Category Archives: Books

Birds of Australia: New Book

There are close to just under 900 species of bird in Australia, and The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin covers just over 900 of them. Where do the extras come from? Sea birds in the nearby oceans, I think.

This is an excellent bird book that all Australian birders simply need to have. Holiday season is just around the corner. Get one of these for your favoriate Australian!

This is not exactly a pocket guide. It is more of a car guide, and you better have a big glove box. The 6.8 x 9.7 inch format is hefty, and there are over 550 pages of high quality thickish paper.

There are some 30 pages of excellent front matter giving all the usual contextual information any bird guide gives. Then, the species are laid out taxonomically with color coded bleeds grouping major taxa. Each spread of pages has information on the left and pictures, which are excellent Peterson style drawings, on the right.

The typical spread has four species, but many have three. A species will be represented by several drawings showing the different morphs (by age status and sex, typically) as well as other features, such as what a wing looks like in flight, or a close up of a tail’s markings, etc. The authors were very thoughtful in this aspect of the layout. The book is designed to help you identify the bird. Information needed to address subspecies or hybrids, etc. is provided. There are range maps for everything on the same page layout.

There is a checklist, glossary, and index.

The Australian Bird Guide has spread the 900 birds across 4,000 images divied up on 249 plates (with, as mentioned, three or four bird species per plate).

A very notable feature of The Australian Bird Guide is what appears to be a very extensive coverage of the elusive sea birds in the region. Distribution and status of the bird species is very up to date as well.

About the authors:

Peter Menkhorst is a principal scientist with the Victorian government and has forty years’ experience in ecological research and the survey and management of Australian mammals and birds. He is the author of A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. Danny Rogers is an ornithologist specializing in shorebird ecology and patterns of feather molt in birds, and works for the Victorian government environment department. Rohan Clarke is a lecturer in vertebrate ecology at the School of Biological Sciences, Monash University. Jeff Davies is a Melbourne-based artist who specializes in portraits of Australian birds and their environments. Peter Marsack is an award-winning wildlife artist based in Canberra. Kim Franklin is a freelance artist and illustrator who has exhibited worldwide and is based in Adelaide.

Discovering The Mammoth: The Evolution Of Modern Scientific Thinking

It wasn’t a mammoth, it was a mastodon. But it was still a big hairy elephant featured at the climax-end of the main exhibit hall in the New York State museum. And it was an exhibit to end all exhibits. The New York State Museum, during its heyday, was world class, and the hall of evolution, which seemed old enough to have involved Darwin himself as a consultant, featured the reconstructed skeleton as well as a fur-covered version, of the creature discovered in a kettle only a few miles away. That exhibit, along with a dozen other spectacular exhibits that to my knowledge have not been equaled elsewhere or since, are the reason I became a scientist, and probably helped direct me towards the study of prehistory and archaeology.

It is because of that background to my own thinking that I paid a lot of attention over the years to elephants and elephant evolution. I got to help excavate an African four-tusker one year even though I had to push off my other responsibilities to do so. I’ve studied the pseudo archaeological traces left behind by wild forest elephants in the Congo, and now and then, ate one, which may seem strange but I was living among the Pygmy elephant hunters at the time so it seemed like the thing to do.

Several years ago, I came across John McKay. First, his blog, then I met him in person. He had been writing about Pleistocene megafauna but focusing on mammoths. Over our many years of friendship, I watched as he steadily worked on a book putting together his findings, and finally, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science has been completed and is out and in print now!

I liken the discovery of the Mammoth by western science to the mostly lost to history but critical coral reef debate involving Darwin. Both events shaped how we do science today and at the same time revealed mind-changing features of the natural world. I didn’t know until interviewing John on Ikonokast (check out the podcast!) that he had originally become interested in Mammoth by a somewhat indirect route because of the extinct animal’s role in, let us say, alt-theories about the Earth and its history. But regardless of how John became interested, he discovered a complex and almost inexplicable relationship between what people were thinking, the way they arrived at those thoughts, and reality which led to a centuries-long struggle to understand something that to us, today, is fairly simple but to 19th century scholars was outrageous.

