Monday, September 9, 2013

Bill Nye & Creationism

I've watched quite a few of "Big Thinks" videos.  I don't subscribe to the channel. This is in part because there are plenty of interviews I am uninterested in, in part because I think they have a very biased agenda, and in part because they bulk upload and it makes it very hard to keep track of what videos have come out and what I might be missing. However, anytime I catch that they've interviewed someone I am interested in I try to watch them.

I somehow missed that they had a series from an interview with Bill Nye.  A SourceFed video [I can recommend this video, but cannot recommend the channel as a whole, although I do turn to it for some news and tend to get my news from less conventional sources] turned me onto this series and the controversy it has caused.

I've been very conflicted about this topic recently and had set a goal over the summer to violate my regular reading rotation to instead read just evolution and creationism books.  Unfortunately many things conspired to keep me from this, but I did read The GOD Delusion by Richard Dawkins and The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.  I also have located a copy of Darwin's Origin read by Dawkins and I hope to listen to it soon.  A lot of my conflict comes from a large, growing trust in the science that I teach and also a grappling with the real evidence of the processes.  In addition, there are the long-standing doubts that I've had where there are gaps in creationism/intelligent design theory that many of my professors were willing to admit [I went to Cedarville University where Creationism/Intelligent Design is taught, but Evolution is taught so that we could understand it and debate it better].  However, I think that the evidence that was used to teach against evolution was very outdated and that none of us, even science majors, were prepared to analyze or argue real data.  This brings me to my main point and reservation before I discuss the Bill Nye video and my further thoughts.

Not every Christian should argue the case of Creationism.  This is because it makes the intelligent and professional scientists who work in this area to appear be as uninformed or ill-prepared as the lay person.  The lay person should however, be very sure of what they do believe, be aware of the limitations of their ability to discuss the topic, and seek to learn as much as possible from both sides of the debate.

Not every Scientist should argue the case of Evolution or Big Bang Cosmology.  This is because it makes the intelligent and professional scientists who work int his area appear to be uninformed or ill-prepared as the lay person.  The lay scientist should however, be very sure of what they do believe, be aware of the limitations of their ability to discuss the topic, and seek to learn as much as possible from both sides of the debate.

This brings me to Bill Nye.  He is an educator, but prior to that his job was engineer for Boeing.  His training is not in biology, and although I'm sure he understands it and believes it he is more of a figurehead than a professional in this field.  I will also argue in his defense that he was probably unprepared for the question and also that he did not post or title the video and I think the title re-directs the focus from what he said to something specific he said.

Lastly, I do think it is a disservice to not trust students to think critically, or to think for one minute that just because I say so and present evidence they will believe and abandon old ideas.  Conceptions and misconceptions must be grappled with and even then real learning is difficult and belief in that learning is another step or two away.  I think that students can be presented with more than one interpretation, but I do question where those interpretations belong.  I warn my students not to just believe on someone else's authority, but that goes for both religion and science, but to test the world around them.  Students and adults will come to the truth if they truly seek and are honest with the evidence.  That's my end goal with climate change debates [probably that biggest issue I have with students and a controversial topic] for them to look at the evidence because I'm convinced that the data will convince them and I don't have to.

PS- This post has also been in draft mode because I had a hard time closing it and I needed to add some of the links still.  I started it the day SourceFed posted their video and I watched it and Big Think's Bill Nye video the same day.

PPS- I think I might try to become the YouTube Bill Nye because after all his old program is already 20-25 years old and there's a lot of ways in can be modernized.  There is also need for it.  That'll take another post, another time to explain though.

Book Review: The Makers- Cory Doctorow

I have mixed feelings about this book, but overall they are negative and disappointed.  I feel like, as I review books here, I am often critical or negative, but I think that it is good to approach works critically.  I also think that this is the nature of challenging myself to read books that I normally wouldn't.  Now I admit I stumbled across this book first because of Make Magazine and since have heard Cory Doctorow interviewed on NPR and more recently by Deborah Blum while reviewing summer book reads on NPR's Science Friday where she mentioned she loved his books.  With this kind of high praise the book made its way up my list of adult fiction reads, but I still went in with pretty low expectations and had trouble getting into the book right away.

     However, I had a tree down in my yard and lots of lumber to bundle and cut so I had a lot of time to invest in listening at first, and I wasn't too far into Part 1 of 3 and I was loving the book.  It followed a journalist who was following two young hackers of devices and technology.  Part of what I'd call the maker movement, and Cory Doctorow really did predict that this would take off and that 3D printing would become big.  But in the book it was a bubble, like the housing bubble of the mid 2000s or the tech and internet bubbles before that.  And maybe this is the true nature of bubbles, [SPOILER ALERT] but in the book the bubble burst really abruptly without any warning.  Then jump to Part 2 some unknown, but about 20-30 years, time in the future, where America has pretty much turned into a 2nd class nation.  The future is very different, but the reader is kind of just thrown into the world without any explanation as to how it got that way. It is also very dystopian and I've talked frequently about my dislike of dystopians here.  The same makers from Part 1, end up inventing a really abstract theme park ride mixed with antiques show that takes off and with the help of the internet and word-of-mouth, inspires a lot of spin-off rides.  There's a pointless sex-scene about the halfway point in the book while one of them is inspecting the spin-off rides.  Also, early on the rides were kind of described and also said to be amazing because they were always changing, but then they begin to tell a story and the ride stops evolving- this seems like a real shortsightedness of the world being described as it comes to a halt [the ride's evolution] to so that the novel's story-line can continue.  This then results in some legal trouble and litigation from Disney Corp., which is some kind of futuristic hot spot of depravity, whose items began to show up in the collections amongst the rides.  From there the book drags on to an eventual settlement and a Part 3 that was only a short jump into a not to different future.  Parts 2 & 3 are hard for me to distinguish in my memory, but I remember the book dragging on and not being good after Part 1.  An epilogue also followed and again did not really help the book.  Also because I disliked the book as it continued I put off listening to it very often which made it take longer, which makes me wonder if it really is a great idea to force myself to change genres so often, especially when I have so much in other areas that I want to listen to.

PS- To those who follow me and read regularly, my apologies for the flood of posts tonight.  I wanted to get the two reviews of books I listened to before school started typed up and while doing that I noticed that this review was still in draft mode because I hadn't finished it.
I'm all caught up for books I listened too and am already back on adult fiction, which again I'm struggling to get into.  I have read or mostly read 3 print books though, whose reviews I will post another time.

Book Review: The Filter Bubble- How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think- Eli Pariser

     This book was recommended to me by a co-worker who teaches technology.  I had heard of the basic concept or premise of the book and knew there was a TEDTalk by Eli Pariser about it, but hadn't watched it yet.  The basic idea is that Google, Facebook, news media, and other online sites are personalizing search results.  This can be bad for a variety of reasons.

