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July 19, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

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Why We Can Find Our Way to

the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall

Colin Ellard

Doubleday: 328 pp., $25

Colin Ellard, one of the finest science writers I've ever read, begins this mind-expanding book with a question: "What kind of creatures are we that we can design technology to navigate across oceans, continents, and even the forbidding reaches of space, yet we become hopelessly lost in a small forest?"

We may understand space, Ellard explains, but our relationship to physical space is different from other animals', particularly those with elaborate homing abilities. We have also evolved in ways that liberate us from physical space, constructing, for example, virtual realities.

How does our relationship to physical space affect how we design our homes, workplaces and cities? How does it affect our sense of communal space and how we interact with other humans? How do our fears of getting lost (so prevalent in ancient and modern mythology) constrain us? How does our attraction to spaciousness get thwarted in our architecture?

Ellard grabs examples from his own life, from distant cultures like the Inuit, from our finest cognitive scientists, urban visionaries, architects and urban planners. He introduces technical concepts, particularly when explaining the many ways we navigate -- vision, gradient maps, path integration, magnetic fields and mental maps, integration coefficients and the "grammar of city spaces" -- in thoroughly digestible ways. You know you are in the hands of a good teacher when you look up from a book and your own ideas spill out like winnings from a slot machine. It's fun, pure fun.

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Say Everything

How Blogging Began, What It's

Becoming, and Why It Matters

Scott Rosenberg

Crown: 404 pp., $26

I needed a crash course in blogging, if only to stop the advancing bitterness of the curmudgeon effect. Turns out, blogging is old enough now, Scott Rosenberg explains, to have moved beyond its navel-gazing adolescence into a kind of maturity. Lessons have been learned, about public intimacy, about workplace ethics and about its important role in (yes) investigative journalism.

Rosenberg walks us through the history of blogging. He describes the nature of the conflicts between bloggers and journalists ("more like feuding cousins, squabbling over a family legacy: Who gets to call himself a journalist? Who should readers trust? Which group was meeting democracy's need for reliable public information? If the Web was killing newspapers, could the new medium fill the void?"), bloggers and dot-commers (sharing information versus making money) and the virtual life of the blogger versus "real life" (for example, getting "dooced," a.k.a. losing one's job because of one's blog, or the importance of status and credibility on the Web). Rosenberg's great strength lies in his storytelling -- the lives of the people, such as Justin Hall (who many call the first blogger), Jorn Barger (creator of RobotWisdom), Dan Gillmor (one of the first journalists to blog) as well as the creation stories of the first weblogs. "Say Everything" is critical reading for people trying to get a handle on the whirlwind. Be forewarned: Rosenberg is a believer. "Their work may be less polished and professional," writes the Salon co-founder, "than that of many of their predecessors. But they are more passionate, more numerous, and more inclusive and therefore more likely to succeed in saving what matters."

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Broken

A Love Story

Lisa Jones

Scribner: 276 pp., $25

"Not only horses get broken around here," writes Lisa Jones, a journalist who was almost devoured by a remarkable assignment on the West. In particular, she is writing of the Wind River Range in Wyoming where her subject, Stanford Addison, lives.

"Everything does, starting with the ground itself. Millions of years ago, a new mountain range broke through the Ancestral Rocky Mountains, leaving the original range's broken remains leaning against the flanks of the Wind River Range."

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