Author Archives: Ralph Courtney

Pandemic City: eBooks You Can Use From Home

When it’s hard to get to the library, it’s a good time to take a look at some ebooks that you can get to from home – you can find all of these works by searching on their titles in QuickSearch on our home page.

Now, I’m talking Pandemic City here – I’ll cover more distracting titles another time, but these ebooks will help in better understanding pandemics that are thankfully past, all-too-present, and (sigh) yet to come.  Most of them are firmly about one kind of pandemic or another, but others address pandemics as being only part of a larger context of potential disasters that could occur, just in case COVID-19 hasn’t provided enough excitement for you already.  Anyway, while we’re all a little sharper on pandemics than we were not all that long ago, good basic information never hurts:

* Pandemics: What Everyone Needs To Know – Doherty, Peter C. Oxford, 2013

* Pandemic Influenza: Emergency Planning And Community Preparedness – ed. by Jeffrey R. Ryan CRC Press, 2008

Of course, we have an excellent work on everybody’s favorite plague:

* Encyclopedia Of The Black Death – Byrne, Joseph P. ABC-CLIO, 2012

And to paraphrase Tina Turner, what’s politics got to do with it?

* When Science And Politics Collide: The Public Interest At Risk – Schneider, Robert O. Praeger, 2018

COVID-19 is certainly not the only pandemic humanity has ever faced; some authors look to the past:

* Flu Hunter: Unlocking The Secrets Of A Virus – Webster, Robert G. Otago University Press, 2018

* The Great Manchurian Plague Of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics Of An Epidemic Disease – Summers, William C. Yale, 2012

* Africa In The Time Of Cholera: A History Of Pandemics From 1815 To The Present – Echenberg, Myron. Cambridge, 2011

* Plows, Plagues, And Petroleum: How Humans Took Control Of Climate – Ruddiman, William F. Princeton, 2005

* The Pandemic Perhaps: Dramatic Events In A Public Culture Of Danger – Caduff, Carlo. California, 2015

While other authors look to the future, at a somewhat different definition of Alvin Toffler’s phrase ‘Future Shock’:

* Humanity On A Tightrope: Thoughts On Empathy, Family, And Big Changes For A Viable Future – Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein Rowman & Littlefield, 2010

* Global Catastrophes And Trends: The Next 50 Years – Smil, Vaclav. MIT, 2008

* Megadisasters: The Science Of Predicting The Next Catastrophe – Diacu, Florin. Princeton, 2009

* Germ Wars: The Politics Of Microbes And America’s Landscape Of Fear – Armstrong, Melanie. California, 2017

I’ll finish with a couple of good print volumes in case you find yourself actually in the Consortium Library.  First is a good overall work:

* REF WA13.E564 2008, v.1 and 2     Encyclopedia Of Pestilence, Pandemics, And Plagues – ed. by Joseph P. Byrne Greenwood, 2008

And this last one is one good for nursing students, with one chapter about emerging infectious diseases and pandemics:

* WC100.W38 2012    Netter’s Infectious Diseases – [ed.] by Elaine C. Jong and Dennis L. Stevens Elsevier, 2011

Still, as a postscript, this has been such a serious subject for piling one difficult title on top of another that I can’t help but leave you with a diverting link to some amazing photographs that have – I promise! – absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with coronavirus, courtesy of the BBC:

Antarctic Seal Wins Top Prize

Richard K. Nelson

Richard K. Nelson, a remarkable Alaskan, passed away on Monday, November 4th, 2019.  I never met the man, but I’ve been touched by his work for over forty years, ever since I read Hunters of the Northern Ice and Hunters of the Northern Forest in 1975.  He was an anthropologist originally from Wisconsin, and what he learned and experienced in researching his Alaskan ethnographies changed his life forever.  He eventually settled in Sitka, wrote books (including the meditative The Island Within), participated in a five-part video series accompanying Make Prayers to the Raven, and literally found his voice in creating the radio program Encounters, “A program of observations, experiences, and reflections on the world around us.”  His deep knowledge, optimism, and enthusiasm come through so clearly, as does the sound of whatever subject his parabolic microphone was capturing while he recorded his episodes in the field, be it polar bears, sandhill cranes, whales, or even — during visits to Australia — wombats.

