Asteroids – friends or foe?

Did you know that 30 June is International Asteroid Day? I didn’t until recently, but when I found out, it prompted me to take a closer look at what asteroids are, and why they’re important, and what I found out was fascinating, but also a bit scary.

Asteroids are essentially lumps of rock that orbit the sun but are too small to be considered planets, or even dwarf planets. They usually have roughly circular orbits and are mostly found in a dense belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Occasionally however, gravitational forces kick asteroids out of their usual positions and send them hurtling towards the inner solar system.

Sometimes, these asteroids even collide with our own planet, and when they do, the consequences can be catastrophic. Evidence suggests that about 65 million years ago, an asteroid that would have been between 5 and 10 km across hit the Earth in what is now Mexico, causing an explosion so enormous that its effects caused the extinction of more than three-quarters of all the plant and animal species alive at the time, including all of the dinosaurs (although not the birds, which had evolved from them and are therefore part of the dinosaurs’ evolutionary lineage).

On the morning of 30 June 1908, a much smaller asteroid (perhaps around 100 metres across) exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere above a thankfully sparsely populated area of eastern Russia called Tunguska, which is why International Asteroid Day takes place on that day. Despite the fact that there was no actual impact, it completely flattened a 2,000 square kilometre area of forest. Understandably, there is now a global effort to track near-Earth asteroids that are a potential threat to our survival, and International Asteroid Day aims to raise awareness of the need to protect Earth from asteroid impacts.

Asteroid art by Daisy

Thankfully though, it’s not all bad news. Although we tend to think of asteroids as a threat, they also represent a huge opportunity as they are often rich in valuable mineral resources that are rare here on Earth. Asteroid mining is a staple of golden-age hard science-fiction, as well as a priority for current spacefaring nations and private companies. The European Space Agency’s recent Rosetta mission showed that it is technically possible to travel to, and land probes on, such objects, although after close fly-bys of two asteroids, it actually landed on an icy comet rather than a rocky asteroid. Excitingly, the Japanese spacecraft Hyabusa2 is currently on its final approach to the asteroid Ryugu, and with other similar expeditions planned, like NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, exploitation of asteroids looks set to be an increasingly important feature of space exploration in the near future. Once perceived only as a threat to humanity, asteroids may eventually become a source of materials that could help us explore the furthest reaches of our solar system, and beyond.

Since the discovery of the first asteroid in 1801, these lumps of rock have captured our imaginations. The dual nature of asteroids as both friends and foe has given rise to a rich literature of both fiction and non-fiction. This International Asteroid Day, why not check out some of the books about asteroids that we have here at Christchurch City Libraries? To help you, I have a compiled a short list of places you might want to start…

Asteroids

List created by robcruickshank
Books about humanity’s long-standing relationship with asteroids, what they are, why they’re important, including both fiction and non-fiction.

Catching Stardust

What the latest scientific studies of asteroids and comets tells us about the origins of the solar system.

The End

A book about the many ways that natural disasters threaten human survival, and what we might be able to do about them – includes a section on asteroid impacts.

The Ends of the World

A looks at the scientific evidence for the great mass extinctions, including the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs.

Evening’s Empires

A science fiction novel about a man stranded alone on a barren asteroid.

The Hammer of God

A classic science fiction novel about the discovery of an asteroid on collision course for Earth.

Impact!

A book for children about the scientific effort to track asteroids and avoid their devastating impacts.

Nameless

A fish-out-of-water young adult novel about a Russian teenager and physics prodigy recruited by NASA to prevent an asteroid colliding with Earth.

Learning to Swear in America

A graphic novel about an attempt to save the world from an impending asteroid impact.

Nemesis

A young adult novel involving lies, conspiracy, and a life-threatening asteroid.

Rosetta

A book for children about the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission.

