DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!

December 2015

Dec 30 2015

Thinking in Systems

by Arthur G

Curiosity isn’t just a gift–it’s a gateway. Children endowed with an unquenchable thirst for figuring things out will be a real force in the world–as long as they never lose the simple joy in finding the bridge between knowing and not knowing. As a kid, that bridge was always over another horizon, obscured by a mountain of books and a plethora of facts, equations, theories, and gadgets–the collected wreckage of my endless pursuit for understanding. In my childish egocentrism, I thought I was alone in my thirst and occasionally wondered if anyone else thought the same way. I used to fumble through my local library, digesting facts, flitting from shelf to shelf and from subject to subject. It was there that I first discovered the quintessential “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo di Vinci. The fabled “Universal Genius” was my first encounter with the polymath concept, and every book on him I explored filled me with the hope that it was both possible and desirable to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of some.

LeonardoLegacyBut there was something missing. Many authors tended to rattle off his accomplishments like a Wikipedia list: he IS a scientist-mathematician-painter-sculpture-anatomist-writer-engineer. Any insight into his mind, his motivations, are usually swept under the rug or left unexamined. But there is one notable exception: Leonardo’s Legacy: How da Vinci Reimagined the World. A spectacular book penned by Stefan Klein, noted physicist and essayist, it departs from the laudatory fluff of most da Vinci biographies and examines some of the core tenets driving not just the man, but the polymath paradigm as a whole.

For instance, while da Vinci’s extensive resume usually places “mathematician” near the top, he in fact only knew the basics of long division–pretty advanced for his time, but hardly the stuff of pure genius. Instead of firing labels like a rabid kid with a paint gun, Klein looks for the origin of da Vinci’s unique mind view in his notes, letters, and sketches. As it turns out, da Vinci’s drive and most of his discoveries sprung from his pursuit of the ideal expression of art. His examinations into anatomy were born out of dissatisfaction with the outdated models of his time, so often used by artists; his discoveries in optics were spurred by his obsession with accurate light and shadow, and his engineering feats were extensions of these findings, fed also by his need for patronage and the demands of his volatile slice of Italy. Klein presents da Vinci’s achievements as both an extension of his artistry and as an outgrowth of his social and historical context.

By moving his development and discoveries beyond the vague and unhelpful “genius” label, Klein introduced me to a fuller and, dare I say, more accurate model of the “Renaissance soul.” Da Vinci never viewed his varied accomplishments in isolation. Though stricken by a lifelong love for knowledge, he tried to fit what he learned into a comprehensive framework, one much greater than the sum of its parts. Though Klein doesn’t quite mention it by name, his book was my first introduction to the idea of “systems thinking”–an approach to problem solving that views different elements and ideas in the world as part of a larger, interconnected whole, however isolated they appear. To da Vinci and other polymaths, knowledge isn’t just a series of disparate facts, separate leaves to be admired and collected in isolation. The objective is always to get at the “root,” so to speak, to see the tree in its entirety–leaves, branches, and all.

Unfortunately, Klein also points out just how fragile this peculiar brand of curiosity can be when not nurtured or funded by a generous patron. He argues that while we often lament the dearth of “modern day da Vincis,” our current emphasis on specialization and compartmentalization in education can hammer a budding polymath’s interests flat. This, of course, is a debatable point–but even so, Leonardo’s Legacy is a great book for anyone whose passions branch in many directions by offering a peek into one of our most illustrious champions.

Here are other books well worth a look:

The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine (the rare career advice book aimed at people with multiple passions)

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J. Gelb

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Dec 28 2015

Whale of a Story

by Hope L

SmithsonianDec2015My favorite quick read, which is available at DCPL (natch), is Smithsonian Magazine*–and the December issue certainly does not disappoint.

The article “Quakers with a Vengeance” is all about the history of Nantucket, so of course it delves into the history of whaling–and, of course, it talks about Herman Melville and Moby Dick. And it explores a more recent item: Ron Howard’s new movie In the Heart of the Sea, now in theaters.