     The simplest and least concerning is the ease of communication.  It is more difficult to suggest to someone that they do a Google search and then recommend the xth result down, because their results will be different.  More concerning is that your views are not going to be challenged, so when Facebook detects that you read more posts and linked articles posted by your Republican friends your Democratic friends posts show up less often in your news feed.  Or personalized ads that prey on your weaknesses, like you are more likely to spend money on particular items when you stay up late the day after payday, or right after a bad day at work.  To the really concerning, data collected about your browsing history and shopping history may be used to deny you credit or a job.  There are a lot of scenarios that are worked through in the book, which probably brings me to my on disappointment with the book, it is hard to discern what is already happening and what could happen with internet personalization.  Will things actually get as bad as he claims and will it matter if we do everything to keep ourselves safe?  After all, Google's personalized search results take into account where you are searching from, what type of computer you are using, and what browser you are using.  So then, even if I keep all of my personal information private, will it matter if I'm still getting individualized search results for other reasons.

     Admittedly, I'm not as careful on the internet as I used to be.  I've handed much of my life over to Google and their products.  I used to never have a password stored on my computer or in my browser, but most of them are now.  I resisted cloud storage for a long time because I liked to have personal control over my files, and I do still have backups, but the cloud offers a lot of convenience.  I'm not one to believe that we must give up personal freedoms for internet security, just like I disagreed with giving up those freedoms for national security in the name of fighting terrorism.  But something does need to be done.  Europe has already forced webpages to simply put up notice that they use tracking cookies and have, or are working on, making it a requirement that data collected about you be available to and contestable by you.  Probably the greatest part of the book, was the last fifth to even quarter where he recommended what could be done at all levels- from the individual to the society to the companies that provide services, to governments.

     I can't say that I've changed a lot of my online behavior since reading the book, except now I check Facebook probably monthly instead of weekly, although I'm not sure that can be blamed on the book, but I am more aware of the issues that can arise and certainly am keeping an ear towards company and government policies on the Internet and technology.

PS- a tool I recommend that is related to internet security and tracking that I picked up from another TEDTalk is Collusion.

Book Review: How to Train Your Dragon- Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III- Cressida Cowell

     I don't remember when I discovered that the movie was based off a book, but I know that I immediately looked into finding the audiobook and it sat waiting to be listened to for quite a while.  Anyway, this should come as no surprise, but the movie is only very loosely based off the book.  Secondly, this is one of those rare times where the movie tops the book.  Although, admittedly the movie was much more predictable than the book because it follows such classic/traditional story lines.

     The biggest similarities between the two is the names of people and places and to some extent the end where a big dragon is battled [although it is two in the book] and how Hiccup and his dragon go through that battle.  Almost everything else is different.  The book started with the youth attempted to catch a dragon to bring home and train.  And all of the dragons are small, toothless is less than the length of Hiccup's arm.  Furthermore the dragons are whiny, although this could have been a case of the reader making it worse, because he had a really good whining voice.  The training does not go well for Hiccup and the premise of the book is that he has in his old age written an update to the old "How to Train Your Dragon" book which simply stated "Yell at it" or "Yell at it loudly".

    There are a lot more books in the series, and I've heard rumors that DreamWorks intends to do a lot more movies, but I could leave it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People- Neil Shubin

This book was a very easy and entertaining read (of course, I listened to it).  Before yesterday I had listened to about 1/8th of the book, then I finished it while doing housework yesterday.  It was hard to put down.  Also, because I was a short book, I see it ending up on my classroom bookshelf soon.

The first half of the book was mostly old hat for me because I read so many science and especially astronomy books.  However, I did learn quite a bit a the book progressed.  There were also a lot of biology connections and back-stories and details that I was unaware of.  I found myself continually thinking that it was refreshing to hear some of this information from the perspective of a biologist/paleontologist.  Some of the connections or analogies were a little bit of a stretch, but overall although the book jumped around a lot the flow was very smooth.

This book kind of helped confirm an idea that I've had for a while, that I like to hear the stories of scientists and listen to their books, but the narrative flows better with journalists and authors who write about science [Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, etc].

The only other complaint I can mention is that the author failed to talked about limitations of our knowledge or about the uncertainty [or error bars] of our knowledge in some of the areas that he presented as strong facts that I think the public/armchair scientist can handle.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Book Review: National Geographic Angry Birds Furious Forces: The Physics at Play in the World's Most Popular Game- Rhett Allain

Incredibly disappointing.

If I was a real book reviewer, this would be the sound bite from my review for the back cover.  Of course, it wouldn't get published with the book, but then again this book probably should not have been published either.

I bought this book, without previewing it, in fact I think I pre-ordered it by a week or two.  Now I know, of course, that I am not the target audience and I kept this in mind while reading it.  And maybe, I'm too use to Rhett Allain's blog, which is great.  I mean I almost drop everything and find a reason to spend time on the computer or alone with my iPad when he publishes a new article, just so I can read it fast.  He's a nerd after my own heart, a fan of physics in the real-world and virtual-world, a fan of Star Wars, and of xkcd.

I first stumbled across his blog when trying to find details about Felix Bumgardner's "jump from space", and even assigned one blog post to my students as homework, the reading and math and estimation skills were so great.  Like xkcd what-if's he's not afraid to crunch the numbers and guesstimate them when they are not available.  And some of his "homework assignments" have been fun.  He's even done a long series of posts about the real physics of Angry Birds in its many incarnations (in chronological order):

That's 22 23 posts over the last four years, and that's if I managed to dig all of them up (I may have missed some).  And starting with his preemptive review, except the two Angry Birds Stars Wars, I think he gives a very false perception of what the book is about.  Now, because I think this book is a "ride the bandwagon" attempt to cash-in on the Angry Birds franchise, and because he was approached by National Geographic & Rovio about doing the book, I don' think this is all his fault.  Those last few blog posts even have try this at home experiments which he mentions are in the "Physics at Play" sections of the book.  It turns out those sections are about two sentences at the bottom of some pages and there is very little guidance.  In the videos he does on those posts [which I saw on YouTube before Dot Physics because I'm subscribed to his channel there] he does some experiments with one of his daughters (slightly older than my own I'd guess) and they have it setup fairly rigorously with household supplies and several variables that can be tested.  There is no guidance like this from the book though.

