Tag Archives: Book review

A Guide To Using Command Line Tools

There are a lot of books out there to help you learn command line tools, and of course, they mostly cover the same things because there is a fixed number of things you need to learn to get started down this interesting and powerful path.

Small, Sharp, Software Tools: Harness the Combinatoric Power of Command-Line Tools and Utilities by Brian P. Hogan is the latest iteration (not quite in press yet but any second now) of one such book.

I really like Hogan’s book. Here’s what you need to know about it.

First, and this will only matter to some but is important, the book does cover using CLI tools across platforms (Linux, Mac, Windows) in the sense that it helps get you set up to use the bash command line system on all three.

Second, this book is does a much better than average job as a tutorial, rather than just as a reference manual, than most other books I’ve seen. You can work from start to finish, with zero knowledge at the start, follow the examples (using the provided files that you are guided to download using command line tools!) and become proficient very comfortably and reasonably quickly. The topic are organized in such a way that you can probably skip chapters that interest you less (but don’t skip the first few).

Third, the book does give interesting esoteric details here and there, but the author seems not compelled to obsessively fill your brain with entirely useless knowledge such as how many arguments the POSIX standard hypothetically allows on a command line (is it 512 or 640? No one seems to remember) as some other books do.

I found Small, Sharp, Software Tools a very comfortable, straight forward, well organized, accurate read from Pragmatic.

Serious Python Programming

Julien Danjou’s Serious Python: Black-Belt Advice on Deployment, Scalability, Testing, and More is serious.

This book takes Python programming well beyond casual programming, and beyond the use of Python as a glorified scripting language to access statistical or graphics tools, etc. This is level one or even level two material. If you are writing software to distribute to others, handling time zones, want to optimize code, or experiment with different programming paradigms (i.e. functional programming, generating code, etc.) then you will find Serious Python informative and interesting. Multi-threading, optimization, scaling, methods and decorators, and integration with relational databases are also covered. (A decorator is a function that “decorates,” or changes or expands, a function without motifying i.) The material is carefully and richly explored, and the writing is clear and concise. Continue reading Serious Python Programming

Minecraft Blockopedia

Minecraft is probably the most creative video game out there, not in the sense that its creators are creative, but rather, that it is all about creating things, and this is done by constructing novelty out of a relatively simple set of primitives. But to do so, the player needs to know about the building blocks of Minedraft, such as Lava, Fencing, Redstone, Levers, various chest and chest related things, and so on.

The Blockopedia in use.
Yes, you (or your child) can learn as you go playing the game, watch a few YouTube videos, etc. But if we want to fully enjoy and integrate the Minecraft experience, and help that child (or you?) get in some more reading time, there must be books. For example, the Minecraft: Blockopedia by Alex Wiltshire. Continue reading Minecraft Blockopedia

Time itself as a resource that drives evolution

Many of the key revolutions, or at least, overhauls, in biological thinking have come as a result of the broad realization that a thentofore identified variable is not simply background, but central and causative.

I’m sure everyone always thought, since first recognized, that if genes are important than good genes would be good. Great, even. But it took a while for Amotz Zahavi and some others to insert good genes into Darwin’s sexual selection as the cause of sometimes wild elaboration of traits, not a female aesthetic or mere runaway selection. Continue reading Time itself as a resource that drives evolution

Making Raspberry Pi Robots

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

How to be a hacker

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

Violence in the United States Congress

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.

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

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

Great new kids’ science book

Don’t Mess With Me: The Strange Lives of Venomous Sea Creatures by Paul Erickson is part of a series that is currently small but hopefully growing by Tilbury House. I previously reviewed One Iguana Two Iguanas (about iguanas).

Like the Iguana book, Erickson’s book for third through seventh graders (8-12 or so years of age) contains real, actual, science, evolutionary theory, and facts about nature, along with great pictures. The key message is that toxins exist because they provide an evolutionary advantage to those organisms that use them. Why are venomous animals so common in watery environments? Read the book to find out.

Species mentioned includ the blue-ringed octopi, stony corals, sea jellies, stonefish, lionfish, poison-fanged blennies, stingrays, cone snails, blind remipedes, fire urchins.

Highly recommended as a STEM present this holiday season.

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

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!

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

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.

A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits

Some time ago I reviewed Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! by √ėyvind Nydal Dahl, which is a very good introduction to electricity and how to hvae fun with it. There is now a new book that is a somewhat simplified version by the same author, A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits: Nine Simple Projects with Lights, Sounds, and More!.

This new book is smaller, has fewer projects, requires the purchase of fewer components, is an accordingly less expensive book, and perhaps most important for some people, requires no solder! Continue reading A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits

Build Miniature Cities with LEGO

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

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

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.


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.