Poul Anderson totally stole my idea!

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Here was my idea. I call it “The Wedge.” See, there’s this wedge of, well, effect, emanating from the cluster of black hoes near the center of the galaxy, and sweeping around like a lighthouse beam, with one rotation every several thousand years (details to be worked out). While The Wedge is shining on your plant, things work one way. When it passes, things go back to normal. Our solar system has been within the Wedge Zone for thousand of years (except may be it flicked off now and then, say, during Egyptian times, or whatever). Never mind the details. Continue reading Poul Anderson totally stole my idea!


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A parable for the insurrection

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There was the Big Boss, I’ll call him Boss Carl. Then there was the lower boss, I’ll call her The Dragon because that was, in fact, her nickname. Seven or eight people worked for The Dragon. They loved their jobs because it was exactly one of those jobs people decide they must do, but few get to do, and they happen to get to do it. Like being a firefigher if that is what you always wanted to do, but firefighing jobs were rare. But they all hated their jobs because The Dragon … well, you can imagine where she got her name.

But even though they hated their jobs it was hard to leave them for the aforestated reason. Continue reading A parable for the insurrection


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Dear Senator (about that insurrection thing)

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I’m contacting all of my representatives, but I thought this note to Senator Klobuchar was bloggable, so here it is:

Dear Senator Klobuchar,

First, I appreciate the comment you made last night on the RMS, when you turned back an expression of concern about your welfare, noting that you and your colleagues are fine, it is the American people at risk. Continue reading Dear Senator (about that insurrection thing)


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The Sympathizer, Excellent Novel, Now $2

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How many ways can I describe The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen*?

Shocking. Revealing. Informative. Historic. Historical. Hard to put down. Won all the prizes (Pulitzer, Edgar, Andrew Carnegie, etc).

Do not read reviews of it. They tend to give some of the story away. Just read the book. Best novel of the last few years (it came out in 2016). I’ve recommended it before, but now, it is on Kindle for $1.99 (at least in the US) so NOW is the time to get it.


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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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Tolkien Christmas Book On Kindle Cheap

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I didn’t even know this book existed, but here it is: Letters From Father Christmas by JRRT* … Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or painting. The letters were from Father Christmas.

They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how the reindeer got loose and scattered presents all over the place; how the accident-prone North Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house into the dining room; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house, and many more.

No reader, young or old, can fail to be charmed by Tolkien’s inventiveness in this classic holiday treat.


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Everything is as expected, even the Covid-19 pandemic

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When I was in graduate school, four things happened at almost the same time (probably within a three year time frame, but who’s counting?) 1) The publication of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett (well, and my reading of the book); 2) the cultural phenomenon of “hot zone” movies and books, of which the most memorable is probably Outbreak starting Dustin Hoffman; and 3) the realization that a good part of the archaeology I was doing in the Congo was of villages that had been abandoned because a plague of some kind came along and killed enough people that everyone moved elsewhere, which is apparently a tradition in that area; and 4) the Zaire Ebola outbreak in Kikwit. Since I had been working in the area, I got involved, in a minor way, with some of the Ebola research, and I produced evidence for a model for the virus jumping from fuit bats to humans that turned out to be exactly what had happened about ten years later when the West African Ebola epidemic occurred. Continue reading Everything is as expected, even the Covid-19 pandemic


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We’ll Always Have Dover

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Lewis Black, the gruff comedian, has a shtick about evolution. At one point he intones that he carries a fossil with him, and when he runs into a creationist, he holds this trilobite up, pointing it at them, and yells (he’s always yelling), “Fossil!” Then, if they still don’t get it, he throws it over their head.

I do exactly the same thing, but instead of just any creationist, I target public school administrators who are soft on science, and instead of a fossil I just yell, “Dover!”

Nobody wants to get Dovered.

Dover was the US Federal court decision that found that science class can not teach religion, that creationism is a form of religion, affirmed that so called creation science is just another form of creationism, and specifically determined that “Intelligent Design” is just more creationism.

Dover is to the teaching of evolutionary biology what Rove v. Wade is to reproductive rights, plus or minus. Plus, in the sense that Dover may well be an even more solid decision (though not at SCOUTS, never got to SCOTUS because it was so solid). Minus in the sense that it restricts an activity that can still go on at low level if we are not careful.

