This website is now archived. To find out what BERG did next, go to

Blog posts tagged as 'books'


…Putting the right book in the right kid’s hands is kind of like giving that kid superpowers. Because one book leads to the next book and the next book and the next book and that is how a world-view grows. That is how you nourish thought.

Cecil Castellucci, “Better to Light a Candle than to Curse the Darkness” on the LA Review of Books blog

Books are people too

A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books. If you want to find out about something, the information is in the reference books—the dictionaries, the encyclopedias, the atlases. If you like to be told a story, the library is the place to go. Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had. And when you are reading a book, you and the author are alone together—just the two of you. A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.

E.B. White in a letter to the children of Troy, Michigan, on the opening of their public library.
via Letters of Note

Book watch: being human, being a teenage geek, retelling Shakespeare and good ol’ (new) science fiction

If you’re the type who makes up a summer reading list, here are a few that you may want to add to it. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of these books yet, so including them here does not constitute a personal recommendation.)

The Most Human Human by Brian Christian came to the studio’s attention via Matt Jones. In his review of the book, Peter Merholz says, “It’s a delightful and discursive book, wending its way through cognitive science, philosophy, poetry, artificial intelligence, embodied experience, and more. The author, Brian Christian, writes with a deft touch, in an episodic and occasionally meandering style that feels like you’re taking part in a good conversation.”

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School is unlikely to come as a surprise to any adult who would describe their teenage self as a geek. In the book author Alexandra Robbins explains “Quirk Theory”: “many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.” She also looks at how school teachers and administrators may be complicit in propping up conventional ideas of who is popular and who is not. Listen to an NPR interview with Robbins and read the prologue to the book here.

The Great Night by Chris Adrian takes the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and retells it, in a manner of speaking, in a San Francisco park setting. The San Francisco Chronicle’s review described it as “droll, dark and challenging”, adding that “through his own form of magical realism, Adrian boisterously and bravely tests the limits of our capacity to ‘actually understand anything’ about suffering and joy.”

Embassytown, the latest from China Miéville, came out earlier this month. Reviewing it in the Guardian, Ursula LeGuin called it a “fully achieved work of art” and said, “In Embassytown, [Miéville’s] metaphor – which is in a sense metaphor itself – works on every level, providing compulsive narrative, splendid intellectual rigour and risk, moral sophistication, fine verbal fireworks and sideshows, and even the old-fashioned satisfaction of watching a protagonist become more of a person than she gave promise of being.”

The Quantum Thief is the first novel from Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi. It came out in the UK last year but has just been published in the US by Tor Books. In a science fiction round-up in the Guardian, Eric Brown said, “No précis does real justice to Rajaniemi’s unique, post-singularity vision. Nothing is as it is now, and the author makes no concessions to the lazy reader with info-dumps or convenient explanations. Patience is required and rewarded: the author knows his future and reveals it piecemeal with staggering intellectual legerdemain… A brilliant debut.”

Culture “comfort food”

Due to a lack of time and a lack of inspiration, I asked my Berg colleagues to help write my blog entry this week. Inspired by a recent NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, I asked them what they would consider their pop culture “comfort foods”: music, movies, books, TV shows, games, etc that they return to time and again because they are comfortable and familiar, bring you back to a happy place, create a certain feeling in you, etc. NPR’s Linda Holmes described it as things that “we turn to when we get into a cultural rut and want to reawaken our love of the things we love, as it were.”

I can think of so many things that fit in this category for me. Here’s a few:

  • The Sound of Music (both the film and the soundtrack)
  • Pride and Prejudice – both the book and the films (both the Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle version and the Keira Knightley & Matthew Mcfadyen version)
  • The West Wing
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • U2 – Achtung Baby (brings me right back to my first year at university)
  • Hem – Eveningland
  • A House Like a Lotus and A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle

I’m happy to say that everyone in the studio humoured my request. Here’s what they had to say:

Jack Schulze:

  • Point Break
  • Winnie the Pooh

Timo Arnall:

  • Midnight Run, must have watched it 50 times. The most re-watchable film of all time.
  • Also Rhubarb and Custard (As a kid I slept under the animation table at Bob Godfrey Studios on Neal St, still remember Bob doing the voices).
  • I still return to many of Kieslowski’s films, they were formative in my understanding of film.