Here are a few of Nelson’s works in the Consortium Library:

ALASKA E99.E7 N43 1969
Hunters of the Northern Ice

ALASKA E99.K84 N44 1973
Hunters of the Northern Forest: Designs for Survival Among the Alaskan Kutchin

ALASKA GN21.N45 A3 1989
The Island Within

ALASKA E99.K79 N44 1983
Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest

ALASKA QL765.N45 2005
Encounters: Radio Experiences in the North (6 CDs)

The video series Make Prayers to the Raven can be borrowed on 2 DVDs from other Alaska libraries in our system.  But you can also listen to 108 Encounters episodes simply by going here:

We’re lucky to have such an audio archive available: a few minutes with Richard Nelson can inform and brighten your life, and help you better appreciate the Alaska that is all around us.

Hey, Mr. DJ, Put A Record On….

If you’ve ever wanted to delve into a particular piece of music, there’s nothing like a good guide to give you context and show you what to look for. We have any number of titles on individual works, such as Avatar of Modernity: The Rite of Spring Reconsidered (M1520.S9 A82 2013) and Who Should Sing Ol’ Man River? (ML410.K385 D44 2015), but it often helps to have a series dedicated to explaining music in a standard format.  One of the best is the Cambridge Music Handbook series; we have 44 of them covering such diverse works as Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (ML410.V82 E84 1996), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (ML410.G288 S27 1997), and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5; search in the catalog for Cambridge Music Handbooks and they should all come up. There’s even one for The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (ML421.B4 M66 1997), although that’s an exception to the generally classical works covered by the series.

Another good series is Unlocking the Masters by David Hurwitz; this listener-friendly series focuses on works by the same composer rather than being book-length treatments of individual pieces. Each book comes with a CD featuring works used as examples in the text. We have two of them: The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner’s Manual (ML410.M23 H86 2004) and Sibelius: The Orchestral Music: An Owner’s Manual (MT92.S63 H87 2007). There are another twelve or so titles in the series—including Shostakovich, Dvorak, Handel, and others—and I expect to get more of them in the future.

Finally, there’s an excellent book called Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. Haruki Murakami, a well-known Japanese author (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and others), had lengthy and very insightful conversations with the famous conductor. While we don’t have a copy in the Consortium Library, Anchorage Public Libraries does. It’s very enjoyable and well worth reading.

Terra Non Firma

It was easier to believe in solid ground before it became common knowledge that the Earth is a sphere with tectonic plates rafting over molten rock; unlike the popular myth, not even turtles go all the way down.  It’s been nearly 4 months since the November 30th earthquake, yes, but also 55 years since the 1964 quake.  There are those who have become hypersensitive to every slight jolt and quiver, whose home pages have changed — perhaps permanently — from the innocuous Kitten War to the Alaska aftershocks website, now measuring the anxieties of their lives not in Prufrock’s coffee spoons, but in logarithmic fractions they never paid much attention to before.

And why not?  To my mind, this particular local zeitgeist was best captured by Louise Juhnke 54 years ago. The Anchorage Times was the recorder of daily Anchorage history from 1916 to the day its doors closed in 1992 (joined in the late 1940s by the Anchorage Daily News), and one editorial page feature was called Poet’s Corner (or, depending on the day’s typesetter, Poets’ Corner or just plain Poets Corner).  On March 27th, 1965, on the exact anniversary, her poem March Jitters was published; it applies just as much to the aftermath of 2018 as to that of 1964.  For decades, the only way to find that poem would have been by looking at frame after frame of microfilm, or by choosing the right Times clippings notebook from among thousands.  But as of last October — just in time for the November 30th earthquake, if anyone had known to look for it — March Jitters and the rest of the Anchorage Times became fully available online back to 1916 — amazing.  Those thousands of clippings notebooks were replaced by searchable full-page scans of the Times: a local historian’s dream for many decades.