View Full List

Sensors, maps, number crunching, and the Internet of Things: Reflections on the Smart Cities Expo

As the dust settles on Tech Week 2018, which was brilliantly opened in appropriate fashion by our prime minister appearing as a hologram, I thought I’d report back on the Smart Cities Expo, which was held in Christchurch last Monday. This was an opportunity for Christchurch City Council, and their commercial partners, to demonstrate some of the new technology they, and other cities around New Zealand, are using to increase their efficiency and provide better services to their citizens, while keeping costs as low as possible.

The smart city concept is essentially made up of three parts; (1) collection of data – often enormous amounts of it – about some aspect of the quality of the urban environment, or how the city is being used, (2) number crunching and visualization – often on maps – to make sense of all this information, and (3) using the results to make changes that improve the functioning of the city and enhance its citizens’ wellbeing.

Cover of The internet of thingsEasy to say, but hard to do! To take a simple example; sensors inside rubbish bins could be used to tell refuse collectors whether they need emptying, so that needless trips can be avoided, and resources can be deployed more effectively. To take this idea to its extreme, we can imagine a day when most of the things we own are collecting and sharing data that is used to improve the overall efficiency of the vast interconnected system to which they belong, to all our benefits. This has sometimes been called the Internet of Things (IoT) – a phrase that was ubiquitous throughout the Expo.

The focus of the Expo was mostly on technology, but there are, of course, significant social, legal, and ethical issues to be considered. For Smart Cities to work, we must be happy for these data to be collected, shared, and used for this purpose. We also need to be sure that the data are secure. Imagine the chaos that might ensue if someone was able to hack into the systems that run our city. Nevertheless, the feeling at the Expo was, as one might expect, optimistic that these challenges can be met, and there was even some talk of making data open access, available to everyone (suitably anonymized, of course) to empower all citizens to use it themselves in whatever way they see fit. In fact, a lot of data collected by government (both local and central) are already available, if you know where to look and how to make sense of it. For example, freely available data from the last year’s general election were used to make an interactive map of how party votes were distributed across different polling stations.

Many of the exhibits at the Expo focused on the first part of this triangle. There were devices for detecting and sensing all manner of things such as traffic, pollution, noise, vibration, etc. etc., to name just a few – the list is endless. In most cases, the data being collected are objective and easily quantifiable, but one particularly interesting application comes from a tool called Sensibel, which enables cyclists to record their subjective experiences as they cycle around the city. They can record a thumbs-up or thumbs-down at any point on their journey by pressing a button attached to their bike.

Using GPS, this records the location where it was pressed so that later on they can log in and give a lengthier explanation of what made them feel the way they did. As they do so they are presented with a view of the street where they were to jog their memory. Data collected in this way can be used to make improvements that will hopefully make cycling in the city a much more enjoyable experience, perhaps increasing the number of people prepared to ditch their cars and switch to a bike. The possibilities for using real-time data about personal experiences to make changes that will enrich our lives seem almost limitless, as long as we are prepared to share that information.

The second part of the triangle – data analysis – is harder, but again there were lots of fascinating exhibits demonstrating that rapid improvements are being made in this area. Perhaps the hardest thing of all is to translate all of this into meaningful actions – either short-term responses, medium-term policy development, or longer-term strategic directions.

It’s still early days for the Smart Cities approach, and there is much more progress to be made, but one thing is for sure, our data are increasingly going to inform how our city is run, so to be fully engaged we all need to be a bit more aware of how our data are collected and used. There has been a slew of excellent popular books about the uses and abuses of what is sometimes called “big data” published recently. Why not check some of these out of the library and explore what our future city might look like? Here are a few places you might like to start…

Big data

List created by robcruickshank

Books about the uses and abuses of “big data” and statistics. A toolkit for life in the digital age.

Cover of Automating inequalityAutomating Inequality – Argues that the use of data mining, policy algorithms, and predictive risk modelling by governments and law enforcement agencies selectively disadvantages the poor, reinforcing existing power relationships and inequality in society.

The Efficiency Paradox – Questions whether, in our relentless pursuit of efficiency, we may as a society be missing opportunities to benefit from “the powerful potential of serendipity”.

