Category Archives: Books

Unhappy Columbus Day!

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We live in a flat world. What I mean is, anything that is multidimensional is crushed by our limited monkey brains, facilitated by facile modalities of communication and conversation, into senseless flatness. For this reason, one may never really learn that Columbus, as a person, and the Spanish exploration and colonial enterprise in which he was engaged, is a critically important story. All most people will do is uncritically accept the poetic version (which rhymes “ocean blue” and “1492”) or, the alt-history version, that Columbus came to “America” and destroyed it. (Spoiler: The latter of these two is closer to the nuanced truth, but is not in fact the nuanced truth).

Columbus day itself is a different matter than Columbus. Columbus day is as much about statues, and naming things after people, and holidays, as it is about history. History is interesting because of the importance of context and the intricacies of nuance. There is no nuance in knocking down a statue, or in arguing that the statue should not be knocked down. That matter is one of activism and socio-political upheaval and change, and has almost nothing to do with History.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out that if you act now you can obtain for the low low price of $1.99 (restrictions apply, like this may only be good in the US) a copy of a reasonable biography of Christopher Columbus. This is one of the books people read to discover the nuanced version of that history. Check out the kindle copy of Christopher Columbus by Anna Abraham. I’m not sure if this is the definitive Columbus biography (probably not) but it is inexpensive and only 25 pages or so, so there is that.

The definitive Columbus is probably Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504 by Laurence Bergreen.

“He knew nothing of celestial navigation or of the existence of the Pacific Ocean. He was a self-promoting and ambitious entrepreneur. His maps were a hybrid of fantasy and delusion. When he did make land, he enslaved the populace he found, encouraged genocide, and polluted relations between peoples. He ended his career in near lunacy. But Columbus had one asset that made all the difference, an inborn sense of the sea, of wind and weather, and of selecting the optimal course to get from A to B. Laurence Bergreen’s energetic and bracing book gives the whole Columbus and most importantly, the whole of his career, not just the highlight of 1492. Columbus undertook three more voyages between 1494 and 1504, each designed to demonstrate that he could sail to China within a matter of weeks and convert those he found there to Christianity. By their conclusion, Columbus was broken in body and spirit, a hero undone by the tragic flaw of pride. If the first voyage illustrates the rewards of exploration, this book shows how the subsequent voyages illustrate the costs – political, moral, and economic.”


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Superlative Beauty and Beautiful Superlatives in Nature: Books

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Superlative: The Biology of Extremes is almost as extreme, or shall we say, hopeful, in its marketing-cover claims as the animals discussed are outlandish. If the cure for cancer was going to be found in a shark, we would have already found it. But despite what the book promises on its cover, Matthew D. LaPlante’s book is a detailed, engaging, and informative look at ongoing and recent scientific research from the perspective of an experienced journalist.

There are three categories of science book authors: Scientists, who write the best ones most of the time, science-steeped (often trained-as-scientists) science writers, who can write some pretty good books, and journalists who delve into the science and sometimes write amazing books, other times write books that are good books but not necessarily good science books. Superlative: The Biology of Extremes is in the higher end of the last category. It is about the scientists, the teams, the work more than the cells and polymers.

Also, LaPlante has another set of credentials: He is deeply, severely, hated by Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. Oh, also, the book is at present deeply on sale.

Animal Beauty: On the Evolution of Biological Aesthetics (The MIT Press) is sort of the opposite.

This is a series of essays by biologist Chrisiane Nusslein-Volhard, engagingly and skillfully illustrated by Suse Grutzmacher (and translated by Jonathan Howard) about the aesthetic sense talked about by Darwin, its evolution, distribution, function, meaning, across animals. The essays take a Tinbergian approach to explore most aspects of how thinks look or are looked at, how paterns, colors, and other features play ar ole in sexual selection, and how the underlying genetic connect to these important surface features, allowing us to understand the phylogeny of this physical-behavioral nexus. This is the scientist talking about the science. The book itself is also a bit unusual, as it is designed to fit comfortably in a pocket or purse. Take it to the dentist office or hair stylist! (When the Pandemic is over.)