Instead of being the Physics of Angry Birds this book is really just an overview of some of the fundamental concepts and some of the technology applications of the basics of physics.  The book includes sections on Mechanics, Waves (Sound & Light), Thermodynamics, Electricity & Magnetism, and Particle Physics (and Beyond).  Outside of Mechanics there is very little application to Angry Birds.  Each section was 30 pages.  The basic layout of a section was a two-page spread title, 2 two-page spreads over-viewing the physics topic, and then 10 more page pairs, where one page had a physics topic and the other had a full-page photo that was loosely related to the topic.  And there was a smattering of Angry Bird characters over the pages to somehow tie in Angry Birds.  Often at the bottom of one or both pages there was some extra physics facts, or the occasional try this at home blurb.
An example page from Furious Forces!
Image CreditNational Geographic

Also, each section had 2 two-page spread Angry Bird character bios, cutting into the physics content.

Profile Page for Matilda, the explosive-egg-dropping bird.
Image CreditNational Geographic

The book was very loosely organized and had little to do with the physics of the game.  And the worst part is, is that there were plenty of places where the game play could have been brought in and it wasn't.

I knew that the book wouldn't be as good as his posts, but I kind of hoped that there would at least be a guided- Here's How to Setup an Experiment and Collect Data in Angry Birds the Game, don't have the app? then download a free version (like Angry Birds for Google Chrome or Facebook), or setup a similar at home simulation.  Instead the book really was just a cash-in on the Angry Birds franchise and sell a book that had little to do with the game and almost nothing to do with the physics of the game.

It is not a bad overview of physics, but there are a lot of distractions and some topics that I would swap out with others.  It is a great late elementary to early junior high summary of physics, with most of the key concepts and almost no math (some equations are mentioned, but I think only the speed or distance equation is used).  One thing the book is not is the physics of Angry Birds.  I just wish there was an easier way than reselling to book to get my money back.  I rarely buy a book sight unseen and I certainly paid a high price for that this time.

PS: Not only did Rhett's own blog posts mislead me as to the content and rigor of the book, but so did the review by PhysicsBuzz (from where I borrowed the two above page spreads).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review: Salt- A World History- Mark Kurlansky

This book is everything you'd expect a book on salt to be.

OK, that is probably a little harsh, the book started out with an introduction that had a lot of very interesting anecdotal stories about salt and its role in human history.  And this is no small role either.  Hunter-gatherers got it from the meat they ate, but once people moved to agriculture they had to find salt to supplement their diets.  Those not near an ocean or sea had to mine for it and the Chinese created many great inventions to mine salt long before Western society did.  Of course, another well known use of salt is food preservation before refrigeration was invented.  Although common today, salt was once scarce and cultures rose and fell over it and wars were fought for it.  In some societies salt has been used as a currency, and many governments have taken to taxing salt.  In fact, it was a slat tax that led Ghandi to do his march to the sea with, in the end, thousands of followers to break British law and collect their own salt.  This led to many arrests, but eventually a treaty and later Indian independence.  At the beginning the author did a great job of pointing out the limitation of salt's role in the course of history, but at the book progressed it got to the point where salt seemed to be the culprit of most of the world's major events.  I think most books that have such a narrowly focused topic end up falling in the trap to some degree or another.

Despite being filled with many gripping stories like this, the book had  a lot of in between time where it moved very slowly.  The book was at some times repetitive, or the tales were so similar their were hard to distinguish.  Also, once the introductory parts were over, there were many, many recipes for salt preservation and for pickling foods.  They were woven into the story line, but not very practical since often the language was dated or the ingredients unfamiliar.  One other thing that really bugged me was that although in general the chapters were chronological, the story lines from one chapter to another often overlapped time periods and there was frequent backtracking in time.  Finally, the book ended kind of abruptly and didn't get wrapped up all that well, probably because so many of the stories were anecdotal.

I originally heard about this book somewhere on NPR and although the book is not focused on the science of salt, to my disappointment, there was a very good chapter (#19) on the chemistry of salt.  I heard him say on whatever interview I heard of him, that the book was not scientific, and I even caught a couple of minor science errors, but the science he included was good and interesting, and is also what paved the way to salt being common.

The last point that I'll make is a fact towards the end that stood out to me.  Once the fish of the sea were abundant, but salt to preserve them was limited; now due to over fishing and poor conservation the salt is abundant and the fish are lacking.  It is a sad truth that many in this age deny, but we have an impact on our environment and we should be responsible to manage it well.  I have not read any of Kurlansky's other books, but he has done a few others on fish and food if you're inclined to learn more.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: The Lone Survivor- Marcus Luttrell & Patrick Robinson

I've hesitated a long time to read this book.  I first discovered Patrick Robinson late high school or early college while looking at the very limited selection of audiobooks on CD at might local library.  Robinson is most well known for his fiction, and frequently writes about special forces and submariners, but I was nervous about this book because I knew there'd be death and lots of it, just from the title.  I'll get a criticism out of the way, not mine but others, that the operation was Red Wings and not Redwing, which sound pretty much the same on audio.  Anyway, I knew from the book cover that this Operation was the greatest loss of life of Special Forces in US Military history (summer 2005).  It was a short book (on audio only 4 CDs, average young adult novel is 7-8) and spent a lot of time (first 1-1.5 discs) talking about training and giving background on the team members.  Once they were inserted into Afghanistan the four member ground team started the trek to find their target, a Taliban leader Ahmad Shah.
While scouting the local village a group of goat herders came up and surprised them.  They were unable to contact their commanders and according to Marcus and the book put it up to a vote whether to kill unarmed civilians.  This has been another criticism of the book, both that they would consider killing them when their operational orders and the Geneva Convention doesn't allow it and that it was put up to a vote rather than just to the commander.  Then things went bad quick, in fact I was surprised at how quickly it turned ugly.  The goat herders went on to inform the local Taliban that they were there and they were ambushed by a much larger force.  This is another, and my, criticism of the book.  According to the book the group that came to attack them ranged from 80 to 200 strong, and at times it seemed liked the numbers just grew.  As the Navy SEALs fell back there was a point where they were facing 50.  They killed some more and were still fighting 50, and then killed some more and there were still 50.  I understand that in the chaos of battle it might be hard to estimate the oppositions strength, but the numbers in the book were inconsistent.  According to Wikipedia, they were inconsistent with Marcus's debriefing as well, where the force was 35-50 and public commendations later stayed below or near 50.  As things fell apart members of the team began to be picked off, and eventually the commander used his emergency cell phone to call in support.  This is where the casualty count gets high because the rescue team that came in had 16 other special forces members and the helicopter they were coming in on was taken out by a rocket launcher from a Taliban bunker and all on board were lost.
Marcus managed to give the Taliban the slip and eventually find water and began to climb back uphill.  Sometime early the next day he encountered some locals near the stream and they took him in and hid and protected him.  The Taliban didn't want to fight the local tribe leaders or violate traditional law so they let him be for a while.  Eventually through combined US military and local tribesmen efforts Marcus was rescued and able to tell the story of his fallen brothers.
There is no doubt the actions of these men were heroic and the loss of their lives was tragic, but despite that there were some things I did not like.  First off, several times the authors ranted against the liberal media and how they would end up putting them on trial if they killed innocent civilians and how the rules of engagement should be relaxed and left the the decision of trained soldiers who have experience with combat.  I strongly disagree with this position because "War is terrible, but we must not become terrible in waging war."  That is one of the key differences between us and tyrannical or terrorist leaders and groups.  Also, although he claims a position of not Republican or Democrat, but Patriot, the book has obvious political positions it tries to advance.  I respect what these men did and I understand that there may be times where Rules of Engagement need to be broken, but would this had turned out any better if they had killed the goat herders or if they had been discovered by other means, if the opposing force was so strong, and possibly fortified or lucky, I'm not sure.  And if they had gotten away with it, should they have?  What would you do if you're stuck up on a mountain and you know that killing or not killing innocent civilians would result in your discovery and possibly death.  I do not envy that they were put in that terrible position, but I am glad they held to the moral high ground.
I'm reminded of one of my dad's favorite stories about the second US War in Iraq, I seem to recall it was right after Shock and Awe started, and an American medical soldier pulled an injured Iraqi off the field and carried him to the hospital tent and a Limey reporter from Reuters called out to him and said "Can't you see he's an Iraqi?" and the solider shouted back, "Can't you see he's injured; it's what we do."  I think we should be different than our enemy, and I'm glad, despite their loss, that is what these SEAL members did.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: The Book Thief- Markus Zusak


