books

"New York Collapse" brings artifactual richness to "The Division"

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If you've been playing "The Division" since it dropped a week ago, you're probably familiar with the challenging environment of a New York City decimated by an engineered virus, quarantined from the outside world, and degenerated to lawlessness. The companion book, called "New York Collapse," offers a rich artifactual journey through the city's descent into chaos and provides tantalizing hints and lore that will enrich your gaming experience.

Written by science fiction author Alex Irvine and produced by Melcher Media, the conceit of the book is that it's an (in-universe) survival guide.

The text is ostensibly written by a quasi-spook named Warren Merchant who seems to know far too much about the particular challenges that an engineered virus — and its paper money vector — would bring to New York. On this level, the text functions as robust, 170-page guide to surviving an urban apocalypse through preparation (what to keep in your "Go Bag"), analyzing risks ("Avoid high-rises"), finding or improvising essentials (did you know you can make a solar water purifying still with a couple of plastic containers and some tubing), and urban tactics (how and where to cache materials you may need later.)

On this level, it's pretty compelling — nothing new if you're a pepper, but some good pointers, with a focus on Manhattan Island. (Near Spuyten Duyvil would be the best place to try a raft, but it's almost certain to be guarded, Merchant warns.)

But where the book really shines is in the annotations, which recount the last month since the spread of the pandemic "Dollar Bug" from the point of view of one April Kelleher. Her late husband, Bill, was a biotech researcher killed early in the pandemic under mysterious circumstances. April is trapped on Manhattan Island by the quarantine, and is forced to learn to survive, using Merchant's book. She scribbles in the margins in different colors of ink, as she finds and loses writing implements, which gives the text a recursive, palimpsestic feel (and also serves to provide chronological pegs for her observations).

And it's a pretty grim story, from the death of her husband, her struggles to find safe places to stay, her efforts to avoid the roving gangs which begin to crop up as civilization decays (the Cleaners, Rikers, and LMB you'll be familiar with from the game), and her quest to piece together an emerging mystery: Who is Warren Merchant, really? How did he know about the Dollar Bug? And why does he seem to be planting clues in the text for April to find?

You pretty soon find yourself as hooked as April, scanning the pages for embedded puzzles and clues. Some of them are obvious (odd things in illustrations) and some are subtle (Nah, Merchant is not going to make a mistake in how much a gallon of water weighs). After a couple of hours, you'll find yourself looking for patterns in capital letters and wondering if that stray green dot on page 120 is just a printing artifact.

In addition to the faux-distressed paperback guide, the package contains an array of stuffed-in objects: a map (with creases expertly printed to simulate wear and an enigmatic clue scrawled in marker), a "missing" poster of April (with a suspect phone number), a hand-drawn "trading card" of her husband, a torn-out page of a book on WWI Dutch musicians (yes, you'll figure out why), and a plastic transit fare card with holes strategically punched in the surface. (You'll need find where to put the sticky note first to figure out how to use this decoder. And, yes, it does point to something in the game.)

I'm a sucker for artifactual fictions, and this one is extremely well done, both in the multiple textual layers, and also in the high production values of the whole package. It's a captivating read with fun puzzles and an overall experience that adds significant depth to the time you're undoubtedly spending in the game itself. Highly recommended.

Full disclosure: I attended the Clarion Workshop with Alex in 1993. I purchased this book and received nothing in exchange for this review.

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02871, Localblogging, sf, books

Want to know "How to Have a Good Day?" Read this book.

HTHAGD_3D.pngThis book should suck. Really. The title clearly over-promises (“How To Have a Good Day,” indeed) and the text attempts three of the most difficult non-fiction high-wire acts: popularizing science without making stupid errors, presenting business advice that doesn’t trigger your bullshit detector, and giving self-help tips that don’t fall off into either banality or featherbrained woo.

Nearly impossible. And yet, somehow, Caroline Webb has pulled it off.

“How to Have a Good Day” is a meticulously documented, step-by-step approach to leveraging contemporary research in cognitive science and behavioral economics to solve the real problems that keep us from being effective — and happy — in our day-to-day jobs and lives. And it’s not aimed at helping you “feel” better, but, rather, outlines a rigorously pragmatic approach to actually *doing* better: analyzing situations more effectively, making better decisions, and communicating with others with empathy and impact.

Every piece of advice comes with a footnoted scientific study — often more than one — buttressing its claims. And Webb, a former partner at a management consulting firm, peppers the text with mini-case studies, anecdotes from business leaders across a wide spectrum of industries that reinforce each of the learnings. Taken together, these present a compelling argument that the advice doesn’t just work in the lab, but in the rubber-meets-the-road environments of the shop floor and the conference room.

