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Book Review: A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching

Subtitled “Getting to know the world’s most misunderstood bird,” this book will forever change your perspective on your city’s “flying rats” — and hopefully strike that insult from your vocabulary.

Cleverly written and charmingly illustrated by Rosemary Mosco, this finely produced book covers the surprising history of the birds, how to appreciate their diversity and situation, and how to interpret their behavior.

gordon meyer holding book

Here are just a few of the many tidbits that spoke to me:

  • All pigeons are doves. Why are there two names? “Pigeon” derives from the French language, brought to England by the Normans. “Dove” derives from the Old English of the Celts and other first peoples.
  • Pigeons, like dogs and cattle, are domesticated animals. The ones you see in the wild, around the entire globe (except Antartica), are all descendants of feral birds that escaped captivity.
  • As far back as written records exist, pigeons were raised by humans for a variety of purposes, such as communication, sport, and meat. Their waste provided essential ingredients in gunpowder and fertilizer.
  • Pigeons evolved from the T. rex and emerged as their own species about 60 million years ago.
  • North America had its own local breed, the passenger pigeon, but they were hunted to extinction by hungry expansionists. (Much like the bison were, although those did (barely) survive the onslaught.)
  • Although the finches of the Galápagos were instrumental in Darwin’s work, he raised pigeons in England to solidify his theories.
  • Reuter (Yes, of Reuters news service) used carrier pigeons to span the gaps of where his European telegraph system couldn’t reach.
  • The murky white swirls in pigeon poop are urine. That’s how birds (not just pigeons) pee.

This was such a fun book. Granted, I used to train and raise doves, so I might be slightly biased. But as an unappreciated cohabitant of our urban cities, pigeons deserve some respect. I bought my copy of the book at Barbara’s Bookstore, but you can get it from the Amazon too.

Book Review: Coding Games with Scratch

This book caught my eye because, as a youth, I enjoyed learning LOGO (specifically, SmartLOGO) and Scratch is a modern equivalent of that fundamental gateway drug.

gordon meyer holding book

Scratch seems like an ideal way to introduce OO concepts, and the built-in sprites make it much easier to make a functional game without getting bogged down with pixels. The Scratch runtime is freely distributed; sort of. You must deploy your creation on their website, which automatically makes it eligible for modification (AKA “remixing”) by others. (A sly indoctrination into open source culture.)

Like all DK publications, the book is visually engaging and well-designed. The copy I read was an older edition, but I see that it is regularly updated to keep up with Scratch releases.

I borrowed the book from my favorite neighborhood Little Free Library, but you can get yours at the Amazon.

Book Review: Enquire Within Upon Everything

This book is a Victorian-era “miscellany” — a household manual of useful information and processes. This particular edition is a reprint of the 100th version, which was originally published in 1903.

gordon meyer holding book

The publishers have cleverly subtitled this edition “The Victorian’s Answer to the Internet.” A claim that they justify on the back cover by recalling that Tim Berners-Lee’s precursor to his World Wide Web was named “Enquire,” in an homage to this book.

The Internet analogy is apt, in that the breadth of subjects covered is quite impressive. Recipes for food, medicine, and cleaning are quite prominent. As are card games, seasonal fruit and crops, finances, and far too many more to list. It’s easy to imagine how this might be the only book (aside from the Bible, of course) that a household would need. (And compared to the other, very useful!)

Today, it is largely a historical curiosity. It certainly contains a lot of lost wisdom, but modern citizens rarely have the need to make carbon paper, or dress a dead Snipe. (Here, my younger readers wonder what the heck carbon paper is used for, while older readers are surprised to learn that a Snipe is not just a mythical creature of campground shenanigans.)

If you’re a writer or researcher, you’ll love this book for its ability to describe how to clean kid gloves, treat scurvy, or engrave ivory. For the rest of us, it’s amusing and curious to open to a random page and realize that “simpler times” were indeed quite inconvenient and complicated.

Another modern audience for this book is the survivalist (or devout Mormon) who is prepping for the end of the world. Add this publication to your two-year’s supply of food, and you’ll be able to look up how long you can safely hang a chicken carcass (two days, in mild weather), or cure dropsy. (But be sure to also pack a dictionary to look up obscure terminology.)

I bought my paperback copy, new, for less than five dollars at Half-Price Books. Amazon offers more expensive hardbound editions. But, I’m guessing it would be easy to find public domain copies, thanks to Sir Berners-Lee.

Book Review: How to Lie with Maps

I read this book as part of my research for a forthcoming edition of my Bizarre Fact Files series. The book is a well-written, deep exploration into the techniques and politics of cartography. By the time I finished this technical exploration — learning about things I didn’t even know existed — my perspective on mapping was forever changed.

gordon meyer holding book

Yes, I said the politics of mapping. As this book makes clear, every map is a political statement. Maps represent reality, but are not of reality. And the power to define reality lies with the person holding the pen.

Although I didn’t see it referred to in the book, I feel obligated to also mention Alfred Korzybski’s meditations that “the map is not the territory.”

One of my favorite chapters, “Data Maps: A thicket of thorny choices” should be required reading for every social scientist, if not citizen voter, for its clear discussion of how aggregation, homogeneity, and other choices make it easy to distort “data.” Keep this in mind the next time you see a purported map of crime levels, real estate values, or other “facts” superimposed on an areal map. (The author’s book Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences promises even more about this important topic.)

There were numerous tidbits that caught my attention. A few examples:

  • Deliberate blunders, “trap streets” are non-existent features placed on maps to catch copyists. But this common practice died off in 1997 after a court ruled that even imaginary streets are “facts” and can’t be copyrighted. (What the hell‽)
  • Souvenir, a typeface used for map labels by the US Geographic Survey, is an abomination in the context of mapping. The author makes a compelling case for how it ruins cartographic features with its heavy-handed and ugly typography.
  • Commercial placements on maps eschew important cartographic features (such as elevation, and topography) in favor of paid inclusions. This renders the maps useless for functions such as emergency management and national defense, but makes them handy for shopping.
  • Online mapping, covertly paid for by commercial placements, has forever changed the expectations, style, and quality of maps for the public. In Europe, bookstores still carry high-quality regional maps, but good luck finding them in the United States. (Younger readers might be surprised to learn that gas stations used to give away printed maps to customers!)
  • Placenames, those words which define a location or area, are often just accepted as being true, but in reality they can reflect bias and politics. Traditionally, mapmakers have accepted local vernacular, but that leads to codifying some odd, and often racist, stereotypes. The author has a separate book about this topic, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame.

How to Lie with Maps, published by the venerable University of Chicago Press, is not a casual read. But for an outsider such as myself, it was fascinating and insightful. The author, Mark Monmonier, has several related titles, as well as a rich website that will take you deep into a delightful rabbit hole. To get your copy of this book, try the Amazon.