Religion and cultural belief prohibited thinking about extinctions or the evolution of one species into another, while at the same time, these bodies of thought and knowledge provided explanations for ancient mammal remains that were, to our minds today, seemingly unbelievable. It was the process of going from being totally wrong and basing conclusions on a combination of bad information and unsupportable logic, to the state of understanding that mammoths are a different species of elephant that once existed where we find their remains, but that went extinct because of major changes in their habitats and possibly other causes.

And that is only part of the central story John brings to the reader in the engagingly written and carefully researched Discovering the Mammoth.

I tend to divide science books into two categories: those written by writers about science, and those written by scientists. Both categories have their duds and their great books, though the former category almost always lacks a certain depth and breath but often in a way the typical interested reader can’t see. Meanwhile, books in the latter category can easily go off the rails or assume too much, and be a burden to read. John McKay’s book is written by an expert on the field (this book is in lieu of his PhD thesis) who had previously spent years developing his craft of explaining scientific things, so it is well done in that regard. But there is another reason the typical reader of this blog will grok McKay’s Mammoths. John’s passion other than dead woolly elephants is falsehoods. This is an interest we share. John McKay is a Snope of science, especially in certain areas, but better. Unlike Snopes, which is content to find enough chinks in the armor of some myth or another to snarkily discard it, McKay often recognizes the ways in which a falsehood informs, and contains non-trivial truth, while various truths can misinform while at the same time containing insidious or at least interesting falsehoods. It is his thinking about the way people get things wrong, combined with scholarly training in various areas of literature and history, that uniquely allow him to tell this particular important story about the the evolution of modern scientific thought.

I highly recommend Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. Also, consider it as a holiday gift for your favorite smart person, so they can get even smarter.

Shooting At The Queen, Torchwood, AI: Cheap Books

In Tooth and Claw, Season 2 Episode 2 of Doctor Who 2.0, we see the formation of The Torchwood Institute and the banishing of The Doctor (and Rose) from the United Kingdom. Fat lot that does. Anyway, we also see Queen Victoria make mention of the multiple attempts at her assassination. I suppose it is understandable that some eight or nine (nine if you count the werewolf) attempts were made on her life. She was a women in charge of men in the most patriarchal culture ever (the White West generally, not just UK). They also said “Lock her up!” All the time, and there was a never ending investigation of her use of postage stamps, which by the way she freakin’ invented.

Anyway, I’ve been rewatching the new series, and saw that episode just today. I did not know about all those attempts on Her Majesty’s person, but by the way the fact was written into the script in DWS2E2, I suspected it was for real. So I looked it up. And, I cam across a book on it that was marked down to two bucks in Kindle form!

Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy

During Queen Victoria’s sixty-four years on the British throne, no fewer than eight attempts were made on her life. Seven teenage boys and one man attempted to kill her. Far from letting it inhibit her reign over the empire, Victoria used the notoriety of the attacks to her advantage. Regardless of the traitorous motives—delusions of grandeur, revenge, paranoia, petty grievances, or a preference of prison to the streets—they were a golden opportunity for the queen to revitalize the British crown, strengthen the monarchy, push through favored acts of legislation, and prove her pluck in the face of newfound public support. “It is worth being shot at,” she said, “to see how much one is loved.”

Recounting what Elizabeth Barrett marveled at as “this strange mania of queen-shooting,” and the punishments, unprecedented trials, and fate of these malcontents who were more pitiable than dangerous, Paul Thomas Murphy explores the realities of life in nineteenth-century England—for both the privileged and the impoverished. From these cloak-and-dagger plots of “regicide” to Victoria’s steadfast courage, Shooting Victoria is thrilling, insightful, and, at times, completely mad historical narrative.

For two bucks, we also have Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence–and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl.

When most of us think about Artificial Intelligence, our minds go straight to cyborgs, robots, and sci-fi thrillers where machines take over the world. But the truth is that Artificial Intelligence is already among us. It exists in our smartphones, fitness trackers, and refrigerators that tell us when the milk will expire. In some ways, the future people dreamed of at the World’s Fair in the 1960s is already here. We’re teaching our machines how to think like humans, and they’re learning at an incredible rate.

