Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review: 1356- Bernard Cornwell

1356 (The Grail Quest, #4)1356 by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I stumbled across this book on display at my library at the beginning of the summer of 2013. I was unaware that it was part of a series and checked it out solely because of the blurb from George R. R. Martin on it saying that "Cornwell writes the best battle scenes in the business". I actually had no intent of reading it, but handed it off to my wife thinking she might enjoy it and I requested the audiobook. When I ended up with extra housework to do at the end of the summer and lacked an adult fiction novel to read I chose this one.
Although the book was good historical fiction and the story was interesting at times, I personally was very disappointed with the battle scenes. I think of The Wheel of Time series for good battles and this one paled in comparison. Honestly, now that a year later I have finally read three of the five so far released in A Song of Ice and Fire I have been disappointed there too with the battle scenes, so maybe his recommendation wasn't the best to uphold.
The premise of this book was interesting. The French and the English are at war with one another in Normandy during the Hundred Years War and both sides are seeking a relic, La Malice, the sword of St. Peter that was used to cut off the ear of a Roman solider when Christ was arrested.
"Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)" John 18:10 [ESV]

I don't think I'll read others in the series or more of Cornwell but it wasn't a bad book, I just went in with expectations that were too high.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy- J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy was my adult fiction pick for this round.  If J.K. Rowling wanted to prove that she could write an adult book, it seems that her philosophy was just to add sex, drug, drinking, smoking, cursing, and politics.  Beyond that I don't really see this book as having any significant merit or staying power.  I was surprised by the number of teens that were still major players in the book in addition to the adults.  The sheer number of cast members was obnoxious and sometimes difficult to tell apart.  About three-quarters of the way through the book the big vote in a local political run-off after a death of a council member occurs.  Up to that point the book had been very predictable and it felt like she was visiting all of the characters for a final goodbye [as long books or books with lots of cast members often to], but it turns out there was one plot twist left and each character essentially got visited twice.  I remember two summers ago when I was staying with my sister for a week that I was surprised to see she had listened to the audiobook [since she had a copy of it in her house] and she told me that her book club had read the book and she ended up getting behind and so she chose to listen to it.  However, she told me that cast was so large she had to look up a graphic to keep track of it all [I don't know if the linked diagram is the one she used, but you get the point].
I suppose if you want a completely worldly book, with a horrendous view of humanity where every character is truly looking out for #1 and no one else and no one cares for anyone else unless they get something out of it, then maybe this is the book for you.  However, I see no morality in the book, no right vs wrong, no wrong being wrong or punished because it is wrong.  I find almost nothing praiseworthy about it.  There is maybe one social worker who is a beacon of hope, but all of her efforts come to naught and the one other innocent character is [SPOILER ALERT, highlight to reveal] a four-year old boy who is distasteful, but not because of his own faults, but rather the faults of those who raise him who dies near the end of the book.  The book is full of greed, selfishness, and unnecessary vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity.  I'll take a Harry Potter sequel any day and I suppose J.K. Rowling can write other things, but she certainly does not have the Midas touch and I don't think I will partake of any of her other works intended for an adult audience.

Post-Script: I did wonder a few times while reading this how much of it was tied to the "rags" part of her "rags to riches" story and if any of this was from a "write what you know" mindset, but that doesn't seem to be the case, at least for the youth part of the narrative.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review: Thinking, Fast & Slow- Daniel Kahneman

First off, book reviews will probably be coming out more slowly soon because this is the next to last book before I am caught up with my recent backlog.  There are two in my long ago backlog that I would like to comment upon, but then I'll be all caught up.  I hope to not end up so far behind in 2015 and to also spend more time sharing my thoughts on other topics than just books, but I do enjoy reading and talking about what I've read.
This book is one that I originally heard about, probably through Science Friday, and kind of put on the back-burner of books I'd like to read.  Then my best friend recommended it to me a little over a year ago and I decided with that high praise that I would have to give it a chance.  Very quickly I realized the audiobook would have spots where it would be difficult to read because there were continual references to diagrams.  Those were included on a .pdf with the audiobook, but of course I didn't have access to it.  Fortunately I was able to check out the e-book from my library and refer to it as necessary.  I don't know that I would recommend listening to it for others, but I managed to survive.
Anyway, the book was laid out in several sections, but I think the summary at the closing of the book did the best job of explaining it.  There are three different duality in our human nature that conflict with us making logical decisions.  The overall theme of the book is that humans do not naturally think mathematically or logically and will make decisions contrary to this.  Therefore, this needs to be considered when studying and accounting for human behavior.
The first of these three are what he called "System 1" and "System 2".  "System 1" is kind of the impulse decision maker where as "System 2" is more logical but slow to think.  There are plenty of times where I feel my gears grind as I take the time to think something out and that is System 2 hard at work.  System 2 is not good a recall and if interrupted when thinking through something will usually have to restart.  There are so many times this is illustrated in my own life and even occurred as I was listening to the book.
The next is kind of application of the prior section, but focuses on how humans make decisions.  This section seemed to drag on for me because it focused on applications to economics.  The argument was that humans have certain heuristics that guide our decision making process and so we frequently make illogical decisions.  I found myself answering the logical answer much of the time though in this section rather than the impulse answer.  I don't know if this is because I think differently, because I am always conservative when it comes to money, or if it was because like an optical illusion I know that the impulse answer should be and so I picked the other answer instead.  I'm not convinced that it is the last one through because there were several financial situations where there wasn't really an impulse or obvious answer and I still found myself grinding through the thought process to come up with an answer.  There is, however, always a fear in the back of my mind that I think of myself as the exception to the rule when I am not, or that the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the like don't apply to me.