Cover of Human + machineHuman + Machine – Explores the many ways – good and bad – that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming the workplace.

Randomistas – Looks at how randomised controlled trials are increasingly being used outside their traditional home of medical science in areas as diverse as social policy, politics, business, and law enforcement.

View Full List

Find out more about Christchurch City Council’s Smart City Programme

Remembering Tom Wolfe – a personal view

It is, of course, with much sadness that I heard about the recent death of Tom Wolfe, who was without doubt a towering figure in literary circles for most of the second half of 20th century. Along with people like Hunter S. Thompson, and several other (mostly male) American writers of his generation, he turned journalism into literature, to be read for pleasure, inventing in the process a new kind of non-fiction and influencing generations of authors whose work I have been enjoying ever since. But for me, Tom Wolfe’s legacy is a decidedly mixed one.

CoverIn my youth, I loved the vivid, day-glo prose of his psychedelic classic, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. As a window onto a world I knew very little about it was one of those books that broadened my horizons and helped me become aware that there are many more ways to live a life than my rather conventional upbringing had prepared me for. Another favourite was The Right Stuff, about the Mercury Seven astronauts, arguably the real pioneers of manned spaceflight (at least in the Western hemisphere), among the very first to venture off-planet, and lone-travellers in their single-seat capsules. It wasn’t just the incredible tales of the astronauts themselves that I enjoyed, but also the stories of those around them, their girlfriends, wives, and families, and the ground crew that supported them, which made the space race feel, to me at least, like a crazy mad adventure that (unlike the trips of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters described in “…Acid Test”) everyone could buy into – at least that’s how I felt at the time – and it helped to fuel my life-long interest in science and technology.

CoverWhen I was a bit older I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s searing critique of the worst excesses of modernist architecture. It was bitingly funny and satirical, but actually, I gradually realised, I quite liked a lot of the buildings Wolfe was ridiculing. Although I was with him in his disdain for the cynical manipulation of public taste by those in power, which he so expertly took down, was I simultaneously allowing myself to be manipulated perhaps? Nevertheless, I thought I saw a conservatism coming through in his writing that I hadn’t noticed before and it didn’t sit well with me, which might be why I stopped reading his books after that. It wasn’t a deliberate, or even conscious, turning away, it was just that there were always other things I wanted to read more. So, I never read any of his fiction, which came later in his career, or the books he is now perhaps most lauded for, such as Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe’s right-wing credentials were confirmed when he came out as a supporter of George W. Bush, but I think his politics were more complicated and nuanced than this might suggest, and the claim that he was a racist because of derogatory remarks he made about the Black Panther Party in his book Radical Chic, in which he mocked all manner of left-wing intellectuals, are, I think, overstated; above all it seems he was a contrarian who delighted in taking an opposing view to whatever appeared to be the zeitgeist at the time.

CoverAs someone who has spent much of my adult life as an academic working in the field of evolutionary biology, for me, the last straw came with his book The Kingdom of Speech, which was strongly critical of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection, the cornerstone of modern biology. I haven’t read this book, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment on it, but I remember the furore it caused at the time of its publication for its anti-Darwinian stance. Some biologists saw value in Wolfe’s critique, not I think of Darwin as biologist, but of the way his ideas have sometimes been applied outside biology, but for most I think the feeling was something like ‘How dare this hack, without any formal training in biology, take on one of our most treasured icons?’. But of course, daring iconoclasm was what Tom Wolfe was all about, and he was well-versed in evolutionary theory, although for me at the time this felt like a step too far.