In Thinking Machines, technology journalist Luke Dormehl takes you through the history of AI and how it makes up the foundations of the machines that think for us today. Furthermore, Dormehl speculates on the incredible–and possibly terrifying–future that’s much closer than many would imagine. This remarkable book will invite you to marvel at what now seems commonplace and to dream about a future in which the scope of humanity may need to broaden itself to include intelligent machines.

Bill Nye Book, Others, Cheap

Bill Nye’s Everything All at Once: How to unleash your inner nerd, tap into radical curiosity, and solve any problem on Kindle is available for 2.99.

Everyone has an inner nerd just waiting to be awakened by the right passion. In Everything All at Once, Bill Nye will help you find yours. With his call to arms, he wants you to examine every detail of the most difficult problems that look unsolvable–that is, until you find the solution. Bill shows you how to develop critical thinking skills and create change, using his “everything all at once” approach that leaves no stone unturned.

Whether addressing climate change, the future of our society as a whole, or personal success, or stripping away the mystery of fire walking, there are certain strategies that get results: looking at the world with relentless curiosity, being driven by a desire for a better future, and being willing to take the actions needed to make change happen. He shares how he came to create this approach–starting with his Boy Scout training (it turns out that a practical understanding of science and engineering is immensely helpful in a capsizing canoe) and moving through the lessons he learned as a full-time engineer at Boeing, a stand-up comedian, CEO of The Planetary Society, and, of course, as Bill Nye The Science Guy.

This is the story of how Bill Nye became Bill Nye and how he became a champion of change and an advocate of science. It’s how he became The Science Guy. Bill teaches us that we have the power to make real change. Join him in dare we say it changing the world.

I’m not endorsing the following book because I don’t know much about it, and I’m not that big on behavioral economics or listening to them. Too risky. But, I thought some of you might want to know because it is cheap. Thus, being misinformed is not as bad if you pay less for it!

But seriously, this might be a great book, I really don’t know. Have a look: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves.

I’ve always been interested in canals, and I’m actually one of the few archaeologists in North America who has worked on them. They tend to contain either very little else but water, or a lot of trash (depending on if they are in use or not) and always contain very interesting fish.

Anyway, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation is about the builiding of the Erie Canal and the meaaning of that event. I’m looking forward to reading this, and it is only $1.99!

Fantastic Mathematics Wall Calendar For 2018

I love the The Mathematics Calendar 2018.

Math Calendar sample days
It has an equation or other statement about math for every day, often linked to that day (like, the January 13th entry is “the sixth prime number”). Some entries are little mat quizzes for you to fugue out. Some are funny jokes, like the entry for Thanksgiving (any guesses as to what that might be? Hint: It is a formula.) The level of difficulty of understanding the reference or solving the problem ranges from suitable for a smart 7 year old (Huxley has figured some out) up through college level. Also, the picture that go with each moth are totally cool and, of course, mathy.

The calendar is complied by Rebecca Rapoport, of Harvard. She is also the author of Math Lab for Kids, which is not a dog, but a book, that looks good but that I’ve not seen.

I’m tagging this post with the keyterm “holiday shopping” to hopefully remind me to remind you that this is a great holiday gift for that special math nerd or math teacher in your life.

CheMystery is a graphic novel

CheMystery authored by C. Al Preece is a graphic superhero novel, drawn by Josh Reynolds, that teaches — wait for it — Chemistry!

A radiation accident transforms two youngsters into superheros, and simultaneously creates an evil villain for them to fight. The graphic novel covers that story and is indurated with frequent cleverly placed molecule size chemistry lessons.

Teachers need to know that this book complies with Next Gen science standards and is very classroom friendly. Indeed, author Preece is a chemistry and physical science teacher (and a trained chemist).

It is a great read, an engaging story, and the lessons are informative and easy on the eyes. I recommend it for the youth in your life who is into science. Teachers should have a look at it!

How to do Statistics Wrong

Telling people that they are doing statistics wrong is a cottage industry that I usually want nothing to do with, for various reasons including the fact that the naysayers are often blindly repeating stuff they heard but do not understand. But, Alex Reinhart, in Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide, does not do that, and this is a book that is worth reading for anyone who either generates or needs to interpret statistics.