This section also seemed to focus a little too much on the author patting himself on the back for what he has done and how he did it and why he is so smart and deserved the Nobel Prize in Economics [the fake prize handed out by Nobel's bank and not out of Nobel's personal funds] that he previously earned.  There was also a lot of background to experiments and on their design rather than jumping into results, interpretation, and analysis while leaving the background for professional papers as probably should have been done.
The final section was very short but focused on the Experiencing vs Remembering Selves.  There is evidence that we don't remember all that we think we will or do or should and that there are different levels of satisfaction with life depending on which side of life/yourself you try to focus on and please.  There are some similarities between these three sets of two natures, but each is distinct and it is important to know which one your decisions and biases are coming from.
My biggest complaint with this book, other than the issues already mentioned, is that the book was too long for the points it wanted to get across.  There were a lot of great exercises and thought experiments in the book that I am considering adding as a pre-class exercise for lower grades to encourage logical thinking and problem solving.  None-the-less, I've heard the main ideas of the book summarized in a very thorough fashion in online videos and podcasts that are a few minutes long.  The specific examples are nice, but the details of the experiments and the personal promotions seemed too much.  For as long as the book was I had hoped to learn more than I did, but other than specific ancetodal stories I don't think I picked up much that I hadn't heard elsewhere in summaries of the book.  I suppose if you haven't heard the theories from this book it would be an informative read, but I cannot help but think that you would do just as well to find good summaries or rewrites out there instead to learn as much and to save time.
As a final complaint, I don't know if this happens in other areas, but this is now at least twice I have read a book by an Economist after they won the Nobel Prize and both times I have gotten the impression that the point of the book was "look at me, I'm so smart, I deserved the prize I got and now am riding the bandwagon of my popularity to sell books that would otherwise just gather dust on shelves."- I'm looking at you Paul Krugman.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

If I Could Design High School English Classes

It has been a while since I have written anything where I just give my opinion about things, other than a book review.  I tried Goodreads at one point, but to me I have trouble understanding the point of limited social media sites like that.  I know that it connects to a broader account, like my Facebook, but not everyone on Facebook wants to hear my opinion there, while not enough people, including me, use Goodreads so I don't see a lot of point to using it.  Maybe I'm part of the problem of it getting to some threshold amount where it is broadly adopted by the public [this is a large part of why Facebook has succeeded where MySpace failed].  None-the-less, I'm not here to give a book review this time, but instead to describe what I would do if I could create four courses in a 9-12 high school English curriculum, with the focus being on literature and not the many other language arts skills that are needed and are taught in high school English.
Before I get started I'd like to say that I am a friend of the English teacher at the school I teach at and I have nothing but respect for her and her juggling of all the different things she has to teach in a day and this is in no way a criticism of her.  Rather, the focus is on how underserved I now realize that I was by my K-12 education.  This is not a critique of all of my English teachers because there are many things I learned, including how to read and to appreciate reading [which was greatly instilled in me by my parents who are both avid readers and users of the library], specifically Mrs. Wion (8th grade) and Mrs. Korgman (11th grade and 12th grade AP English) mostly got it right.  I've mentioned before my frustration with how many times I read about the Holocaust, this was not the only over-taught topic in my grade-school career.
To illustrate the problem fully, I'm going to attempt to list all of the novels that I read in high school, as well as the ones I was supposed to have read, but we didn't get around to reading.  Also, this is only the novels and on some occasions the poet, but does not include the extensive list of short stories that we read, nor does it [obviously] include anything I have forgotten.
7th Grade

  • Acorn People- Ron Jones
  • The Wish Giver- Bill Brittain
  • The Pigman- Paul Zindel
  • a World War II resistance novel whose title I cannot remember (we then watched the related movie Swing Kids) [see comment below for details]

