Archive for the 'Book review' category

A hilarious book to get you through grading season: Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir).

Apr 18 2012 Published by under Academia, Book review

Yesterday, the Cave of Grading got something even better than hot-and-cold running margaritas. (OK, I recognize that hot running margaritas would be gross. Maybe hot running Irish coffee?) It got this:

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson (New York: Amy Einhorn Books, 2012)

I know what you're thinking: How is a hilarious memoir about life in Texas (and on the internet) at all helpful in the project of catching up on a catastrophic grading backlog?

And it's true, the book itself has not picked up a grading pen to help me get the job done. However, each of the conveniently-sized chapters in the book feels like a well-deserved reward after plowing through another 10 or 15 papers on the stack. Also, the guffaws Lawson's writing provokes seem to restore some of the life-force depleted by grading. I haven't subjected it to proper empirical investigation, but I hypothesize that these same guffaws result in better oxygenation of the blood, glossier hair, and a clearer complexion. Or at least they help me maintain enthusiasm for getting the job done, and restore me to a relatively cheerful baseline mood from which to evaluate student work with some modicum of compassion.

If you think your childhood was strange, or that you argue about weird stuff with your partner, or that the creatures in your yard or your house or your walls might be dangerous and/or haunted, Jenny Lawson pretty much has you beat, but you will still feel the comfort of recognition. You might also be moved to check to see when your last tetanus shot was.

Important stuff in this book:

  1. The observation that it may be harder to properly identify the type of bird in front of you than who that bird belongs to, and that this may have significant social consequences.
  2. Some liquids that have detectable odors and some that do not. Also, some liquids that are collectable, apparently, if that's how your father rolls.
  3. Maybe the worst-ever attempt to "just fit in" with the other kids in high school, especially as it results in kind of getting stuck.
  4. A tremendously awesome discount outlet purchase that is not towels, but that someone maybe wishes had been after all.
  5. A frank discussion of what it can be like to live with an anxiety disorder, and how it's much less hilarious to be living than its description might make it seem.
  6. Descriptions of parenting and grandparenting strategies favored by the author's forebears, some of which involve sacks of animals of varying degrees of animation, some of which involve unconventional use of sugar cubes.
  7. Sufficient data for me to cross a job in HR off my list of potential careers if the academia thing doesn't work out.
  8. Ample documentation of perfectly good words that spellcheck apparently did not want the author to use in writing her memoir, because spellcheck is kind of a jerk.
  9. Word problems. This book will exercise your brain! Not to mention guidance on the appropriate kickback for your English teacher (which, in my professional opinion, would also be appropriate for a philosophy professor).
  10. Flint-napping.

If it's been too long since you've read a book that causes you to emit involuntary sounds of hilarity around others, you owe it to yourself to read Let's Pretend This Never Happened.

(There's also an audiobook version, but based on my experience of reading the book-book version, I would strongly advise against listening to it while driving on account of the uproariousness might cause you to lose control of the vehicle, hurting others and yourself. If you must, please save it for stop-and-go traffic.)

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Friday Sprog Blogging: Dinosaurs Life Size.

Nov 05 2010 Published by under Book review, Critters, Kids and science

Dinosaurs Life Size

This week, the sprogs had a look at Dinosaurs Life Size by Darren Naish.

The Free-Ride offspring are, at eleven and nine, some years past maximum dinosaur enthusiasm.

Still, they have an appreciation for arresting pictures, interesting facts, and the scientific detective work that goes into reconstructing the details of dinosaurs' anatomies and ways of life from the clues lurking in fossil remains.

The younger Free-Ride offspring says:

There are a lot of fossils in this book. How do you get those life size photos of dinosaurs?

I think it's really cool how Liopleurodons left bite marks in fossils.

Dino Eye

Sauroposeidon has huge eyes because of a huge face. And its name means "earthquake god lizard."

My four-year-old cousin would enjoy a lot of these dinosaurs. He'd like how huge they are. And, he'd learn lots of facts about them. He'd learn where they were found in the world and how big they were.

The elder Free-Ride offspring says:

I found this book a bit monotonous and repetitive, mostly because I think it was written for a much younger audience. I think a 6-year-old or 7-year-old would really enjoy this book.

Dino Fold Out Flap

They would like the fold out flaps.

The book doesn't really show skeletons, maybe because little kids would find them "scary".

Dino with Kid for Scale

The book has nice computer generated pictures of dinosaurs. There are also photos of little kids making faces placed with the dinosaur pictures, creating the illusion of dinosaurs still being alive today.

The book has an interesting way of demonstrating the size of the dinosaurs, picking a body part to show "life size".

There are lots of cool facts (like the fact that Iguanodon's thumb was a remarkable weapon).

There's also a dinosaur quiz in the back of the book (but it's WAY to easy for a sixth grader).

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Friday Sprog Blogging scary repost: bloody minded.

Oct 29 2010 Published by under Biology, Book review, Kids and science

There are plenty of thrills and chills around Casa Free-Ride these days. Sadly, most of them involve stacks of exams and the horrifying spectacle of a wordy nine-year-old trying to write a concise summary of a 28 chapter book. While we get our diabolical workloads under control, here's a post from the archives appropriate to the spooky season:

Elder offspring: Blood is cool.

