Category Archives: Books

Amazing science books

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You probably don’t get nature like I do.

And by that I don’t mean “get nature” but rather, “get Nature, the magazine.” I do get Nature, which is very expensive, so maybe you don’t have to. A recent newsletter from the Mother Mag includes a list of great new science books, and I was pretty impressed with the books, so I’m giving you the list*. Take the money you saved on not subscribing to Nature and get one! Continue reading Amazing science books


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Ray Bradbury Wants You To Read These 100 stories

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Ray Bradbury wrote an unknown number of stories, but over 400. Some say 600. Doesn’t matter. Back in 1980, Knopf published 100 of these stories, chosen by Bradbury himself to represent the rest. The Stories of Ray Bradbury is over 900 print pages. The stories date from 1943 to 1980. And now, for a presumably limited time and probably just in the United States, you can get this book* in futuristic electronic Kindle form for three bucks.

It is worth noting that a second book, “Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales“, was produced in 2003, and includes another 100 stories, with no overlap between the two books. As far as I know that book is not on sale at this time.


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Cranky Uncle Gets Crankier: Climate Change in the Classroom and on the Smart Phone!

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A while back I reviewed Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change by Dr. John “Skeptical Science” Cook.

Since then a lot has been happening on the Cranky Uncle front, and I thought I should catch you up.

John, in cooperation with Facebook and Yale Climate Connection, has created the Facebook Climate Science Information Center. It is HERE. There is an article about this effort HERE.

There is a Cranky Uncle game for your smart phone, which you can get HERE.

Teachers can use the Cranky Uncle game in their classroom (K12 through College) by filling out THIS HERE form.

Also, related, there is a new version of The Conspiracy Handbook by Lewandowsky and Cook, which you can get HERE.

John Cook, author of Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers, is a George Mason University expert in climate communication working with Facebook, said research shows that simply saying information is wrong is not enough. “You also have to explain why or how it is wrong. That is important from a psychological point of view,” Cook said of the new “myth-busting” section of the climate portal.


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Can law keep up with runaway technology?

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Can the law keep up with technology?

Joshua Fairfield asks that question in his new book* Runaway Technology: Can Law Keep Up?, expected out on March 1st.

This is a well written and engaging academic treatment of the problem, looking at technologies as diverse as genetically engineered organisms, deep fakes, and the basic problem of robots taking over the world. Virtual reality is increasingly real (in a material as well as legal sense). Fairfield includes a well deserved (but in my mind too narrow) critique of science, and underscores how limitations in thinking about scientific process and technological advances complexifies the legal problems science and technology create.

Ultimately, he argues in favor of a new kind of law, and he situates law itself as part of the science and technology the law is trying to keep up with. This is also an examination of language and culture, and how technology and law are both embedded in, shaped by, and constraining of, basic humanity. You will find some interesting philosophy in these pages.

This is not escapist literature, and it is not a book by a good writer about a thing the writer found interesting. This is an expert treatment by an expert in a critically important area. This book will be assigned in law classes.

The answer addressed in Runaway Technology to the question “can the law keep up?” is really not so much “yes” or “no,” but rather, it will, but can society and democracy keep up the co-evolution of law, science, and technology, and do so in a way that protects society and democracy.

I’m sure most readers of this blog will want to read this book.


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Combating Specious Ideas: Review of How To Argue With A Racist

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I wrote a review of Adam Rutherford’s new book, “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference.” The review is published in American Scientist. American Scientist, by the way, is a great magazine that I highly recommend. A notch or two above all the others. Three notches in some cases.

The review is here.


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The Dictionary Of Difficult Words: Great kids book for all ages

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The Dictionary of Difficult Words: With more than 400 perplexing words to test your wits! by Jane Solomon, illustrated by Louise Lockhart* is a grandiloquent lionization of lexicon, with a plethora of terms allowing you to emulate an egghead as you enunciate extemporaneously. No flapdoodle in this tome, a true juggernaut of of pithy cirumlocutious verbiage.

This is actually a really fun family read, coffee table in format, and I promise, it will be on my coffee table through the holiday seasons. I suppose it is a kids book, but my kid can have it when I’m done with it.

This dictionary has some helpful front matter to assist in understanding, learning, and pronouncing hard words.

The illustrations are charming and helpful. The definitions are engaging and accurate.


Jane Solomon is a lexicographer based in Oakland, California. She spends her days writing definitions and working on various projects for different dictionaries and reference sites. She was at Dictionary.com for seven years, and she’s also worked on projects for Oxford, Cambridge, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Thinkmap, and K Dictionaries. She’s a member of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, the group that decides what new emoji pop up on our devices. She has a twin sister who is also a lexicographer. Louise Lockhart has illustrated about one gazijllian excellent children’s books.