I know I just said in my review of Prisoner B-3087, that I wanted to read more World War II and Holocaust nonfiction rather than fiction, but I only vaguely remembered that this one was from that time period.  The only other thing I knew going into this book, is that a student told me it was good, but it was odd and it didn't make a lot of sense until you learned about halfway through the book that the narrator was Death.  However, and this isn't just because I was forewarned about the narrator by the student, it was obvious that the narrator was Death from the Introduction or Chapter 1 (whatever the first part was).
Anyway, onto the book itself- it was amazing.  I could not stop listening to it and found excuses to do work and continue listening to it.  Unfortunately my summer vacation got in the way and I had to pause listening to it for a few days, but picked it back up as soon as I could and finished it off.
The story focuses on a girl, Liesel,  who is given away to a foster family by her mother during World War II near Munich, Germany.  Her family new family is fairly impoverished as well, but are able to care for her better than her mother.  Liesel steals her first book during the trip to the foster family and steals several more during the course of the novel, but the focus is not really no her book stealing, instead the Book Thief is the name that Death gives her.  Liesel's new papa teachers her how to read in secret at night and once she learns she begins to steal more books.  The family ends up taking in a Jew, Max, and hiding him for a while, and of course, there are extra tensions with that.  The Jew came to them with information he was given that was hidden inside a copy of Mein Kampf.  Liesel's papa is a painter and so Max reads the book and then disassembles it and paints over the pages and begins to rewrite his story as a novel for her.  Meanwhile she develops a relationship with the mayor's wife and ends up reading books at the mayors house and then stealing them from there later.  She also ends up reading to the neighbor lady, who had a poor relationship with her foster parents, after reading one night in the bomb shelter.  Books lead Liesel to develop many relationships as well as grow in her the critical faculties to examine the world around her.  They are not an escape for her, as much as they are a means to grapple with and evaluate reality.  Later in the book Max gives her the novel he wrote and the mayor's wife gives her a journal, which is what Death has been using to tell the narrative.
Death carried Liesel's diary around with him through the war and for years afterwards until the words began to fade and he felt compelled to tell her story.  He tells it in amazing detail, although early on it seems choppy.  Death also describes things from his point of view and has pieced back together his encounters with the Book Thief because he was around the characters of the book a lot during the war with all of the death happening.  Death is not evil or morbid, but instead describes the world with exquisite detail painting beautiful pictures with amazing similes and metaphors.  He doesn't know all the details of Liesel's story, but has pieced it together from their brush encounters and her journal.  I'm reminded very much of the Tale of the Three Brothers [Deathly Hallows] from the Harry Potter series, where the third brother at the end of his life took of his invisibility cloak, "And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life."  Death is an old friend in this book and not someone to be feared.  He tells a great tale.
Of course, I know Death's voice here came from the author and that brings me to to three minor criticisms.  First, I've already mentioned the amazing similes and metaphors, but sometimes they were so good they'd knock me out of the book and distract me for a moment while I pondered them.  This also led to another unintended consequence that when there was a metaphor that was not as good I found myself disappointed and even distracted by it again. Secondly, and I'm not a literary person so this is fully speculation and opinion, the author gave away the ending several times.  Early on in the book we are told that certain characters are going to die by the end or events you want to happen, like Liesel kissing her best friend Rudy, won't happen.  The sections of the book also start out by giving away what will be encountered in the section.  This is not very good foreshadowing  but it still had the same effect of drawing you into the book and making you want more or to know how it would happen and come about.  I mentioned to my wife as I read it that I wasn't sure if the author just stunk at foreshadowing, or if this was just to give Death a more unique voice.  The last criticism is that there is a spattering of German words used, usually defined when they are first mentioned, but they keep coming up over and over and there were enough that sometimes I wished it was just in English, the curses I'm fine with keeping in German, but some of the other words could have been just spoken.  Also, it would not have hurt to have had a map, although I read the audiobook, so maybe the book does and I just didn't know it [usually I look that kind of thing up first].
This novel was gripping from beginning to end and deserves more awards than it got.  I've already requested his other popular 2002 book I am the Messenger.  This book was written in 2005 and he's not published anything since, but is allegedly working on one and I eagerly await it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World- Carl Sagan