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Overthrowing The Big Bang Theory

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Dear Professional Physicist,

I have a new theory of the origin of the universe.

(You’re old theory vs my new theory)

I would like you to stop what you are doing and listen to my theory, which simultaneously explains why everything you know is wrong, but that’s OK, I know what is TRUE INSTEAD.

There are still some details to work out….

No, but seriously, check out this new book: The Cosmic Revolutionary’s Handbook: (Or: How to Beat the Big Bang) by Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis.

If you read a lot of books about cosmology and the universe, you will not find much new in this book, but you will find new ways to think about all that old stuff. If you really do have a new theory of everything, this book will give you some useful advice on how to buy your ticket into the physics game. Like, that you have to make sure your theory of everything works in a way that does not result in the night sky being as bright as the day sky, or makes light do something it does not do, and so on. Also, do not use many different TYPE FACES AND all caps in your write-up.

Interestingly, one of the things the actual-cosmologists-authors do NOT say is something I often hear from pro-physicists about TOE-pushers. They don’t say “if you don’t have a mathematical formula for your theory, it isn’t a theory.” I hear that all the time and I always thought there was something wrong with that. Seems to me that a totally wrong mathematical theory is too much of a likelihood.

The best overview of this book, which you SHOULD read, is from the authors themselves who made a video talking about the book. Here:

See? Visual proof that this is a good book. Check out The Cosmic Revolutionary’s Handbook: (Or: How to Beat the Big Bang). As of this writing, on sale now.*


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Radical Conditions: Books

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A selection of fairly new books that seems suddenly more appropriate than usual:

Food or War by Julian Cribb, author of Open Science [OP]: Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century

Ours is the Age of Food. Food is a central obsession in all cultures, nations, the media, and society. Our future supply of food is filled with risk, and history tells us that lack of food leads to war. But it also presents us with spectacular opportunities for fresh human creativity and technological prowess. Julian Cribb describes a new food system capable of meeting our global needs on this hot and overcrowded planet. This book is for anyone concerned about the health, safety, affordability, diversity, and sustainability of their food – and the peace of our planet. It is not just timely – its message is of the greatest urgency. Audiences include consumers, ‘foodies’, policymakers, researchers, cooks, chefs and farmers. Indeed, anyone who cares about their food, where it comes from and what it means for them, their children and grandchildren.

Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education edited by Robert Haworth.

Important and challenging issues in the area of anarchism and education are presented in this history of egalitarian and free-school practices. From Francisco Ferrer’s modern schools in Spain and the Work People’s College in the United States, to contemporary actions in developing “free skools” in the United Kingdom and Canada, the contributors illustrate the importance of developing complex connections between educational theories and collective actions. Major themes in the volume include learning from historical anarchist experiments in education, ways that contemporary anarchists create dynamic and situated learning spaces, and critical reflections on theoretical frameworks and educational practices. Many trailblazing thinkers and practitioners contributed to this volume, such as Jeffery Shantz, John Jordon, Abraham de Leon, Richard Kahn, Matthew Weinstein, and Alex Khasnabish. This thoughtful and provocative collection proves that egalitarian education is possible at all ages and levels.

Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective (Routledge International Studies in the Philosophy of Education (Numbered)) by Judith Suissa.

Arguing that the central role of educational practice in anarchist theory and activism has been overlooked by many theorists, this examination of contemporary educational philosophy counters the assertion that anarchism reflects a naïve or overly optimistic view of human nature. By articulating the philosophical underpinnings of anarchist thought on issues of human nature, freedom, authority, and social change, the case is made that the anarchist tradition can be a rich source of insights into perennial philosophical questions about education. This theoretical exploration is then bolstered with a historical account of anarchist education, focusing on key defining features of anarchist schools, their ideological underpinnings, and their pedagogical approaches. Finally, a clear explanation of how anarchist education is distinct from libertarian, progressive, Marxist, and liberal models defines the role of anarchist education in furthering and sustaining a just and equal society.