8th Grade
  • The Sign of the Beaver- Elizabeth George Speare
  • The Outsiders- S.E. Hinton
  • The River- Gary Paulsen
  • The Canyon- Gary Paulsen
  • The Diary of Anne Frank- Anne Frank
  • "The Raven"- Edgar Allan Poe
  • A Separate Peace- John Knowles
  • Romeo & Juliet- William Shakespeare
  • Of Mice and Men- John Steinbeck
  • The Odyssey- Homer
  • A Christmas Carol- Charles Dickens [I think]
  • To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee
  • The Diary of Anne Frank- Anne Frank
  • Night- Elie Weisel
  • The Pearl- John Steinbeck
  • Julius Caesar- William Shakespeare
  • Death of a Salesman- Arthur Miller
  • The Glass Menagerie- Tennessee Williams
  • Lord of the Flies- William Golding
  • Robert Frost poems
  • Ethan Frome- Edith Wharton
  • The Crucible- Arthur Miller
  • Edgar Allan Poe short stories and poems
  • selections from Walden- Thoreau
  • The Taming of the Shrew- William Shakespeare
  • Emily Dickinson poems
  • Walt Whitman poems
  • The Great Gatsby- F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Grapes of Wrath- John Steinbeck
Senior [AP English Literature & Composition]
  • Ordinary People- Judith Guest
  • The Prince of Tides- Pat Conroy
  • Macbeth- William Shakespeare
  • Hamlet- William Shakespeare
  • selections from Beowulf
  • selections from The Canterbury Tales- Geoffrey Chaucer
  • a book of our choosing: Crime & Punishment- Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Great Expectations- Charles Dickens
  • The Doll House- Isben
  • [The Somonyng/Summoning of] Everyman
  • Oedipus Rex- Sophocles
  • Antigone- Sophocles
  • The Awakening- Kate Chopin
  • numerous poems
There are several problems I have with this list.  First, other than my junior year and to a lesser extent my senior year, there wasn't really a theme or a reason given for why we were reading the books we read.  Next, there is no nonfiction on the list, except for Night.  Lastly, there is a lot of repetition of authors on the list.  Personally, I needed more variety.  I wanted someone to tell me, "Here are some good fantasy books," or "If you liked the book we just read then you should read...."  Instead we read the same handful of authors.  Dickens books every other year, Shakespeare every year, Steinbeck every year, several topics and works repeated in different grades.  Top me the best things I read were times when I had a choice.  Mrs. Wion in 8th grade usually had 5 books at a time we could pick from and we had to pick and read one.  That gave me a somewhat artificial say in what I read and when I read it.  It made her job of tracking what we were doing more difficult, but it made for better reading and more personal motivation.  This did come at the sacrifice of variety as many of the books I read were similar.  I also enjoyed getting to pick which book I read for the AP English project.  The project actually lead to the idea for this format.  Also, I really liked the two Shakespeare plays I read my Senior year, but it was hard to enjoy it because I had such a negative attitude towards his works. n Also, I think that it should be the educators role to instill a love of learning and reading and so introducing students to new genres is important.  I don't know that this applies to books, but some author I heard an interview with said, "If you don't like reading poetry, read other poetry."  His point was there's plenty out there and if this one or this author doesn't fit your fancy don't give up, just try something else.  I could have used advice like that.  Another English teacher I knew had students list their favorite books and then she assigned them to swap and read each other's.  My favorite pairing was the guy and girl who listed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The World, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, and had to read each others.  The project wasn't great because not a lot of students ended up loving the new genre, there were a few students who didn't get something way out of their comfort zone, and there was plenty of low-quality literature read.  I got stuck in ruts reading the same book over and over or reading crappy literature when there was a plethora of other books I would have enjoyed reading if I had only known.
So those are my complaints about how I was taught, now how I'd do it instead.  First, no repetition of authors.  That is for the students to explore.  You liked The Mask of the Red Death read the The Pit and The Pendulum or The Tell-Tale Heart and so on.  And you object "How can you pick only one Shakespeare?"  OK, I'll kind of concede there.  I don't love Shakespeare, and after all he wrote plays, they weren't really meant to be read.  So play a good production of the original work in class [there are plenty like Franco Zefirelli's Romeo and Juliet or Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet or Henry V].  Beyond that though if you insist upon reading it, give students a selection and don't have them read the same type of work over and over.  There are four years of high school and four categories that Shakespeare's plays fit into: 1) comedy, 2) tragedy, 3) history, and 4) sonnets- so do one each year.  Now certainly when students are faced with picking a reading selection they don't know what they want [they might know what they don't want, for example, I know that I dreaded reading Romeo & Juliet and would have avoided it if I could].  Also, given the choice most students will pick the shortest work, so I envision giving them synopses or reviews written by students in the past [makes for a great writing assignment] to inform their decision.  For students who are not average, I would suggest having recommendations from the teacher to the student, like: "You tend to struggle so I suggest Romeo and Juliet because I'm going to be working more closely with that group in class and because more of your peers reading it," or, "You enjoy a challenge so I recommend Hamlet or Othello".  Introductions, reviews, and writing assignments, and probably a vary many other things, become difficult when doing this, but there are options to assist with that.  First, a good annotated translation will help students help themselves in understanding it.  Next, a teacher can move between groups to discuss and serve up more written rather than spoken material for the students [or better yet do flipped styles of teaching where spoken bits are recorded videos for students to watch (in class or on their own time)].  Also, essay prompts could be created for each book individually or be more broad.  Broad essay prompts might be something like: Describe the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist, What is the theme of the book, What makes this play a tragedy, and What is the lesson the author wants to get across to his audience.  These are the kinds of essays that are asked on standardized tests, like the AP English Literature test [often with AP English they include a list of books that would be appropriate for answering that question, but they will take any; I'm sure grading this is even more nightmarish than grading Chemistry essays because the number of responses could be so wide and I assume that the grader has to be familiar with the work being referred to in the essay- I'd love to know more about how the grading is done if anyone knows].  Tests, at least non-essay tests, would probably have to be book specific, but again this is the kind of assignment that students can be given: write 10 multiple choice questions with four answers each, two from each Act of the play, where the answers are not obvious ["Who is the main character in Hamlet?" is too obvious].  When I read Crime & Punishment in AP English my senior year we were reading other works in class and supposed to be reading the book of our choice on our own and were to be done by November.  We had several writing assignments to go with it that were all pretty generic and then we had to teach a whole class period [45-50 minutes] about the book (I lost points because I went long, and I made the mistake of erasing rather than crossing out the names of people who were killed on the family tree I wrote on the board).  The assignment included:

