Category Archives: Books

Field Guide To The Carnivores Of The World: Review

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Carnivores of the World: Second Edition (Princeton Field Guides) by Luke Hunter and lavishly and beautifully illustrated by Priscilla Barrett is in its second edition. I reviewed the first edition here, where I discussed the idea of having a Order-wide “field guide.” To summarize, you don’t really carry a field guide to all the members of a world wide class around in your pocket in case, for instance, you run into a South American Coati or a Sulawesi Palm Civet on your walk back from your favorite bird blind in northern Minnesota. You have a book like this because you are a student of nature, and you find yourself needing to know about on or another carnivore at one time or another. Or, just because, as a student of nature, you might enjoy sitting in a comfortable chair and studying up on all the carnivores (aside from the carnivorous sea dwellers, which are not covered in this book).

Continue reading Field Guide To The Carnivores Of The World: Review
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Violence in the United States Congress

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There is probably a rule, in the chambers of the United States Congress, that you can’t punch a guy. Living rules are clues to the past. Where I live now, there is probably one Middle or High School age kid across 130 homes, but we have a rule: You can’t leave your hockey goals or giant plastic basketball nets out overnight. So all the old people who live on my street have to drag those things into the garage at the end of every day, after their long sessions of pickup ball. Or, more likely, years ago, there were kids everywhere and the “Get off my lawn” contingent took over the local board and made all these rules. So, today, in Congress, you can’t hit a guy.

But in the old days, that wasn’t so uncommon. You have heard about the caning of Charles Sumner. Southern slavery supporter Preston Brooks beat the piss out of Senator Charles Sumner, an anti-slave guy from Massachusetts. They weren’t even in the same chamber. Brooks was in the House, Sumner was in the Senate. Sumner almost didn’t survive the ruthless and violent beating, which came after a long period of bullying and ridicule by a bunch of southern bullies. Witnesses describe a scene in which Brooks was clearly trying to murder Sumner, and seems to have failed only because the cane he was using broke into too many pieces, depriving the assailant of the necessary leverage. Parts of that cane, by the way, were used to make pendants worn by Brook’s allies to celebrate this attempted murder of a Yankee anti-slavery member of Congress.

Here’s the thing. You’ve probably heard that story, or some version of it, because it was a major example of violence in the US Congress. But in truth, there were many other acts of verbal and physical violence carried out among our elected representatives, often in the chambers, during the decades leading up to the civil war. Even a cursory examination of this series of events reveals how fisticuffs, sometimes quite serious, can be a prelude to a bloody fight in which perhaps as many as a million people all told were killed. Indeed, the number of violent events, almost always southerner against northerner, may have been large enough to never allow the two sides, conservative, southern, right wing on one hand vs. progressive, liberal not as southern, on the other, to equalize in their total level of violence against each other. Perhaps there are good people on both sides, but the preponderance of thugs reside on one side only.

Which brings us to this. You hears of the caning of Sumner, but you probably have not read The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman.

Professor Freeman is one of the hosts of a podcast I consider to be in my top free favorite, Backstory, produced by Virginia Humanities. Joanne is one of the “American History Guys,” along with Ed Ayers (19th century), Brian Balogh (20th Century), Nathan Connolly (Immigration history, Urban history) and emeritus host Peter Onuf (18th century). Freeman writes in her newest book of the first half of the 19th century, but her primary area of interest heretofore is the 18th century, and her prior works have focused, among other things, on Alexander Hamilton: Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic about the nastiness among the founding fathers, and two major collections focused on A.H., The Essential Hamilton: Letters & Other Writings: A Library of America Special Publication and Alexander Hamilton: Writings .

I strongly urge you to have a look at Freeman’s book, in which she brings to light a vast amount of information about utter asshatitude among our elected representatives, based on previously unexplored documents. I also strongly urge you to listen to the podcast. The most recent edition as of this writing is on video games and American History. The previous issue is covers the hosts’ book picks for the year.


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We Don’t Need No Stinking Astronauts: The History of Unmanned Space Exploration

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Not that astronauts necessarily stink. Well, actually, they probably do after a while, but I suppose one gets used to it.

