Judging a book by its…

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I’m a lifelong bibliophile, a perambulator of bookstores and libraries, wont to picking up books at random and taking them in on a whim. So, of course, I’m a lover of book covers.

And, except for those of us who judge books only on their e-readers, covers matter. A lot. Female British author Lionel Shriver wrote a scathing piece for The Guardian of the gender inequality of cover designs. She rightly complains that the pastel images of wistful women that her publisher’s designers suggest for her are based solely on her gender and have nothing to do with her books–intense narratives, even “nasty,” as she calls them. No one wants the label chic lit, even those who predominantly write for a female audience (I’m looking at you Jodi Picoult).

Book buyers tend to form judgements about unknown books within 10-20 seconds of seeing them. Which is why the hardcover copy of last year’s The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt:

 

 

makes such a better first impression than the paperback version:

 

 

The hardcover version is a visual double entendre, the paperback a pastel banality that makes me think I’m picking up a dry history of the wild west. Pass.

It’s pretty amazing when a book cover makes you do a double take, gives you a complete summary of the book in a single image. Designer Jenny Volvovski is currently creating new covers for books she’s read, and I love her take on Bradley Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist:

 

The main character has four wives, each with several children, and somehow the letters alone give you a sense of his life. There he is, the lonely O at the center of it all.

I could go on forever about amazing book covers, because there are so many good ones (and several blogs devoted to them). In case you’re interested, here are a lot more awesome book covers. And here’s a list of 30 books that “you should buy for the cover alone.”

But in the age of the e-reader, is the book cover an endangered art form? Chip Kidd, one of the most famous book cover designers of all time, thinks not. NPR quotes him as saying, “[Books] need some kind of visual representation, whether you’re going to be seeing them the size of a postage stamp on a computer screen or a smartphone, or sitting on a table, or on a shelf, or in a bookstore.” Of course, he’s banking on that assumption, given that that’s how he makes a living. I hope he’s right.

Here’s his TED talk on the art of designing a book cover:

 

 

 

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A brief history of the universe

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I know I’ve been really into TEDTalks lately, but they’re just so darn informative and entertaining! In this video, David Christian explains how complexity has formed over the history of the universe:

All that work, just to lead to this!

Interactive decision making

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When I was a freshman at Dartmouth one of the classes I was most interested in taking was on game theory, which sounded both fabulously fun (games!) and incredibly interesting (theories!) Luckily I read the reviews of the class before I signed up which unanimously decried the class as not at all fun and not at all interesting.

Game theory encompasses a variety of explanations of relatively simple behavior in mathematically complex ways. For instance, in A Beautiful Mind, John Nash stumbles upon his famous equilibrium concept by checking out ladies at a bar:

 

Easy, right? Well here’s the mathematical equation for this phenomenon: \forall i,x_i\in S_i, x_i \neq x^*_{i} :  f_i(x^*_{i}, x^*_{-i}) \geq f_i(x_{i},x^*_{-i}).

Dr. Haim Shapiro, game theorist, calls this type of a equation a mathematical x-ray of a situation. Indeed it looks something like the bones of a complex organism. Here, in a TEDtalk, he discusses the Beautiful Mind scene as well as several other examples of strategy:

 

Well I’m off to meet up with friends for dinner. Now I just have to figure out how to make them pay for my filete a la rossini

Dimension X

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In honor of this biweekly theme I’ve been reading up on string theory, trying to make sense of it all. Finally, after pouring over papers and definitions on scientific websites, then regressing to wikipedia pages, in which every link-text word was just as completely unintelligible, I turned to a better resource: TED talks. You probably know this by now, but here’s the idea: the conference organizers for TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) invite experts to discuss a topic in 18 minutes or under in a manner that is both highly education and highly understandable. Here’s physicist Brian Greene telling you everything you need to know to start to understand string theory:

My only question: Mr. Greene’s talk is from February 2005 and he affirms that experiments within “the next 3 years, 5 years, 10 years” should show whether string theory is true. Granted, we’re still within the 10-year mark from his original talk, but I wonder what the status of the experiments are. Scientists in Italy announced their findings just last year of particles that moved faster than the speed of light. Does string theory account for that? Does it want to? The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland that Greene mentions is currently undergoing routine maintenance and will resume colliding particles in March. Stay tuned, I guess…