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Histories and Historical Novels

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Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot of 18th and 19th century North American history. In the very old days, I was a career historic archaeologist, so I have some professional background in history, but an archaeologist is not an historian by training or experience. As I went about reading this American history, I learned something that most non-historian Americans find unbelievable. So unbelievable that I won’t tell you now, other than that it has to do with Donald Trump and his followers. Maybe we can discuss it another time.

I’ve always liked historical fiction as well as history, and I’m starting to work on a project that puts the two together: a list of accessible histories (books written by historians who are good writers) and parallel (maybe even matched-up) novels that may be reasonable representations of the past. The novels are a challenge in this project. A book can be a good novel but a lousy history. Also, what do we do with historical science fiction or fantasy, that might involve a good description of some bygone era or culture, but that includes aliens or ghosts? (Time machines probably don’t present this problem, in and of themselves.)

By and large, I expect that most novels are not good representations of our past. I believe culture can vary dramatically across time and space. A 20th century account of the 17th century (anywhere) or a contemporary account of a very different region of the world (or neighborhood) is likely to be written to be understandable and relatable. That may require significant shifts in nuance and context, expectations and norms. By sticking with work covering time periods that are not too far in the past, and on the North American Continent, this problem is somewhat reduced. Or, made worse, because our own history, as quasi-scholarly work or as fiction, is bound to be biased in ways that get around our own BS filters. One way to pretend to avoid that is to include more work by women, non-white people, and stories about someone other than white men. That does not really remove all biases, but it makes us feel better, and that is what is important, right?

The following is a first draft of a list (with links*) of some of the fiction items in this project.

Colonial era

Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks (author of one of my favorite novels, People of the Book). Bethia Mayfield is a restless and curious young woman growing up in Martha’s vineyard in the 1660s amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. At age twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s father is a Calvinist minister who seeks to convert the native Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes a prize in the contest between old ways and new, eventually becoming the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Inspired by a true story and narrated by the irresistible Bethia, Caleb’s Crossing brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk everything in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance.

Colonial Era and beyond

These novels start in the Colonial area then continue, epic fashion:

Chesapeake: A Novel by James Michener (a classic, needs no introduction) and New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd (also a classic).

Revolution and Federal Era

Someone Knows My Name: A Novel, originally published as The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is the story of an African woman who is abducted as a girl in her native village and sold in to American slavery. Her subsequent story is complex and fascinating. I think this book is underappreciated in the United States because Americans can’t handle the name. The author, who is Black and Canadian, explains the title: “”I used The Book of Negroes as the title for my novel, in Canada, because it derives from a historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers at the tail end of the American Revolutionary War. It documents the 3,000 blacks who had served the King in the war and were fleeing Manhattan for Canada in 1783. Unless you were in The Book of Negroes, you couldn’t escape to Canada. My character, an African woman named Aminata Diallo whose story is based on this history, has to get into the book before she gets out.”

I am putting these two novels I’ve not read (but plan to) here because they belong here and maybe you will tell ME about them.

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott “In this beautifully written novel of historical fiction, bestselling author Susan Holloway Scott tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza—a fascinating, strong-willed heroine in her own right and a key figure in one of the most gripping periods in American history.”

and

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamole. From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton–a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. In this haunting, moving, and beautifully written novel, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before–not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal–but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right.
Antebellum

Civil War, Mid-19th Century

There is approximately one gazillion novels set in the US that have something to do with the Civil War, so this is a very much narrowed down list. I won’t make it bigger until some of the other time periods are better covered. Ultimately, there are probably two or three dozen excellent novels in this era, which perhaps can be divided into categories like “the Civil War is actually in the novel” vs. “The Civil War just ended but the smoke still rises from the ashes,” and also, along gender or ethnic lines.

The March: A Novel by E.L. Dostorow. In 1864, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman marched his sixty thousand troops through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces, demolished cities, and accumulated a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the dispossessed and the triumphant. In E. L. Doctorow’s hands the great march becomes a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.

Late 19th Century, Turn of the Century

Little Big Man: A Novel by Thomas Berger is said by some to be one of the most underappreciated American novels. One reason may be that the literati saw no need to appreciate a Western. Another may be that Berger eschewed the establishment in the publishing world. It is, of course, the story that is told by a very old man who may or may not be an unreliable narrator of his life wafting back and forth between being a white settler/cowboy/gambler/gun slinger/guide vs. a Native warrior, husband, and student of a great shaman. This book was made into what may be one of the great movies of the 20th century. It is also, sadly, the only contribution I can find that involves Native Americans that I’d recommend. Still looking.

