Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Upcycling: Creativity for Everyone, and on a Budget Too!

I first learned about upcycling when I got into crochet a few years ago and stumbled across plarn: yarn made from old plastic bags. Being a crafty person from childhood, and the sort of "green" person who rescues empty toilet paper rolls from the trash, I jumped right into upcycling.

Book Cover: "Mend It Better" with art of a needle and threadIt's nothing new; people have been making quilts from worn-out clothes, building homes using bricks from crumbling buildings, and otherwise re-using things for centuries instead of buying unaffordable new ones. These days, upcycling has a new virtue: it's more ecological than recycling (you cut out the steps of transporting and breaking down the plastic, glass, or paper). Also, you don't have to already be an accomplished crafter or maker to do it.

If you enjoy sewing, knitting or crocheting (or think you might), browse through Mend It Better with ideas to fix a favorite old shirt or pair of jeans to suit a range of skills—and styles. Even if you've never picked up a needle, jump in—this book provides detailed how-to's.

Cover of book "Make It!" with pictures of crafts, a large covered bowl made to look like a face in the center.Have limited time for upcycling because you have kids? You can upcycle together!  Check out Make It! for kid-friendly projects based on your trash or recycling bin: empty soda bottles, junk mail, and broken toys can be turned into a cool boat to float in the tub, or a unique bowl to give as a gift. Just the thing for cold weekends or snow days.

Upcycling includes bigger projects using wood and metal too. If you're interested in woodcrafting a good place to start is with pallets: those simple wooden platform used to move refrigerators and other large objects around a store. Your local home or garden store might even give you a couple for free!

There's no end to what you can upcycle and the Internet is full of ideas. To find the more popular projects and organize them easily, Pinterest is ideal. Just do a search on the word "upcycle" and any object you want to upcycle or make, from broken flowerpots to socks worn out at the heels, then pin the ones you like onto a pinboard with any name you want.

Happy upcycling!

Beth C.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tech Mishaps

Photo: katzarella on Flickr (CC-BY-NC)
Technology is great! It makes our lives easier and more efficient and safer. We can whip out a cell phone to call for emergency help when we break down on the highway, take pictures or video of our cats being adorable and share them with the world, keep up with news as events unfold, and instantly chat with friends and family. Sometimes, technology is not so great…it goes wrong. Very wrong. And stays wrong for longer than you might expect. You may have felt the effects of such a wrong if you visited the library in late December. We had a technology failure with our catalog servers that could not have been predicted and, unfortunately, was not a simple fix. It is a dreaded event for any organization to have key components of the technology they depend on suddenly stop working. Events like that always make me reflect on the technologies we now take for granted in our daily lives—lights, automobiles, and cell phone service among others. (I also start reflecting every time the aging elevator in my condo building breaks down and I have to take the stairs to or from my 12th floor home.)

As a reader of dystopian fiction, techno-thrillers and science fiction, I get glimpses of the very wide range of possibilities that could happen when technology goes wrong and the future it could mean for humanity. It is all great escapist fun…except that much of it seems well within the realm of possibly happening. Try these titles to explore the possibilities:

The Circle by Dave Eggars: a very familiar-seeming global technology company wants to “complete the circle” by having all of humanity hyper-connected via the internet, including not just your typical daily posts on social media but also to the extent of requiring all children to be microchip tagged so parents can better track them and keep them from harm. Politicians elect to wear chest cameras (similar to what some police forces are currently using) to broadcast their daily lives and all meetings in real time with the idea that constituents can hold them responsible for their actions. The main character’s naiveté and buy-in to this whole scenario is chilling.

Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez: once unleashed, militarized swarms of drones are empowered to make autonomous choices to kill targets. Ant scientist and scholar Linda McKinney is shocked to find out her research is the basis for the drone behavior and fights along with a government black ops team to find a way to stop the technology before the people behind the swarm dominate the world.

Michael Crichton’s Prey: a predatory nanobot swarm escapes the lab and terrorizes the locals.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson: artificial intelligence (AI) runs amok and takes control over
machines and devices in a violent rebellion against humans and human control.

Douglas Preston’s The Kraken Project: AI developed to run a deep space exploration capsule escapes into the internet and eventually into a child’s toy to elude capture by her creators.

On the plus side, the library can also help you find ways to cope and survive if any of these disastrous situations ever *do* come to pass.

When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein: covers a wide range of survival skills from building fires to sustainable energy sources.

When All Hell Breaks Loose by Cody Lundin: evaluate your mindset for survival and learn tips for the urban and suburban “jungle.”