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Charles Dickens’ Stories in Kid Friendly Form (New Book)

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It is an interesting idea, taking a classic work and rewriting it for a modern audience, with adjustments. I took on the task of doing this with a Lovecraft tale a few years ago. I’m still working on it. I wanted to eliminate the racism and the misogyny, and I did. But that helped reveal the fact that the story itself was more of an interesting treatment than a fully formed story, so my work has expanded considerably.

Award winning author Angela McAllister did the opposite with Charles Dickens. Instead of expanding, the stories in A World Full of Dickens Stories by re-written by McAllister and illustrated by Jannicke Hansen distills, or in literary terms, digessts, Dicken’s classics, including Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, A Christmas Carol, Nicholas Nickleby and A Tale of Two Cities.

How does it come out? Pretty good, given that giant novels summarized tend to try up or lose power. The stories are still good stories, and the writing is good, so the short stories convey the sense Dickens was going for, and the reader learns what these classics are about. The reading level is rated at 9-11. I agree with the low end of the range just because littler kids tend to like sillier stories. I would not put the upper end at 11; older kids and adults can enjoy these stories as well. But the combination of writing and illustrations are designed to be read to 8 year olds and read back (like David Copperfield reading to Peggotty at older ages.

The book itself is large format and very well designed and printed.

To give you an idea of what the book looks like, here’s a typical page layout:

A World Full of Dickens Stories is a good book to get, an would make a very presentable gift to a ready kid or a family with children in that age range, or any adult who happens to be a major Dickens fan.


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What are those spiky strange lights I keep seeing?

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Sometimes it is because my glasses are dirty. Sometimes it is a sundog, or a light pillar, or, if I happen to be near an exploding volcano….

Nature’s Light Spectacular: 12 stunning scenes of Earth’s greatest shows, written by Katy Flint and illustrated by Cornelia Li is a top notch earth and science book across a very wide age range, but classed as a 4-8 year old book. This book sits across that divide of read to vs. read by, and I think it is a great read-by (the kid) book for up to 10 or 11 years old.*

There is a story that pulls it all together, about two young explorers who improbably encounter several different light phenomena in nature, some common like sun dogs, some much less common, like the waterfall of fire at Yosemite National Park. Each two page layout demonstrates the phenomenon, with additional graphics and well written text to explain the science behind it. The format is large and guess what: The book glows in the dark.

Good science, good teaching, good book. The glowing in the dark part is not the reason you want this book, but you do want this book if you have a kid in elementary school.


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My Best Friend: New Toddler-age Kid Book

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Mouse is a small rodent with a cigarette shaped, elongated nose that actually kind of looks like a kitchen match. Mouse is either very clever, and knows how to gaslight a predacious bird, or is the most clueless rodent in the forest. Either way, this dark tale in a picture book is ideal to help 3-6 year olds understand some of the key realities of life … and near death.

My Best Friend,* a new, fresh, amusingly and skillfully illustrated book by Rob Hodgson, author of The Cave, could be your toddler’s first relationship book, or first nature book, depending on what the child takes from it. Let me know how it goes. The three kids I tried it out on loved it.

The Cave is pretty good too.


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Automate The Boring Stuff with Python Coding

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If everyone in the world understood and had a working command of regular expressions, everything would run smoothly. Especially if all of our interfaces to text allowed for their use. This has been pointed out. And, Automate the Boring Stuff with Python, 2nd Edition: Practical Programming for Total Beginners has a whole chapter on this.

What is a regular expression? We can talk about that in detail some other time. Briefly, it is a string of symbols that is designed to match a specified set of symbols, or a range of a set of symbols, in a larger body or stream of text. For example, if you pass a stream of information (say, all your emails) through a filter with the regular expression:

‘\d\d\d-\d\d\d-\d\d\d\d’

then any part of that stream of information that looks like a phone number (not using parens), such as 636-555-3226, will be isolated.