A Study in Scarlet: A 1887 detective novel written by Arthur Conan Doyle marking the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who would … most famous detective duo in popular fiction. by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You may not think of a Sherlock Holmes story as an historical novel. Well, it really isn’t because it is a bit more of a contemporary novel. But that was then, and it was set in the American West. I have to add this caveat: I’m not sure if this book is the sort of insightful and real look at a particular historcial time period as the other novels discussed here. But it is a classic, and I wanted to include it simply because if you nave not read it, you now must do so! Wikipedia actually has a nice summary of the conversation over Doyle’s coverage of the Mormons. Do not, that he was an historian as much as he was a detective story writer. But not of that time or subject necessarily.

Beloved by Toni Morrison. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.

Ultimately I want this list to go up to and include World War II. I am not short of entries for that period, but I’ll get to that later.


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Read These Books and Be Smarter

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With Covid-19 limitations on so many activities, we are doing so much reading there is a threat that we will wear out all the books!

I have four items here that are deep, and intellectually engaging. A scholarly look at literature by one of the great living American authors, two addressing the history of science in Victorian England by two of the leading experts, and an engaging deep dive into the way the human brain comes to grip with mathematics and numbers in general.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley consists of 279 pages with narrow margins and small type providing 13 different views of novels as a phenomenon. This is the best modern dissection of the art I’ve seen. These rich and engaging pages are then followed by almost the same exact number of pages of commentary and (to a lesser extent) synopsis of 100 novels. If you ever want a list of the great novels over time, from which to chose new material to read, this list is excellent, but be warned: It is a fairly uniform sampling, and you know what that means.

An essential guide for writers and readers alike, here is Smiley’s great celebration of the novel. As she embarks on an exhilarating tour through one hundred titles—from classics such as the thousand-year-old Tale of Genji to recent fiction by Zadie Smith and Alice Munro—she explores the power of the form, looking at its history and variety, its cultural impact, and just how it works its magic. She invites us behind the scenes of novel-writing, sharing her own habits and spilling the secrets of her craft, and offering priceless advice to aspiring authors. Every page infects us anew with the passion for reading that is the governing spirit of this gift to book lovers everywhere.

If you don’t know Jane Smiley as an author (and academic) you should. One of my favorite novels of all time is by her: JANE SMILEY: MOO* (That is the Amazon link, but it is been around a long time, so look for a used copy. This version on Amazon is just under one thousand dollars. Must be some kind of mistake!)

A Brain for Numbers: The Biology of the Number Instinct (The MIT Press) by Andreas Nieder* “Nieder explores how the workings of the brain give rise to numerical competence, tracing flair for numbers to dedicated “number neurons” in the brain. Drawing on a range of methods including brain imaging techniques, behavioral experiments, and twin studies, he outlines a new, integrated understanding of the talent for numbers. Along the way, he compares the numerical capabilities of humans and animals, and discusses the benefits animals reap from such a capability. He shows how the neurobiological roots of the brain’s nonverbal quantification capacity are the evolutionary foundation of more elaborate numerical skills. He discusses how number signs and symbols are represented in the brain; calculation capability and the “neuromythology” of mathematical genius; the “start-up tools” for counting and developmental of dyscalculia (a number disorder analogous to the reading disorder dyslexia); and how the brain processes the abstract concept of zero.

This blog,for a while, was called “The X Blog” in celebration of “The X Club,” which was a thing of the Darwin-Huxley ilk. Turns out there is a book about The X Club, and this is it: The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science by Ruth Barton. Those of you who know this blog, and my Facebook community, well know Ruth’s husband. Anyway, do not google “The X Club” in mixed company, but do read the book.

“In 1864, amid headline-grabbing heresy trials, members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science were asked to sign a declaration affirming that science and scripture were in agreement. Many criticized the new test of orthodoxy; nine decided that collaborative action was required. The X Club tells their story.*

These six ambitious professionals and three wealthy amateurs—J. D. Hooker, T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, John Lubbock, William Spottiswoode, Edward Frankland, George Busk, T. A. Hirst, and Herbert Spencer—wanted to guide the development of science and public opinion on issues where science impinged on daily life, religious belief, and politics. They formed a private dining club, which they named the X Club, to discuss and further their plans. As Ruth Barton shows, they had a clear objective: they wanted to promote “scientific habits of mind,” which they sought to do through lectures, journalism, and science education. They devoted enormous effort to the expansion of science education, with real, but mixed, success.

