Category Archives: Books

Making Raspberry Pi Robots

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At the core of this post is a review of a new book, Learn Robotics with Raspberry Pi: Build and Code Your Own Moving, Sensing, Thinking Robots. I recommend it as a great above-basic level introduction to building a standard robot, learning a bit about the Linux operating system, learning to program in Python, and learning some basic electronics. However, I want to frame this review in a bit more context which I think will chase some readers away from this book while at the same time making others drool. But don’t drool on the electronics. Continue reading Making Raspberry Pi Robots


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Neil Gaiman’s Book About Douglas Adams’ Book

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Suddenly available on kindle, and right now, for two buck. Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!!!

Douglas Adams’s “six-part trilogy,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy grew from a blip of a notion into an ever-expanding multimedia universe that amassed an unprecedented cult of followers and became an international sensation. As a young journalist, Neil Gaiman was given complete access to Adams’s life, times, gossip, unpublished outtakes, and files (and became privy to his writing process, insecurities, disillusionments, challenges, and triumphs). The resulting volume illuminates the unique, funny, dramatic, and improbable chronicle of an idea, an incredibly tall man, and a mind-boggling success story.

In Don’t Panic, Gaiman celebrates everything Hitchhiker: the original radio play, the books, comics, video and computer games, films, television series, record albums, stage musicals, one-man shows, the Great One himself, and towels. And as Douglas Adams himself attested: “It’s all absolutely devastatingly true—except the bits that are lies.”

Updated several times in the thirty years since its original publication, Don’t Panic is available for the first time in digital form. Part biography, part tell-all parody, part pop-culture history, part guide to a guide, Don’t Panic “deserves as much cult success as the Hitchhiker’s books themselves” (Time Out).


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How to be a hacker

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Wikipedia tells us that a “computer hacker is any skilled computer expert that uses their technical knowledge to overcome a problem.” The all knowing one goes on to note that the term has been linked in popular parlance with the made up Wikipedia word “security hacker.” Such an individuals “uses bugs or exploits to break into computer systems.”

Continue reading How to be a hacker
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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 past behavior. For instance, where I live now, there is a rule: You can’t leave your hockey goals or giant plastic basketball nets out overnight. There are no appropriate age children for that rule to affect. 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. 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 Charles Sumner, an anti-slave Senator 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 fashioned into pendants worn by Brook’s allies to celebrate his 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, some even worse, 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 three 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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