It’s easy to repurpose popular songs as unintended earthquake anthems:  All Shook Up, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On, I Feel The Earth Move.  You can also find in the Times that John Hartford, composer of Gentle On My Mind, performed in Midtown at Grand Central Station on May 5th, 1984.  It was a little over 20 years after the ’64 quake when he sang California Earthquake: “Mother Nature’s got gas, her diet’s gone stale / …acid indigestion on the Richter Scale…”  To say the least.  (

Most people between 3 and 4 feet tall in pre-Star Trek 1964 were watching a science fiction puppet show called Fireball XL5 on that Good Friday (the Exxon Valdez spill also occurred on Good Friday and November 30th was also a Friday — what is it with Fridays and major disasters in Alaska?)  Here, we need to switch to the Anchorage Daily News database (which began in 1985) to find that Robert Gottstein hosted a Fireball XL5 party at the 4th Avenue Theater on the 40th anniversary of the ’64 quake in 2004: everyone concerned remembered Colonel Steve Zodiac and his crew.  You can find episodes (and the remarkably romantic theme song for its target age group) on Youtube.  ( offers a short sample.)

You’ll find plenty of Alaska earthquake books in the QE 535 call number area, but it was only in 2017 that the best popular book about the 1964 quake and how it changed the understanding of all earthquakes was published, The Great Quake by Henry Fountain. (ALASKA QE535.2.U6 F65 2017)  For photographs, a good place to look is Alaska’s Digital Archives (; I don’t see any for the November 30th earthquake yet, but it’s just a matter of time.

Yet for all of our own seismological woes, I still think from time to time of those poor people in Chile in 1960. (  Our 2018 earthquake lasted up to a couple of minutes, depending on where you were; think the first two verses of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven.  (  The 1964 earthquake lasted about four and a half minutes; think a little over half of Stairway To Heaven, up to the words about the May Queen.  But Chile?  Think Stairway To Heaven, and then play the first two verses over again. Ten minutes is a lot of rock and roll.

Trurl and Klapaucius

Artificial Intelligence: it’s all over the place. Deep Blue beats Kasparov at chess, AlphaGo teaches itself to win at Go through an artificial neural network, a chatbot named Microsoft Little Ice has written Chinese poems published as Sunshine Misses Windows, and self-driving cars are driving—well, at least as well as some of us do!

AI has been around even longer in fiction, films, and other entertainments that feature computers, robots, and androids in various flavors of menace and delight:  R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), HAL 9000, Star Trek, Gort, Neuromancer, the Alien films, Deus ex Machina, R2D2 and C3PO, Bladerunner (née Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Magnus-Robot Fighter, Morning Becomes Electric, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Matrix trilogy—and does anyone remember Colossus: The Forbin Project?  Along with so many others.  If only they were all well-behaved enough to obey Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws given in I, Robot…but then, where would all our stories be if everything worked smoothly?

And about that AI-composed poetry.  Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction master, is probably best known for his novel Solaris, which was made famous by the Tarkovsky film.  But he wrote many other works as well, one of them being a series of tales from the mid-1960s about two constructor robots named Trurl and Klapaucius, collected as The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age.  If for that special occasion, you’ve been looking for a unique love poem that’s ”…lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics.  Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be.  But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit….” then look no farther: you’ll find it among The Seven Sallies of Trurl and Kalpaucius in The First Sally (A), or Trurl’s Electronic Bard.  Frankly, it puts Microsoft Little Ice to shame.

While you can find information about Deep Blue, AlphaGo, Microsoft Little Ice, and plenty of other artificial intelligence accomplishments regularly flooding your electronic doorstep these days whether you want it there or not, you sometimes have to dig a little deeper for things like the sallies of Trurl and Klapaucius, all of which are worth reading and thinking about.  But you can find them if you go to the Library Catalog and type in Cyberiad — it will come up as an Alaska’s Digital Library ebook that you can check out. (Sorry – QuickSearch will bring up interesting articles about The Cyberiad, but not the Alaska’s Digital Library copy.)  Oh, and by the way—good luck with that tensor algebra!