?For twenty years, the X Club was the most powerful network in Victorian science—the men succeeded each other in the presidency of the Royal Society for a dozen years. Barton’s group biography traces the roots of their success and the lasting effects of their championing of science against those who attempted to limit or control it, along the way shedding light on the social organization of science, the interactions of science and the state, and the places of science and scientific men in elite culture in the Victorian era.”

And, in the spirit of inquiry, consider The Spirit of Inquiry: How one extraordinary society shaped modern science by Susannah Gibson*. “Cambridge is now world-famous as a centre of science, but it wasn’t always so. Before the nineteenth century, the sciences were of little importance in the University of Cambridge. But that began to change in 1819 when two young Cambridge fellows took a geological fieldtrip to the Isle of Wight. Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow spent their days there exploring, unearthing dazzling fossils, dreaming up elaborate theories about the formation of the earth, and bemoaning the lack of serious science in their ancient university. As they threw themselves into the exciting new science of geology – conjuring millions of years of history from the evidence they found in the island’s rocks – they also began to dream of a new scientific society for Cambridge. This society would bring together like-minded young men who wished to learn of the latest science from overseas, and would encourage original research in Cambridge. It would be, they wrote, a society “to keep alive the spirit of inquiry”.

Their vision was realised when they founded the Cambridge Philosophical Society later that same year. Its founders could not have imagined the impact the Cambridge Philosophical Society would have: it was responsible for the first publication of Charles Darwin’s scientific writings, and hosted some of the most heated debates about evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century; it saw the first announcement of x-ray diffraction by a young Lawrence Bragg – a technique that would revolutionise the physical, chemical and life sciences; it published the first paper by C.T.R. Wilson on his cloud chamber – a device that opened up a previously-unimaginable world of sub-atomic particles. 200 years on from the Society’s foundation, this book reflects on the achievements of Sedgwick, Henslow, their peers, and their successors. Susannah Gibson explains how Cambridge moved from what Sedgwick saw as a “death-like stagnation” (really little more than a provincial training school for Church of England clergy) to being a world-leader in the sciences. And she shows how science, once a peripheral activity undertaken for interest by a small number of wealthy gentlemen, has transformed into an enormously well-funded activity that can affect every aspect of our lives.”

That should cover you for the rest of the month.


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Be a better communicator

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How well we communicate determines success or failure in every aspect of life. The ability to effectively get a message across is learned, even if the person learning is unaware of that learning. We are not born as linguistic beings, but acquire that ability after birth, during early childhood. We hone that ability subconsciously as we engage in our social interactions, our inner dialogue typically running ahead of our overt patter by about a mile. Every now and then the message that the message is important gets out. Lately that has been in the form of memish** aphorisms, like “don’t repeat the falsehood” or “stop using their talking points” or “get a better frame!”

These bits of advice often do more damage then good. They are potentially sharp knives, or meaty mallets, or highly useful duct tape, in the tool kit of novices, but just as likely to cut or pound a finger or gum something up as to help. These bits of advice are like the tricks surgeons used to close off a bleeder or work around a key nerve without harming it. They are nice to know if you are a trained surgeon, but really not that useful if you are not. They serve mainly to make people think they are suddenly good communicators.

My advice is to either let other people do it, or to ramp it up. By ramp it up I mean don’t attend one seminar on how to communicate, but ten. Not three or four, but ten. Don’t read the first four paragraphs of a commentary on communication in The Atlantic, but read five books. Not one or two books, but five books. Or seven,even.

You need to do enough study of the matter to go through the phase when you realize you know way less than you thought.

Pursuant to this effort, I hereby recommend a few items. These are not new, but they are current. Newness is not the key to success. One of the best references in how we communicate with words is well over 2,000 years old.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath*. Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus news stories circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, and journalists—struggle to make them “stick.”

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the human scale principle, using the Velcro Theory of Memory, and creating curiosity gaps. Along the way, we discover that sticky messages of all kinds—from the infamous “kidney theft ring” hoax to a coach’s lessons on sportsmanship to a vision for a new product at Sony—draw their power from the same six traits.

How To Go Viral and Reach Millions: Top Persuasion Secrets from Social Media Superstars, Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Even Donald Trump by Joe Romm*. How To Go Viral And Reach Millions is the first book to reveal all the latest secrets for consistently generating viral online content—words, images, or videos that are seen and shared by hundreds of thousands and eventually even millions of people, something Romm and his colleagues in three different organizations achieve routinely.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff.* Ten years after writing the definitive, international bestselling book on political debate and messaging, George Lakoff returns with new strategies about how to frame today’s essential issues.