One fascinating tidbit I just picked up from reading this piece is that Melville had never been to Nantucket (the place where his famous classic is at shore) when he wrote his famous story. Turns out he only visited it a year after Moby Dick was published. I did know however (being a Card-Carrying Know-It-All and everything), that Melville’s book was a flop during his lifetime, which is indeed a shame. The more I read about Herman Melville, the more I respect him as a writer and an adventurer. (You, too, can be a Card-Carrying Know-It-All by signing up today for a DCPL library card.)

I haven’t been this excited about whaling since I visited Provincetown, MA, a few years ago. Not quite Nantucket, but it’s the closest I’ve been to the world-famous home of whalers, that little island out there off of Cape Cod. It also turns out that Nantucket and its environs had little in the way of whales in any nearby waters after about 1800, having been all fished out. Still, the infrastructure was in place for the processing of whale blubber, and Nantucket continued to be the top producer of whaling oil in the world.

The thing about Melville’s Moby Dick is that initially one could mistake it as a difficult and monotonous read, as I did before I became a die-hard ship/sea stories/whaling aficionado. But when I read it years later, I was smitten.

melville

Melville’s tales of his seafaring adventures led to his success as a writer with Typee published in 1846. Other books followed, with Moby Dick being published in 1851 to little acclaim.

So, if you care to dream about ocean adventures while in landlocked Atlanta, DCPL has an assortment of whaling and seafaring books in addition to Melville’s writings, for example:

Looking for a Ship (1990) by John McPhee

Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting (2006) by T.R. Pearson

The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America (2008) by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith

*The Smithsonian Magazine is available in print (paper) at various DCPL branches. Check with your local library. You can read full-color, digital issues of the Smithsonian Magazine in our DCPL Zinio Library Collection, and the magazine is also available full-text via EBSCOhost from GALILEO.

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Dec 25 2015

Fast Moving Trains…Well, Sort Of

by Dea Anne M

Today is Christmas and many of those who celebrate the holiday, when asked what they want most, will say something along the lines of “world peace” or universal love.” Well, I want all those things too, but I have to tell you that there have been many moments during my years of living in and around Atlanta when what I’ve wished for the most is…a new transit system. Usually this wish translates into actual thoughts (and sometimes mutterings) such as “There’s gotta be something better,” or “I absolutely, cannot believe this!” These thoughts/exclamations generally follow a 30-minute wait in a frigid (or sweltering) station for a train that clearly isn’t coming, or when splashed, post rainstorm (and yet again) by a bus picking up no passengers, headed for Laredo.

“So, drive,” you might tell me. “Stop taking MARTA.” For the most part I have, and I think it’s a shame. For years and years, I faithfully used the bus and the train nearly everyday. I would–at length–advocate the virtues of public transportation to any and all who would listen. It was an issue on which I was passionate.

And the thing is…I still am. I enjoy driving on an open road as much as anyone, but I have no love for intown car traffic. I don’t relish what my solitary driving does to the environment in terms of fossil fuel consumption. I miss the exercise that I get simply from hauling myself and my belongings all over the place. Most of all, I want there to be a reliable, broad-reaching public transportation system in place for those of us who live here–not only as an option for me and others with the option to drive, but to serve the many people who, for whatever reason, don’t have that option to drive. Whenever I visit Manhattan, I’m wowed again by the ease with which one can get around on the trains (although you’ll hear New Yorkers complain about the transit system all the time). I was also impressed with London’s system during my brief visit there. These cities’ systems seem more “organic” than ours here, and certainly employment in those cities (and other major transit-served metropolises like Chicago and San Francisco) is more concentrated into specific areas. Here’s an interesting short article, including maps of transit systems that had an undeniable impact on the cities they serve. You’ll see systems of mind-boggling breadth like those that serve Seoul and Hong Kong, as well as systems devoted to meeting transportation needs contingent on geography–such as Washington State’s system of passenger ferries and the vaporetti system of motor boats used by the citizens and visitors of Venice, Italy.

straphangerIf you’re a dedicated driver who is interested in exploring a different perspective on getting around, you might check out Taras Grescoe’s  Straphanger: Saving Ourselves and Our Cities from the Automobile. Grescoe, like many of my New York friends, doesn’t own a car. In fact, though he knows how to drive, he has never owned an automobile. The book is a fascinating study of public transportation systems worldwide, from Shanghai to Philadelphia, and along the way, Grescoe makes a very convincing argument for a transit revolution. It’s a fascinating and provocative book, especially in the face of dwindling fuel reserves.

mapsAnd while you’re thinking about mass transit questions, have some fun with Transit Maps of the World: Every Urban Train Map on Earth by Mark Ovenden. Ovenden’s book delivers exactly what the subtitle promises–a collection of maps from every urban transport system on the planet with supplemental diagrams, photos and history. This would be fascinating reading for history buffs and graphic designers, not to mention the type of kid who voraciously devours all available information about a very specific area of interest. Looking at this absorbing book might make you realize that this kid is still alive inside you.