Last summer I read my first Carl Sagan book, and it was his novel Contact, because I love the movie so much.  That was that is one of the few times I thought the movie was better than the book.  That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book, just that I liked the movie better.
This book also left me wanting.  The subtitle of this book was "Science as a Candle in the Dark".  The introduction inspired and reinvigorated me that "Science is Awesome" and can solve many of our problems.  It emphasized to me that the book might be refreshing and that he might address public engagement and education.  No doubt, Sagan was a great communicator in his time (this book was published the year before his death).  However, he spent most of his time trying to convince the reader that science is the answer to many problems and a lot of the rest of his time debunking false claims, from religion and witch hunts to aliens and other pseduoscience.  Admittedly these ideas seemed rampant in the 1990s, with psychic hotlines and horoscopes, and a rash of alien sightings with shows like The X-Files being popular; however, I believe the target audience for this book is more (or at least ended up being read by) scientifically minded and already convinced of those facts.  He spent a lot of time being the whistle-blower and not a lot of time prescribing solutions to the problem.  I'm reminded of my atheist friend's reaction to Richard Dawkins The GOD Delusion, which I listened to last summer.  He felt that the book spent most of its time arguing against religion instead of starting with the assumption that the target audience would be atheists and want, like what do we do now, and how do we justify morality (I remember quite distinctly my friend saying that he preferred Dawkins to stick to science and where science meets morality and ethics and philosophy, rather than just philosophy and theology and furthermore that he preferred the works of several others, especially Sam Harris who tried to grapple with what now solutions- like how do we justify laws and ethical and moral behavior without religion).  Dawkins' book, like Sagan's, didn't present anything new to the believer [in atheism and science respectively], and probably would not convince the non-believer [the religious and the unscientific respectively].
There were some things I liked about Sagan's book including the chapter on logical thinking and logical fallacies, what he called The Baloney Detection Kit [from Chapter 14]- see post-script for complete list.  I also liked his take on the advancements science could bring and on public education towards the end [around Chapters 19-21 or so].  Although he quickly fell back into describing the problem rather than prescribing a solutions.
Again, it was not a bad book, but it didn't enlighten me much, I doubt it would convince a non-believer in science to believe or question much, and it didn't go far enough in encouraging the use of science and shining light on how to move forward.  I think every generation fears that the current one is less intelligent or more slothful (see xkcd for a humorous take), but I don't think this is generally true.  Interestingly, my friend who was disappointed with Dawkins book seemed to be forgiving of Sagan's book when I noticed the other day that he was reading it currently.  I'm not saying this is my friend's stance, but we have to be willing to be critical when the need arises.  Science is amazing and we can do amazing things with it and yes, we can debunk pseudoscience, but lets find creative solutions to move forward, rather than bemoan our current state.

Post-Script- The Baloney Detection Kit
    The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:
    • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts
    • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
    • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").
    • Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
    • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.
    • Quantify, wherever possible.
    • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
    • "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
    • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is isttestable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?
    Additional issues are
    • Conduct control experiments - especially "double blind" experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.
    • Check for confounding factors - separate the variables.
    Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric
    • Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument.
    • Argument from "authority".
    • Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavourable" decision).
    • Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
    • Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
    • Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).
    • Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).
    • Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).
    • Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)
    • Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").
    • Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls down.
    • Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it was caused by" - confusion of cause and effect.
    • Meaningless question ("what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).
    • Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the "other side" look worse than it really is).
    • Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").
    • Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).
    • Confusion of correlation and causation.
    • Straw man - caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack..
    • Suppressed evidence or half-truths.
    • Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as "police action" to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public"

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Book Review: Andromeda Strain and other books by Michael Critchon

First, let me apologize for choosing a low quality cover image.  The reason I did is because this is the cover I associate with the book.  I think it was in junior high, but it may have been late elementary, I used some of my paper route tip money to purchase some books through Scholastic or Troll at school.  This particular purchase was a 3-pack of Michael Crichton novels: Andromeda Strain, Congo, and The Great Train Robbery.  I knew Crichton at the time because of the movie Jurassic Park, of course.  At the time, as far as I can recall, I was trying to read Jurassic Park the book that I had checked out from my homeroom teacher.  It was a tough read for a junior high age student.  It was probably because of that and my new-found obsession with Star Wars novels that I didn't get around to reading any of the Crichton books I had.  Later on my sophomore year of high school, late in the school year too, I finally picked up The Andromeda Strain because it was the shortest of his books I had on hand.  I finished it in about a day, because it was very gripping.  I remember my dad picked it up and read it the next evening and told me there had been a movie about it that he'd seen years ago in a drive-in or while in the Navy (or both?).  That led to me reading all of Critchon's novels that I could get my hands on over the next couple of years.  I remember reading and listening to many others.  I also fell in love with Sphere and Timeline.  Together this one and those two remain my favorites of his, although the movies for all of them were pretty bad.  Also, before I review the book, I watched the SyFy TV miniseries of The Andromeda Strain just a couple of years ago while grading late-night at school and was disappointed with the changes they made to it, although it was pretty good on its own.

I read this one again because of Science Friday's Book Club chose it back in January and it made me want to re-read it (although I finally listened to their review, just this summer).  I happened to listen to an abridged version this time, and I was impressed with the abridgment's ability to avoid talking about the diagrams.  The novel was as good as I remembered it being, although I don't like to re-read books much anymore.  I've found that in the past I maybe read a lot, but didn't comprehend everything.  That I might read a couple of pages with thinking about other things and so I wouldn't fully focus and would miss chunks.  I've also had the same problem with audiobooks, which is why I hated listening to non-fiction for so long.  Now, I've learned that if I need to pause and contemplate something that it is OK to take a break while reading or pause while listening to a book.  Anyway, I have read this novel at least two and maybe three times [I know I lost it while reading it the last time] before listening to it again here, so I didn't forget too much.

To summarize the plot of the book, without giving anything away, an American space probe is launched [keep in mind this book was originally published the year we landed on the Moon in the infancy of the Space Age, but end of the Space Race] and crashes back down early for unknown reasons in the wrong location and has brought back with it a pathogen that killed all in the desert town it landed in except for two- the town drunk and an infant.  Classic Critchon there are science explanations as the book goes and worst-case scenario happenings.  A response team, Project Wildfire, of five scientists is brought in to study the pathogen and to figure out how to neutralize it or find a treatment.  At the time, this was a real concern, and when the early Moon missions came back, the astronauts were put in containment suits, and then they and their recovery crew, some medical personnel , and some other staff were quarantined for three weeks.  When President Nixon greeted the Apollo 11 crew upon their return it was done through a box, as was much for their early debriefing.

The concern was that they'd bring back a a foreign microbe or take a microbe with them into space that would mutate and become hazardous.  The premise here was the same.  This still remains one of my favorites of his.
A quick review of his other books, since I don't see myself rereading them, but have read all of his fiction [except his older ones he wrote under pen-names].

