Category Archives: Books

Do Not Miss Rachel Maddow’s New Book: Blowout

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Rachel Maddow is the Charles Darwin of Cable News.

Darwin’s most important unsung contribution to science (even more important than his monograph on earthworms) was to figure out how to most effectively put together multiple sources into a single argument — combining description, explanation, and theory — of a complex phenomenon in nature. His first major work, on coral reefs, brought together historical and anecdotal information, prior observation and theory from earlier researchers, his own direct observations of many kinds of reefs, quasi experimental work in the field, and a good measure of deductive thinking. It took a while for this standard to emerge, but eventually it did, and this approach was to become the normal way to write a PhD thesis or major monograph in science.

Take any major modern news theme. Deutsche Bank. Trump-Nato-Putin. Election tampering. Go to the standard news sources and you’ll find Chuck Todd following the path of “both sides have a point.” Fox News will be mixing conspiracy theory and right wing talking points. The most respected mainstream news anchors, Lester Holt, Christiane Amanpour, or Brian Williams perhaps, will be giving a fair airing of the facts but moving quickly from story to story. Dig deeper, and find Chris Hayes with sharp analysis, Joy Reid contextualizing stories with social justice, and Lawrence O’Donnell applying his well earned in the trenches biker wisdom.

But if you really want to Darwin the news, and sink your natural teeth and claws into a story, go to Maddow. Continue reading Do Not Miss Rachel Maddow’s New Book: Blowout


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Harbinger by Louis du Toit and CL Raven

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I’m an American who has spent considerable time in South Africa, so I enjoy a good novel that is set there. Harbinger by Louis du Toit and CL Raven is set, instead, in the memory of that fraught and beautiful country, written by a South African author. I live in a place where racial tension, especially anti-Muslim or anti-Middle Eastern feelings rest at a low level below the surface, and this is also a place where I accompany my son to the bus stop where he is the only child who is NOT an immigrant, a Muslim, a Hindu, or, egads, a French Canadian Catholic. I consider us both lucky to be among such diverse friends. Continue reading Harbinger by Louis du Toit and CL Raven


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Climate Change Reading and Resources

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Dire Predictions: The Visual Guide to the Findings of the IPCC by Michael Mann summarizes the IPCC Report on climate change (scientific basis) in a clear and understandable way without sacrificing important detail and nuance.

One test of the legitimacy of claims about scientific matters is time. Over time, if a proposal about how nature works that buck the consensus is valid, it will be shown to be valid. If it is not, it will fail the test of time. Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics by Dana Nuccitelli looks at the predictions of those who have been denying the reality of climate change, comparing those predictions made by mainstream science. Read the book to find out who won!

Even though this is not specifically about climate science, I always recommend that people read Sean Otto’s The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It to understand why we are not simply and directly dealing with climate change. Along the same lines, Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines chronicles the denier-science fight at its high water mark, a few years back.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming is a pretty good book, and at this moment very current, to read about how to address climate change.


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The Biology of Extremes: Superlative by Matthew D. LaPlante

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Superlative: The Biology of Extremes by Matthew D. LaPlante is not just about extremes, but about all the things in between that make the extremes extreme. LaPlante looks at size, speed, age, intelligence. For all the various subtopics that come up in such an exploration, LaPlante does a great job of bringing in the latest research. Mostly, this is a collection of interesting evolutionary and biological stories that happen to involve tiny things, giant things, old things, fast things, or things that are in some other way — superlative.

Go for a swim with a ghost shark, the slowest-evolving creature known to humankind, which is teaching us new ways to think about immunity. Get to know the axolotl, which has the longest-known genome and may hold the secret to cellular regeneration. Learn about Monorhaphis chuni, the oldest discovered animal, which is providing insights into the connection between our terrestrial and aquatic worlds.

I’m not endorsing every idea or story in this book. One can not write a book about adaptations and have any evolutionary biologist worth their salt not bump on things. But the author does an honest and straightforward job of representing the research, and you’ll learn quite a bit that is new, see new perspectives on things you’ve considered in the past, and you’ll enjoy LaPlante’s writing.

I will probably be recommending this volume as a holiday gift for the Uncle who has everything or the teenager who likes natural history. Teachers of wildlife biology, evolution, or related topics will be able to mine this volume for stories. The use of footnotes is notable.* I recommend Superlative


  • … and well done.

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Food Or War by Julian Cribb: Excellent new book

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For many years, scientists who studied biology, behavior, and ecology (under the name of various disciplines) looked at resources, including and especially food, as a major determinant of social structure in social animals, herd structure in herd animals, and so on. Then, there was a revolution and it quickly became apparent that sex, not food, underlies everything and is the ultimate explanation for the variation we see in nature. That pair of dimes lasted for a while, then the other penny dropped and thanks to key research done by a handful of people (including me, in relation to human evolution), it became apparent that there was a third significant factor, that ultimately trumped sex as an organizing force. Food. Continue reading Food Or War by Julian Cribb: Excellent new book


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Our Changing Earth: New Climate Change Book

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Our Changing Earth: Why Climate Change Matters to Young People by Arjun Marwaha is a book for young people, about why climate change should matter to young people, and it is written by an actual young person! Marwaha is a high school junior from California, decorated for his excellent essay writing, who has a passion for helping people understand climate change. The book does that well. Continue reading Our Changing Earth: New Climate Change Book


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Two Amazing Books Set In Africa

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Right now, for a limited time only, The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver, is available cheap in Kindle format. You probably know the book.

