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.