  • The Andromeda Strain- reviewed above, one of my favorites
  • The Terminal Man- Good, and this issue is coming back up as our society has become even more connected to digital technology and personal enhancement technologies are being developed.
  • The Great Train Robbery- historical fiction, good.  I've heard the movie is good.  One small thing here bugs me, see notes below.
  • Eaters of the Dead [republished as The 13th Warrior, to match the movie title]- very good, I forgot about this one being a favorite when I listed the three above.  Again, more historical fiction than fiction, but the premise is great.  He had a college professor friend who was going to start a literature class called "The Great Bores" about classic novels that everyone is supposed to read, but really should just fade away.  Included were The Bible, The Odyssey and Iliad, and the course would start with Beowulf.  Beowulf is one of his and my favorite classics, and so he argued that it was possible that the legend was born out of truth.  He pointed to recent [at the time] archaeological evidence that Troy was a real place (giving validity to The Iliad and The Odyssey) and to evidence that Jason and the Argonauts were real.  So the professor threw down the gauntlet and asked Critchon to imagine how Beowulf might be real.  This great novel is what came out of it.  What I like most about it though, is again in classic fashion (like The Andromeda Strain) Critchon goes as far as to create and cite fake sources for the manuscript that he is allegedly translating and interpreting, and then cites real sources for the facts and background information.
  • Congo- I only listened to an abridged version of this, didn't like it much.  Also, confirmed I'm not a fan of most female readers of audiobooks, although since then I have found several that I love.  Have not been able to find a copy of the movie to watch.
  • Sphere- Another favorite, movie stunk by comparison (in fact, I had a friend recommend I never waste the time wtaching it, and I tried it anyway, it started out following very true to the book, but quickly mucked it up and was truly a waste of time).  Book is favorite though.
  • Jurassic Park- great book and movie.  Not the easiest read.
  • Rising Sun- a crime/thriller/drama, not science fiction.  OK book.
  • Disclosure- a crime/thriller/drama, not science fiction.  OK book.
  • The Lost World- great book, not as good as Jurassic part.  Horrible movie, I still regret paying to see it in the theater.
  • Airframe- science, but not science fiction, more of a drama book.  I learned a lot from it, but didn't like it.  Having said that, I have a lot of students who tell me it is their favorite of his.  I will say I was distracted while listening to this one [I listened on cassette in my dorm room one weekend in college while playing computer games (headphones over headphones at times)].
  • Timeline- Another of my favorites and probably his last good novel.  I've read and listened to it multiple times.  Movies was sub-par.
For some reason about this time, Critchon decided to stop having scientists as the main characters, or at least as the main characters who were involved in the plot and knew the circumstances.  His novels started becoming worst-case scenarios with technology still, but lack the science explanations until the resolution.
  • Prey- OK, this is the first novel I read when it was new, got it for Christmas, but was disappointed.  Inspiration for the book was nanotechnology, and there were a lot of great articles that read because of it though, including "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom"- Richard Feynman.
  • State of Fear- this book was not very good, but served to fuel my global warming skepticism that I had when I started teaching.  Unfortunately I read a lot of the articles he referenced and didn't give fair weight to the other side.  Furthermore, I was reminded of a quote from The Andromeda Strain, "The Rule of 48: All scientists are blind."  I'm now convinced that Global Warming or Global Climate Change is occurring, although whether we are the cause doesn't matter- it is still a problem we need to grapple with and the other results of change (like decreasing our dependence on non-renewable resources) just make sense.  I'm curious if his position, like Richard Mueller and myself, in light of another decade's worth of evidence.
  • Next- not very good.  Also, I alluded to the part of The Great Train Robbery that bugged me above, this book brought that issue back to mind, although it was solidified with the next book.
  • Pirate Latitudes- the first of two novels published posthumously, I was of course, very sad to hear he had passed away.  This one was a lot like The Great Train Robbery, historical fiction.  Most of the characters were real-life characters.  It was good, but as with Next and The Great Train Robbery pedophilia played a role in the book.  Certainly that might just be part of the culture, or at least his warped view of it, that he was writing about, but it played a part in all three of these and it just feels wrong.  It was only really important to the plot in one book, and it was the least descriptive in that one (Great Train Robbery).  It just bugs me that this theme came up so much and was really unnecessary. 
  • Micro- The other posthumous book, and it was incomplete and was finished by Richard Preston. I've not read any of his yet, but I own two and I know the Biology teacher at my school used to have his The Hot Zone as a  choice for a reading project.  Anyway, much like Critchon's other three last sci-fi novels, this one was a disappointment.  I suppose he is famous enough for Jurassic Park and some of his other works that this won't taint his legacy, but I agree with many other reviewers that this was a horrible last curtain to go out on.  Furthermore, Preston is a nonfiction writer and may not have been the best choice to finish th series.  Of course, as always with posthumous books I'm always curious to know which parts were written by whom, but I doubt we'll ever know.
  • If you are like me and when you find an author you like you exhaust all of their novels then my recommendation for Critchon is to start at the end and work your way ack, they get better as you go for the most part.  Otherwise stick to the four I recommended and maybe add Terminal Man and Lost World.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

So I started off the summer with a new MP3 player finally on the way so I could resume listening to audiobooks in earnest.  I finished Feed and then moved on to a book I will not be reviewing at the beginning of summer.  By the end of the first full week in June I was listening to Reality is Broken.  Jane McGonigal is a game programmer and creator who argues that games can be used to fix the real-world.  I'm torn by this book, because at the beginning I was really enthused and excited by it and I found myself overwhelmed by the statistics and data and power that games have and could continue to have.  But then in the final part of the book, she began to lay out how games can be used to fix societies problems, the application section of the book, and I'm just not convinced that this is the only, nor the best, way to go about this.  I worry about the gamified or data-driven life and an over-dependence on technology, but mostly I think consumer buy-in will be lacking.  Anyway, I kind of jumped to the end, so let me back up and give it a fair review.

Unbeknownst to me Jane McGonical has given two TEDTalks about this topic and she mentions in the intro that this book was inspired by one of those talks.  The first day I listened to it, I was at a summer workshop for teachers and I was listening to it while eating lunch alone and after just an hour, I sat down and typed an e-mail to a friend and co-worker that they had to read this book.  I was really excited by its prospects.  The first part mostly lays out a history of games and quickly moves into digital games and how they have solved some real-world problems.  I think I'm drawn to this because of my passion for citizen science and a couple of the projects out there, FoldIt in particular, are game based solutions to real-world problems.  It also helped that she had a really awesome quote froAntoine de Saint-Exupéry, "Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it."  

In the second part of the book, she lays out the argument that games are good motivators.  For example, we will give up when we come to a challenging task in real-life, but will persevere and even enjoy a challenge in a game.  We get frustrated with games that are too easy, but instead prefer games that keep us right on the edge of our skills, and the games should grow with us.  She then pointed to a wealth of data from the gaming community, with a large focus on the Halo series and Worlds of Warcraft, to show that there is a lot of time and money invested in games, and what if we could use this entertainment time to get something back.  As a side note the following is a graphic Bungie made regarding Halo data when the sold the franchise and is accurate as of that date (click on image for full-size).

In the final, and probably longest section, of the book she laid out 14 fixes for reality (real-life) that games can bring.  Some of them bring it by encouraging collaboration, or causing intentional distraction, or creating a forum for competition, and so on.  I don't really have a problem with any of these on their own, but there are some issues, that I have already alluded to above.  One is community engagement, the classic "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," adage, because I've shown plenty of students awesome and even gamified citizen science projects, but none of them are giving up their games, whether they be free apps and Facebook games or console and computer games for these kinds of games.  We also could quickly end up with a system where there are too many games or projects all competing for people's attention.  I already see this with my favorite citizen science site, Zooniverse, because they have so many projects and I can't feasibly participate in them all effectively.