  • Summarize the book in 350 words or less.
  • What was the overall theme of the book?
  • Draw or make a new cover for the book
  • Write an outline for your presentation
    • There were several other assignments, and I wrote at least 10 pages total for all of it.
Beyond that I think that during the school year there should be about a book per month [maybe more for advanced classes, and maybe less for junior high (book per quarter there?)].  The genre should change each month and there should be a list of high quality novels from that genre each month.  Students reading the same book can work together on some things and on having discussions about the book.  Research and cliff notes are encouraged because students are not going to pick up on all the minutia and we can encourage research and non-self-reliance in some areas.  Additionally, at least once each semester there should be a nonfiction selection and to help vary topics there maybe the hundred divisions of the Dewey Decimal System could be used [freshmen year read a 700 book about the arts and a 900 biography] or something like that.  This would also be the best time to reach out to staff members in other subject areas to do cross-curricular projects and which 100s you picks and which books are available for reading could be varied based upon that teacher's request.  Or maybe, this time instead of letting students pick just tell them, the 500 book you pick this month depends upon which science elective you are currently taking, "If you're taking Chemistry with Mr. Sully then you will be reading either Napoleon's Buttons or The Disappearing Spoon, however if you are currently taking Physics with him you will instead be reading E=mc2 or The Physics of Superheros."  Heck, there's even good sci-fi and historical fiction and probably other books or poems too that would open themselves up to cross-curricular activities.  We don't even have to stick with books, go read a Popular Science article or the publication of an original discovery, a founding document, and so on.
There will always be students who are unmotivated, but this kind of format will give them some say and motivate them to be active participants in the education process.  Furthermore, no student is being forced to read one thing or another most of the time.  Certainly there may be times where the book you want them to read follows this quote,
"Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book,"
and maybe everyone needs to read it.  Or maybe all freshmen should read the same Shakespeare the first time to introduce how to read Shakespeare, but beyond that I think English teachers should serve as taste-makers for the students.  They go out and find the best books to make available to students and then encourage them to read more on that topic if they enjoy it.  Maybe even end each year with a totally free-read where they have to pick another book for the genre they enjoyed most this year.  This should serve to avoid repetition within a year and between years and offer up a wider variety for students and possibly introduce them to trying to read a broader range of books than they do already.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: The Boy in Striped Pajamas- John Boyne

     Again after reading Prisoner B-3087 and The Book Thief, I know that I said I wanted to avoid fictional accounts of the Holocaust and read more nonfiction accounts.  However, when I was talking about Prisoner B-3087 to my cousin who is a 3rd grade teacher, and works part-time at a bookstore, he recommended this book to me.  Usually I try to read what he recommends.
     This book was told from the perspective of an 8 year old boy who was the son of an SS Officer [although that term and Nazi and many other terms are not used in the book] who is put in charge of Auschwitz [again name not used in the book].  The boy reasonably misunderstands some names like Auschwitz and mispronounces it "Out With" which he assumes means that some people were told "Out with you", just like his family had to leave their large home in Berlin for one outside of the camp while Father ran it.  I can tolerate the mispronunciation and even the fact that Auschwitz is a German word [German name for the Polish town Oświęcim nearby] while "Out With" is what it sounds like in the English.  What I struggled with was how oblivious the boy was about the war going on.  I can understand his family and the Nazi party keeping the concentration camps under wraps and not letting word spread about it, but the main character seemed to have no realization that the war was occurring.  At least not until his sister began to obsessively follow troop movements in the latter parts of the book.
     I talked this over with my wife and she thought that it was plausible that the boy could have and would have been kept int he dark.  I'm still skeptical about this because I remember being 8 years old and in 3rd grade and know that the First Gulf War was going on.  Part of my knowledge of it was assisted by the fact that I started delivering newspapers in October 1990 and the first day I delivered the Monday front page showed troops in Kuwait as a part of Operation Desert Shield and  daily there was a yellow ribbon or orange ribbon on the cover.  Having said that I don't think my perspective was unique because I remember as things began to heat up in January 1991 a day where my teacher, who was probably not well prepared that day and so had just a junk fluff activity for us, had us go through a line over and over as she tore off a daily fact-of-the-day calendar page for each of us from the prior year.  I don't recall why, but we all seemed to say something as we got up to her before she'd read the little factoid on the paper and then tear it off and hand it to us and send us to the back of the line again.  Many students repeated the line "Saddam Hussein is insane".  I suppose it rhymed well,  I also remember having a soldier's picture that I was suppose to hang up in my room for a week at a time and pray for him at night, and then turn back in the following week at the church youth choir practice to trade for another soldier to pray for.  I watched news of the war on TV and had trading cards, like football cards, of weapons, generals, combat vehicles, missiles jets, and more.  Now I recognize so much of it as patriotism building and propaganda, but the Nazi's were notorious for that, and I would have to imagine that an SS member, put in charge of Auschwitz, who had "The Fury" himself over for dinner more than once would have been indoctrinating his children.  I suppose it is possible that he felt trapped and on the outside did everything right, while in private he sheltered his children, but it still seems like a stretch to me.
     Anyway, the boy doesn't like the move that his family has made and naively hopes to return home soon.  He notices pretty early on all of the men and boys in the fenced-in town next door and is amused about the striped pajamas they all wear.  He's told not to go exploring, so of course he does.  He eventually finds another little boy, who is not only his age, but shares his birthday on the other side of the fence.  The boys don't get to play together, but their relationship seems basic to me.  They have the common problem that they want to be the center of attention and share their stories, but don't really listen to each other's stories.  To some extent, I'm reminded of the early stage of infant and toddler development where little kids play around each other, but not really with each other.  The self-focused mindset of both boys would be intolerable in the book if it wasn't for the fact that the boy inside the fence is almost as oblivious to the world around him as his new friend.  There remains the possibility that this was done intentionally as a coping mechanism for the boy.
     Despite the negativity I have towards this book the end was still surprising and devastating- it is a Holocaust book after all.  I concur with the author that this book might be best directed towards a younger audience that is unaware of the Holocaust as a means of introducing it to them.  I don't know how young of an age that this needs to be done, nor do I recall at what age I first learned about it.  I know by late elementary I was aware of it and we read portions of Anne Frank's diary and also read Number the Stars.  That was the first of several times I was assigned to read both of those in school.  There were also numerous other books about the event that we read.  Again my complaint about how I was taught literature in K-12 reveals itself here as it seemed like every odd numbered school year 6th through 10 grade we did a unit which lasted from a month to a quarter about the Holocaust.  And much too often the accounts were fictional, which in addition to it being easier to distance yourself from the horror because you can say it was made up it also served to desensitize me and many of my peers towards those tragic events [on the contrary though, there were friends who had nightmares especially during the sophomore research project about some specific aspect of the Holocaust or Japanese Internment].  This book would be a good introductory book, but I don't know that it is the best book to use.  Also, I have found out since reading the book that it was adapted into a movie and so I hope to watch that soon.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: The Hot Zone- Richard Preston