Automate the Boring Stuff with Python is a book that teaches beginning Python computer Augean programming focusing on examples from day to day life, including but well beyond REs.

The new edition includes pattern matching with regular expressions, input validation, reading and writing files, organizing files, web scraping, manipulating Excel spreadsheets and Google Sheets, PDF and Word documents, CSV and JSON files, email, images, and automating your keyboard and mouse.

The great benefit of a book like this is that you learn Python (the first part of the book gives you all you need to know to program in Python) in the context of things you actually want to do with Python. If you are interested in learning Python, or coding in general, this can be your first book.

The book is well done, as all in this series are, and fun. There are strong on line resources including all the code, and that information is regularly updated. Generally, “No Starch” press books are great, and this is one of those!

I would like to have seen at least sidebars on manipulating things using Libreoffice software, but note that the book focuses on documents, and OpenSource software does work with normal Excel and Word documents, so it is there.

The second edition adds a new chapter on input validation. The Gmail and Google Sheets sections, and the information on CSV files is also new. I plan on using the software tips and tricks to develop my own highly specialized and targeted search software. I’m often looking for files that have specific extensions, and certain kinds of content, in certain locations. Just the ability to hard-wire where to search for files will save me a lot of time and trouble.

Author Al Sweigart is a professional software developer who teaches programming to kids and adults, and who is author of Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python, Cracking Codes with Python, and Coding with Minecraft, all of which are quite nice. We need a new edition of Coding with Minecraft, by the way, that looks at a wider range of coding options and keeps up with the major advances in that software environment! So, get to work, Al!


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Your Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change

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It is said that scientists are lousy at communication, lousy at telling everyone else about their science, in understandable and compelling terms.

This is of course absurd. There are tens of millions of scientists, and dozens of them are really excellent communicators!

This IS the book you are looking for.
Among the many sciences, there is a science of science communication. It overlaps, unironically, with the science of conspiracy ideation, and borrows a great deal from the broader communication fields.

One of the leading science communicators of the day is cognitive scientist John Cook. John is at George Mason University. He is so tightly linked to the founding and development of the Skeptical Science project that “Skeptical Science” is the name of his Wikipedia entry. This binds John and his mission to a lot of us. Where we once might have said, “I am Spartacus,” we now say, “I am Skeptical. Science!” For John, it is just “I am SkepticalScience.”

Cook is likely known to you for the Consensus project. There were two main projects, a few years back, in which scientist attempted to measure the degree of consensus over the idea that anthropocentric climate change is real. (It is real, and the consensus is near 100% in both peer reviewed literature and the conclusions of actual scientists.) John and his colleagues did one of those, and beyond that, widely promoted the results so that everyone knows about it.

Guy from 1917 (left) and cognitive scientist John Cook (right). Whatever made me think about that sticking the head up out of the trench analogy?
Like I said above, there are tens of millions of scientists. Developing and disseminating the results of consensus research in climate scientist was equivalent to being the only guy sticking your head up out of the trench in that movie, 1917. Science deniers, both avocational and bought-and-paid-for, got all over cook like skin on a grape. Didn’t phase him, though. He continued to develop a series of new projects including a massive online course (Making Sense of Climate Science Denial), an artificial intelligence system for detecting fake science, and most recently, the Cranky Uncle project.

Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers” is a crowdsourced book (and an app). There will be a book launch on March 4th in Arlington. This book gives us the whole ball of wax that is the science of climate science denial in a very funny, really well produced, and compelling wrapping. It will amuse you, and it will advise you. Your cranky uncle is done for.