Webb opens the book with a section on the science. There are some familiar big ideas (the brain’s two-systems of deliberate thought and automatic or pre-conscious process; the fight-flight-freeze response which can keep us open to discovery or shut us down in defensive threat reaction; and the mind-body loop in which influence can go both ways) which Webb will weave throughout the book. If there is a core theme, it would be that by better understanding how our brain processes the world, we can become aware of and avoid the shortcuts and pitfalls of our unconscious biases and blind spots — and in so doing, increase the odds of our having successful interactions. (And that, often, it can be as simple an act as setting intentions that alerts the brain to the salient features it should be picking out.)

If you’re familiar with cognitive science (or phenomenology) some of this may be sound obvious, but Webb’s skill is in taking these insights and showing throughout the rest of the book how they lead to dysfunction in our everyday lives. We do not directly experience the world, but rather offload much of our administrative processing to sub-conscious systems — and therein lies the problem: we make snap judgements, improperly weight data, and can miss things that are literally right in front of our eyes.

One example Webb uses to demonstrate this kind of inattentional blindness is the famous “gorilla in the basketball game” video (if you’re not familiar, here’s a helpful NPR backgrounder). Webb offers a variety of tested methods for re-focusing our brain’s attention, keeping us in a creative, open state, and engaging the teams around us in ways that help keep them working at their full potential. Hint: It can be as simple as using the “yes…and” familiar to anyone who’s done improv comedy to keep other team members from going into the “amygdala hijack” of defensive mode.

One weird trick I found particularly compelling was harnessing our social brain to solve abstract logic puzzles. Webb uses the example of the Wason selection task, in which you have four cards, showing D, F, 3, and 7, and are asked which cards you would need to turn over to test the truth of the assertion that any card with a “D” on one side must have a “3” on the other. A majority of people get this wrong. But then Webb suggests reframing it in social terms:

“You’re a bartender. You have to make sure that anyone drinking beer in your bar is over twenty-one, or you could lose your license. Each of the cards below represents information about four of your patrons. One side of the card shows what they’re drinking, and the other side of the card shows their (real) age. Which card or cards to you need to turn over to see if the twenty-one-and-over rule is being violated?” The cards are: Beer, Coke, 25, and 16.

Three times as many people get this right, because they’re leveraging their social knowledge. And as Webb points out, we can easily apply this framing to everyday conceptual challenges to provide extra processing power. And that’s just one cherry-picked example. The 300 pages of this book are packed with equally powerful bits of advice.

Webb conveys this all with style and wit, in prose that is at once warm and unpretentious and yet totally at home with the complexities of the evidence she marshals to support her arguments. It is well-written down to the footnotes, and contains two helpful appendices on applying the book’s insights to the two main productivity killers of the business world, meetings and e-mail. I came away with half-a-dozen ideas for things to do differently (some as simple as single-tasking and batching the times I respond to e-mails) and I can virtually guarantee that you’ll find things that will make your days more productive and, yes, happier.

“How to Have a Good Day” by Caroline Webb, from Crown Business. Web site, Facebook. Available on Amazon or IndieBound and many other retailers.

Full disclosure: For several years, I worked with Ms. Webb’s husband, but I have never met her. I purchased the book myself, and received nothing in exchange for this review. One of the advantages of being a freelancer is that I get to pick what I write — if I don’t like a book, I simply don’t review it.

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02871, Localblogging, books

Support your local bookstore (and enjoy snacks and bargains) tomorrow afternoon

Tomorrow, Thursday Oct 21, the stores at Wyatt Square in Middletown hold their second-annual Open House from 5-7pm. The Cornucopia Cafe will be offering appetizers, the Knitting Corner will have fantastic bargains, and our great local bookstore, Island Books, will be offering 20% off, store-wide during the event.

That's right. You can stop by Wyatt Square (just kittycorner from the Dunkin Donuts on East Main) and enjoy samples of Newport Vineyards wine, apple cider, raffles, and bargains. And since it starts at 5, you can grab some books for 20% off before you head up to Green Valley for the Portsmouth Public Education Foundation (PPEF) fall social (hint, hint).

Full disclosure: I love books, I love local bookstores, and I'm on the PPEF board.

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Localblogging, 02871, books, buylocal

RI Festival of Children's Books this Saturday

RI Children's Book Festival
RI Children's Book Festival.

This Saturday, October 16, is the Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors at the Lincoln School, 301 Butler Ave. in Providence. Tickets are available at the door, and are just $5 for the 9am-5:30pm event, which features panels, talks, and signings by some of the top names in children's literature, including Blue Balliett, Jules Feiffer, Kate Feiffer, Jack Gantos, Kazu Kibuishi, Helen Lester, David Macaulay, Mark Teague, Chris Van Allsburg, and Mo Willems.

Seriously, this is one of the most awesome, under-rated events in Rhode Island. They have amazing participants every year, and it's a small venue, so you have opportunities to talk with these amazing authors and illustrators.

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Localblogging, 02871, books

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