Anyway, we are all faced, or at least those of us who live in countries that have rocket ships all face, the question of personed vs. un-personed space flight as a way of doing science abroad and related quests. I’m not sure myself what I think about it, but considering the huge cost and difficulty, and the physical limitations, of using humans to run instruments on other planets or in space, and the sheer impossibility of human space missions really far away, the best approach is probably to use a lot of robots. Continue reading We Don’t Need No Stinking Astronauts: The History of Unmanned Space Exploration


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One Iguana Two Iguanas: Children’s evolutionary biology book, with lizards!

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The land and marine iguanas of the Galapagos Islands are famous. Well, the marine iguanas are famous, and the land iguanas, representing the ancestral state for that clade of two species, deserve a lot of credit as well. The story of these iguanas is integral with, and parallel to, the story of the Galapagos Islands, and of course, that story is key in our understanding of and pedagogy of evolutionary biology, and Darwin’s history. Continue reading One Iguana Two Iguanas: Children’s evolutionary biology book, with lizards!


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Gift Guide: Science and technology books for adults and kids

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This is a short list of science books that came out over the last year that I’ve reviewed, and thought you might do well to be reminded of. Since your holiday shopping list surely includes targets with a range of demographics interests, I made this a diverse list. Continue reading Gift Guide: Science and technology books for adults and kids


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Gift Guide: Books About Trump And The Fall of America

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Might as well admit it. America has been ruined. Oh, it is fixable, not “totaled” like your car after you roll it down a hill during an ice storm. More like you failed to set the parking break and it got loose and crashed into a brick wall, then some hoodlum broke through the window and ripped out your radio, then there was a hail storm…

Anyway, here is a carefully selected list of books related to Trump and the Trump fake Presidency, integrated with a list of books that are NOT about that, but rather, leadership in history. The former are to get you steamed up, the latter, they are the control rods. A few are just about attacks on democracy from the elite and powerful.

I thought it would be fun if everybody gave at least one of these books to somebody as a holiday gift this year. I’ll be giving a few. Continue reading Gift Guide: Books About Trump And The Fall of America


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Millipedes as long as a car, scorpions as big as a dog. A large dog.

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There are connections between the Carboniferous and our modern problem with Carbon. Some of the connections are conceptual, or object lessons, about the drastic nature of large scale climate change. Some are lessons about the carbon cycle at the largest possible scale — first you turn a double digit percentage of all life related matter into coal, then you wait a few hundred million years, then you burn all the coal and see what happens! There are also great mysteries that you all know about because every Western person and a lot of non Western people have, at one time or another, stood in front of a museum exhibit declaring, “The very spot you stand was the site of an ancient sea bla bla bla” and somewhere that exhibit, or near it, is a life size diorama with scorpions and millipedes the size of a dog. Continue reading Millipedes as long as a car, scorpions as big as a dog. A large dog.


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Deck the halls with boughs of LEGOs!

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You may have heard of the famous The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book: 15 Designs to Spread Holiday Cheer. Now, there is a new edition out with all new ideas: The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book, Volume 2: 16 Designs to Spread Holiday Cheer!!!!

The book does not come with LEGO bricks, so you’ll have to use your own, or order them. But the idea of a book like this is not to give precise instructions of what to do, but rather, theory, ideas, methods, to create your own. Continue reading Deck the halls with boughs of LEGOs!


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Build Miniature Cities with LEGO

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LEGO Micro Cities: Build Your Own Mini Metropolis! is a LEGO building idea book that provides a macro number of examples of building buildings, or other structures using a very small number of bricks. It is like the N-guage of LEGO. This is sort of the opposite of the LEGO idea book I recently reviewed, The LEGO Architecture Idea Book, because the latter is for large scale, and the former for very tiny scale.

Author Jeff Friesen is a famous LEGO builder, and a photographer, who tweets at @jeff_works.

You get an idea of how to build skyscraper, bridges, public transit elements, and tightly packed downtown zones. There are suggestions for how to build the geology that underlies the buildings and other infrastructure. And the subways. Continue reading Build Miniature Cities with LEGO


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Difference and Disease: Excellent new book on medicine and race in the 18th century British empire

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Suman Seth is associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, at Cornell. He is an historian of science, and studies medicine, race, and colonialism (and dabbles as well in quantum theory). In his new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, Seth takes on a fascinating subject that all of us who have worked in tropical regions but with a western (or northern) perspective have thought about, one way or another.