How to Survive Anywhere by Christopher Nyerges: information on survival in all types of environments, including urban and suburban areas. Also useful if you just want to get away from modern systems for a few days (i.e., go camping).

Hopefully, my technological dystopian disaster reading suggestions won’t send you into survival mode for real. Maybe next time I should write about warm fuzzy fiction and gentle romances

Tina R.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Money, Money, Money!

The start of a new year often prompts people to think about their money. Do you have any financial goals for 2015? Personally, my New Year’s resolution is to go at least a week without entering a store. I spent a little too much money, and, more importantly, time, in stores at the end of 2014. 

Clark Howard's Living Large in Lean TimesMoney is more than personal finance of course. There’s the psychology of it. Are we spenders or savers? How does money affect our happiness and our relationships with others? And there’s quite a history to those little portraits of men and monuments we carry around in our wallets. The library is a great place to look for help achieving your financial goals. Or, for those with a philosophical bent, to explore whether money really makes the world go round.

How Much Money Is Enough? Money and the Good LifeFor those seeking practical personal finance advice, try Clark Howard’s Living Large. It touches on all the usual suspects of budgeting—credit, travel, cars, homeownership, investing, etc. However, if it’s inspiration you’re looking for, The Cheapskate Next Door might be more your style. Jeff Yeager offers an easy going look at how living far below your means can help you achieve financial independence.

When do we as individuals, or as a society, have enough money? When do we decide that we'd rather sacrifice wealth for leisure? Explore these questions at a societal level in How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life. For a more personal look at the relationship between money and happiness, try Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.

Money: The Unauthorized Biography
Money has come in a variety of forms throughout history. These days our wallets are more likely to be overloaded with credit cards than beads, shells or other historic mediums of exchange.  Money: The Unauthorized Biography provides an international look at the history of money, from ancient times to today. 

U.S. CurrencyFinally, money has been an important way of expressing cultural pride. From the faces of emperors on Roman coins to the Presidential portraits on US bills, David Standish explores the artwork of currency in The Art of Money

Whatever your interest in money, the library has the resources to help you pursue it. 

Mark S.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I Spy

Cambridge University where Kim Philby's spy ring met in the 1930's (Photo: Christian Richardt)
My favorite nonfiction book of 2014 was A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre. So much has been written about the Soviet spies hiding in plain sight at the center of the British establishment during the Cold War that you might think yet another book unnecessary. But MacIntyre proves that assumption wrong. He approaches the well known story of the Cambridge spies from the point of view of Philby’s best friend Nicholas Elliott. Elliott worked alongside Philby for years, placing unquestioning trust in his friend and sharing secrets from the highest levels of the British government. Elliott even defended Philby when he first came under suspicion, but ultimately was the one chosen to confront the traitor with proof of his crimes. Philby not only betrayed his country, he betrayed his friends. This personal story adds emotional depth to the cold facts of the case.

McIntyre got the idea for this book from none other than John le Carré, the great spy novelist, who knew Philby personally during his career at MI6. Philby was the model for the character of the traitor in le Carré’s most famous work, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Not surprisingly the Philby story has inspired many other novelists, with varying degrees of success. Here are a couple of my favorites:
  • The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming. On the strength of this novel, Cumming was dubbed the John Le Carré of his generation. He imagines there was a sixth spy in the Cambridge spy ring who has remained unexposed into his old age. Now he is ready to tell his story to a journalist but there are forces determined to silence him.
  • Young Philby by Robert Littell. Littell’s work always receives stellar reviews but he is not as well known as he deserves to be. Here he imagines Philby’s youthful spying exploits and suggests that maybe he was actually a triple agent working against the Soviet Union.
But fiction cannot really compete with fact when it comes to the Cambridge spies. One of the most amazing stories is that of Anthony Blunt. He was a distinguished art historian who had served as curator of the Queen’s art collection for years when he was exposed as a spy in 1979. Blunt confessed and was given immunity, though he was stripped of his knighthood. Miranda Carter tells his story in Anthony Blunt: His Lives, one of the most intriguing biographies I have ever read. Blunt’s story inspired Irish novelist John Banville to write The Untouchable, a psychological study of how an elderly man, a respected establishment figure, reacts to his sudden exposure as a spy.

Whether you prefer your spies served up as fact or fiction you can always find plenty to read on your library shelves. Ask a librarian for suggestions or check out these lists:
Happy New Year, and happy spying!

Rita T.