I mentioned in my recent review of Gravity that this was one of two books that the former biology teacher at my school used to assign to her students as a part of a project.  Because of that assignment, I have always had this book on the back burner of books to read, after all, biology is not my specialty or interest.  However, with the recent Ebola outbreak I thought it was probably time that I read up on the subject.  Having just read Gravity the virus and its behavior seemed very familiar, but it was also more intimidating knowing that this was real-life.

Prior to this the only Richard Preston book I have read was his conclusion to the posthumous novel by Michael Crichton, Micro.  I was none to impressed by that book and so I didn't have high expectations for this book.  There were many times where I felt that the story was compelling, but the storytelling was not.  Maybe this is bias from disliking Micro come through, but it did not seem to be a quality piece of literature.  However, the science and a research that went into the book seemed very thorough [I'll discuss below how this has been questioned by some].  The book doesn't go in chronological order and there are plenty of times where the book is open about how there are gaps in what we know about some of the timelines and Richard Preston makes his best guess at filling in those gaps with a compelling, albeit fictional, narrative.

The narrative describes the discovery and initial outbreaks of Marburg and Ebola viruses.  Both belong together in a family of string viruses called Filoviruses.  These viruses have very high mortality rates, but fortunately very low infection rates.  This is because the virus is usually spread through direct contact with body fluids.  In general, it seems that people are highly infectious before they become symptomatic, but they remain infectious after death.  I heard some criticism that Richard Preston focused on the gruesome deaths caused by this disease and that through that he implies that all deaths are violent.  This may not be the case, but none-the-less there are these extreme cases where people "crash" and bleed out and can infect many around them, especially medical staff.  Furthermore, their remains are still "hot" [infectious] for a while after death.  Certainly one of the reasons these diseases have never become widespread is because they are not airborne and they kill off their host.

Reading the details about this made me transition my thinking about volunteers who go work in outbreak regions.  Previously I felt that they were crazy.  Now, I still think they are crazy, but I also agree that they are heroes who deserve honor and recognition.  There has been much criticism of the US and state governments recently about whether quarantine should be enforced upon those returning from areas of Africa where the most recent outbreak of Ebola Zaire has occurred.  Personally, I vote for erring on the side of safety, but we cannot forget good humanity in the situation and need to provide for those individuals while they are waiting, especially those heroes who go work in Hot Zones willingly.

Beyond focusing on the earliest outbreaks of these diseases, Preston also focused on how diseases like this are studied in places like the CDC while people are wearing Level 4 Biocontainment suits.  Accidents with the suits seemed to be comically common.  Often times minor mistakes were made and pointed out by the author.  When this happened in Gravity I got frustrated because it seemed like everything that could go wrong did, but here in The Hot Zone it was different because the events were real.  Furthermore, the book focused on the 1989 outbreak of Ebola Reston which occurred in a monkey house a suburb of Washington DC.