The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Against this backdrop, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband’s part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale indelibly darkened by her own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story, by turns, are her four daughters—the self-centered, teenaged Rachel; shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah; and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father’s intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation. Their passionately intertwined stories become a compelling exploration of moral risk and personal responsibility.

The other amazing book is this extended novella, or shortish novel, mixing compelling and hilarious fiction with thinly veiled actual observations and experiences on the OTHER side of the Congo, in and alongside the Western Rift Valley, as an enigmatic primatologist and a partly clued-in explorer-guy search for an elusive creature that might or might not exist. If you are a member of the Skeptics movement and want to know more about your own origins, In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden is a must read.

I’m sure that either one of these authors would appreciate a nice review once you’ve read the book!

“You know how to review a book, don’t you? Just put your lips together and click on something.:” — Archer Mallows, explorer-guy


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In Search of Sungudogo: A Novel

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I wrote a novel called In Search of Sungudogo.

I wrote this novel, really, a novella, a few years ago as part of a publicity and fundraising stunt several bloggers were doing all at once. Some bloggers shaved their beards or got Mohawks while live streaming, others did other things (nobody can really remember) and I live blogged the construction of a novel by putting out one chapter an hour until I was done.

The final product was rough, especially the beginning and the end. And the middle. As you might expect.

But a heavy revision resulted in what I think is a pretty good story. Those of you who saw the previously Kindle-published version are familiar, but it is further updated since then, not a lot, but with some helpful improvements.

The story started out as a take-off on the Heart of Darkness by Conrad. Other than certain personality shades shared between Archer Mallow (of Sungudogo) and Conrad’s protagonist, Captain Marlow, the similarities are no longer there. It is the story about a search for an as yet unverified form of ape, by a primatologist and a logistical expert familiar (more or less) with the region.

The setting is a part of Africa I am very familiar with. Many of the scenes in the novel are based on things that I’ve experienced, seen, or heard about in my work there. There really is a restaurant that has everything yet nothing, the park guards really are issued one bullet at a time, the volcanoes really do eat small planes. Also accurate are the geography and geology of the area, except where the story veers off into science fiction. And yes, this is science fiction.

In Search of Sungudogo is available in Kindle form now, and will be available in print form very soon, just a matter of days. I’ll let you know when that happens.

Feel free to put a review on Amazon if you like it!


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What do we need men for? Including Donald Trump?

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My FBFF E. Jean Carroll has a new book coming out, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal. You’ve heard about her, and the book, and related matters because Donald Trump’s apparent first degree rape of Ms. Carroll, several years ago, is in the news today, and for a story about Trump to vie for bigness among all the other stories, let alone being noticed at all, it must be amazing. Continue reading What do we need men for? Including Donald Trump?


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Best Children’s Book on Human Evolution

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Aside from evolutionary theory itself, the teaching of Human evolution involves physiology and reproductive biology, behavioral biology, genetics, and the fossil record itself with details of a concomitant history.

And finally, there is a children’s book that addresses the latter, in amazing detail!

There are very few good (or even bad) children’s books about evolution, and far fewer about human evolution. And when a children’s book touches on human evolution, it is usually just about Neanderthals.

When We Became Humans: The Story of Our Evolution by Michael Bright with illustrations by Hannah Bailey is a very good book on human evolution. The book is over 60 pages long in large format, and my copy is cloth bound. The production quality of the book is outstanding. (That is generally the case with this publisher.)

I am am impressed with this title, and I strongly recommend it for anyone looking for a book for a kid of a certain age to read, or a younger kid to get read to.

What is that certain age? I’m thinking 10 plus or minus 2, depending on the kid. The publishers say 8-11. So somewhere around there. A 10 year old who absorbs the material in this book will do OK on an intro college human evolution midterm that focuses on the fossil and archaeological record. Or at least, the child will be able to effectively challenge the professor in a grade grubbing situation.

When We Became Humans: The Story of Our Evolution covers primate evolution, key moments in hominin history, bipedalism, early tools, brain evolution, the origin of fire (nice to see my research embodied as fact in an actual children’s book!), Homo erectus and Neanderthals, modern humans, foragers, early agriculture, holicene history, language, art, early burial, and other things such as hobbits.

There are only four places where I would take issue with the facts as presented here. The root hypothesis for the human-chimp split is left out, I would discuss early tools differently, the author embraces the scavenging hypothesis too kindly, and the great global diversity and overall craziness of the agricultural transition is glossed in favor (mostly) of the old Fertile Crescent story, which is not wrong, just limited. Given that this book presnets roughly 165 facts or perspectives, me disagreeing with this small number is rather remarkable.

The art is great, the typefaces well chosen, the layout is artful and foregrounds the aforementioned are and the facts.

