Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Stray in the Woods by Alison Wilgus

Last month, I learned of the extremely cool story A Stray in the Woods by Alison Wilgus, thanks to a tweet and corresponding Instagram posted by fellow author and artist Dave Roman. I was immediately drawn to the title and the adorable cat on the cover. Then I went to Alison's site and discovered how the story was written. In her own words: 

A Stray in the Woods was originally posted on Tumblr, updating at least once per week barring holidays and travel. After each update, I took suggestions via the "Ask Box" as to what Cat should do -- Investigate an object? Move into another room? Eat something off the floor? These "commands" could be mundane or ridiculous, foolish or brave, serious or silly -- the only rule was that they be possible for Cat to do, given the current circumstances. When I sat down to draw an update, I would read through all of the commands that had been submitted and select one as the basis for the next page.

That's right! Interactive storytelling! With cats! How cool is that?

Well, I read the entire thing in one fell swoop and I can tell you: Very cool. The pictures truly tell a story, with the text explaining all that needs to be explained. Moving forward one prompt at a time, Wilgus created one or more pictures per prompt and developed a really nifty story for readers who are as curious as her feline protagonist.

As you read the comic, look for my three favorite panels: a cat stretch, a cat nap, and a catnip mouse.

Bonus: It has a theme song, written by Paul Tuttle Starr, which is just as cute as the cat. Listen!

Follow A Stray in the Woods by Alison Wilgus on Tumblr and pick up the bound book, which is being published after an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign.

Fun fact: Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus wrote The Last Airbender prequel comic Zuko's Story.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature's Undead by Rebecca L. Johnson

This is one of those books filled with so much fascinating yet disgusting information that you can't help but read parts out loud to other people so they can be grossed out right along with you.

Or maybe that's just me. Because I started reading this at work one day and just had to read some sections aloud to my co-workers. Like when Rebecca L. Johnson explains how a certain fungus grows inside the corpse of a type of carpenter ant, until "a long, skinny stalk erupts through the dead ant's head." Or the description of a wasp laying an egg on a cockroach, then the egg becoming a larva that slowly eats the roach's internal organs while the roach is still alive. (And then I absolutely had to show my co-workers the accompanying pictures, as well. I mean, just look at page 24.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Better Nate Than Ever

All Nate Foster wants is to see his name in lights on Broadway. Or to see a Broadway show. But he's stuck in his small Pennsylvania hometown. Stuck, that is, until he and his best friend Libby hatch a scheme to get Nate to Broadway. Nate hops a bus to New York City, where everyone is super nice and helpful (bless him), and finds his way to the auditons for E. T.: The. Musical, where he not only wows the casting folk with his, erm, unique charms but meets up with his estranged aunt as well.

Hijinks and not a few shenanigans ensue as Nate tries to keep his trip secrect from his parents, make it to callbacks, get some food, and not lose his money or himself in the big city. Does he win the covented role of Eliott? Does he keep the whole trip secret from his parents and avoid an epic grounding? Well, you'll just have to read it and see.

I adore Nate Foster. I have a couple students in my 7th grade language arts classes who have the same goofy charm and upbeat nature that Nate has. This book does deal with some heavier issues, like Nate's parents' not-great marriage, homophobia, bullying and sibling rivalry, but Nate's wit and humor keep it from drifting into afterschool special territory and keep it totally appropriate for younger middle school students. I'm definitely going to recommend it to my students.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Cyborgs are Coming . . . or You can Make Your Own

A couple of days ago I came across an article about a science kit that allows kids to turn cockroaches into iPhone-Controlled cyborgs. My first reaction was to check the post date and make sure it wasn't April 1. But the kit is apparently not a joke and really does allow you to connect an electronic device to a cockroach and then control the bug from your iPhone. It kind of disgusts me, but I can't decide exactly why. There seem to be a lot of choices.

But for today here's the point: if you can buy a toy that allows kids to play with neuro-surgical implants, then the world depicted in Daniel Wilson's Amped may not be terribly far away.

Amped is a near-future story of human brain implants. The device, sold as Autofocus, enhances brain focus but can also be used for other brain-enhancing functions. Mostly, implants are used to treat ADD, epilepsy and other neurological brain disorders as well as repair brain damage. But they make anyone who wears them smarter.