For these, and other reasons (like his affected style in later life of wearing white suits and carrying elaborately carved wooden canes – a harmless eccentricity perhaps, but one I found off-putting), I have been ambivalent about re-reading Wolfe’s books, or filling in the gaps, but his death has led me to reconsider. The other day I pulled “…Acid Test” off the shelf, and the first few pages immediately brought back the excitement I felt reading it for the first time all those years ago, so I think I will finish it. I’m not a big re-reader of books, but I think there are things in it that I will see quite differently this time. For example, in the opening scene, one of the hippies in the back of the van hurtling through the streets of San Francisco to meet Ken Kesey after his release from prison is none other than the environmentalist Stewart Brand. I wouldn’t have known who he was when I first read the book, but since then I have read some of Brand’s own books, and followed his more recent enthusiasm for de-extinction (another controversial topic, which I will perhaps re-visit in another blog). I think there’s a good argument to be made that “…Acid Test” is a modern classic that should be widely read. I’m not so sure about “The Right Stuff”, which I don’t intend to read again. I don’t think Wolfe’s glorification of the test pilots, turned early astronauts, and their male-dominated world would seem so appealing to me this time round, and in any case, since then I’ve read lots of other books on the subject that I would far rather read again (again, a subject for another blog). I’m not sure about re-reading “Our House to Bauhaus”, and it’s not a field I’ve continued to follow or read many other books about, but for satirical bite I think I might try The Painted Word, which I haven’t read before, but is on a similar topic and of a similar vintage. As for the fiction, I think I might leave that for my retirement.

In the end, my remembered fondness for Wolfe’s early books must trump my reservations about his later work. Despite his flaws, I think my reading life has been significantly enriched by my encounters with Wolfe’s writing and those he influenced, and for that I am very grateful.

Farewell Tom, and thank you!

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Find Tom Wolfe’s works in our collection.

The world’s most expensive piece of paper

Long before I was born, my dad worked briefly for a firm of a stamp auctioneers in London. Apparently he helped, in some small way, to sell King Farouk of Egypt‘s stamp collection! He had a small collection of his own and he used to take me to stamp fairs, mostly I think to catch up with old friends. For me, it wasn’t so much the stamps I found appealing as the people who collected them, who seemed an unusually obsessive bunch with their own arcane rules, jargon, and preoccupations that appeared baffling from the outside.

Cover of The one cent magenta by James BarronI was therefore delighted to discover, in the Library’s catalogue, a book called “The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World” by James Barron, which is full of stories of people like those I remember.

This book tells the extraordinary tale of a single stamp, the only one of its kind, as it changed hands and rapidly increased in value with each new owner over it’s 150 year history. (The title of each chapter reflects the stamp’s value at that point in the story.)

The stamp in question is really just a tiny scrap of coloured paper bearing an almost indiscernible design. It was printed quickly in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana) to replace some stamps that had gone missing on their way from London. As stamps of this value (unlike the more common four-cent stamp that was also printed at the time) were mostly used for newspapers and magazines, almost all of the them were thrown away when they were finished with, but miraculously a single stamp survived and was rediscovered some years later in 1873 by a 12 year-old boy among papers in his uncle’s house.

After a number of changes of ownership, that stamp eventually sold at auction in 2014 for the astonishing sum of US$9.5 million (about NZ$13.5 million) – more than a billion times it’s original value! At just 2.5cm x 3.2 cm that means each square millimetre is worth nearly NZ$170, making it the world’s most valuable object for its size and weight.

British Guiana 1c stamp issued in 1856. Last sold for NZ$13.5 million. (Public Domain image from Wikipedia)

The reasons why someone would pay such an inordinate sum of money for something with no real material value, and why some very rich people find extreme rarity of this kind so irresistible, is the central question explored in this book. It would be tempting to consider these people crazy, but they all made excellent returns on their investments, and future owners will continue to do so as long as the stamp remains so highly sought after.

The book is a real page-turner, and there are lots of astonishing tales along the way about the people involved, such as the man who tried (unsuccessfully) to use the stamp as a bargaining chip to get out of a murder charge, or another who may (or may not – no one really knows) have found a second one cent-magenta and destroyed it to maintain the value of the first. These stories may sound incredible, but in the bizarre world of high-value stamp collecting this sort of behaviour is not out of the question.

