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21 April 2010

Book Review: You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall

You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall
by Colin Ellard


This book initially annoyed the heck out of me. Ellard's writing style seemed to schizophrenically fluctuate between ununderstandable scientific mumbo-jumbo and trite, cheeky statements complete with exclamation points. In reminding the reader of a point made earlier, Ellard often chose phrases like, "... this should remind you of ... " which I found entirely unnecessary.

But then it grew on me. Or perhaps the subject matter became more intelligible to my directionally dysfunctional brain. Ellard starts with how humans navigate space. I was lost, pun intentional, through most of this section. I did learn some things, like the earth's magnetic pull isn't as simple as my vision of it was; as if there was a bar magnet running through the core from south pole to north pole. Compasses work because of the dynamo effect, "the movements of massive amounts of conductive molten iron deep within the planet's core. These movements, caused in turn by the rotation of the earth, throw gigantic magnetic field lines across the surface of the planet and far out into the space surrounding it. When we hold a small navigational compass in our hand and watch the needle align with magnetic north, we are witnessing an alignment between the slender rod of metal in our hand and these huge churning seas of molten rock and metal deep beneath us." Whoa.

But then he got to Part II (which was cheekily entitled "Making Your Way In the World Today") wherein he discussed our homes, our buildings and our cities. I was particularly intrigued by the concept of "isovist," the volume of space visible from a given point and how isovists affect where we choose to spend time. Ergo, we must place our furniture with regard to isovists. Intriguing.

I also enjoyed his take on those huge foyers/entrance halls in suburban houses, as it echoed thoughts I've always had and then added to them; "... entrance foyers can consist of multistory spaces complete with overlooking balconies and grandiose chandelier ... the effect of such entryways can be psychologically negative, causing visitors to jerk their heads upward in anxiety as they walk through the front door, as if they have found themselves at the bottom of a mineshaft. The irony of such grand foyers is that they are seldom used, as the majority of owners of these houses drive directly into attached garages and enter through humble back doors into laundry or mud rooms. It often seems as though the main function of the foyer, as the part of the house that makes that important first impression, is more to stun potential buyers into submission than it is to exert any kind of positive influence on the owners of the house or its visitors."

Then Ellard falls apart again, spending the last 50 pages or so preaching about how to save the world. I would have been fine with the preaching, but it seemed like an afterthought, tacked on because the book needed a moral message. Ellard's point, a well-taken one if not well-presented, is that we are trashing the earth because we don't care about it because we don't really spend TIME with it. So we need to get out of our isolated, isovist homes and spend time with the earth. Learn how to wayfind like the Inuits. Or at least go on a nature-walk once in a while. Ellard then adds that maybe technology will help us with this by being able to create soundscapes for our cities that will make us FEEL like we are in nature, which is not the same thing at all. Again, a little schizophrenic for my tastes.

But still an intriguing read and well worth the two days I spent reading it.