Called the “father of framing” by The New York Times, Lakoff explains how framing is about ideas?ideas that come before policy, ideas that make sense of facts, ideas that are proactive not reactive, positive not negative, ideas that need to be communicated out loud every day in public.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! picks up where the original book left off?delving deeper into how framing works, how framing has evolved in the past decade, how to speak to people who harbor elements of both progressive and conservative worldviews, how to counter propaganda and slogans, and more.

In this updated and expanded edition, Lakoff, urges progressives to go beyond the typical laundry list of facts, policies, and programs and present a clear moral vision to the country?one that is traditionally American and can become a guidepost for developing compassionate, effective policy that upholds citizens’ well-being and freedom. (NB: “All New” here does not mean all new now. It was all new a few years ago.)


** Pronoiunced “meem-ish” not “mem ish”.


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The Animal Awards: This year there are 50 winners!

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The Ice Lover Award goes to the Polar Bear, the Crafty Hunter Award goes to the Tiger, and the Terribly Tall Award goes to the Giraffe, as usual.

This new coffee-table format kids book, The Animal Awards: Celebrate NATURE with 50 fabulous creatures from the animal kingdom, by Martin Jenkins with illustrations by Tor Freeman*, is a rollicking riot of excellent information about (fifty) animals, with fun illustrations.

The ceremony is about to begin. Roll up, roll up, roll up! The ceremony is about to begin so prepare to be amazed. We’re here to celebrate the crème de la crème of the animal kingdom, and shine a spotlight on the finest achievements and unique qualities of some special individuals. Among others, we will be awarding prizes to the fastest, the oldest, the strongest, the smelliest, the tallest, and the longest. We have some unusual prize winners and some quite scary ones, too. As we run through our short lists you’ll have the privilege of meeting our esteemed guests from dangerous, frogs to organised ants, to spiders that have devised all sorts of strange and admirable ways of catching their food. It’s been a really difficult job choosing winners but we hope you approve and find plenty to marvel at in this beastly line-up of champions. Now put your hands together and clap! The Animal Awards is about to begin…

Tor Freeman is a London-based illustrator. In 2012 she was awarded the Sendak Fellowship. In 2017 she won the Guardian Graphic Short Story Prize. Her books include the Digby Dog and Olive series.

Martin Jenkins is conservation biologist and children’s writer. His jobs have varied greatly: “I’ve been an orchid-sleuth in Germany, a timber detective in Kenya and an investigator of the chameleon trade in Madagascar.” His titles include Emperor’s Egg, winner of the Times Junior Information Book of the Year Award, Can We Save the Tiger, winner of the SLA Award, and Gulliver’s Travels, winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal. He lives in Cambridge and London.


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Graphic Fearless Primatology (book)

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Check out Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks*, a graphic style book** about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. These were, as you probably know, the three women that dispersed around the world to study major great ape species (chimps, gorillas, orangs, respectively) in order to better understand human evolution.

Example page:

These are three reasonably good biographies (and a fourth, of Louis Leakey, linked to all three life stories), presented in an entertaining (and graphic, as in drawing) fashion. Adults will enjoy it, suitable for children.


**I struggled with what to call it. It is “graphic novel” format but it is not a novel, It is non fiction. So, is it “graphic non fiction”? The material from the publisher calls it “nonfiction graphic novel” which is clearly not a phrase I want to use unironically. Suggestions welcome.


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Making Racism Uncomfortable

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In his book, “The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioural Science,”* Philosopher Abraham Kaplan wrote “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” There are other versions of this hammer-nail link. In the normal course of things, the human mind is prepared to hammer new information into ready made spaces, an efficient but not always accurate way to think. That the brain works this way was not lost on the 19th and early 20th century philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce saw the human mind as an ever developing collection of “habits” formed of new experiences. A novel experience, usually involving some sort of linguistic or symbolic interaction, is associated with an emotional state that could not be confused with comfort (any other emotional state might due) until that kind of experience stopped being that way, and became habit-formed. Because of this individualized developmental process, individuals have ways of thinking that are normal, comfortable, generally unexamined, and the product of the culture in which we formed (and are still forming). Culturally embedded sexist and racist thinking are examples of this.

When new information comes along, the most comfortable thing to do is to place it into an existing framework. Over recent years, we seem to have gotten good at doing this using only headlines flashed across social media. So, if a headline has the words “gene” and “intelligence,” we conclude that more evidence for a genetic basic of intelligence, probably organized in categories of race, has been found. It does not matter that the article may have shown contrary evidence for a gene-intelligence link, and it seems to never matter that most modern research about genes and abilities do not make any reference to human divisibility into genetically discrete groups that could be called “races.” In our minds we have spaces for races and a need for genes, and a hammer at hand to put things in their place. The article headlines reinforce our pre-existing racist beliefs.