The outbreak in Reston was dramatic for several reasons.  First it was a new strain of Ebola that previous had not been encountered.   Next, it was contained and cleaned up, which meant the killing of dozens if not hundreds of monkeys in a monkey house by the US Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases [USAMRIID] and the CDC.  This was the first time that USAMRIDD went into action.  USAMRIDD was designed to counter bio-warfare.  The monkey house was used to contain and quarantine monkeys who were captured to be research specimens before they were sold.  Additionally, this was all done under a cover of secrecy trying to keep the public from finding out what was happening so close to the holiday season.  Lastly, the case is notable for two more reasons: 1) Ebola Reston possibly became airborne and 2) Ebola Reston was found in several workers at the Monkey House and although it was fatal to primates, it seemed to have no effect on humans.  This last point is possibility the most frightening of all because here we have Ebola that is airborne, but not infectious and in prior outbreaks we've had Ebola that is infectious, but not airborne.  If either virus mutates to develop the missing property we could face an outbreak like we have never seen before.

In the final part of the book Richard Preston returned to Africa and explored Kitum cave, the cave that is probably the source of the Ebola virus.  He said that he grew up in Africa and that the landscape has changed with the building of the Kinshasa Highway which has opened up parts of Africa and enabled the spread of trade and other things across the continent.  This part seemed ridiculous because Preston seemed to think that he could go as a journalist and discover what a team of scientists had been unsuccessful at doing.  Maybe he just wanted to see the sight firsthand, but then the precautions he took seem like overkill or the whole adventure just fool-hardy.  Details of the trip, including photos are available on his website.  He concludes with an idea that I have heard before, but thoroughly disagree with.

The idea is that the Earth is somehow like a living organism that fights off pests on its own.  Humans are that pest and viruses are the Earth's immune system.  His main point/reason for this is the somewhat recent [1970s] emergence of so many new, infectious, and deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS and Ebola.  This was discussed recently by the guys at ASAPScience in their monthly book club (#ASAPBookClub).  I had read The Hot Zone independent of them, but happened to be sitting at my computer waiting for my online class to start when they were doing their Google Hangout to discuss the book on book club with Joe Hanson of It's Okay To Be Smart.  During the hangout they were taking questions via Twitter and YouTube comments and one of the few that they replied to was mine which occurs about the 28:30 mark.  As I mentioned in the YouTube comments, I agree with Joe that it is wrong to conclude that the Earth is an organism trying to wipe us out.  Not even getting into the science of this it puts up a false dichotomy that encourages us to fight the Earth to save ourselves which is the wrong was to go from an environmental standpoint.  From a scientific standpoint, I believe that it is probable that there are small communities where resistance to this disease has built up, but that the wider population has not experienced it and so is widely affected by it.  To me it seems like the same reason that Native American groups in North and South America were so devastated [as John Green put it is it essentially the reciprocal of decimated, which literally means to wipe out one-tenth] by European diseases.  The situation is a little different since the diseases are coming out of Africa, whereas they went in with the Americas.  I just read of a similar odd case in What If? the book [review to come] by Randall Munroe of xkcd.  He described a remote island of the United Kingdom that seemed to get sick every time an outsider came in on a boat.  What happened is new mutations of the common cold came in, everyone [a couple hundred at most] on the island got sick, their bodies fought off the infection, and then they were all immune again.  The process of natural selection implies that non-immune individuals in a population are more likely to not propagate and eventually only those who are able to cope with diseases will survive.  However, the diseases are also in an arms race and so there is still illness.  I have been eager to read Spillover which is a nonfiction take on diseases and reservoir species as well.  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I learned a lot from it, even if I am a little freaked out by it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Review: Mere Christianity- C.S. Lewis

I have always had the intention of reading Religion/Philosophy as one of my categories as I go through my cycle, but it is really hard to find texts to read [outside of maybe some old philosophy texts considered "Classics" and pre-dating modern copyright law].  Last winter my wife read two or three C.S. Lewis books that we have owned for years and inherited from her grandparents, but had never cracked open or felt OK to get rid of as we have many times weeded out our bookshelves.  She encouraged me to read them, and eventually I managed to find The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity.

I've always had a lot of respect for C.S. Lewis, but I've only ever read The Screwtape Letters and attempted one in The Chronicles of Narnia.  I remember a pastor who loved to quote C.S. Lewis all of the time and that has always stuck with me.  To be honest, if anything, I have had him up on a bit of a pedestal and although he makes many great points, I often felt while reading this book that he missed the mark at times too.

Whenever I think of apologetics I think of my best friend from high school who is still a good friend of mine and a staunch atheist.  I think about how he would respond to arguments made and look for weaknesses that way.  I will say that I have not seen an argument laid out so methodically or meticulously as what C.S. Lewis did here.  At one point through Part 1 of the book he had laid out groundwork for morality and for a belief in a higher being, but then immediately said something along the lines of "Do not suppose that this is the Christian God or Christian morality or even a god, no this just proves this minor point, do not add onto what I have said or claimed."  Then he continued the development of his thesis.  However, the point that he overlooks is that even though his conversion was logical, faith is still faith.  At some point there is a transfer of beliefs from things I can see to things I cannot see and I put my trust in a something else.  I also know of many evolutionary arguments for morality, even if they have not convinced me to change my beliefs.  I do not think that his arguments would say many today if they were not first raised on Christian beliefs to begin with.