The point is, the 15th anniversary of the Dover decision is coming up. The National Center for Science Education, under the directorship of my friend Genie Scott, coordinated the Dover win, and has produced “Rembering Kitzmiller v Dover” for your perusal. For a deepre dive, see Laura Lebo’s book The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma V. Darwin in Small-town America.

“cdesign proponentsists” = smoking gun

^^ look it up ^^^


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K-12 On Line Learning: Not Easy, Not Better, but Survivable.

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This is one of those posts I write to show people later when they get something wrong, something that lots of people get wrong, over and over again. Thus the post so I don’t have to repeat myself or, worse, allow someone to be wrong on the Internet without comment.

First, let us clearly establish that there are many ways to learn, and many ways to teach. Let us further establish that when I, or any other educator, uses the word “teach” it does not ever imply a student sitting there and getting taught at. It is just that there are people who are professional educators, and when they are doing the job they do, the applicable verb is “to teach” and they are called a “teacher.” I digress, but that is just because one in ten readers will be thinking thoughts that needed to be addressed by that comment.

One way to teach and learn in in a classroom. Another way is with distance learning materials, which in the old days were usually sent by mail, but these days are accessed on line. Another way is in an on line classroom setting of some sort. In class teaching and learning is replaced today, in many instances, by a mixture of these two, owing to the Covid-19 Pandemic. (If you are reading this in the far future, we are having a huge pandemic, you may not have heard about it, but it started in 2020, which in the old system, was a number referring to the year.)

Here are the two things that I want to address, that people often get wrong. Usually it is Republicans who get this wrong (“Republcian” was at one time a political party in the US, for those of you in the future) because they hate education and therefore are blindingly stupid about it.

1) All you have to do to create an on line learning system that will work perfectly well is to throw a bunch of lectures, and handouts that teachers are using, on the internet, and it will pretty much take care of itself. This is cheaper, requiring fewer tax dollars, and teachers if they really cared would just do that and then kill themselves and go away. It is easy.

2) On line learning is at least as good as in class learning for everybody, so why don’t we just do it all the time? The Teachers Union, probably, and Libtards in the city that are trying to get our kids into public schools so they can be indoctrinated in things like the arts and literature. Everything people really need to learn can be put on line in a few lectures.

The main fallacy with this first point, I think, is that turning classroom learning into something on line is either very simply, or even, less work than what teachers were doing before. The proof that this is not true is that every single teacher doing their jobs right now is spending about twice the amount of time doing this than they were doing thier work the old way. Much of that time is because this is new, so each of these courses had to be, in large part, redesigned to be on line. It takes a couple of years for a teacher, or a small staff of teachers, to get a new course deployed, and up to speed. If all the courses are going through this transition, that is a disaster. If on line teaching keeps going for three or four years (which it won’t at this level, but if it did, hypothetically) teachers would be able to settle back into something more doable. It is not know if this will take more or less time, or be more or less difficult, than in class teaching, once all the courses are redesigned and run through the paces a couple of times.

So, to summarize that point, the idea that this is somehow easier than what was being done before is absurd. Insisting that it is, well that would be an ignorant ass-hat thing to say. Insulting, and you look like a moron. So maybe don’t do that.

The second, closely related point, is that somehow we can magically assume that all online teaching is as good as or better than classroom teaching. This is not true for so many reasons that I don’t have time to go into it, but the number one piece of evidence is the roughly doubling of class failure rates in many schools that were already stretched too thin on resources. Some schools aren’t seeing this, but before you adduce that as evidence of your rightness, investigate further. The school districts that are not being hammered with high failure rates right now are doing some amazing things. I live in one of the top public school districts in the country. The district is taking direct action to make sure that every family has goo internet, even going so far as to hand out better wireless connectors. Every kid has had an iPad in this district for a while now, so that part of it was already covered. And so on. Everybody is working harder, so point 1 is obvious here, but some of that work is in order to avoid point 2 from being manifest here. But it is being manifest in other districts.

So, there, now you don’t have to be wrong about this any more. That is all.