This book reminded me of the 1936 novel “Antigua, Penny, Puce” by Robert Graves, about a brother and sister who fall out in spectacular fashion over a dispute concerning the ownership of a rare stamp with many similarities to the one-cent magenta, which is well worth reading too if you find this sort of thing as fascinating as I do. The Library doesn’t have a copy, but as it’s out of copyright, it is available as an e-book from the Internet Archive, where you can also find the audio of a 1995 BBC Radio dramatic adaptation of the book.

Enjoy!

Science and the city

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and this number is continuing to rise. As more and more of us are crammed into these cities at ever increasing densities, there is an urgent need for innovative ideas that enable us to live together happily in comfort and good health. To achieve this, city planners are increasingly turning to science and technology for what are sometimes called smart city solutions.

As part of Techweek 2018, on Monday 21 May, Christchurch City Council’s Smart Cities programme will be hosting the 2018 Smart Cities Innovation Expo at Novotel Hotel, Cathedral Square Christchurch. Entry is free, and from 10am – 4pm visitors will be able to see a wide range of interactive exhibits showcasing local and national cutting-edge ideas for improving city life, from urban augmented reality, autonomous vehicles, and smart sensors, to rapid earthquake response systems, cycling innovations, and interactive apps. In anticipation of this event, I’ve put together a list of books that explore the many ways that science and technology can help us to understand cities and make them better places to live. Enjoy!

Science and the city

List created by robcruickshank

Books about how science and technology help us to understand cities and make them better places to live

Cover of AerotropolisAerotropolis – A look at one possible future for the world’s cities

Built – This fascinating history of structural engineering from ancient times to the modern day

Built on Bones – What happened when we started living together in cities? – the archaeological evidence

Christchurch: Our underground story – A brilliant locally produced “lift-the-flap” book for children about what lies underneath our feet here in our very own city.

Darwin Comes to Town – Why cities are the best places to study evolution

Cover of The endless cityThe Endless City – A look at the future of cities around the world from the Urban Age Project at the London School of Economics – also check out the sequel – Living in the Endless City

Feral Cities – A fascinating account of urban wildlife around the world and how animals are adjusting to city life

Happy City – A travelogue the looks at the psychology of urban life around the world and how we can make cities happier places to live

Cover of The history of future citiesA History of Future Cities – A fascinating look at how four global cities have each developed and embraced modernity in their own unique ways.

View more titles in the full list

Digging up the past

New Zealand Archaeology Week runs from 28 April – 6 May, with events up and down the country, including an exhibition courtesy of Underground Overground Archaeology at our own South Library called Pubs of the Past: the archaeology of Victorian Christchurch Hotels, so this seems like a good time to mention some of the archaeological books, magazines, and other resources that you can find at Christchurch City Libraries.

Books

The Library has thousands of books and eBooks about archaeology for both adults and children. Because archaeology lies at the interface between art, history, and science, books on this subject can be found in several different places among our non-fiction collection, so if you’re having troubling finding what you’re looking for, then ask a librarian for help.

Here is a list of a few of my personal favourites that have recently been added to the library’s shelves, including some fiction that features archaeologists as characters…

Archaeology

List created by robcruickshank

Books about archaeology and archaeologists for adults and children, including both fiction and non-fiction

The 50 Greatest Prehistoric Sites of the WorldCover of The 50 greatest prehistoric sites of the world – A guide book to archaeological sites

A’a – The fascinating story of a Polynesian artefact, now in the British Museum, that became an inspiration for Picasso

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes – The consequences of an archaeological hoax come back to haunt the characters of this 1956 novel

Built on Bones – What happened when we started to live together in cities? – the archaeological evidence

Cover of Cigars of the PharaohCigars of the Pharaoh – A classic!Cigars of the Pharaoh

The Incredible Cabinet of Wonders – Not just archaeology, but I love this children’s “lift the flap” bookThe Incredible Cabinet of Wonders

Keeping Their Marbles – The uncomfortable story of how archaeological objects from around the world were acquired by western museums, often by coercion and theft

Cover of A little history of Archaeology by Brian Fagan

A Little History of Archaeology – Stories of some of the great archaeologists and what they found – one of the “Little Histories” series

Lost in A Pyramid – Twelve tales from the golden age of the mummy story, collected and published by the British Library

Mayan Mendacity – The second mystery for Dr Elizabeth Pimms, archaeologist and librarian – sequal to Olmec Obituary

My Life in Ruins – What is it actually like to be an archaeologist?