Matt Jones:

  • Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade
  • The Invisibles
  • “Can’t buy a thrill” by Steely Dan

Andy Huntington:

  • Princess Mononoke
  • Yo La Tengo – Little Honda just for the distortion sound if nothing else
  • Any video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe I can find
  • The drum battle where Steve Gadd (he starts at 2.45 in the clip below) launches a stomp attack on Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl and their supple wrists.

Joe Malia:

  • Spirited Away
  • Mario
  • Robocop

Nick Ludlam:

  • Asimov’s “Robots of Dawn”
  • Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes
  • Underworld’s “Second Toughest In The Infants”

Matt Webb:

  • Once Upon a Time in the West, which has the single best concentrated set piece scene of any film at any period in history. It is beautiful, epic, speaks truth to humans, society, and history, and I can watch it infinitely.
  • Starship Troopers, the book, and actually any sci-fi stories from the 1940s to the 1970s I can find in second hand shops or Project Gutenberg
  • 30 Rock

Alex Jarvis:

  • ‘F-Zero’ / ‘Unirally’ for games
  • Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder for music
  • ‘C’était un Rendezvous’ for moving image

Denise Wilton:

  • Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
  • And the films: My neighbour Totoro (for the scene at the bus stop)
  • Bourne Ultimatum (for the scene at Waterloo station)
  • This nutrigrain ad from a billion years ago, which I don’t think ever got aired but gets better every time you watch it:

So how about you? What are your culture “comfort foods”?

New physics books for physics lovers & phobes alike

Caveat: I’ve not actually read either of these books so I can’t personally recommend them, but both of them came to my attention this week (thanks to National Public Radio in the US) and seemed like books that might be of interest to BERG blog readers.

How did Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne predict the future with such accuracy whilst so many others – such as IBM, The New York Times and the US Patent Office – get things so wrong? And what lessons can we take from their successes or mistakes to help us predict the world of 2100? Such questions are addressed by Michio Kaku in his new book The Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (published in the UK by Allen Lane, May 5th 2011).

Read an exerpt from Physics of the Future here and if you have seven minutes, listen to the interview as well where Kaku talks about telepathically fried eggs, identity recognition contact lenses, invisibility cloaks – the technology for all of which already exists, he says – and the fact that in 100 years we’ll think about chemotherapy the same way we now regard bleeding with leeches.

The second book is Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science by Lawrence Krauss (published in the UK by W. W. Norton & Co, April 12th 2011).

With this volume, Krauss, himself a physicist at Arizona State University and author of The Physics of Star Trek, has written a biography of Feynman (1918-1988) that focusses on his science more than his personality and, in doing so, touches on nearly ever major scientific development of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Listen to an interview with Krauss (or read the transcript) from NPR’s Science Friday here.

Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth

Chandler book cover

In his opening session at City Tracking, Stamen‘s Eric Rodenbeck showed us this book. Tertius Chandler’s Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth is a historical census of the world, derived from almost any source Chandler can find.

The book sat on the front table in the room we were sharing for the duration of the conference; a constant reminder of cities past and present, fallen and still-standing. I spent some time skimming through it, and found its contents as marvellous as Eric intimated.

In the first section of the book, Chandler tours the world, listing individual cities and their populations over time.


Here’s some of the listing for Dieppe, in France.

As well as a running total, there’s a citation for how that figure was derived. Sometimes, it’s based on direct quotation. But sometimes, it’s based on something more like a calculation. For instance, that 1600 figure for population is based on the number of churches in the city, and the average congregation size for those churches.