What’s your take on public transit? A matter of indifference or necessary evil? A vital preference or a fascinating theater of the human condition? Maybe it is all these things to you. As for me, I’m determined to try and start showing MARTA a little love this year. From now on I’m taking the train…that is, at least part of the time.

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Dec 21 2015

Holiday Kindness

by Camille B

Candle4Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last year, in the midst of doing my Christmas shopping, I stopped off at the McDonald’s for a quick bite to eat. When I finally pulled around to the drive-thru window to pay for the meal, I was informed by the cashier that the customer ahead of me had already paid for it. Stunned, I thanked her, collected my food and drove off. I had no idea how the person knew what I had ordered or how much it had cost, but I remember thinking to myself, well if that wasn’t just the nicest thing.

This was my very first experience with such a random act of kindness by a total stranger, but I soon discovered that, though random, the act was far from uncommon. Friends and coworkers regaled me with the many instances they had heard of, or witnessed themselves, of people going out of their way to be nice just because–especially at Christmastime. It seems that for some reason folks just seem to be brimming over with extra kindness and good cheer during the Holidays, giving back from what they’ve been blessed with, all in keeping with the spirit of the season.

Many charitable organizations also provide free Holiday assistance to thousands of children, seniors and unemployed or low-income families–providing free food, toys, meals and more. And it is our generous contributions around this time of year that make these services possible. Yet it’s oftentimes the smallest things we do, which cost us almost nothing, that make the greatest impact on someone else’s life.

So this year, even in the midst of your busy days of shopping and parties and travelling, keep a lookout for opportunities to show kindness everywhere you go. People become stressed and tired and irritable in the midst of their hectic Holiday schedules, and your kind word or deed at the right moment might be just what they need to set them on course again.

For some of us, it might take making a very conscious effort–but it can be done. You don’t have to adopt an entire family or give all your money away, but you can:

Pay for the coffee of the person in line behind you.

Put change in the vending machine for the next person, or in the parking meter for someone whose time is about to expire.

Or, just smile at a stranger or two while you go about your day.

And the act doesn’t always have to be random or anonymous, you can also:

Give compliments away lavishly about someone’s holiday outfit, scarf, or cookie recipe. (Everyone loves compliments.)

Babysit for parents who need to get out for errands.

Add an extra plate at the dinner table for someone who might be spending the Holidays alone. (This is a lonely time of year for many.)

The list is endless of the giving and sharing opportunities I found while doing research for this post, but I particularly liked the website payitforwardday.com, which provides really awesome and creative ways to make a difference in someone else’s life. I mean, it will make you want to do so much more than you’re doing now. And who knows, maybe if we begin our random acts of kindness now, the ripple effect will continue well into the New Year.

A sample of books available at DCPL on the topic of kindness:

Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders

Pay it Forward: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde

The Art of Being Kind by Stefan Einhorn

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Dec 16 2015

DCPL Squashes the Bah Humbug!

by Hope L

Are you feeling a little like Scrooge this year? Not enough time, energy, or maybe money to be festive? Are the holidays sneaking up on you, with the mild weather giving you the impression that the holiday season is still months away?

Well, the holiday season is indeed upon us, and whether you celebrate anything this time of year or not, you can take advantage of the wonderful goings on at the DeKalb County Public Library!

Here are some happenings this coming Saturday that are enough to put some holiday spirit into anybody, even you Grinches out there:

HeritageFestival2015_slideSat., Dec. 19:  There are too many delicious choices to make on this day!  Redan-Trotti Library, 770.482.3821, will offer Tasty Traditions:  Cookie & Dessert Exchange, from 11:30-12:30 p.m.  Share your family’s traditional cookie or dessert that has been passed down through the years, along with the recipe, and sample everyone else’s.  A prize will be given for the tastiest one and registration is required with a limit of 20 participants.