As Europeans, and Seth is concerned mainly with the British, explored and conquered, colonizing and creating the empire on which the sun could never set no matter how hard it tried, they got sick. They also observed other people getting sick. And, they encountered a wide range of physiological or biosocial phenomena that were unfamiliar and often linked (in real or in the head) to disease. A key cultural imperative of British Colonials as to racialize their explanations for things, including disease. The science available through the 18th and 19th century was inadequate to address questions that kept rising. Like, why did a Brit get sick on his first visit to a plantation in Jamaica, but on return a few years later, did not get as sick? If you have a model where people of different races have specific diseases and immunities in their very nature, how do you explain that sort of phenomenon? How might the widely held, or at least somewhat widely held, concept of polygenism, have explained things? This is an early version of the multi-regional hypothesis, but more extreme, in which god created each type of human independently where we find them, and we are all different species. (Agassiz, with his advanced but highly imperfect geological understanding, thought the earth was totally frozen over with each ice age, and repopulated with these polygenetic populations of not just humans, but all the organisms, after each thaw).

Seth weaves together considerations of slavery and abolition, colonialism, race, geography, gender, and illness. This is an academic book, but at the same time, something of a page turner. Anyone interested in disease, colonial history, and race, will want to re-excavate the British colonial world, looking at disease, illness, and racial thinking, with Suman Seth as your guide. I highly recommend this book.


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The Fourth Impeachment

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Andrew Johnson was impeached for matters related to what to do with the South after they were defeated in the American Civil War. I would like to know more about that. What I understand of it now is that it may have been a great Irony, in the sense that Johnson was a Democrat, appointed as a Republican’s VP, who had the intention of implementing that president’s policies after his assassination by a pro-Slavery assassin, but those policies went easier on the South because that is how Lincoln wanted to approach reconstruction, and the Republicans in Congress wanted to crush the South. But I’m sure I’m leaving out important details. Anyway, Andrew Johnson was impeached and nearly thrown out of office.

Later on, Richard Nixon was impeached because he and his minions carried out crimes that were kinda bad and then tried to cover them up, which led to the absurd modern day aphorism that “it’s not the crime, its the cover up,” implying that no matter how bad the crime is, the cover up is worse (wrong). Nixon was not thrown out of office, but rather, he left on his own.

Later on, Bill Clinton was impeached for his affair with a White House Aide. But other than anti-Clinton Republicans, most people, while not liking the affair thing, did not see this as worthy of impeachment, and recognized the Republican effort to impeach Clinton as a bald faced political move.

Now, we are faced with Trump. We don’t know where impeachment will go. It may be impossible until there is a Senate super majority, and that may not happen any time soon. Trump will have to be caught talking on the phone to Vladimir Putin, discussing their recent successful assassination of Bambi. But likely, that won’t do it either. Republicans put party over country every time. The only way Trump is going to leave office is feet first in the case he croaks on his own, or by being voted out of office, and the latter is not likely to happen because, face it, Trump represents American values in he (slim) minority, but that minority rules due to voter suppression and Russian-powered ignorance.

Whatever. The point is, impeachment is on the table, and there is a new book out that helps us understand the earlier impeachments, and I recommend it. Impeachment: An American History by Jon Meacham, Peter Baker, Tim Naftali, and Jefrey Engel.

Four experts on the American presidency examine the three times impeachment has been invoked—against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton—and explain what it means today.

Impeachment is a double-edged sword. Though it was designed to check tyrants, Thomas Jefferson also called impeachment “the most formidable weapon for the purpose of a dominant faction that was ever contrived.” On the one hand, it nullifies the will of voters, the basic foundation of all representative democracies. On the other, its absence from the Constitution would leave the country vulnerable to despotic leadership. It is rarely used, and with good reason.