Here’s some of the listing for Baghdad, around the 8th century AD. In 932 AD, he uses several sources: the number of doctors (and how many citizens they served); the number of baths in the city; and the area the city covered. His final figure – of 1.1 million – is closest to the estimation derived from area. Chandler includes other figures in his notes, even if he’s not comfortable with their accuracy; see, for instance, the “reputedly 2,000,000” in 833, derived from the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica. Chandler is clearly happier with the more conservative estimate derived from the area in the 1960 Encylopedia of Islam.

City tables

At the end of the book are tables of the world’s largest cities listed by era, with their populations. These are some of the listings for a few thousand years ago.

Finally, there’s a short textual appendix that serves as a short biography of the forty largest cities in each century, from 100-1970. From all his numbers and tables, Chandler weaves a narrative of how the world’s powers and economies have shifted and changed. For instance:

“China dominates the first city tables. At 1400 and 1500 it has each time 11 of the 40 cities. At 1600 China still has the topmost place, and 2 of the top 10, but Spain, with only one in the top 10, barely trails China overall with 6 to China’s 7. The Spanish cities include 1 in America, 1 in Portugal, and 3 in Italy. In 1700 China is ahead again with 9. In 1800 it has 9, as to 10 in the burgeoning British Empire, albeit the latter has only 1 on Britain itself. Britain and China thus rule just under half of all the 40 cities at 1800…”

It’s a marvellous artefact that’s now sadly hard to track down. As Eric quite rightly noted, those neat tables are crying out to be digitised in some form. It was kind of Eric to share Chandler’s remarkable book with us (and to let me share it with you) – and as a starting point for two days of talking about cities, it felt most appropriate.

Another Science Fiction: An Intersection of Art and Technology in the Early Space Race

Matt Jones writes...

This week, we’re proud to present a guest post from Megan Prelinger, cofounder of The Prelinger Library. Megan’s piece is the first in an occasional series of guest blogposts we're going to commission from friends, colleagues and others we admire. In it, she previews her book "Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957–62" that hits on some of our studio's obsessions - mid-20thC art, design and... rocketry...

As an historian, I dig through found evidence of past decades looking for unseen intersections between technology and design. The two were of course close mutual contextualizers during the mid-century Modern era and incredibly, the untapped historical record of this era is rich and multi-layered: Monthly and weekly periodicals recorded events as they unfolded, catching disinformation and hypotheses along with facts, and a tremendous range of imagery that was never captured in books or annuals as part of the designated record of the era.

Artwork: Number IX by Oli Sihvonen. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles & Rockets, 1 Feb., 1960

Artwork: Number IX by Oli Sihvonen. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles & Rockets, 1 Feb., 1960

The most compelling imagery is in industrial trade magazine advertising. Aviation Week and Missiles and Rockets of the 1950s and 60s, were both published out of the U.S. during the peak of the Cold War.

Aviation Week, October 1957

Aviation Week, October 1957

Aviation Week has published since the 1940s and is still a world leader in covering military and civilian aerospace technology developments. Missiles and Rockets was a short-lived competitor (1956 – 65), whose pages made up for in style what they lacked in tenure.

Missiles and Rockets, February 1958

Missiles and Rockets, February 1958

Within the realm of monthly and weekly periodicals, trade publications aimed at working professionals within industry are less examined than their internationally-known general interest counterparts such as Science and Scientific American. Together they offer a body of advertising literature that forms a time capsule of the emerging dynamic between design and technology during the late 1950s and very early 1960s, the peak of technological eruption during the Cold War in the U.S. During those years mid-century Modern design asserted itself within the trade-based advertising literature as a powerful visual language with a killer application.

Recruitment advertisements for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, illustrate a special case of the relationship between Modernism and industry. This is a set of five images appropriated from regional fine painters into service for the recruitment campaign at Los Alamos.