When a liberal-minded anti-racist thinker encounters evidence of race-based biology in humans, excuses are made. People of African descent can be celebrated for their amazing prowess in sports, and Jews (as good a “race” as any) have evolved and passed on among themselves measurably high levels of intelligence. And so on. Liberal guilt is assuaged when we hand out a few well placed goodies. This passive, seemingly (but not really) harmless version of race based thinking probably keeps a certain amount of racism alive in places where it should have withered in antiquity.

This is part of Adam Rutherford’s message in his new book, “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference.”*

This book does not really tell us how to argue with a racist. Well, it covers Part I of doing so. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and don’t bring half baked notions and shoddy data to a debate with a white supremacist who is up on his Stormfront reading. Rutherford’s book can prepare you with key data, clear concepts, and a rich reference to the relevant literature. You’ll need to find the techniques of argument elsewhere.

Rutherford trashes the commonly held framework for race, genetics and DNA. The concept of race itself, that humans can be divided into a number of categories (“White,” “Black,” “Whatever”) does not come close to reflecting the underlying genetic and historical reality of our species. I’ve made this argument countless times, and I’ve read most of the other stabs at it as well, and Rutherford’s version is the best, and most up to date. Beyond this, Rutherford takes to task, with engagingly presented detail and impeccable logic, some of the key myths about race, such as the aforementioned kudos to African-heritage athletes, and more generally, the racialization of sports.

Consider runners. Rutherford documents the fact that there has not been a record-fast white person in the Olympics since the entirely non-white American running team boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and that was a fluke year. For endurance running, in subsequent years, it has been mainly Kenyans and Ethiopians who have won the vast majority of high stakes marathons. If you start with the assumption that there is a gene for “fast” or a gene for “endurance,” you’ll quickly find one for each of these traits, and the innate causality argument presents itself. But if you broaden the argument to full interrogation of the human species, to use the genetic model to explain fastness or endurance across the wide world of sports, the argument quickly dissipates. If certain genes lent great fast, or long distance, running prowess to dozens of specific populations around the world, why do only two such populations produce these runners?

This is how scientists are supposed to operate. We observe variation in something, then try to understand the variation. When an explanation explains only a tiny amount of the overall variation, it probably fails. A genetic argument for rapid or powerful muscles predicts that several different populations should dominate in certain sports, not just one or two out of hundreds. A parallel genetic argument regarding lung capacity, or adapting to living at high altitude, predicts that several different populations should dominate the marathon. But they don’t. Rutherford does what scientists do, and observes another possible source of variation that could explain why Kenyans and Ethiopians seem to always win marathons. Turns out, it is cultural. (You’ll find details in the book.)

How to Argue With a Racist provides a good summary of the history of “race science,” a term Rutherford asks us to stop using (there are no races, and this isn’t science). The author explores arguments about physicality, sexuality, morality, athleticism, and intelligence. I would like to have seen the section on IQ expanded, since it is important for documenting how nefarious race science has been especially in apartheid era South Africa. Here is where our role as variation explainers is possibly clearest. The full range of modern IQ values for any large American population is of the same magnitude of the range of historical IQ means over time, with the earliest values being low and modern values being high. (The “Flynn Effect.”) The same is true with human stature, by the way. Populations of US immigrants, as well as several European nations, gained considerable height and IQ points over nearly a century of time. Yet, the cemetaries are not full of non-reproducing short dim people. We did not genetically evolve tall stature and IQ’s of 100 on average. Genetics does not explain variation in IQ (or stature) over time, so we might wonder how well genetics explains either of these traits across space synchronously.

Also not mentioned by Rutherford is the racist physical anthropology of J. Philippe Rushton, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps Rutherford is not as comfortable with bones as he is with genes (human biology is subdivided into these areas). The short version of that story is that Rushton was in a long line of physical anthropologists who got very good at massaging brain size estimates so that they would correlate with largely useless statistics about intelligence, morality, and sexuality, across the three main “races” of White, Black and Asian. In this case, though, the variation in brain size isn’t simply explained better by a non race based explanation. The variation is made up, introduced by “adjusting” the already iffy data.