Only three times has a president’s conduct led to such political disarray as to warrant his potential removal from office, transforming a political crisis into a constitutional one. None has yet succeeded. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 for failing to kowtow to congressional leaders—and, in a large sense, for failing to be Abraham Lincoln—yet survived his Senate trial. Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against him for lying, obstructing justice, and employing his executive power for personal and political gain. Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern, but in 1999 he faced trial in the Senate less for that prurient act than for lying under oath about it.

In the first book to consider these three presidents alone—and the one thing they have in common—Jeffrey A. Engel, Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker explain that the basis and process of impeachment is more political than legal. The Constitution states that the president “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” leaving room for historical precedent and the temperament of the time to weigh heavily on each case. This book reveals the complicated motives behind each impeachment—never entirely limited to the question of a president’s guilt—and the risks to all sides. Each case depended on factors beyond the president’s behavior: his relationship with Congress, the polarization of the moment, and the power and resilience of the office itself. This is a realist view of impeachment that looks to history for clues about its potential use in the future.

Read this book as a distraction from the current intense and rather explosive (nearly explosive?) political climate. A little history to distrat you from the future…


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The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

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I’m about to trash skepticism (as a cult) but before I do, I want to recommend that you get Steve Novella’s excellent new edition of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

I no longer call myself a skeptic. Well, actually, I probably never really did, but now I’m more explicit about that. Why? Two reasons. 1) Global warming and other science deniers call themselves skeptics, and I don’t want any confusion. 2) The actual “skeptics movement” is described as…

…a modern social movement based on the idea of scientific skepticism (also called rational skepticism). Scientific skepticism involves the application of skeptical philosophy, critical-thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).[1] The movement has the goal of investigating claims made on fringe topics and determining whether they are supported by empirical research and are reproducible, as part of a methodological norm pursuing “the extension of certified knowledge”.[2] The process followed is sometimes referred to[by whom?] as skeptical inquiry.

[source]

That’s all nice and all, but I discovered that the actual skeptics movement is made out of people not quite so cleanly guided by a philosophy, roughly one third of whom are not really skeptics (such as Penn Jilette and James Randi, who allowed their libertarian philosophy to drive “skepticism” of anthropocentric global warming long after the scientific consensus was established), “mens rights activists” (MRAs) who vigorously attacked anyone speaking out in favor of women’s rights, against rape, etc., and #MeToo movement poster boys, who have for years used skeptical conferences as their own private meat markets.

Besides, I’m an actual scientist, so I can be a fan of science without having to be a fanboy, which makes it easier for me.

I started writing publicly, blogging, partly to be an on-line skeptic, to take on politically charged topics, especially as related to evolutionary biology, but other areas of science as well (and more recently, climate change), addressing falsehoods and misconceptions. But I very quickly discovered that there multiple and distinct kinds of “skepticism” make up the larger conversation.

There is a lot of very low level, knee jerk skepticism that is little more than uninformed reactionism, based on, at best, received knowledge. That is about as unskeptical as it gets. The Amazing Randy says Global Warming is nothing other than natural variation. Therefore, I will believe that. Uncritically. Some of this is what I long ago labeled as “hyperskepticism.” This is where potentially valid skepticism about a claim is melded with hyperbole. “There is not a single peer reviewed study that shows the bla bla bla bladiby bla” coming from the mouth of a person who has never once even looked for a peer reviewed study about any thing. They hyperskeptic may create entire categories of things that include claims worthy of debunking, and put all of the thing into the debunked category even if they are not.