Cover of The quest for ZThe Quest for Z – A delightful retelling for children of a doomed expedition to find a lost city in the Amazon jungle

The Story of Tutankhamun – A beautifully illustrated book for children about perhaps the most celebrated of ancient Egyptian pharaohs

View Full List

Magazines and eMagazines

The magazine Archaeology is available both as a hard copy and as an e-magazine through RBDigital. Check out the January/February 2018 edition for an article called “New Zealand’s First City, Uncovered”, which tells the stories of the early European colonists of Christchurch through some of the artefacts found among the rubble in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, as well as presenting evidence of earlier occupation by Māori dating back as far as 1250 AD.

We also have many other general science and history magazines that include articles about archaeology, such as All About History, BBC History Magazine, DiscoverSmithsonian Magazine, etc., in both hard copy and digital formats. Check out the library catalogue for details.

eResources

A library card gets you free access to a huge number of electronic resources that contain information about archaeology, many of which can be accessed from home. The best way to find out about these is to log on a take a look. In particular, you might want to check out some of these:

These are in addition to our extensive collection of eResources about local and family history. If you are a Christchurch resident, but not yet a member of the library, you can join online, with the option of a digital only membership if you just want access to our online resources.

Other places of archaeological interest in and around Christchurch

Fans of Egyptology should check out Tash Pen Khonsu, an Egyptian mummy on display at Canterbury Museum. For those with more classical tastes, the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities, run by the University of Canterbury, is well worth a visit. This relatively new museum opened in May 2017 and is located in the recently refurbished Arts Centre on Level 1 of the Old Chemistry Building at 3 Hereford Street. It is currently closed, but will re-open during New Zealand Archaeology Week on 5 May with an exhibition called “Beyond the Grave: Death in Ancient Times”.

More information about archaeological sites in Christchurch can be found on the websites of Christchurch City Council and Heritage New Zealand (formerly known as the Historic Places Trust), which has an extensive archaeology section that includes a wealth of fascinating and useful information, and of course on our own Library Website.

Happy digging!

Mutton chops and door knockers, face fungus and designer stubble – Lucinda Hawksley at the Christchurch Art Gallery, WORD Christchurch

Having sported a beard of varying bushiness for many years, I have a longstanding interest in facial hair, so I was delighted to discover that this was the topic of a talk by Lucinda Hawksley at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Sunday, presented by WORD Christchurch. On a rainy Canterbury afternoon an audience of bearded and un-bearded alike almost filled the Art Gallery’s auditorium to hear all about the fascinating history of facial hair from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern hipster, and all points in between.

Using pictures mostly taken from the National Portrait Gallery, Lucinda’s fascinating talk focused mostly on European examples, but we also heard about how dangerous and painful it must have been to have your face shaved in ancient Egypt (apparently they used sharp flints and mussel shells, risking nasty cuts and blood poisoning), and how the ancient Egyptians liked to be buried wearing false beards (women and babies included!). Since then beards have fallen, periodically, in and out of fashion. Initially popular in Ancient Greece (where they implied high status and masculine beauty), but less so in Ancient Rome, they lost favour after Alexander The Great insisted that his soldiers should be clean shaven. Throughout history, beards have been associated with barbarians, although the often cited etymological link between them appears to be less clear cut. In medieval times, suits of armour were often designed to accommodate the long and luxuriously flowing facial hair that was common at the time.