Another concept not covered by Rutherford is the role of culture and childhood. Interestingly, Rutherford does mention Henry Harpending, who was a member of the famous Kalahari Project led by Irven Devore (my PhD advisor) and Richard Lee, to study the ways of the Ju’/hoansi bushmen of Namibia and Botswana. Harpending was the geneticist on that project. Later in his career, he wrote a paper and a book dismantled by Rutherford on the intellectual superiority of the Jewish people. He was also known for making rather startling statements about race (I will not repeat here my conversations with him, but I can verify Rutherford’s impression of Harpending’s running commentary.) Another person on that same research project was Mel Konner, husband of Marjorie Shostak (author of Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman).* I believe it was Konner who first fully articulated the role of childhood in making a little human into a big one. (See his book The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind*)

Childhood is a special derived feature of humans. It is deadly, costly, and often annoying. Clearly, such a trait must be maintained by strong selection. The things that make our fully formed brains so impressive, such as the use of language, human style “theory of mind,” and so on, arise in a typical individual during this period of slowed down maturation. We humans reach maturity years later than we should (compared to other apes) because of this costly childhood phase. We are who we are as individuals because of our culture, and childhood is the delivery mechanism for culture. If we want to explain variation across individuals or across geography in human behavior, look to culture and its development first, and if there is much left unexplained, consider genes. This is, by the way, how we can make two seemingly contradictory statements unironically: There is no such thing as race; yet race is an important human concept. Genetically, no races. Culturally, race is a possibility (but not a necessity).

Slavery of Africans did not breed better athletes, repression and widespread murder of Ashkenazim did not breed professors and Fed chairs, the genetic variation we see in humans is best explained by distance across geographic space and not by bounded internally consistent races, and there are very few cases of variable human traits that map neatly onto underlying simple variation in genes.

Rutherford’s book also addresses genealogy, both the kind you get when you do documentary research into your family tree, and the kind you get when you spit in a tube and send it to a commercial DNA analysis place. In some ways, that might be the most important part of the book, because of the extreme popularity of this exercise, and its link in some quarters to white supremacy. You will be amused, shocked, and amazed by this discussion, and you won’t believe some of it even though it is really true. Rutherford is a geneticist, and he understands and does a great job explaining the concept of genetic isopoint. An example: All living Europeans (as a quasi racial group that includes, for example, Albanians, Brits, Poles, and Ukrainians, etc.) have as ancestors every person who lived in Europe at the time of William the Conqueror.

The global isopoint is much more recent than people think, being only a few thousand years in the past, and post dating the earliest, and even some of the latest, regional origins of agriculture. Everyone alive at that time was either the ancestor of everyone alive today or the ancestor of no one alive today. So, the idea that an African foraging population split off into different regions, some of which developed agriculture or this or that civilizations, others remaining as foragers, etc. is simply not an accurate way to describe genetic history. Stephen Miller in the White House and a Maasai Woman in a traditional village in Tanzania share a set of isopointal ancestors about 3-5 thousand years ago, like it or not. And I’m sure she does not. I know you don’t believe this, but just read the book and come back and complain if you like. As the descendant of royalty, I don’t care.


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Some excellent books for kids just in time for the holidays

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But they are not holiday books, and they cover a range of ages.

Be Brave, Be Brave, Be Brave: A True Story of Fatherhood and Native American Heritage* by Native American author F. Anthony Falcon comprises the thoughts of the author about what lessons he would pass from his heritage to his son.

There is also a Hurricane. This is a large format picture book with text to read to a young one, mainly. Adults will enjoy the read as well.

Copycat Science and Nature’s Light Spectacular are two books I have already reviewed. They are excellent, highly recommended, and I’m putting this reminder here to remind you now that ’tis the season to give your covid-quarantined friends and relatives with kids a nice book.

For littler kids just learning to read and spell, The B on Your Thumb: 60 Poems to Boost Reading and Spelling by Colette Hiller* is a clever expose of the irony of letters and words designed to help kids spell in this zany, crazy, language called English.

Continuing along on the theme of words, since your first kid ate the last letter book, consider a newer version, printed on heavy card stock and with no sharp edges, ABC for Me: ABC What Can I Be?: YOU can be anything YOU want to be, from A to Z by Sugar Snap Studio* adds adventure and diversity to this genre. Each entry (I think there are about 26 of them) is a person in a profession, such as “Game Developer” and “Helicopter Pilot.”

All of these books are solid works of printing, colorful, excellently illustrated, well composed and written, and fun.


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50 Maps of the World is a colorful introduction to geography, but it is not an atlas.

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50 Maps of the World by Ben Handicott, Kalya Ryan, and Sol Linero* is for kids of a wide range of ages. It is a large format–ecause it is an atlas–100+ page volume done in a modern colorful style but using traditional atlas layout. A term like “Map Key” is replaced with “Contents” inside the front cover, which has a map of the world with page nuber references. The labeling in the “contents” give you a link to the countries covered in the book’s pages, which is a sampling of the world, not complete. That is why it is called “50 maps of the world” — there are just under 50 countries covered.