You can preorder this book now; it will be out mid July.


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Books On The Energy Transition

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Be informed, have a look.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken.

This is a great resource for understanding the diverse strategies available to decarbonize. There is a flaw, and I think it is a fairly significant one. Drawdown ranks the different strategies, so you can see what (seemingly) should be done first. But the ranking is highly susceptible to how the data are organized. For example, on shore vs. off shore wind, if combined, would probably rise to the top of the heap, but separately, are merely in the top several. Also, these things change quickly over time in part because we do some of these things, inevitably moving them lower in ranking. So don’t take the ranking too seriously.

Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation by Terry Anderson and Donald Leal.

I mention this book because I hope it can help the free market doe what it never actually does. The energy business is not, never was, and can’t really be a free market, so expecting market forces to do much useful is roughly the same as expecting the actual second coming of the messiah. Won’t happen. This book is not an ode to those market forces, though, but rather, a third stab (I think), and a thoughtful one, at a complex problem.

Related, of interest: Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming by McKenzie Funk. “Funk visits the front lines of the melt, the drought, and the deluge to make a human accounting of the booming business of global warming. By letting climate change continue unchecked, we are choosing to adapt to a warming world. Containing the resulting surge will be big business; some will benefit, but much of the planet will suffer. McKenzie Funk has investigated both sides, and what he has found will shock us all. ”

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy by Hal Harvey, Rovbbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman. ” A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well.”


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Michael Wolf on Trump Under Siege

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Michael Wolf’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, was the first widely distributed and read book about the Trump White House. It was good (despite some complaints about it). He has a new book that I’ve not read but thought you might want to know about.

Siege: Trump Under Fire

Michael Wolff, author of the bombshell bestseller Fire and Fury, once again takes us inside the Trump presidency to reveal a White House under siege.

With Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff defined the first phase of the Trump administration; now, in Siege, he has written an equally essential and explosive book about a presidency that is under fire from almost every side. A stunningly fresh narrative that begins just as Trump’s second year as president is getting underway and ends with the delivery of the Mueller report, Siege reveals an administration that is perpetually beleaguered by investigations and a president who is increasingly volatile, erratic, and exposed.


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Make Your Own Pixel Art

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First, what is “pixel art?”

Is that just art that is rendered in raster? Not exactly. Pixel art is the sort of art you draw for digital cartoons or similar things. The skills and tools of making pixel art would apply to designing icons or logos used in electronic products as well.

To demonstrate what pixel art is, I’m including a few examples from the newly published Make Your Own Pixel Art: Create Graphics for Games, Animations, and More! by Jennifer Dawe and Matthew Humphries.

This book will give you an introduction to the tricks of the trade of making technologically simply but artistically potent drawings, including ways to animate them.

The non-OpenSource (boo) software that is used throughout the book is not expensive and is easy to use, and yes, OpenSource alternatives are suggested and briefly discussed. The book relies on Aseprite and Pro Motion, with GraphcsGale (Windows only, boo) being a free alternative.

Techniques covered include shading, texture, proper use of color, motion and animation, and making things look sentient. Apparently, you can make money doing this sort of thing! This book is probably a good investment, at the very least to see if you have the talent and interest.

Author Jennifer Dawe is an animator and character designer who has been a professional pixel artist for the past 15 years. Author Matthew Humphries is Senior Editor at PCMag.com and a professional game designer.


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Little Myth on the Prairie

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I have been slowly and steadily working on a project that involves an old topic of interest: the dynamic changes in society, economy, and settlement pattern as Euro-Americans ensnared the middle and western parts of the continent in their material and political net of civilization, sometimes known as the Westward Expansion. And for this reason, I came across a book, a NYT Book Review “Best Ten” for 2017, of interest, that happens also to be on sale cheap in Kindle format.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.

As pointed out in a review by Patricia Nelson Limerick, the exploitation and eastward shipping, for profit, of bison hides and precious metals (and everything in between) was not the only gig in the west. The story itself, the stories of pioneering, gun fighting, Indian, er, relations, and everything else, collected in situ and refined through the myth-mills of the publishing industry, amounted to a significant and valuable commodity. One of the most productive ore lodes of daring narrative in the plains and midwest was the one tapped by Laura Ingalls Wilder via the Little House series, and other tales. Also, her daughter was in on it.

Prairie Fires pulls back the switch-grass curtain. To quote from PNL’s review:

Rendering this biography as effective at racking nerves as it is at provoking thought, the story of Wilder’s emergence as a major sculptor of American identity pushes far past the usual boundaries of probability and plausibility. For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder’s “Little House” books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading “Prairie Fires” will provide a lasting cure. Just as effectively, for readers with a pre-existing condition of enthusiasm for western American history and literature, this book will refresh and revitalize interpretations that may be ready for some rattling. Meanwhile, “Little House” devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth. Perhaps most valuable, “Prairie Fires” demonstrates a style of exploration and deliberation that offers a welcome point of orientation for all Americans dismayed by the embattled state of truth in these days of polarization.

-Patricia Nelson Limerick, review, The New York Times

Check it out!


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