As Lucinda’s talk entered the early modern era, the focus switched to British beards, and we discovered the astonishing fact that periods when beards were in highest fashion seem to coincide with female monarchs. The reigns of Queens Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II were all times when beards flourished, and in the first two cases, the subsequent ascension of a King to the throne resulted in an immediate and rapid decline in facial hair. Interestingly, more recently, men have grown longer beards at times when women’s rights movements have been particularly strong (e.g. women’s suffrage in the late Victorian period, women’s lib in the 1960s, etc.).

Lucinda’s talk was richly illustrated with portraits of famously bearded men from the extremely fashionable, and much emulated, pencil-thin moustache of Lord Byron, (which would appear again in the 20th century as the Hollywood moustache of Clark Gable, Erroll Flynn, and others), to the sumptuous sideburns of Charles James Napier, the extraordinary neck-beard of Robert Browning, and the familiar “door knocker” beard of Charles Dickens (Lucinda’s great-great-great-grandfather, who started his foray into facial hair by entering a moustache-growing competition and then got hooked, despite his family’s protestations). We are also shown the glorious mutton chops of Dickens’s illustrator, George Cruikshank. (Apparently Charles Darwin replaced Dickens on the British £10 note because his beard is more difficult to forge.) We also learned the different outcomes that being a bearded women can bring, depending on the times, from ruthless exploitation as a freak (Barbara Urselin), to admiration as an unusual sex symbol (Annie Jones).

The greatest flourishing of the beard came in the late Victorian period after soldiers returned from the Crimean War with large beards necessitated by the extreme cold and lack of shaving facilities, making beards a mark of the hero. Coinciding with the women’s suffrage movement, this beard craze affected all levels of society, and for the first time facial hair was no longer a signifier of class. (Prior to the invention of the safety razor, regular shaves were largely the preserve of the well-heeled). During this era, barbers had a hard time of it and had to come up with inventive ways of making a living, with aggressive marketing of hair dyes and oils, leading to advent of the antimacassar.

By Edwardian times the beard had all but gone, with the novelist Frank Richardson labelling it “face fungus”, and the final death knell came with World War I and the need for close-fitting gas masks. Despite some notable exceptions, e.g. Salvador Dali (“the most famous moustache in history”), and the Handlebar Club (founded in 1947 and still going strong, requiring the growth of a moustache with “graspable extremities”), facial hair was largely gone until the 1960s when it reappeared with the hippy movement and again, as history repeated itself one more time, was correlated with a period of women’s lib. We were finally brought up to date via Tom Selleck’s moustache, and the designer stubble of the 1980s, to the recent hipster beard and the controversy surrounding Conchita Wurst. The audience were captivated by these tales of the hirsute, and the hour seemed to fly by. Lucinda has a real gift for storytelling and there is so much more to learn about the history of facial hair in her recent book “Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards”, on which her talk was based.

CoverMoustaches, Whiskers & Beards

(Not that’s not Rasputin on the cover, in fact it’s a young George Bernard Shaw, someone we’re more used to seeing depicted in old age.)

If facial hair isn’t your thing (perhaps you have pogonophobia?), Lucinda has written many other books on an impressively wide range of other topics.

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For more fun with beards, the library has all sorts of great stuff including a graphic novel about a “Gigantic Beard That Was Evil”, manuals on how to grow a handsome beard, and even a couple of children’s books.

See also:

The joy of coding

At school in England in the early 1980s I was given the opportunity to join an afterschool computer club. The only problem was that, being the early 1980s, our school didn’t actually have a computer. We had to write our programs in thick, dark pencil on stacks of cards that were taken away to a mysterious place, which we never got to see, where they would be fed into a computer.

Our teacher would bring the output to class the following week (or the week after that if there had been a glitch, or someone else needed the computer that week) and we would pore over the results with eager anticipation. Usually we quickly realised that we had made a fundamental error, and set about re-writing our program before waiting another week (or two) to see how things turned out. It was a glacially slow process, but an almost magical one. I don’t think I ever knew where this semi-mythical computer was, or what it looked like, but I imagined a strange colossal machine the size of a small house, similar to those depicted in Cold War science fiction films such as War Games, which were popular at the time.

