Monday, December 28, 2009

A Wiseass for a Daughter

A little over a week ago, my 12 year old daughter and I were driving in the car to her flute lesson. She asked me, "Dad, what's your new years resolution?". I said, without really thinking, "To be less of an asshole". Absolutely deadpan, my daughter says, "Dad, what's your realistic resolution?".

My wife thinks she gets being a wiseass from matter where she gets it she is a master.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Many thanks to the various Santa Clauses that made the above pile of loot possible! I've got a lot of reading to do...but I've already got a head start. I began Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett on Christmas night, and although I'm only a few pages in, it is very enjoyable! A nice combination of silly and strange. I began A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd on Christmas Eve and read the first (and only Christmas based) story of the 5 in the book. It is very similar to the outstanding movie (in fact, the best Christmas movie ever made in my opinion). And finally, I couldn't resist starting Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders. Dr. Sanders is the medical advisor to House, M.D., and this book is a list of patient case studies that discuss how doctor's solved the case and the various mistakes they make along the way and why they make them. I'm 45 or so pages in and loving it. To help me keep up with all of these books, I got a great bookmark made by my son, Gray, that's sticking out of Small Gods and some very cool page markers (in front of the books) to mark my pages and reduce my habit of dog-earing pages. I've also got a gift card or two to some very cool bookstores that I can't wait to get to. Only a week until it's back to the salt mine, so I'd better get my reading done while I still can. Thanks to my many Santa Clauses. You've made a little boy very happy this Christmas season!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Women Unbound Challenge

I am delighted to become a philogynist. If I was a smarter man, I would look that word up before I used it in such a sentence, but I'm going to live dangerously today. I'm joining the Women Unbound Challenge at the philogynist level and thus, I solemnly vow to read at least two of the following as soon as I can without unduely straining myself. I don't have a long list, but it may include:

- The tangled field: Barbara McClintock and the search for patterns of genetic control by Nathaniel Comfort
- Woman: An intimate geography by Natalie Angiers
- The secret life of bees by Sue Monk Kidd
- Social behaviour of monkeys by Thelma Rowell (wtf, you say...she is supposedly a true renegade in primatology. Read about her in "Rebels, mavericks, and heretics in biology" by Harman and Deitrich)
- The complete persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (thanks, Debi!)

Now all I need is some time to read. And some time to finish all of the other books I've gotten started. Just too many good books and too little time, don't you think?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Two Evolution Books for You

This year has seen many fine new evolution books to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publishing of The Origin of Species. In the last month or so, I've had the distinct pleasure of reading two of these great new books. I just finished one: Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species: A graphic adaptation by Michael Keller and illustrated by Nicolle Rager Fuller. This is an awesome book that should be read by everyone, especially in my home country, The United States, where understanding of evolutionary principles is disgustingly low. There are 3 parts to the book. The first part is a general background about Darwin and evolutionary theory. The second, and largest part is the actual graphic adaptation of The Origin. This is the part I loved the most. The artwork is excellent and the words are mostly Darwin's own. Michael Keller has hit the high points of the book for those without the time or energy to read the real deal. There are updates and editor's notes about things where Darwin wasn't quite on track. The third and final part was a short update on developments on the theory since Darwin's death. I think that this book is an excellent way to get Darwin's message to the masses. As an educator, I can vouch for the great confusion and misunderstanding of Darwin and his theory that is out there. Now, people can get a brief and accurate idea of what he really said...and again, much of it in Darwin's actual words. Please read it if you have an interest in learning a bit about a fascinating theory. I may have students in my evolution course read this.
The second book I recommend is: The greatest show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. The author's motivation for this book is to illustrate the overwhelming evidence for the theory of evolution. I'm pretty well versed in the theory of evolution and I learned quite a few new and interesting things. But the main "target audience" for this book will be people who are open to the theory of evolution but don't know a whole lot about it and want to know more. As I mentioned earlier, in the U.S., where over 40% of people reject evolution outright and 32% of people think that modern humans lived side by side with dinosaurs (not the bird kind, the Velociraptor kind), we need this book. I'm afraid that most of those 40% who just reject the idea of evolution because of primarily religious grounds will be unconvinced. Not that this book doesn't provide all the evidence a logical person needs, but simply that I don' think that any amount of logic and evidence will convince these deliberately ignorant people (as Aldous Huxley said, facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored). I hope that I am wrong, however, and that this book makes a difference. I do salute Richard Dawkins, Ken Miller, Neil Shubin, and the others who keep trying to convince a skeptical public of the obvious.
I've got to admit that I really like all of Richard Dawkins' books and that I'm a big fan. Maybe that is biasing my opinion, but my opinion nonetheless is that this is a great and important book that you should be reading.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Read-a-Thon Wrap Up!