Younger offspring: (Covering head with blanket) I hate blood, because I hate owies!

Dr. Free-Ride: But your blood does all sorts of good things for your body. You know that you're filled with blood, right?

Elder offspring: Actually, your body is two-thirds water.

Dr. Free-Ride: And what do you think there's lots of in blood?

Elder offspring: Oh yeah, water.

Younger offspring: I hate blood. I wish I didn't have any.

Dr. Free-Ride: You need it to get oxygen to all the parts of the body.

Younger offspring: No I don't, I'll just breathe harder.

* * * * *
The sprogs recommend:

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National Chemistry Week repost: Elements with Style.

Oct 22 2010 Published by under Book review, Chemistry, Kids and science

To continue our celebration of National Chemistry Week, and our traditional Friday sprog-centric focus, we dip into the archives for a review of a cool children's book introducing the chemical elements:

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The book: The Periodic Table: Elements with Style, written by Adrian Dingle, illustrated by Simon Basher. (Boston: Kingfisher, 2007)

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Book review: The Evolution of Everything.

In The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature, Mark Sumner prefaces his exploration of Darwin’s theory of evolution – and of the power of selection to explain phenomena as diverse as the economic downturn, the “success” of patent medicines that don’t do much to cure what ails you, and the shape of the new TV season – with the reminder that what you think you know could well be wrong. Sumner argues that the set of erroneous beliefs to which most of us cling includes our sense of what Darwin’s own Darwinism actually asserts.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: Antarctica: Land of Endless Water.

Last week, I noted that the Free-Ride offspring are off kicking it with The Grandparents Who Lurk But Seldom Comment, and that, to ensure that you would not have to endure a Friday without a Sprog Blog, I gave each of the sprogs a book to read during their visit with their grandparents and asked them to report back on their books via email. At the conclusion of the elder Free-Ride offspring's book report, emailed to me last Thursday night, I wrote:

Major props to the elder offspring for doing blog-homework without any prodding. This sets the bar pretty high for the younger offspring next week.

Want to guess how the sibling rivalry played out here?
With no prodding whatsoever, I received an email report from the younger Free-Ride offspring this past Sunday night on this book:

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Friday Sprog Blogging: Mummies, Bones, and Body Parts.

Jun 25 2010 Published by under Book review, Kids and science

The Free-Ride offspring are currently summering (for a couple weeks, anyway) with The Grandparents Who Lurk But Seldom Comment. Practically, this means the conversations between Free-Ride offspring and parents over the past week have been brief and focused on how awesome day camp is.
I have, however, taken steps to ensure that while I am deprived of the physical presence of my offspring, you will not be deprived of the weekly installment of sprog blogging. To this end, I gave each of the sprogs a book to read during their visit with their grandparents and asked them to report back on their books via email.
Of course, I forgot to issue a mid-week reminder.
Nonetheless, the elder Free-Ride offspring was prepared to deliver a report on this book:

Mummies.jpg

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Anatomy of a scientific fraud: an interview with Eugenie Samuel Reich.

Eugenie Samuel Reich is a reporter whose work in the Boston Globe, Nature, and New Scientist will be well-known to those with an interest in scientific conduct (and misconduct). In Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, she turns her skills as an investigative reporter to writing a book-length exploration of Jan Hendrik Schön's frauds at Bell Labs, providing a detailed picture of the conditions that made it possible for him to get away with his fraud as long as he did.
Eugenie Samuel Reich agreed to answer some questions about Plastic Fantastic and the Schön case. My questions, and her answers, after the jump.

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Book review: Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World.

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Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
by Eugenie Samuel Reich
New York: Palgrave Macmillan
2009

The scientific enterprise is built on trust and accountability. Scientists are accountable both to the world they are trying to describe and to their fellow scientists, with whom they are working to build a reliable body of knowledge. And, given the magnitude of the task, they must be able to trust the other scientists engaged in this knowledge-building activity.
When scientists commit fraud, they are breaking trust with their fellow scientists and failing to be accountable to their phenomena or their scientific community. Once a fraud has been revealed, it is easy enough to flag it as pathological science and its perpetrator as a pathological scientist. The larger question, though, is how fraud is detected by the scientific community -- and what conditions allow fraud to go unnoticed.
In Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, Eugenie Samuel Reich explores the scientific career of fraudster Jan Hendrik Schön, piecing together the mechanics of how he fooled the scientific community and considering the motivations that may have driven him. Beyond this portrait of a single pathological scientist, though, the book considers the responses of Schön's mentors, colleagues, and supervisors, of journal editors and referees, of the communities of physicists and engineers. What emerges is a picture that challenges the widely held idea that science can be counted on to be self-correcting.

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Unscientific America: Are scientists all on the same team?

As promised, in this post I consider the treatment of the science-religion culture wars in Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. If you're just tuning in, you may want to pause to read my review of the book, or to peruse my thoughts on issues the book raised about what the American public wants and about whether old or new media give the American public what it needs.

In the interests of truth in advertising, let me state at the outset that this post will not involve anything like a detailed rehash of "Crackergate", nor a line-by-line reading of the contentious Chapter 8 of the book. You can find that kind of thing around the blogosphere without looking too hard. Rather, I want to deal with the more substantial question raised by this chapter: Are scientists all on the same team?

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