Artwork: Space by Charles Stewart. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 26 Nov., 1962

Artwork: Space by Charles Stewart. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 26 Nov., 1962

The dominant activity of the Laboratory was then, as now, nuclear weapons development. A place seared into public memory by its role as the site of the research and testing of the first atomic bomb, the Laboratory has, since the end of the civil nuclear rocket programs, been mostly a weapons research laboratory. However in the 1950s and 60s there was initiative and federal funding to adapt the atomic legacy to civil purposes. Toward that end Project Rover, sited at the Laboratory, was devoted to the development of a strictly civil-applicable nuclear rocket. The project yielded the NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) rocket — mothballed before it was ever tested after political support for it dried up — and the development of small nuclear batteries used in lunar exploration. In those, Laboratory’s program roster included civil space activity as a very large second area of research and development. The dominance of space-related visual motifs in these artworks indicates the widespread prevalence of the civil space program as a leading face of a technological directive that served both martial and peaceful objectives.

Between the two World Wars, a fine arts tradition was established and flourished in nearby Taos, New Mexico, founded by both American and European expatriate artists. Members of this group were thousands of miles from the other early modernist painters, yet their work was in dialogue with the dominant themes of modernism. In New Mexico the movement took shape in the emphasis on a spare, sun-dominated landscape expressed in the works of the Taos artists.

Painter Emil Bisttram started making paintings titled Space Images as early as 1954.1 In his work, the interplanetary and interstellar landscape of space that the enormous New Mexico sky brought into close juxtaposition with the high desert is recast as a suitable subject for depiction in an abstract expressionist mode. Bisttram’s Ascending, has been subtitled by the Laboratory: “scientific objectivity characterizes the examination of natural forces in the experimental laboratories at Los Alamos.”2 In the painting, Bisttram combines an abstraction of space with a strong suggestion of the mechanical engineering processes that will get us there:

Artwork: Ascending by Emil Bisttram, 1958. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 6 June, 1960

Artwork: Ascending by Emil Bisttram, 1958. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 6 June, 1960

The form that dominates the center right of the painting, and the lines that attach all the forms to one another, are suggestive of engineering diagrams. Or even internal rocket structure, or just the process of forming connection between one idea and the next. One possible extrapolation, that the abstracted systems/bodies at the top, bottom, and left center of the image represent planets and orbits, is left to the viewer’s imagination.

The geographic relationship between the LASL research station and the landscape that inspired the Taos artists led to a neighborly connection between the two that adds considerable depth to the relationship between the images and their “subject matter.” Incredibly, a catalog prepared for an exhibition of the works, titled Art and the Atom, explains that the works were not commissioned for the advertisements. Instead advertisements were created by Laboratory personnel director Robert Meier based on pre-existing artworks. In other words, the “profound dialogic relationship with environment”3 that inspired the artists was an independent parallel to the functionally dialogic relationship with the environment held by the LASL nuclear test facility. These parallel lines of development are expressed poetically in Art and the Atom:

“The artist is aware of space, mass, motion and energy. He is cognizant of our world in conjunction with outer space and is abreast of the development in the world of science. He searches intuitively rather than theoretically. The scientist is equally involved with the same observations. He explores the potentials; he is the discoverer: the man of research. Both artist and scientist are involved with the mysteries of the Universe.”
—Leone Kahl, Director, Stables Art Gallery, Taos, ca. 19634

Exhibition catalog, pub. The Stables Art Gallery of Taos. n.d., circa 1963.

Exhibition catalog, pub. The Stables Art Gallery of Taos. n.d., circa 1963.

In the foreword to Art and the Atom, Reginald Fisher, then director of the El Paso Museum of Art, writes that “the semantics of this exhibition revolve around such terms as: space, energy, motion, dynamics, thrust, propulsion, acceleration, curiosity, probe, experiment, empirical, technology, mystery, experience.” He notes that the paintings were selected from pre-existing artworks “on the basis of the capacity of the particular piece to portray symbolically the essence of the research field under consideration [for recruitment].” The remaining historical evidence of this transaction between industry and artist is mute on the question of how the artists felt having their works utilized in this manner, or whether any chose to opt out.

