Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: The Road- Cormac McCarthy

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was surprised recently to learn that the movie The Road was based off of the book The Road. I was also further surprised while in the midst of reading it was it was a Pulitzer Prize winner. I don't think I've read a Pulitzer before and this certainly isn't what I expected.
To be honest the book was pretty disappointing. I possibly built it up in my mind too much. I heard a couple of good reviews/recommendations in a row and so moved it way up my list of adult fiction to read. It also helped that it was short, after having taken a long time to listen to my most recent science selection, The Science of Liberty. The biggest complaint is that pretty much nothing happened. I've said several times before I am not a fan of dystopian novels. This was similar enough, even though it was post-apocalyptic instead. Even though it was, it is frustrating to (view spoiler). Furthermore, like most novels, just worse, things go bad, but then over-and-over (view spoiler). I have also often thought that it is realistic and even probable that in an apocalyptic scenario that the individuals trying to survive it might not be the heroes at the center fighting it or even know what caused it, and the chance to hear the story from that perspective was exciting, but left me wanting.</["br"]>

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Book Review: The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature- Timothy Ferris

The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of NatureThe Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wish I knew more about the history of politics so that I could judge this book more fairly. I asked my wife her opinion about the thesis and she was skeptical, whereas the history teacher at school concurred with the basic idea. I told them both that the science part was accurate, but that I didn't know enough about the political history to know whether the author was glossing over details or cherry-picking his examples.
The basic idea was that traditionally history is taught with the renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the enlightenment being three separate and distinct events, but Ferris argues that the three flow on into the next, as cause-and-effect. Furthermore, since democracy, republics, and liberty came out of the enlightenment, then it follows that science and scientific thinking is necessary for liberal democracies to exist.
As he pointed out to prove him wrong there would either have to be a scientifically advanced nation that does not have a democracy or a democracy without advanced science. The main counter examples he pointed to were Nazi Germany and communist Russia and China. Although those nations had the appearance of advanced science, he showed how often it was pseudoscience and where it wasn't it was often stolen ideas or momentum from a prior time. Again, he arguments were persuasive, but I'm not totally convinced that there isn't some other counterexample that he didn't discuss.
From a scientific standpoint, the science and history of science was great. It was also very enlightening to see the political pursuits of many scientists and the scientific pursuits of many politicians. I am personally a huge fan of individuals that played minor roles in the Scientific Revolution because they often go overlooked.
There were a few times where if felt like the book was distracted by the science or the politics and failed to show how the were interwoven. There were also some short periods where the events didn't follow chronological order like the rest of the book, which always bugs me some. My biggest reservation is simply my lack of knowledge of the historical side of things.
Lastly, two unrelated points to close on. First, I think I would ever have gotten around to reading a print version of this book, but I kind of regret listening to it because if I had read the print version I think I would have highlighted it to death [although I do own a print copy and may skim it just to do that none-the-less]. Secondly, he spent a descent amount of time close to the end critiquing an often cited book that I own a copy of and maybe read the first chapter [if that] of, Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. According to him Kuhn's book is the most cited book of the 20th century, and yet was nothing more than b***s*** postmodernism propaganda. I will say, that if his quotes and his summaries are accurate then he is correct and I am glad that I did not finish the book- although it does make me curious to look into it more.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: Defending Your Castle: Build Catapults, Crossbows, Moats, Bulletproof Shields, and More Defensive Devices to Fend Off the Invading Hordes- William Gurstelle

Defending Your Castle: Build Catapults, Crossbows, Moats, Bulletproof Shields, and More Defensive Devices to Fend Off the Invading HordesDefending Your Castle: Build Catapults, Crossbows, Moats, Bulletproof Shields, and More Defensive Devices to Fend Off the Invading Hordes by William Gurstelle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't love this book, but it isn't because it is bad. I feel that it was misleading in how it was advertised. I own three other William Gurstelle books (Backyard Ballistics, The Art of the Catapult, & The Practical Pyromaniac) and have looked at all of his others. The three I own are project books and that certainly how this one is written and appears, but unfortunately its focus is on devices that are not only impractical [because no one really needs a potato or carbide cannon, but they are fun to build] but also nearly impossible [moat and steel door]. There are also several times where he really stretched his theme of protecting your home from ancient invading hordes to include applications that weren't relevant or devices that you would protect against rather than build.