Obviously, things are very different now. We are living in the age of the so-called digital native (although this may be a myth), but arguably because computers are so advanced now, we actually have fewer opportunities to tinker under the hood than we did in the early days of home computing. Early computers often required their users to manually input programs (written in languages like BASIC) before you could run them. You could buy magazines full of code for various simple games that you could type into your computer and then run. You could even change the code to alter the parameters of the game. This meant that we learned much more about how computers worked, and how to get them to do what we wanted, than is usually the case these days.

Modern computers are much less amenable to this sort of tinkering. Messing about with the code on your computer is likely to lead to a catastrophic system failure, so although computers are now embedded in almost every aspect of our lives, we often have very little idea about what makes them tick.

The ubiquity of computers in society, coupled with the general ignorance of most people as to how they work, has been recognised as a serious problem. Recently, there has been a strong push among educators to get kids coding. Code clubs have sprung up all over the place, digital technology is set to become part of the New Zealand curriculum, and lots of books have been published aimed at getting kids coding, with varying degrees of success.

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Recently, my 9-year-old daughter and I read a series of three graphic novels called Secret Coders, which aim to teach coding through the medium of storytelling. These books centre around Hopper, a young girl who finds herself at a strange new school. Along with two new friends, Josh and Eni (many of the names in the book reference famous computers or computer scientists, such as Grace Hopper and ENIAC), Hopper falls into a series of adventures that require the gang to solve various puzzles to figure out what’s really going on at the school.

Many of these puzzles require them to program turtle-like robots to perform particular tasks. The puzzles get increasingly complex. As the reader is encouraged to solve these puzzles for themselves before reading on, almost without realising it, by the end of the first book we were writing programs in a computer language called Logo. There are also some owls living in the school who have a very unusual way of communicating in binary, which adds to the air of mystery. The story is genuinely captivating, and kept us turning the pages. The graphics are engaging, the characters are delightful, and the puzzles are intriguing.

At the end of each book there is a link to a website where you can download a version of the Logo programming language and use it to write your own programs to create computer graphics. We tried it, and within minutes we were making snowflakes and other images using what we had learned from the books. A world of warning though – computer code is very unforgiving and one small typing error can give unexpected results, or even stop a program from working at all, which can be frustrating for young children; nevertheless, the necessary concepts were well within the grasp of my 9-year-old daughter. There’s also a nice website with extra activities, and you can even download a file for 3D printing your own replica of one of the robots from the book.

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We had a lot of fun with these books, and I think we learned a lot too. Each volume follows directly on from the previous one, in a continuous narrative, usually beginning with the answer to a puzzle that was set at the end of the last book. We’ve read the first three books, and it seems that there will be more in the series. There are still lots of loose threads to tie up in the story, and there is clearly a lot more to learn about coding. We’ve looked at a few other coding books aimed at kids, but these were the ones that captured our imaginations the most, and it’s not just about learning a particular programming language, but understanding computational thinking – how to break a problem down into its smallest discrete units, each of which can be translated into a simple instruction to a computer, which is a skill that is likely to be applicable to other areas of modern life.

We’re really looking forward to reading the rest of the series. This feel like the start of what could be a long journey to understanding more and more about computers and coding. We intend to keep learning about this stuff, and if we find other useful library resources along the way we will tell you about them in future posts on this blog.

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In the meantime, if you’d like to know more, there is an excellent new biography of Grace Hopper, namesake of the protagonist in “The Secret Coders” books, aimed at a similar age group.

For younger children, My First Coding Book makes a wonderful introduction to computational thinking, with ingeniously creative use of flaps, pull-out tabs, and other devices that kids will be familiar with, to illustrate coding concepts with various games and puzzles…

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