Below is a straightforward meditation by Bisttram on the shapes and spaces that emerge when a painter contemplates a starscape. The inky midnight blue shades here echo the tones used by Van Gogh in his Starry Night, but here space is foregrounded through the omission of a ground plane. The figure–ground shift in this image has captured what the Earth-centric regulatory approach to space neglects to account for: that in space there is no “ground,” only the whole new spatial logic of the solar system environment. Titled Moon Magic by the artist, its catalog description carries the added thought, “Mysteries of the universe provide the dynamics for projects.”

Artwork: Moon Magic by Emil Bisttram, 1958. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 25 April, 1960

Artwork: Moon Magic by Emil Bisttram, 1958. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 25 April, 1960

Taos artist Oli Sihvonen extends the visual language connecting atomics research and space themes to the regional landscape. In the top image (far above), a background field that could be sand, desert, or stylized space billows behind a round shape that suggests the sun, or of course, the atom, or perhaps is meant to suggest both at the same time. The work is titled Number IX, and in the catalog bears the subtitle “Diverse scientific interests ranging from basic research to space problems.” The organic shape of the rippled background suggests the desert, a natural environment. The image takes a step toward minimalism in its reduction of the field to its two dominant shapes, the golden rectangular ground and the spherical black figure of the “sun.”

The work below by Sihvonen is titled Blue Spot, subtitled “Experimentation in nuclear motion and energy:”

Artwork: Blue Spot by Oli Sihvonen. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 5 October 1959

Artwork: Blue Spot by Oli Sihvonen. Advertisement: LASL in Missiles and Rockets, 5 October 1959

The blue spot disrupts the conventionally romantic stylization of planetary or solar bodies by contracting the sphere to its minimal form. Sihvonen here seems to references the early 20th century Russian constructivists, with the prolonged vertical angular shape aimed at the planetary circle. It brings to mind El Lissitzsky’s constructivist graphic composition Beat Back the Whites with the Red Wedge which pioneered the use of juxtaposed triangle and circle as a graphic strategy to represent political conflict. I find it ironic that the graphic legacy of Communist action should be re-articulated and put into service — whether with or without the artists’ sanction — in the service of American Cold War-era weapons and civil space technological programming.

The investigation that yielded the discovery of these artworks and their history is part of a larger project: In Spring 2010 Blast Books will publish my monograph Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957–62, which gathers and interprets over 175 advertising images from Aviation Week and Missiles and Rockets. It clusters the advertisements into five subjects, including those that recruit for satellites, for human space exploration, for propulsion systems engineering, and for projects that recast space as a new landscape. Lastly, Mid-Century Modern Space rounds out the book with a longer discussion of industry’s use of modern design in advertising. This essay was adapted from this chapter.

The book itself is but one product of the cultural enterprise co-developed by my spouse Rick and myself: The Prelinger Library (, a private research library that is open to the public in San Francisco. We are an experimental, image-appropriation friendly library with both analog and digital holdings, including over 30,000 titles and ephemeral artefacts in the areas of media, technology, and landscape and social history. Thanks to BERG for visiting us this past summer! All are invited.

  1. Gerald Peters Gallery, Modernist Themes in New Mexico: Works by Early Modernist Painters. Introduction by Barbara G. Bell.
  2. Art and the Atom: An Exhibition of Contemporary Art Used in Scientific Advertisements. Gallery catalog, Stables Art Gallery, Taos. Robert Meier, Assistant Personnel Director in Charge of Recruitment, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, curator. N.d., circa 1963.
  3. Art and the Atom, first verso page of Foreword.
  4. Art and the Atom, first verso page of “Catalogue” section.

Escalante, a bibliography


I had the privilege of opening Web Directions South here in Sydney, this morning, with a hike through fanufacture, science fiction, social capital, cybernetics, and Neptune. The reception has been great and I totally enjoyed myself! What more can a man ask for.

A few folks requested a bibliography, so here we go. You can pretty much reconstruct my entire talk from this. Books and articles, in order of appearance!

Recent Posts

Popular Tags