Gurstelle has always focused on the science and where appropriate the history behind the devices, but in this book his focus is really on the military history and not on the projects. He may not be a historian and I'm sure that such a book would not do as well as his project books, but there is a still a community of fans that would read it and a new audience he might be able to tap into. Instead this book does a poor job or seaming the two together. I wish I knew whose fault that was because I could very well see it being a problem on the publishing side of things.

In the end this book is not his best, but it is still good and I still list his books as my favorite project and demo books.

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book Review: Molecules- The Elements and the Architecture of Everything- Theodore Gray

Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of EverythingMolecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything by Theodore Gray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've known about Theodore Gray for a long while. I've been a fan of him, his periodic table, and his webpage since I stumbled across it my first year teaching. I read the entirety of his webpage before he made his now famous poster or acquired the modern incarnation of his webpage based off it. I subscribed to Popular Science magazine solely because he wrote a monthly article for them at the time. I didn't mind cancelling the subscription either after I confirmed that he had stopped writing for them. Ten members of the Class of 2011 purchased the big version of his poster for me when they were freshmen as a Christmas gift. It hangs prominently in my classroom. I have been a fan for a while and so when his The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe book came out I purchased it and read it cover to cover. I've looked at his Mad Science & Mad Science 2 books, but since they were just reprints of his Popular Science articles I decided not to purchase them. I'll admit that I haven't bought a lot of the ancillary merchandise nor did I buy the app , although I did snag it up when it became free.
So I was excited to learn that Theo was doing a sequel to The Elements. Again I have not purchased the app and I waited until I received the book as a Christmas gift to read it. I read it all the way through in about two days. I was not as visually appealing as The Elements, but there was still a lot that I learned from it. Theodore Gray even made fun of the book himself several times as he commented that it was difficult to find ways to make piles of white powder interesting. There were times where I wished the book spent more time on one [pigments] topic or less on others [fibers]. As much as I liked to molecular representation of molecules there were times where the differences only come out in 3-dimensions, and although I appreciate the consistency of format there were other times where it was broken to show complicated molecules and I wish the same had been done on these exceptions.
I was also excited to hear in a talk that he gave at Google that there will be a third in the future that will focus on Reactions. The first was certainly better, but I liked this book a lot and am glad to have it as a reference.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled across xkcd more than once before I became a regular reader of it. The fist time was when looking for the comic on a T-shirt I saw in a SixtySymbols video
which became my computer desktop for almost a year]. My wife when discovered some of his posters and t-shirts and was shopping for me, when she shared it with me. I began to explore the comics they were based upon and then starting reading random comics. I enjoyed it enough that I started following it and then began working my way backwards.
I shared a few of the school appropriate ones with some students and many of them became followers of the comic as well. From there several of them beat me in going through all of the comics, and we ended up putting two on team T-shirts for Science Olympiad (The Difference & Collatz Conjecture). This all started back in the 2009-2010 school year. Since then I have read and enjoyed the comic religiously. In fact, for several years it used to a a regular occurrence for student(s) to pop in at the beginning of the school day to see the comic or to ask me if I had seen today's comic yet.
Two summers ago (2012) I was away for a week on a trip to take a class about AP Chemistry before I started teaching it. One afternoon while relaxing after class in my pool-less hotel I was playing around on the xkcd website and noticed the new "What If" link (probably on Monday, or Wednesday since that's when he updates the weekly comic). He had done three articles at that point and I devoured them, shared them with friends and former students online. Since then I have never missed an article, although his upload schedule became slightly irregular about the time this book came out.
