you, he didn't know what hit him when I discovered the (previously) unplayed version stuffed in his glove compartment.

Anyhow, I only meant to post those links, but it seems that when it comes to music I can get carried away. Have a read.