Well, it's almost over. After an extended nap, I woke up and finished Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. So that makes a grand total of TWO books finished. Rather pathetic, especially compared to many of you. But it was indeed fun...
I did start The Origin, a fictionalized account of Charles Darwin's life last night in the wee hours. Didn't get too far, however. Annie told me that she knew I'd read some big Darwin book.
Many thanks to those of you who commented and offered words of encouragement! I hope you are all getting ready for a calm, quiet day of rest and relaxation.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Falling Asleep Story

I fell asleep, albeit briefly, when Debi was in labor with Max. Staying awake has never been my forte. And now, reading is getting more difficult for some unforseen reason...maybe that beer wasn't the best idea I've ever had, but it did seem like a good idea at the time. I think it may be time to take a page out of my cat's playbook and take a nap...

First Update on the Readathon...

I've been holding out to post until I finished The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. I simply had to finish this book. It has been hard to put down. Once I finished it, I had to take the dog for a very long walk in an attempt to recover. If I had to describe it in one word, it might be: Intense. In two words: Damned intense. I told Debi after it was done that it was a book that required one to go out and immediately buy the sequel even if it meant paying retail. Debi does have the sequel, but she ain't done it yet. And I don't think I could take any more of this series right at this moment. It is somewhat emotionally draining. I don't think I've ever read a book that just has such sustained intensity. Wow.
I think now, I'm going to read a biography of Stephen Jay Gould from Rebels, Mavericks, etc in Biology, and then maybe a bit more of The Selfish Gene.
Many of you do such a great job of keeping tabs on pages read, time read, etc. But, being somewhat shifty, lazy, and disorganized, all I can say is that I have read, in the immortal and eloquent words spoken by Keannu Reeves' character in the wonderful movie I Love You to Death: "Fuck...a bunch".
My reading pile for the next 24 hours. I just realized that I did forget one: The selfish gene by Richard Dawkins. I'm 76% of the way through and will be starting with that today.

Happy Reading Everyone!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I'm so sad...

I finished my second trip through Harry Potter's world. The trip is over. It was a wonderful and amazing voyage and I miss it terribly now that it is over. I read all seven of them this summer. It all began after I took Annie and her friend to see Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. How could I NOT read them all again? It was simply inconceivable. Now that it is over, I miss it so much. I want to go back...I love the world of Muggles, squibs, Hogwarts, Harry and his friends, and my hero, Albus Dumbledore. It is, as anyone who has been there knows, a wonderful world. There is some pretty serious evil in that world, and the last of the books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is full of evil and tragedy. I won't spoil the ending because I know one of the readers of this blog hasn't been there yet. (Lucky have so much to look forward to, Debi!). But I loved to take time every day to get lost in the wonderful world of magic. This may be the best series of books ever written. At the moment, I certainly can think of none I love better than these.

I took a bit of liberty and read Prisoner of Azkaban for Annie's What's in a Name challenge. Because, as we all know, Azkaban is a building! When I read them the first time through, Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire were my favorites. This time, perhaps Half Blood Prince, in spite of the horrific ending.

I know this ain't much of a review. Please forgive me because I am heartbroken. The one good thing about being an idiot who can't remember anything is that I can go back and read them again if it was the second time all over again. I really can't wait. I'm sure after the next movie comes out, we'll start this series again. If I can wait that long that is!

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Pirates! in an adventure with scientists

This book is a must read for boys...of any age. I read it with my 6 and 8 year olds (now 7 and almost 9) and they loved it. A group of pirates are sailing looking for booty and meet Charles Darwin and Captain FitzRoy aboard the HMS Beagle. The pirates rather deliberately sink FitzRoy's Beagle with a cannonball shot that blows the head clean off of a lady that both Darwin and FitzRoy fancied. At the time of her decapitation, this lady had driven Darwin and FitzRoy to duel for the "right" to her companionship. When she is no longer available, the boys become friends again. Darwin and FitzRoy then accompany the pirates on a journey back to England to rescue Darwin's brother who has been kidnapped by the evil Bishop of Oxford. This book is seriously silly. And it does have interesting tidbits of science here and there that my older son, Gray, really enjoyed, such as when the pirate captain and the Bishop were throwing minerals at each other, and each kept trying to throw a mineral of a higher molecular weight than the other. As I mentioned, this book is seriously silly.
I won't tell you what happened to Darwin's brother. You'll just have to read it to find out. Many thanks to Carl for recommending this book. Our next joint boy read is The Pirates! in an adventure with Communists. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

RIP and Me

I hearby vow to join The RIP Challenge (RIP IV) and readeth the following:

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
2. Dracula - The graphic novel version adapted by: Michael Mucci (writer), Ben Caldwell (Penciller/ Colorist), and Bill Hilliar (inker).

Before I get started, I must finish Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I get to begin tonight. I love the Potter books and will be so very sad to be finished with them for the second time. But there is much more to read...and life is so damned short. More philosophy to come...