Most of the 10 chapters that address specific technical problems with statistics, where they are misused or misinterpreted, are very helpful in guiding a reader in how to think about statistics, and certain fallacies or common errors may well apply to a particular person’s work on a regular basis. I’ve put the table of contents below so you can see how this may apply to you. This is a worthy addition to the bookshelf. Get this book and stop doing your stats wrong!

The author is a grad student and physical scientist at Carnegie Mellon.

Here’s the table of contents:

Chapter 1: An Introduction to Statistical Significance
Chapter 2: Statistical Power and Underpowered Statistics
Chapter 3: Pseudoreplication: Choose Your Data Wisely
Chapter 4: The p Value and the Base Rate Fallacy
Chapter 5: Bad Judges of Significance
Chapter 6: Double-Dipping in the Data
Chapter 7: Continuity Errors
Chapter 8: Model Abuse
Chapter 9: Researcher Freedom:Good Vibrations?
Chapter 10: Everybody Makes Mistakes
Chapter 11: Hiding the Data
Chapter 12: What Can Be Done?

The Wildlife of Ecuador

Wildlife of Ecuador: A Photographic Field Guide to Birds, Mammals, Reptiles, and Amphibians by naturalist Andrés Vásquez Noboa, witih photography byablo Cervantes Daza, covers mainland Ecuador (but by “mainland” we also mean ocean mammals). Focusing only on non-piscine verts, you will need to go elsewhere for your inverts and plants and such. But you get the point. This book covers most of what you are looking for when you are out in the wild looking for animals.

This is not a comprehensive guide, but covers the most frequently seen animals, totaling to 350 distributed across over 400 plates.

There is a good chance that if you are an American or European going to Ecuador, you are visiting the Galapagos, in which you will want to check outg Wildlife of the Galápagos: Second Edition. A rather broad gulf of evolutionary change and outlandish biogeography separates Ecuador from its famous island possessions. But there is a good chance that if you are going to teh Galapagos, you are making at lease one nature related stop, so this is the book for you.

This is a well done nicely bound standard field guide of field guide size and format with animal info and excellent photos on the same pages, and organized by taxonomic category (not all field guides are!). You might think a tiny country like Ecuador does not need range maps, but the topography is highly variable with conditions running from lowland moist to alpin-ish and from wet to dry, so there are, indeed, range maps as needed. And, that ecological diversity is explained in the preface material.

I highly recommend this book for travelers to the region.

If you want more ecology and evoluitonary biology with your field guides, check out my review of the Neotropical Companion, here.

Manga Guide to Microprocessors: Excellent tech graphic novel

It has been a long time since I’ve written any machine or assembler code, and it is a rare day that I hand construct a logic circuit using transistors. But it is comforting to know that these skills and the knowledge associated with them still reside in some form or another in the world of microprocessors.

The Manga Guides published by No Starch Press and written by a wide range of authors manga-based graphic novels on diverse topics in science, math, statistics, and technology. I’ve reviewed several here (see this post for a partial list of some of the other guides). And the newest entry to this growing and rather large and excellent library is The Manga Guide to Microprocessors by Michio Shibuya, Takashi Tonagi, and Office Sawa.

This book is really thorough, packing in piles of details about computers, focusing on the microprocessor level technology but covering a lot of related things as well such as memory and data storage and programming, with a whole section on controllers.

But this information is embedded in a story, as is the case with all the Manga guides.

This is the story of Ayumi, a master chess player who is beaten by a computer. She engages with the computer’s programmer, Kano, in a quest to learn all she can about her nemesis.

The book has three modes. One is a standard manga graphics novel sequence of frames with the main story. That is most of the book. The other is a more detailed conversation between iconic versions of the protagonists, in which detail that would be difficult to easily convey in pure cartoon form is gone over. The third is a retrospective or detailed section at the end of each chapter which is lightly illustrated, text heavy, and serves to contextualize the previous material.

I strongly recommend this book.

Here is what the various modes look like:

Most of the book looks like this.

Some of the book looks like this.