Also, when it comes to books, I've found that my wife has spoiled some of my experience, because she can dissect movies and books with ease because she's a language arts person.  So when I approach books I find myself asking, "What would my wife think about this?"   In this case, I had recommended the book to her early on, and then un-recommended it to her and summarized it for her and asked her opinion.  Her big focus was that games are a good motivator for some if not many, but that she would be chief among those who do not find extrinsic motivation useful or compelling.  Furthermore, although there are some benefits to be had by gamifying life, most games wear out and don't have a forever-replayable quality about them.  Lastly, I'm all for games that encourage collaboration, but I hesitate to turn everything into a competition.  She thinks this last point is a largely Japanese mindset that came from them seeking to be like us after World War II and now the are out doing us and so we're trying to model ourselves after their model of us.  And yet, we ignore other countries that are successful that use different models, possibly because of our focus on capitalism.  Anyway, the book was a very good read and certainly left me thinking a lot the whole time I read it and even afterwards, I think I'm just waiting for the sequel or the actual results where I can see real-world application laid out in a more consistent and realistic manner, overcoming some of these challenges, that the author openly admitted needed hammered out still.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review: Prisoner B-3087- Alan Gratz [with Ruth & Jack Gruener]

First off, this book was recommended to me by our technology coordinator and librarian Leah Fullenkamp, and I had not intention of reading it as quickly as I did.  I normally listen to books, as I've said before, but could not find this one on audio.  I checked it out from the library for my wife to read because she likes to get suggestions and tries to stay current on young adult literature, since that is where she has her teaching license.  Anyway, I ended up stealing it from her and started reading it while we were watching TV one night and I finished it in two days.  This is rather quick for me because of how infrequently I actually read books, yet alone young adult books.  Admittedly it is fairly short.  The book was very good but has left me with mixed feelings.  Also, there are some minor spoilers coming up, but nothing that common sense or reading the inside jacket doesn't give away also.  If you intend to just read the book and not the jacket, then you may want to stop here.
The jacket sleeve points out that this is based on the true story of Ruth and Jack, but really it is Jack's story with Ruth thrown into the mix during the Afterword.  Also, the sleeve makes it sound like his name change from Yakov to Jacob to Jack is important or somehow critical to the book, and it is not- seriously it is about one sentence in the afterword- to make immigrating to America easier he chose an American name.  Also, he visits 10 concentration camps, which means you know that along with the length of book left that like many Holocaust books he has to survive.
Anyway, onto my criticisms of the book.
  1. It needs a map.  It would be easy to include and make following the story so much better.  If you don't care for the map, then oh well, and if you'd like it then there it is.  As it was I had to look up a map and someone else had the same complaint and made their own.  Also, I made my own using Google Earth as a part of the Mapping with Google course that I took shortly after finishing the book.  The "Death March" routes are straight lines and there is slight guesswork on a couple of the sites.  Additionally, the routes of travels between locations are not included [I'd love to find and trace the old road and rail lines, but I doubt that is possible to do with complete accuracy, or that I will take the time to do it; but if someone else is up for the challenge let me know (e-mail: eric dot sully at gmail dot com and I'll share the Google Earth File with you in such a way that you can edit the original)].
  2. I don't want to belittle his sufferings, but there are times where it seems like in-order to push for the nice-neat, or big-and-round, number of 10 truth was stretched or exaggerated.  For example, Auschwitz-Birkenau was one camp, but they were listed as to separate back-to-back places.  Also, occasionally a work site was run by one camp, but listed as another [although, they seem to decide if it was a new camp based on whether he slept there are at the main camp at night]. 
  3. I did not live these events, and I'm sure day-to-day in the camp was probably pretty mundane  and one day ran into the next, but after the first camp it seems to be one chapter dedicated to coming to the camp, one chapter dedicated to a significant event that occurred in the camp, and then one chapter about leaving the camp- although some had these merged into two or even just one chapter, per camp.  Having said that the last 5 camps were all in 1945 from January to April so maybe not much occurred at them after all.
  4. The book really didn't include Ruth's story, although she has written her own autobiography, which I hope to read some day.  I'm not sure why the cover and the jacket describe it as her and his story, it is all his, because she was there for less than 3 paragraphs and all in the epilogue and afterward.
  5. This is probably the point that bugs me the most.  At the end of the book, in the Afterward, it is mentioned that liberties were taken with the novelization of the book and that some events (or more especially their timing) were fictionalized.  I noticed this when before or after several main incidents there were dreams that seemed to line up perfectly the night before or after the event.  This seemed a little fake or forced and led me to suspect that the truth was maybe being bent.  Also, for some of the camps the stories included were generalizations of other Holocaust survivors' time in the camps [this stood out especially after looking up more about "The Witch of Buchenwald" who according to Wikipedia left there in 1941 to run another camp in Poland, which was before he was there in '43 or '44]. 
     The problem with taking these kind of liberties and then not mentioning it until the end is that it left a bad taste in my mouth because it has caused me to question so much of what I read in the book.  Since the jacket (and the length of the book) made it obvious that he visited 10 camps and 2 death marches it seems to me that it would make more sense to up front say some of this has been fictionalized, especially the timing of events within the camp.  Then certainly at the end include the clarification of which parts were totally real and fictionalized.  Because I'm all for poetic and artistic license, but please set ground rules first, not at the end.

     Having said all of this, do not get me wrong- this was a great book.  You know he is going to make it, but he was relatable.  His losses were devastating.  And whether we say he went to 6 camps and several work sites or sub-camps within them or 10 camps, his trials and suffering were more than any twenty, maybe one hundred, people should have to go through in their lifetimes.  One review I read of the book, while looking for a map complained that it sounded like someone giving a speech or just telling disjointed little stories, rather than a novel.  I certainly see where that perspective is coming from, but I appreciate getting the story in writing before he passes because the generation that went through these horrible events is passing away.  Furthermore, the main thing that he and his wife do now is go to schools around New York City and tell their story of being Jews in Poland and concentration camps during World War II, so a lot of his story should be expected to sound like parts of his speeches just written down.  Personally, I'd rather have un-dramatized stories recorded, rather than fictionalized stories because they sound better.  The story was fast-paced and gripping, even if the format was a little repetitive.  Also, I spent a lot of time reading Wikipedia articles about World War II and specifically the concentration camps after reading this book.  The last time I read one like it was probably Night by Elie Wiesel my sophomore year of high school.  It certainly sparked in me the desire to re-read that book.
I think part of why I liked it so much, is because it is real.  I don't know if Lois Lowry and Number the Stars is to blame for the popularity of the historical, World War II Holocaust fiction genre, but it certainly is the cause for me being blasé about it.  I had it read to me in elementary (which means I also read it myself before the teacher was able to finish it), re-read it on my own the following summer (because I did not have good advise on how to find new books and so I frequently re-read books or exhausted what a single author I liked had written- a longer rant on this later I suppose), and had to re-read it at least two more times in my school career because literature books read was not communicated well across grade levels, yet alone between school buildings.  Not to mention, at least two other holocaust fiction stories [including a work of historical fiction about the French Resistance- (can anyone help with the title?)], Maus on my own (but at the recommendation of a teacher) the Diaries and Play of Anne Frank, Night [which I've already mentioned], a Holocaust research project (including Project Paperclip and Mengele), and countless movies [including Swing Kids, Saving Private Ryan and usually any movie based off of these books] to compliment this stream of stories.  Not-to-mention the large number of novels set during that time period, or having morals that were inspired by the authors' connection to WWII.  I think almost every teacher 6th-10th grade did a holocaust unit in some way, except for maybe 9th grade.  Way too many of which were historical fiction and so it made it easy to become jaded or indifferent to the real events that happened.  I think when it comes down to it, the real stories might be less vibrant, but are much more compelling and make for a more impacting read.  I thought briefly about trying to read a lot more, but then came across the overwhelming list on this blog and thought I'd wait for more personal recommendations about what books I should read instead.