Owen Gray, a high school teacher, has an implant which was installed by his neurosurgeon father, but to the best of Owen's knowledge it doesn't do anything except prevent epileptic episodes. The implant becomes a problem, however, when public opinion turns against the implanted, known as “amps,” and the Supreme Court revokes most of the rights of implanted persons in the U.S. Violence erupts and Owen attempts to escape to his father's lab. Just before the lab is destroyed, killing Owen's father, Owen learns that his father went all mad-scientist on him and the amp in Owen's head is military grade with “something extra,” turning his mind and body into a deadly weapon. All he has to do is activate it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

If I Ever Get Out Of Here by Eric Gansworth

     Bros. Bro-tank. Brah. Brotastic. Bromance. Brohemia. The rise of “bro” culture saddens me, not least because so much of the “bro” persona is a thinly veiled attempt to hide the awkwardness of male friendship, particularly among young men. One of the strongest qualities of Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here is that it so evocatively presents that very awkwardness, as the narrator Lewis Blake and the newly arrived George Haddonfield bond over music, girls, bullies, family, and Wacky Packages (yes, the book is set in the 1970s, and I had forgotten all about Wacky Packages until reading If I Ever Get Out of Here).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Night to Remember

A Night to Remember is the definitive tale of the sinking of the Titanic. Walter Lord interviewed more than sixty survivors. And he wrote this minute-by-minute account of the collision with the iceberg, and
the experiences of passengers and crew.

In 1898 a struggling author named Morgan Robertson concocted a novel about a fabulous Atlantic liner, far larger than any that had ever been built. Robertson loaded his ship with rich and complacent people and then wrecked it one cold April night on an iceberg. This somehow showed the futility of everything, and in fact, the book was called Futility when it appeared that year...

Fourteen years later a British shipping Company named the White Star Line built a steamer remarkaby like the one in Robertson's novel. The new liner was 66,000 tons displacement; Robertson's was 70,000. The real ship was 882.5 feet long; the fictional one was 800 feet. Both vessels were triple screw and could make 24-25 knots. Both could carry about 3,000 people, and both had enough lifeboats for only a fraction of this number, But, then, this didn't seem to matter because both were labeled "unsinkable."

On April 10, 1912, the real ship left Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York. Her cargo included a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam and a list of passengers collectively worth two hundred fifty million dollars. On her way over she too struck an iceberg and went down on a cold April night.

Robertson called his ship the Titan. the White Star Line called its ship the Titanic.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND? by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein

It's not every day that you get a book about medical experimentation on humans in the mail, so when one arrived from the lovely publicists at Blue Slip Media, it got my attention.

FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation is a slender but fact-packed nonfiction book by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein. Part history, part ethical study, part human rights narrative, this thought-provoking volume, geared toward the high school crowd, will get your attention and provide an excellent introduction to a range of topics from the (mis)treatment of slaves, prisoners, orphans, minorities, and the mentally ill to war crimes in Nazi Germany to the rules for testing of medical treatments and vaccines on humans to genetic testing and stem-cell research and more.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Be Afraid: Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution humans have been worrying that the fancy machines they've created will one day get tired of serving humans and rise up in revolt. In fact, from Isaac Asimov to Battlestar Galactica it's been such a common trope in science ficition books, movies and TV, that the concept doesn't even really seem scary anymore. It's just movie nonsense. In the meantime, we've gotten so cozy with our machines that we trust them implicitly. My iPhone would never hurt me would it? My XBox and I are friends, right? My Roomba is interested only in eliminating dirt from my floor, isn't it?

According James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, we are safe from our machines for now, but soon we should be afraid, very afraid. A future generation of machines is coming and they could be nearly omnipotent. They also may not have our best interests at heart.

Barrat is talking about the fast-evolving area of Artificial Intelligence, or AI which seeks to build machines smart enough to match or exceed human intelligence. He fears that developments in AI will almost inevitably lead to a technology which we cannot control. Barrat breaks AI into three types. The first is limited AI, the kind of AI that is already widely in use, driving, for example, Google search engines, Netflix affinity programming and iPhone's Siri virtual assistant. The second type of AI, which he expects to emerge in mere decades, is AGI or Artificial General Intelligence. AGI will have intelligence and abilities roughly equivalent to human beings. Finally, ASI, or Artificial Super Intelligence which far exceeds human smarts will emerge and when that happens, we'll really be in trouble.