I had no intent to get or read the book because at first I assumed it would be like his comics collection xkcd: volume 0 and not include anything that wasn't online for free already. When I read that 51% of the material in the book was new I was frustrated that I was going to have to pay for it and a little skeptical that this wasn't anything other than a sales ploy or an attempt to get fans to "ride the bandwagon". However, I ended up putting it on my Christmas list and then stumbled across a coy at the Troy Library one night when I had to take my daughter there for basketball practice. I started reading the book in the library during her hour-long practice and checked the book out before leaving. I was done with it about 24 hours after I checked it out. I had a normal night and day of teaching in-between other than I spent more time with a book than I did with a laptop or iPad. I devoured it.
Admittedly, I skipped most of the articles that I had read online before and there were several glaring typos or other errors, and I've read some critics who are even more negative than I was about the book just being a hastily thrown together hardback version of the online thing. I can see that, but I disagree because many editors wouldn't catch technical or scientific mistakes, a few selling errors seems to always happen, and I saw no lack of humor or quality in the book versus online essays (although I did miss the mouse-over text and I missed the reference notes being right there [the footnote text on the other hand was handled quite well]. Ironically, I especially liked the arts that were not essays, but instead was a recurring section in the book "Weird and Worrying Questions from the What If? inbox" and the recurring joke there "I need to know by Friday". In the end I did get the book for Christmas and it will be nice to have copies of the questions he answered there in my classroom and it will be a good book for some students to read. I'm not sure I'd spend my own money on it, but I do like most everything Randall Munroe has done and I'm glad to support him.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review: Ender's Game- Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet, #1)Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ender's Game is another book that goes to show I wish someone had given me better direction in my secondary school years as to what books I should read because I might enjoy them. No one recommended to me specific science fiction to read and so I read pretty much all the Star Wars novels and spin-offs and little else [[author:Crichton|5194] is the only other thing that comes to mind]. However, I really enjoyed this book and it kind of made me feel like a kid again. I don't think the audience for this book is necessarily young adult, but that is roughly the age of the main character, Ender, and so it does lend itself to that audience.
I chose to read the book when I did [a little over a year ago (this is also the last book from back then that I am aware that I did not review)] because there was a movie version coming out. Unlike The Book Thief I did not enjoy the movie adaption of this book, although for both the book is far better.
I always love books that not only draw me in, but surprise me. The ending of Ender's Game caught me off guard. It went a way I did not expect and I was very pleased with it. I had been worried that the end would be abrupt or that the story would continue in a sequel. There certainly are plenty of sequels, but it was not necessary to have the sequel to enjoy this book, it stands very well on its own. I don't know if I will read those sequels because it is hard to find them on audio and I get the strong impression that this is a series that wasn't intended to be a series, but now Orson Scott Card doesn't know how to get out of the world he created. Not to mention the personal problems I have with his philosophy and character. Furthermore, I think of it a lot like the Dune series, it was a good idea, but nothing will top the original and so I'm not sure it is worth pursuing all of the sequels and spin-offs.
My only complaints about the book is that some of the futuristic technology seems outdated now that we live two decades into the real future and that as slow as realistic as space travel is (view spoiler).
PS- The movie wasn't bad, it just moved too fast and glossed over a lot of parts, some of which were important I think. However, I did like that they took time to address in more detail than the book that there is a moral and ethical dilemma with training children to fight wars.</["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]>

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review: Robopocalypse- Daniel Wilson