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

It may have been stretching it a bit to use this book for Annie's What's in a Name 2 Challenge for a "medical condition", but I did it anyway. I've read two of Oliver Sack's books and have been itching to read this one. I bought it shortly after it was published but it kept getting pushed down the to-read list.

The subtitle of this book says it all: Tales of music and the brain. Each chapter discusses a medical condition related to music. For example, there was a chapter on epilepsy and how certain people have seizures when listening to music. One of Dr. Sack's patients wore ear plugs for fear of hearing music on an elevator or in a store and having a seizure. One patient had seizures caused by Neopolitan music, but no other music. (Neopolitan music was her favorite).

One of the more dramatic tales from the book was of a cardiac surgeon who was talking on a pay phone during a thunderstorm and got a severe shock over the line. Upon recovery he became an extreme musicophile and spent every waking moment away from surgery playing the piano and composing. He had previously been a rather half-assed piano player, but had never written anything. He became so obsessed with music that he ignored his family. His wife left him for a less musicophilic man.

Another fascinating chapter was on music hallucinations. We all get songs stuck in our heads, but these people hear orchestras playing LOUD nonstop to them; it is as if they are really listening to a CD or the radio, but only they can hear it. Many of these patients can be helped somewhat with medicine, but many have to simply suck it up. The author described a time he thought he was enjoying one of his favorite pieces of music on a CD and was really rocking out. It was only after it was over that he realized he had never actually started the CD and must have "hallucinated" the entire piece.

I wish I could remember more of the strange stories at the moment, but you'll have to trust me when I say that there are plenty. It served to remind me of how tenuous our grasp on reality is and how one small blood clot or thwack on the head can change our personality dramatically...not a lovely thought. But a fascinating read.

This book is best enjoyed by those who know their music theory. Several times the author mentioned different types of scales or legato and staccato, etc. It wasn't essential that you understand these terms to get the gist, but it won't hurt.

I highly recommend this book and am anxious to read more of his books and to reread The man who mistook his wife for a hat.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Describing the Indescribable

How can I possibly "review" American Gods by Neil Gaiman? It is indescribable. It fits no known genre. It is bizarre. It is strange. It is wonderful.
It took about 150 pages before I had any clue as to what was going on. Then, very quickly, it is apparent that the book is actually about American Gods. Immigrants that have come to North America, from Native Americans, that came over the Bering land bridge 15,000 years ago, to the European immigrants that arrived in droves from the 1600s to the present day (and including so many other ethnic groups), brought their gods with them in their beliefs. These gods, largely abandoned by their believers, are alive and kicking in this book. The main character turns out to be a biological son of one of these gods.
This is a complex story. It is unlike anything I have ever read. But now that I have read this book (as well as Coraline), I can see why my cousin Jean and her son waited in line for over 3 hours to meet Neil Gaiman and get their books signed. (Jean, who is amazingly nice, got a book signed for Annie). It would be a special thing to get to exchange a few words with this author.
There were several highlights of this book. One is a sex scene that is indescribable...and weird. Gotta read it to appreciate it. The other is a murder mystery that is woven into the tapestry of the plot. The murder mystery was solved at the end of the book.
Before I give up in my feeble attempt at describing and reviewing this book, I want to thank my wife, Debi, for encouraging me to read this book. It really is an amazing and magical book. I am definitely going to read this one again. I'm sure I missed little nuances, etc. This one is destined to become a classic.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Joy of Reading Lucy's Legacy

It was indeed a pleasure to read Lucy's Legacy by Donald Johanson and Kate Wong for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge and the Science Challenge. Annie may feel that I'm stretching things by using this as a book with a relative in the title, but Lucy is a relative, and I feel very certain that Donald Johanson would agree with me on this point. I thought I might get to meet Dr. Johanson this month, as Philadelphia is celebrating the year of evolution in 2008-2009, and Dr. Johanson was slated to speak in April. It was, however, April of 2008 and not 2009. Such is my luck.
This very well written and easy to read book has three parts. The first part is basically a history of the discovery of Lucy (the famous Austalopithecus afarensis skeleton found in 1974) and a travelogue of Dr. Johanson's work in Ethiopia in the intervening years. This part of the book gives us a good idea of the political problems paleontologists face when working in foreign countries, especially ones with unstable governments that are prone to being overthrown. It also gives us a good idea of what it's like being on an expedition to such a place. This is the longest section of the book, and it basically discusses what Dr. Johanson has been up to since discovering Lucy. He and his team have discovered hundreds of A. afarensis fossils so that now this is one of the best known and understood species of hominid. One of the things I like about this book is that the authors prefer the term hominid to hominin. I am so totally with them on this point.
The second section of the book is about Lucy's ancestors. The inside cover of the book has a very nice hominid family tree (phylogeny for us nerds) and the authors walk us through the earliest of the hominids. We learn about their discovery, what is known about their biology, and of course, the controversies concerning their biology. Paleoanthropologists are well known to disagree about all aspects of the biology of fossil hominids and we gain a nice insiders view of some of the debates. I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on hominids, but I learned quite a bit from this section.
The final section was about Lucy's descendants. We learn about Homo habilis, erectus, ergaster, neanderthalensis, and a bit about our own species Homo sapiens. As with the previous section, this section has a lot of information about discoveries and debates among researchers.
Overall, this is a very quick read. It is written for mostly general readers as opposed to specialists in the field of paleoanthropology. The only regret I have after reading it is that I won't be able to go back in time to 2008 and get my copy signed. I will have to keep an eye out for Dr. Johanson. He is a man that I would definitely like to meet and have a beer with. I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Once more for Once upon a Time