Later after he established Christianity, I was surprised to hear how often he openly admitted that he did not have an answer to a particular topic or point of view or that he was unqualified to answer it.  This is rare that a thinker or theologian will admit that they don't have all of the answers.  Furthermore, he also argued something that I have said for some time, that there is a place and role for everyone and it is not necessary for every Christian to be good at all of Christianity.  For example, not every Christian should argue politics or teach science because many are not well informed enough.  There are Christians whose expertise are these areas and they should be involved, but lets not assume that all of this should be done by the clergy or by the whole body of believers.

So often though, he missed the real point of why such-and-such is true.  One example that stands out is that he was talking about marriage and the Biblical versus worldly perspectives about it.  This is a debate that the Deacons of my church, of whom I am a member of, are having right now and I have expressed some very staunch views on the subject.  C.S. Lewis seemed to agree with me that there should be a distinction a church between a Christian marriage and a legal marriage and that different standards should be expected for each party.  For example, he was against forbidding divorce at a governmental level, even though he felt it was forbidden within the Church setting.  He then went on to argue why there were roles in the marriage [that is, a leader] and why the leader/head is the man.  However, never in any of this did he point to the Scripture.  As I reflect I think I was expecting him to say "because the Bible says so", but he was trying to lay out logical reasons for all of his arguments without the Bible.  I had a history professor in college who had done debates with that stipulation [that the Bible could not be used as a support piece for the argument], but that makes no sense from a Christian perspective, and not everything in the Bible can be thought through or reasoned to logically.

I enjoyed the book, and I disagree with my family member who said that I needed to read it slowly to give myself time to process it.  To me his arguments were so concise and easy to follow that is was not difficult to just listen through [though there were a few occasions where I paused to contemplate].  In fact, this book was a narrative version of a series of short essays (about 10 minutes each) that he did for the radio for a broadcast program, and so I think they were meant to be ingested like this.  I do have a lot of bookmarks in our copy at home, but I also have walked away think of C.S. Lewis not as the top scholar or theologian, but rather a great teacher who was good at what he did, but sometimes missed the mark.  Having said that, it is a sad state of affairs is three-quarters of a century later we are still waiting on a better teacher to come along.  We need people who can argue and defend as well as he did, even if he wasn't perfect at doing it.  We need modern apologists who are responding to the world now and even being proactive rather than reactive.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book Review: Gravity- Tess Gerritsen

     Gravity is one of two books based on biology that I have read recently.  This one was my science fiction pick for this round and The Hot Zone was my science pick for the start of the next round [post to come].  I picked Gravity because I knew The Hot Zone was coming up.  The former biology teacher at my school, now principal, used to have a quarter project where she assigned books to be read, amongst them were these two and Jurassic Park.  I, of course, have read Jurassic Park, before but I had never read these two.  When I found out recently that The Hot Zone was about an Ebola outbreak I figured it was relevant to get around to listening to it now.  That decision triggered in my memory that I had never gotten around to listening to Gravity, so here it goes.
     I have very mixed feelings about this book.  There is a lot that I have to forgive it of because it was written in 1999 and there were things that she didn't know were coming, but at the same time, so many things just seem wrong.  For starters a summary will be necessary [no spoilers outside of those given on the dust jacket]: the book focuses on an outbreak of a Archaean Chimera [think very adaptable bacteria] that turned infectious aboard the International Space Station [ISS].  There were times where this book got a lot of the science and some of the operations of the ISS right, and there were other times where it was way off.  It was like looking at a bad poor reflection, where I recognized that this was supposed to be the ISS, but compared to how it actually runs and operates the description was so foreign that it just seemed off.  Now, in the author's defense international cooperation between the Russian space station MIR and the US Shuttle Program was not great, and Apollo-Soyuz was pretty much nothing but diplomacy.  It seems that she based how ISS would run and operate off of this and off of construction plans, after all construction only started in November 1998, and permanent habitation didn't start until November 2000.  So the crew members in her book don't speak any shared languages, didn't train together, are pretty unfamiliar with the other nation's sections of the space station, and not only don't work together as a team, but are even antagonistic towards one another.  On the other hand there were many optimistic views about the space program including shuttle missions in the mid-2000s in the 150s and 160s, whereas the actual final mission was STS-135 [mission #135] in 2011, Challenger was the only disaster, Columbia was still around, and launches were quick and frequent- including multiple missions at a time.
     Although the book was gripping and enjoyable, it became predictable and unbelievable pretty quickly.  If something could go wrong it did.  And although I enjoy books where the author isn't afraid to kill off characters, there was no time to establish a connection with the characters before they were gone.  There are also some containment mistakes that just seemed obvious.  At times I was reminded of a bad Andromeda Strain.  I do understand the point of assigning this as a biology fiction book about infectious disease, but in the end it stretched believability and credibility.  The science in the book was accurate for what I know of biology and was believable and based upon confirmed science.  Also, the symptoms of the disease were a lot like Marburgh and Ebola, which are the focus of The Hot Zone and current news, although it seems unlikely that an Archaean could behave like a filovirus, and although it is easy to let it slide, bacteria and viruses are fundamentally different.
Right before reading the book, I stumbled across a blog post on the authors webpage.  I remember when I first heard about the movie Gravity that I assumed it was based off of this book.  I was immediately going to listen to it, however, I shortly learned thereafter that the movie was not based upon the book.  I end up watching the movie before reading this book, and outside of having a female lead character and taking place on the ISS with a disaster driving the plot the two seem to have nothing to do with one-another.  According to her press release linked above she claims to have given them the benefit of the doubt at first, and that in the screenplay version she helped write she added in damage from a meteor shower.  Why the movie needed even more disasters than the book had I don't know, but such an event did not occur in the book.  Also, when it comes to movies in space there really is a limited number of disasters you can imagine happening and an unplanned meteor shower or collision with space junk is one of the predominate things you can think of, so I'm not sure this plot idea is all that unique.  I don't wish the author any ill will, but I don't think I find her claim credible.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Review: Pride & Prejudice- Jane Austen