Robopocalypse (Robopocalypse, #1)Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading a classic, I let myself relax with a sci-fi book. I listened to Wilson's How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion a few years ago and I didn't love it so I was slow to read his longer, fiction book on a similar topic.
However, this book was really good. I was constantly reminded of the premise of the book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which I have not read or seen the movie [ although all accounts say the two don't match] where the story is told post-apocalypse. After the war a historian is recounting the tale of the robot uprising and how the humans came to stop it. It is interesting to me because the whole premise is so believable: from the robot that is sentient and unsuccessfully terminated [unlike so many stories where the robot becomes sentient and runs away or takes over right then and there] and escapes its confines [the inventor was wary of it to begin with], to the way the uprising spreads slowly, to the collapse of civilization, the adaptation humans and robots to the new order, and how humans overcame in the end. Furthermore, the history is gathered by a human after the war from a spotty archive that the master robot kept of human heroes because the robots were always interested in studying humans and nature and not necessarily total annihilation of the humans, certainly not of life.
My complaints about the book are minor. The end was unsurprising because of the premise of the book and was not very action based. After having so much good action in the book the end was kind of abrupt and then diplomatic rather than action packed. Next, there is a lot of terminology that almost checked me out at the beginning because the beginning was the end and all of the slang had been established, but not explained. Also, some of the dialogue, especially that of the children in the book, seemed very unrealistic to everyday life. Lastly, the book was setup for a sequel [[book:Robogenesis|18490786]] that came out this year and I can see it going one of two ways [or possibly both together], but the narrative will almost certainly have to be different because another retrospective history would be an odd fit. I hope it doesn't change the storytelling too much though because it was good.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Book Review: The Divine Comedy- Inferno & Purgatorio- Dante Alighieri

Divine Comedy (Special Illustrated and Annotated Edition): The Vision of Hell, Purgatory, and ParadiseDivine Comedy (Special Illustrated and Annotated Edition): The Vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise by Dante Alighieri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read Inferno and it ignited again in me the desire to read Dante's Divine Comedy all the way through. When I took Western Lit. in the spring of my freshmen or sophomore year at Cedarville the Divine Comedy was one of the few books we covered that I both enjoyed and had not read already in high school AP English or elsewhere. We read selections of the Comedy from a Norton Anthology that was massively thick and printed on onion leaf paper to boot.
During my junior year while I was working for building services I listened to a lot of books on tape while vacuuming and mopping in the ENS building from 5-7 am every weekday. Those 10 hours a week enabled me to listen to many books:

Little did I know that the translator Robert Pinsky and reader George Guidall would make reading that book as enjoyable as it did. I learned this only now in retrospect as I tried to read it again. Being a classic and being too busy to frequent the library right now I decided to try to skip the middle-man and go to LibriVox which is like Project Gutenberg for audiobooks of public domain works. Unfortunately this project was done by multiple readers and while some were good, others were bad. Not to mention widely varying audio quality and different background noises. On top of that they had to pick from a public domain translation and that meant going with the popular Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation.
It took me about a week to make it through Inferno and I did not follow it as well or enjoy it as much as I did in college. This led me to try to find the translation I read back then, but as far as I can tell Robert Pinsky has not translated the full Comedy and if he has it certainly hasn't been recorded on audio. Searching for other audio recordings of different translations didn't bring a lot of luck so I returned to the LibriVox recording to listen to Purgatorio. The beginning went quick I made it through the first 5-10 Cantos [Chapters] at a good pace, but I had trouble following it after that, I went days without listening to much of it because I wasn't enjoying it and was having trouble following along. This time span did afford me the opportunity to joke with a few people that I was stuck in Purgatory. When I finally made it out after about 2.5 weeks, I decided that since I was not following it and it had taken so long that I would wait until I could find a better version to finish it. Plus, why do I need to read Paradiso when I'm already there simply by being done with Inferno and Purgatorio.
As far as the book goes, Inferno is still one of my favorite classics and one that I wish more students were given the opportunity to read, just be sure it is a quality, translation. No offense to Longfellow [especially because I am finding that I really enjoy his own poetry], but there are easier to understand version out there. I have no comment on Purgatorio other than stating that I understand why Inferno is so popular and is sometimes read instead of the whole Comedy. Either way, let me encourage everyone who reads this to expand their horizons and read the classics because there are many good ones out there and they are often more enjoyable when you assign them to yourself rather than being given them by a teacher or professor.

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