A fairly benign example of this relates to CAM medicine. “CAM” refers to “complementary and alternative medicine” like acupuncture, rolfing, and the like. These are mostly forms of treatment that have no basis in science, and probably don’t do anything useful even if they sometimes cost real money. Hypersketpics put all CAM into the same category and light a match to it. But, there is a subset of CAM that is legit … the very fact that I wrote that sentence just there will disqualify me, and my entire post, and everything I ever say — there will be comments below that say “I stopped reading when you said “there is a subset of CAM that is legit”. OK, hold on a second, count to four. One two thee four. Now that all the hyperskeptics have gone off in a huff I can continue … and I can give you an example. There are people who undergo regular, uncomfortable, sometimes painful or sick-making treatments as part of their normal medical routine. Chemotherapy, dialysis, that sort of thing. We know that the quality of an individual’s life can be improved, their stress levels, reduced, and thus, probably, the outcome of their treatments improved or made less complicated, if the environment in which they get the treatments are more comfortable. This is why dentists put ferns and pictures of the ocean in their waiting rooms. There is evidence to suggest that surroundings should be considered in design of treatment rooms, waiting room, etc. (See for example, Brown and Gallant, 2006, “Impating Patient Outcomes Through Design: Acuity Adaptable Care/Universal Rom Design. “Critical Care Nursing Quarterly. 29:4(326-341) and Ulrich, Zimring, and Zhu, 2008, “A Review of the Research Literature on Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. HERD 1(3). They hyperskeptic wants divide the world into evidence based double blind study proven and everything else, with everything else being always wrong in all ways. (Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but only for the irony.) This concept, of considering room and environmental design, now standard, did exist before CAM (those dentists and their ferns) but the study an implementation of stress reducing design as we now know of it comes from the CAM movement. What is needed is not closing down CAM, but making it accountable. It would probably get much smaller if that happened, but what is left of it would be useful.

Having said all that, the skeptical world includes a number of excellent and widely respected actual self-identified skeptics who have science or medical backgrounds, and who occasionally write books that everyone should read. One such individual is Steven Novella, who wrote some time ago a skeptics guide to the universe. Well, that book is out of date (universes evolve) and there is now anew edition: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

Four others contributed to this volume, Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein.

I do not agree with everything in this book. For example, although the discussion of placebo effect is excellent, I have a different take on it. I like to divide the effect up into different categories than I do, and I want to make a more explicit connection between the phenomenon called placebo effect and the role and meaning of a control. But for the most part, every single one of the more than 50 topics covered in this book is well treated, informative, and enjoyable to read. (See what I did there? I was a little skeptical of the book, so now, you know it must be good!)

Do get and read this book, get one for a friend for a holiday gift, and enjoy. But right now, before you even do that, to tho the Amazon page and find the negative reviews. There are only two now (the book just came out) but they are a hoot.


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Birds of Central America: Review

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Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama make up Central America. Notice that had I not used the Oxford Comma there, you’d be thinking “Costa Rica and Panama” was a country like Trinidad and Tobago. Or Antigua and Barbuda. Or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Anyway, those countries have about 1261 species of birds, and the newly minted Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Princeton Field Guides) by Andrew Vallely and Dale Dyer covers 1,194 of them (plus 67 probably accidentals). Obviously, many (nearly all) of those birds exist outside that relatively small geographic area, up in to North America and down into South America. But I’ll remind you that there are some 10,000 bird species, so this region has a bird list that represents 10% of that diversity. Nothing to shake a beak at.

This is a classic Peterson/Petrides style guide, with the usual front matter about bird id, geography, habitats, etc. Species draswings are on the left leaf while descriptions and range maps on the left. The drawings do not have Peterson Pointer lines, but there are a lot of drawings to clarify regional versions and life history stages. In fact, the attention to regional variation is a notable and outstanding feature of this file guide.

There is also an extensive bibliography with over 600 references. The book is medium format, not pocket but not huge, and just shy of 600 pages long. Also, last time I clicked through it was on sale. Know somebody going to Central America over winter break? Get this for them as their holiday gift!

Like the Princeton guides tend to be, this is a very nice book, well written, well constructed, and likely to become the standard for that region for the foreseeable future.


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Happy Anniversary Frank!

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It was a dark and stormy century. Ghosts and goblins and spirits and ghouls were everywhere. Technology was taking on a life of it’s own. (“Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”) Novels were written. Dark novels. Gothic novels. The dead cam back to life.

On this day 200 years ago a scientist willing to play god ordered his assistant, Igor, to throw the switch, and the energy of a thousand lightning storms coursed through the sluggish veins of an assembly of a dozen parts, taken from the ground. The man, nay, monster, awoke and began an unbelievable journey. He, or rather, it, would terrorize the townspeople, battle with Dracula and the Wolfman, get together with Abbot and Costello, and enchant a dozen dozen generations of Halloween revelers. Even Mel Brooks would get a cut!

Bwahahaha! It’s alliiiiive!

Happy Anniversary to the Publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


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