Sat., Dec. 19:  Decatur Library will host the Embrace Our World:  Greek Food Tasting event, sponsored by the Decatur Craft Beer Festival, from 10:30-11:30 a.m., with selections of a variety of traditional Greek pastries.  Available to the first 30 people.

That’s just a sample–see our calendar of events for more happenings at DCPL.

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Dec 8 2015

Speak the Speech, I Pray You…

by Amie P

Authors have often used animals as great characters and narrators for children’s books. Who hasn’t read Frog and Toad, The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? (If you are that person, I recommend catching up on all of them, because you’re missing out.)

Still, in the back of my mind, this was a motif only used by the authors of children’s books. Adults need human narrators for their books, right?

Wrong.  Plenty of authors have figured out how to make animals the star of the show. While there are some classics (Watership Down, anyone?) and some serious titles like The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, the mystery writers have done a good job of using animals to make their genre more entertaining.

wishThe classic cat mystery series begins with Wish You Were Here by Rita Mae Brown. Harry, a small-town postmaster, realizes that people being murdered have all received a postcard with a tombstone on it prior to their deaths. Harry is on the trail of the killer, but doesn’t realize that her cat, Mrs. Murphy, and dog, Tucker, are way ahead of her.

dogA newer dog mystery series starts with Dog On It, by Spencer Quinn. Bernie is a private detective who takes on the case of a mother looking for her missing teenage daughter. Chet, Bernie’s dog, proves to be just as good a sleuth as his owner—unless Chet gets distracted by something like, say, the scent of bacon.

threeIf you’re not into reading the perspective of pets, you can try a sheep mystery, Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann. Sheep aren’t known for being the smartest animals in the world, but when George Glenn shows up in the pasture with a spade lodged in him, his sheep decide to find out who killed their shepherd.

If you’re looking for a fun read with a different perspective, give one of these a try. You might get hooked—and you might start looking at your pets a little differently.

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Dec 4 2015

Hypochondriac Blues

by Hope L

sick

Today I saw my doctor for my annual physical.  I haven’t been to see him in a few months because before that I was seeing him constantly, and I thought we needed some time apart. He likely gripes about his patients to his wife.  I believe I would if I had someone like me for a patient!

You see, I have a lot of health problems. Well … um … My doctor assures me that I am very healthy for a 52-year-old.  And then I leave his office relieved, if only for maybe another 24 hours.

You might be guessing by now that my only real problem is that I am a hypochondriac. Not that I have been officially diagnosed, mind you. No, my sweet doctor, bless his young-enough-to-be-my-son’s heart, would never tell me that I’m a hypochondriac.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

“Illness anxiety disorder, sometimes called hypochondria or health anxiety, is worrying excessively that you are or may become seriously ill. You may have no physical symptoms. Or you may believe that normal body sensations or minor symptoms are signs of severe illness, even though a thorough medical exam doesn’t reveal a serious medical condition.”

Aha! I just knew there was something wrong with me! I evidently have Illness Anxiety Disorder.  I am one of those people with a headstone ready–and it reads, “See, I told you I was dying.”

I just took an online hypochondria test. I scored High. This should not surprise you, or my doctor, or my spouse. After all, I told you all I was sick.

Thankfully, DCPL has many resources about all sorts of medical and health-related topics, which no doubt hypochondriacs like me will want to carefully research. Oh, and of course, other people can read them as well.

WellEnoughBut even better, read this: Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria by Jennifer Traig.

If you’re like me, you will want to stock up on reading materials to keep you informed lest you miss out on color commentary of your latest malady.  Or–and this is important–a potential malady.

And of course, there’s a plethora of things on the internet and on television (think “Mystery Diagnosis,” “House,” “Medical Investigation,” and, of course, everybody’s favorite hypochondriac “Monk”).  I’m a little bit ashamed to say that I’ve looked at some strange illnesses discussed on the web, but I won’t burden you with any of those probably Photoshopped, exploitative shockers.

Right now I’m going to lie down with a good book because I feel a low-grade fever coming on…

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