I don't remember when I became interested in the classics as a kid.  It probably had a lot to do with Charles Schultz.  I remember checking out anthologies of Peanuts out from my library and my library also had a small set of Peanuts posters illustrating the hundreds in the Dewey Decimal System.  In one of the pictures (probably the 800s) showed Snoopy leaning against a large copy of War and Peace.  From the anthologies there were plenty of references to War and Peace, and there was even a long summer series where Snoopy decided he was going to read it by reading only one word a day.  I remember having a vague idea that reading War and Peace was required reading for adults and some kind of right of passage.  Later my dad set me straight by simply informing me that he had never read it, but at some point I tried.  As I became familiar with classic authors and lists of classics [like on the inside cover of Cliff Notes] I set a vague goal of reading the classics.  This was cemented in my mind when I heard John C. Maxwell promoted one of his books as being on Harvard's lifetime reading list [I later found out form John Maxwell and Harvard that the list was an individual business professor's list and not some official University list- but he damage had already been done].  However, this is an era and genre that I am not a fan of- specifically Imperialism, Colonialism, and Victorian era novels especially when combined with romance.  In AP English in high school we had an assignment to read a book of our choosing and write several papers about it and then teach for a whole period about it.  A few of my peers read books from these genres and it further cemented in my mind that even occasional eroticism in them could not entice me to read them.  So at the time I banned Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and a few others.  Unfortunately, I had to read The Awakening for AP English and wasn't able to avoid that one.  My wife, of course, enjoys these novels and has watched almost every TV and movie adaptation of them and Emma and Little Women.  She has encouraged me to give them a chance, but to be honest I was so biased, I usually ignored the movie versions (even the one with the attractive, despite anorexic, Keira Knightley, who I think was born to play those kinds of roles [that is, that time period and culture and clothing style].  Seriously I'm not sure that I've enjoyed her acting in anything but those kinds of roles).
After years of resistance, I finally found a reason to read the books, I figured I would need them to understand the parodies that I wanted to read like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, which were born out of the brief cult phenomena of horror/thriller-classic mash-ups.  Even this wasn't enough to motivate me to actually get around to reading the books.  Then Hank Green changed all of this on my birthday in 2012.  He laid out his situation which was similar, but less stubborn than mine.  In the video linked above he describes his wife's enjoyment of the book and getting him into it by having him watch the movie, then getting him to read the book.  He enjoyed the novel so much that he wanted to encourage others to read it by making it more accessible.  Hence the Lizzie Bennett Diaries was born- a modern adaptation of the novel done as a video blog featuring three of the Bennett sisters [feel free to pause reading here and watch all 8 hours of YouTube vlog videos before returning to finish this article- I'll wait...].
Not only did I get hooked on this, but I managed to get several students hooked on it, which resulted in me having to re-watch the first dozen episodes a few times to get new groups caught up during my lunch.  I tried to get my own wife to enjoy it, but her work schedule was hectic at the time, and she commented to me that she wasn't sure that it would make sense or be beneficial if you hadn't read the book.  I mentioned to her that I thought Hank would accomplish his goal of making me want to read the book because the vlog series was so enjoyable.  As a side note before moving onto the actual book, they did so well [won an Emmy and was voted by a British news agency as the best adaptation of P&P on the 200th anniversary of the publication of the novel] that it led to other adaptations.  I wasn't a fan of Welcome to Sanditon which was based off of an unfinished Jane Austen novel, Emma Approved was good, but the characters were not as likable [although Austen herself said that no one but her could stand the character Emma because she was unlikable], and the currently being created and aired Frankenstein, M.D. which does break away from Jane Austen, but changed Victor to Victoria, I'm only a few episodes in but the jury is out on my opinion of it.  Anyway, watching the vlog did lead to me reading the book.
It took a while after finishing the vlog series before I read the book, but I did really enjoy it.  Quickly I learned that I loved the dad and was really sad that he never appeared for real in the vlog series.  I also found myself picturing the women of the book as the actors who portrayed them in the vlog series.  There was a point about a third of the way through the book where I wondered what was left to cover because it seemed to move fast and I didn't remember some of the details.  From there it moved very slow until the halfway point where it picked up again and was very enjoyable throughout.  I was a little surprised how much of the book there was after the hook-up between Elizabeth and Darcy [spoiler alert, highlight to reveal].  I am grateful to Hank Green, Bernie Sue, Ashley Clements, Laura Spencer, Daniel Gordh, and all of the actors and support crew that made the vlog series a thing because it has opened my mind, and my horizons.  My wife has agreed that I should read more classics in this genre and also agreed to re-watch on her favorite adaptions so that I can actually pay attention to it this time.