None of the maps are actual maps. They are outlines, often covered or obscured by parts of the layout of the book. Across the “map,” or in nearby sections with pointers to the “maps” are interesting localities or other item. To the extent that the layouts are map like, they are not accurate. For example, the “Cradle of Humankind” in South Africa is indicated to be in Johannesburg, but it is nearer to Krugersdorp, the Cederberg looks like it is on the coast, and The Big Hole is far too east of where it really it. Best to not think of the maps as maps, but rather, as map-esque layouts related to an exemplar country. This does produce a bit of quasi-colonialism. For example, using South Africa once again as an exemplar, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is in South Africa in this book, but the bulk of it is actually in Botswana, but since Botswana isn’t one of the included country, it lost its pare of the international (“transfrontier”) park. And, in the “Moments to Remember” section, for the same country, South African history appears to start with the later stages of the Bantu Migration (it really started hundreds of thousands of years earlier) and the next thing that happens it the arrival of Europeans. Lake Kivu is indicated to be in Rwanda, and it kinda is, but it is mainly in Congo. And so on.

Part of the page on “France”:

I’m making this sound pretty bad so far, but it is actually a fun and colorful book. But the reading level extends into the area where kids are old enough to be misled in a way that may cause confusion or inaccuracies if the book is used as a reference source. It is a way for younger kids with a somewhat higher reading level to find an entree into geography. So, I don’t hate it, but I don’t fully recommend it either.

Somewhere along the way, someone noticed that this atlas-like book is not an atlas, I’m guessing, because the publishers added a note to the beginning. “The maps in this book have been designed to tell a story, and show the natural curve of the Earth. They are not drawn to scale, nor do they reflect the longitudinal and latitudinal lines of each country. Please consult an atlas after using this book to plan your journey around the world”

There is an index.

This work may be an example of designers using our modern cultural fetish of the narrative structure to take over an important part of reality.

Meanwhile, since we are speaking of maps:


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Kids Self Help Meets Everything Is A Narrative

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Humans not only know a story when they see one, but they are stories. This revelation, that our symbolic, linguistic mind is also our culture and that we are products of that culture, has been slowly seeping into areas outside the obscure halls of academia, and has finally reached the kids self help book market in the form of the new volume The Life Heroic: How To Unleash Your Most Amazing Self by Elizabeth Svoboda.

Zvodoba is a science writer who leans towards psychology, and the book is illustrated by Minneapolis based artist Chris Hajny.

The book is marketed for kids 10 and up. There is a lot of good advice, using the “Hero’s journey” model for how all things must be as a framework. However, the book is not written for the 10 year old reader. The style and focus of the writing is for an adult, with no obvious adjustment for younger kids. I’m not talking about themes (the book is kid safe). I’m talking about sentences. Sentences like,

The Greek philosopher Aristotle called this kind of lasting happiness eudaimonia–and he called short-lived, ephemeral happiness hedonia. Eudaimonia is much more profound than the momentary pleasure of hedonia, such as eating and ice cream cone or pranking your best friend. Eudaimonia is the lasting satisfaction you get from knowing that you’ve lived up to your highest potential. “As it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring,” Aristotle wrote, “so it is not one day or a shor time that makes a man blessed and happy.

There are many kids who could use a good self help book that won’t fit into a model of “read this book and improve” that all kids-oriented self help books follow, which means most books (including this one) have to be tested on a a given kid to see if there is any help to be had.

There is also a certain amount of Southern California Privileged soaked reality disconnect here. For example, we are told that one does not have to safely land an airplane in the Hudson River to be a hero. One merely has to develop program to distribute soccer balls to poor children in Mozambique.

Having said all these negative things, it is possible that this book will work for some kids, with certain adults moderating or mediating. From the supporting information, consider this:

“Aimed at kids, this book is also fascinating for adults. With thorough research and drawing on her expertise writing about science, Svoboda offers some remarkable takeaways about heroism”:

  • Most heroes are ordinary people
  • There is a hero inside everyone
  • The ability to be courageous can be strengthened, just like a muscle
  • Going through tough times can sharpen heroic instincts
  • Being a hero doesn’t have to involve tackling an intruder or fishing someone from an icy lake—and in fact, most often doesn’t!

This thought provoking guide can be read chapter by chapter or by skimming through the bolded font. Svoboda’s book is a powerful read for tweens and teens interested in the big questions in their minds about what kind of life to lead and what actually creates meaning.

If this feels right, The Life Heroic may be a good investment.


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