I don’t have a cranky uncle anymore (he died). But I do have a lot of neighbors who like to write in ALL CAPS. They show up when I give a talk on climate change, and they bring their conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, cherry picked “facts”, absurd expectations, and references to fake research done by fake experts. It is a lot to deal with. But now, I can use the Lewis Black technique for dealing with evolution deniers, but instead of pulling out a trilobite, holding it up and saying “Fossil!” I can pull out a copy of Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change and say “Oh yeah? Imma look up what you just said in this BOOK!” or words to that effect.

Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers is the book now. Pre-order it!

For completeness, here is Lewis Black demonstrating the fossil technique:


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Books I read this year.

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Everybody is doing it, so here is mine.

This list does not include children’s books (usually STEM) that I reviewed, books Huxley and I have read (which is mainly Lord of the Rings this year, frankly… taking forever), computer or technology books, or video game references or books. It also does not include manuscripts or books that pre-date 1900 and you probably can’t find anywhere, unpublished material, and racist volumes that I read because I hate them but wont’ link to them (and similar). I list one John Sanford book to represent several that I read (I decided to read them all over, in order … yes, I had a reason for that, and it was great fun. But that was like 20 books.)

I’ve read 100% of 80% of these books, substantial parts of others. I have not included books I only read a few chapters of, such as a biography of FDR and one of Washington, and some books on Minnesota history.

They are not in any particular order. I probably missed a few. One I finished during the current year but I started it in 2019.

What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal

Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation by Anderson, Terry L., Leal, Donald R. (2015) Paperback

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

Time in Ecology: A Theoretical Framework [MPB 61] (Monographs in Population Biology)

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War

Lethal White (A Cormoran Strike Novel)

Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (The Revolution Trilogy)

Junction City, Off the Record: Tales From Ogden, Utah’s Notorious Underworld in the Roaring ‘Twenties

Junction City, Off the Record: Tales From Ogden, Utah’s Notorious Underworld in the Roaring ‘Twenties

The Importance of Small Decisions (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Red Sparrow: A Novel (The Red Sparrow Trilogy Book 1)

Grant

The Blizzard of 88

Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times

Hidden Prey (The Prey Series Book 15)

Fear: Trump in the White House

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake

How To Go Viral and Reach Millions: Top Persuasion Secrets from Social Media Superstars, Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Even Donald Trump

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump

American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings (Penguin Classics)

A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth

Harbinger

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

Food or War

Our Changing Earth: Why Climate Change Matters to Young People

In Search of Sungudogo


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Chernow’s Rockefeller Bio So Cheap JD Rockefeller would Buy It

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JD Rockefeller believed himself to be something of a gift from god, a gift to capitalism. I’m not big on the god thing, but Ron Chernow is a gift of some kind to the art of biography. He writes big thick books that are actually about 25% less thick than they look because the last quarter is footnotes. He is famous for writing the biography that became the famous musical known as Hamilton. You know of whom I speak.

I recently read Rachel Maddow’s excellent and compelling, must read Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. You must read it. Rockefeller’s story is an important part of the contextual lead-up that Dr. Maddow does so well, and for this she leans, appropriately, on Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. So, when I saw that Titan was available on the Kindle, cheap, I thought you should know too, and now you do!


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Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump

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I am recommending this new title by Neal Katyal and Sam Koppelman. Katyal is a former Acting Solicitor General for the US, and law professors at Georgetown, and you know him as a frequent contributor on various MSNBC shows.


Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump
*

Why President Trump has left us with no choice but to remove him from office, as explained by celebrated Supreme Court lawyer and former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal.

No one is above the law. This belief is as American as freedom of speech and turkey on Thanksgiving—held sacred by Democrats and Republicans alike. But as celebrated Supreme Court lawyer and former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal argues in Impeach, if President Trump is not held accountable for repeatedly asking foreign powers to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, this could very well mark the end of our democracy. To quote President George Washington’s Farewell Address: “Foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Impeachment should always be our last resort, explains Katyal, but our founders, our principles, and our Constitution leave us with no choice but to impeach President Trump—before it’s too late.


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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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