PS- Thanks for Leah for the recommendation and to my wife for being consumed by A Memory of Light and unable to read this book at the same time.  Also after I finish Gatsby, Night will be the next classic I read, then I'll probably finally bring myself around to reading Pride & Prejudice.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Book Review: Flip Your Classroom- Jonathan Bergmann & Aaron Sams

A fellow teacher on the AP Chemistry Community message board recommended this book at one point last school year.  Later in the school year an administrator asked me if I would be willing to experiment with flipping a classroom and then possibly inspire other teachers in our district to do the same in the future.  I told him that I was willing to if I could be supported with some resources, which he agreed to.  I asked him almost immediately if they would purchase this book for me and he agreed to it, but in the end I decided to buy it on my own.
During the month of May, while the weather outside was good and I was feeling overwhelmed with the end of the school year (because I was out for something like 6 of our last 20 days) and the grading left to do, I did something totally irresponsible and set all of that aside and read this book.  It took me less than a weekend to read, although that admittedly was because the authors said that was their goal, and given just a few hours in a row I probably could have done it in one sitting.  But I read the book all the way through, which is very rare during the school year, except maybe Christmas break.
Outside of the AP Chemistry recommendation, I had no clue what to expect from this book.  In the forward I was excited to learn that both of the authors were chemistry teachers; I hoped to glean even more from their experiences.  I don't have it with me right now to refer back to, but what I can recall is that it is nine chapters long, which is about seven chapters too long.  The first two chapters were both introductions to what the book was about and how it was laid out.  I know the authors tried to justify what the differences and needs for both chapters were, but they were both intros.  Then there were about two chapters on why you should flip the classroom- benefits to you and to students.  I understand the need to convince some students, or to use this book to convince an unwilling or resistive administrator, but several times in the book they said that much of this was experience based or anecdotal, rather than research based.  Then about midway through the book, they finally got to the hows of flipping the classroom.  To be honest, the hows could be summed up with the sentence, "Do what works for you and your students with the technology you have access to and are comfortable with.".  From there they did have some good suggestions about how to handle limited access to technology [if anyone is interested I'll address it in a later post or the comments below] and what they use and what works for them.  Then they started describing using the flipped classroom to promote a mastery model.  Then again a chapter on resources, followed by two chapters of summary and closing.
The book wasn't bad if you know nothing about flipping, but I was saddened by the lack of content specific suggestions and specific how-to's.  For me, the helpful parts of the book could have been summarized on a couple of blog posts or one magazine or journal article.
Having said all of this negative stuff, the book did spark in me the desire to not just flip one, but all 5 or 6 of my classes next year.  More on that experiment as it progresses.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review: Feed- M.T. Anderson

This is the second young adult fiction book recommended by John Green, excluding his own novels, that I have read, and I have been displeased by both.  In fairness, the video link above led me to expect something different than what the book actually turned out to be.  So, to clarify if you don't watch the above video, some context.  Last summer I made it through my YouTube Watch Later Playlist before I went to my Advanced Placement Summer Institute for Chemistry down in Kentucky where I was away from my wife and family in the middle of nowhere KY for a week.  During the day I was in class and in the evenings I had dinner in a hotel room and watched YouTube videos.  I decided to attempt to watch through the backlog of nearly 800 videos on the blog brothers channel.  It was fun to watch many of the early videos but I only made it through about November of their first year.  At that time, John had written his first two and was working on the draft of the third, so about that same time I listened to them (in fact that week I listened to Looking for Alaska).  In the video above John refers to Hank's desire to have Wikipedia in his brain.  John and several commenters referred to the book here.
So to the book.  Feed is basically about having the Internet, and especially the advertising and mindless entertainment portions of, it wired into our brains.  The technology to do this is called the feed.  Most people have it and enjoy it because of its convenience, but there are some who hold out due to skepticism.  Although the skeptical mindset turns out to be correct, it is those who were skeptical who suffer in the end.  The novel is set in the future and is a science fiction dystopian novel.  I know I swore off of dystopian novels after reading Hunger Games and Brave New World, but I had forgotten that this was not just sci-fi, but also dystopian.  
Without spoilers, the main female character, Violet meets the narrator Titus at a party on Earth's Moon.  While at the party someone disrupts theirs, and others', feeds with something akin to disconnection via a software virus.  Through this attack, as well as Violet having received her feed implant later in life and a cheaper model she has trouble recovering from the feed.  Furthermore, the medical costs are too high for her widowed, eccentric father.  Of course, already in our real-world digital age we are seeing the start of a filter bubble and customized advertising, but this book took it one step further.  In her attempts to mess with and confuse the feed she shops for all sorts of eccentric things, but buys very little.  When it comes time to pay her medical bills an option outside of insurance and self-paying is to get a corporate sponsor.  But she burned her bridges with them by maintaining no brand loyalty.  The story unfolds predictably from there with a little bit of teenage angst thrown into the mix.  The end morality is to be distrusting of corporations and governments, but mostly it is a warning against consumerism.
One minor complaint too is that to show the dumbing down of society a lot of odd slang and cussing is used, at times it is distracting because it is so inane, but I do understand the point of it.  I was reminded of this while looking for the book image above, which links to an excerpt from early in the book.
Being dystopian, the novel has a distasteful end, but I think my main complaint is something that I already stated.  The feed causes problems, but in the end those with the feed only have minor problem and those without the feed, or who were reluctant to adopt it because they were skeptical, end up suffering the most when all is said and done.