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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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Covidpocalypse Now: an update

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Most of the Covid news is about vaccines.

A second vaccine has passed the final non-red tape hurdle in the US, and will likely be authorized by the end of the week. Six million doses will be distributed, probably over the weekend or early in the week, to over 3,000 locations.

There is argument and discussion going on as to the lower age limit on the vaccines. So far everything seems authorized for 18 year olds and older. It will probably be a serious mistake if that isn’t adjusted very soon. Now, the kids who transmit the disease that kill grandma are anonymous. Once they are the main carriers, they will not be, and a spotty subgroup of an entire generation will be scarred. At least, we’ll be given by fate the name for that generation. The Marys (for Typhoid Mary).

Let’s talk about Pregnant and lactating women for a minute. There have been no systematic trials pertaining to pregnant women, so the FDA advice is vague. They say, “you decide.” The following are supportable facts:

1) There is evidence, subject to revision because it is not the focus of any systematic experimental study, that pregnant women are somewhat protected from getting Covid-19, but not to anywhere near the degree that they can flout caution.

2) There is evidence, again subject to revision, that when pregnant women do get Covid-19, they have a number of worse outcomes than other people of similar age. They may get sicker, and there is a possible risk of preterm birth.

3) Non-live vaccines are generally considered safe for pregnant women.

To manufacturers and health care providers, this may be more a mater of blame and liability than anything else. Of all the people who get the vaccine, some are going to get sick or die randomly even if the vaccine never causes an actual problem, and someone is going to sue somebody over something. The chance of such a suit winning probably goes up if the plaintiff is a pregnant woman or her survivors, or if a baby is born with a problem etc. etc. So, by saying “you decide” we just get on with it, is probably the thinking.

VERY IMPORTANT: We humans have a lot of misconceptions about immunity and pregnancy. A common falsehood is that immunity of the mother is passed on to the offspring. This is not true. Also, an in utero fetus does not get vaccinated when the mother gets vaccinated. A lot of people believe these things happen but they do not.

What does happen is that the mother’s immune products, if she’s got them, circulate in the fetus, and may even be found in the newborn for a while. But an infant does not have much of a functioning adaptive immune system, so there can be no development of long term immunity, and the magical immunity stuff we have spent so much time talking about can’t be passed on.

During lactation, some of this humeral immunity of the mother will be shared with the offspring via breast feeding. This, of course, is also temporary.

It has been a while since I’ve done a literature search on this, but last time I looked there were no studies that really examined how effective any of this passive immunity is. Our cultural love of breastfeeding, and rhetoric from pro-breast feeding organizations, have led many people to believe that mother to infant immunity (i.e. through breastfeeding and esp the passing on of colostrum) is powerful and highly effective. We don’t really know this.

Doses:

In the US right now 2.9 million Pfizer doses (with second doses already accounted for) have been shipped. Moderna will ship over 5 million doses right away. According to Health and Human Services (a Trump Crime Family Joint) there will be enough doses to vaccinate everybody in the US by the end of June 2021. We await the replacement of the Deplorables with Biden appointees to confirm (or deny) that.

Can you pass Covid-19 on if you are vaccinated?

Nobody knows yet, but there is not really a useful “yes” or “no” answer to this. Here’s the story: What matters is the R0 value of the disease, right? How many people will get infected down the road if a particular individual is infected. More realistically, sort of, imagine a population of 1 million people, and 1,000 people freshly infected show up and there are no precautions taken. If that disease is Covid and the 1 million are not vaccinated, the next “generation” of infection will see more than 1,000 people infected, and the next generation, more than that, etc. as a wave of the disease spreads across the populations. SO, maybe, 1,000 gets you 1800, and that gets you 2500, and that gets you 4,800, and so on.

If most everybody is vaccinated, the whole point is that the chance of the virus being able to reproduce in you at all is lower, the time frame and intensity of that reproduction is shorted or lowered. Maybe to zero, but even if not, the R0 value is significantly lowered.

So, in the above scenario, with the population mainly vaccinated, 1,000 infected people gets you maybe 100 (max, that would b a lot) which gets you 10, which gets you zero, and Bob’s your uncle.


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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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