I am once again delighted to join Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge. This is a genre that is outside my comfort zone, so I turned to my wife for advice and guidance. She loves this Neil Gaiman guy, so I'm going to read American Gods. I did read Coraline before I took the family to see the movie and loved it. Thus, I am anxious to get on with this book. Thanks, Carl!

The Nonfic Five

My wife informed me that this Challenge is on again. If there is one thing I love, it is reading nonfiction. Last year I made a long list and ended up changing most of the books. I'm sure I'll do much the same this year. But, for whatever it's worth, here is a list of possible books that are lookin' good as of this moment:
- Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer
- Remarkable creatures by Sean Carroll
- Among Orangutans by Van Shaik
- Lost on Planet China by Troost
- Blue latitudes by Tony Horwitz
- Rebels, mavericks, and heretics by Oren Herman
- The pleasures of entomology by Howard E. Evans
- Superorganism by Bert Holldobber and E. O. Wilson
- Kluge by Gary Marcus
- The case of the female orgasm by Elisabeth Lloyd
- The bone museum by Wayne Grady
- Evolutionary ecology across three trophic levels by Abrahamson and Weis

The only problem is deciding what to read first...perhaps a good bug book to make it feel like spring, even thought it is currently snowing outside.

Herding Cats

My lovely wife, Debra, introduced me to this. It is the five books that I've read in the last 3 years that I think others MUST read. What this has to do with herding cats, however, I'm not sure. The books are:
1. The ancestor's tale by Richard Dawkins - absolutely the best book ever written
2. On the origin of species by Charlie Darwin - the most important book ever written
3. Why zebras don't get ulcers by Robert Sapolsky - a great book on why stress kills and how and why to stop worrying and be happy
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling - The best in a wonderful series
5. The lonely silver rain by John D. McDonald - the final book in another wonderful, but very different, series.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Hunt for Dawn Monkey: Deep thoughts about...

I read The Hunt for Dawn Monkey by Chris Beard. I read this to learn more about the family tree, as well as for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge and the Science Challenge.
This book is an interesting mix of paleontological history, travelogue, and serious science. Throughout the book the author describes his discoveries and how they shed light on the history of primates and especially, the history of anthropoids, which are monkeys and apes. Interwoven throughout he describes the various competing hypotheses concerning the anthropoid family tree and how his discoveries have helped shed light on this topic. He has taken a somewhat historical approach by frequently discussing the historical aspects of the different hypotheses and by setting up the book as a history of his research and discoveries from his first research in the U.S. to his more current research in China. At the end of the book, he provides us with his hypothesis for the primate "family tree", or more specifically, a phylogeny of the order primates.
Like most paleoanthropologists, he is opinionated, but not annoyingly so. He feels strongly that anthropoids originated in Asia rather than Africa. He provides his reasoning for this, but since he readily admits that the oldest anthropoid by far was found in Africa, I for one was not totally convinced by his argument.
I learned a great deal and mostly enjoyed this book. As anyone who know me will attest, I am a nerd to the nth degree, but the author's in depth discussions of the minutiae of tooth morphology that separate the different primate groups and that set anthropoids apart from prosimians were more than I could bear at times. For serious paleontologists, I think this material probably would be essential. But for people with a casual desire to know a little bit more about the history of primates and little bit about how paleontology is done might be turned off by this.
I'd love to say more, but the dog needs to be let out.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Taking Wing

The third nerd book I read this year, for the Science Challenge as well as to gain wisdom, was Taking Wing by Pat Shipman. It was basically a book about the fossil bird Archaeopteryx and how this fossil explains the origin of birds and the origin of flight. It was a wonderful and very well written account of all of the research on Archaeopteryx. I read this book to gain some insight on research on various hypotheses concerning flight and I got a deeper understanding of the two major competing hypotheses a) the trees down and b) the ground up. Archaeopteryx can be used as evidence for both. Was it a climber that glided down from trees or a "flapper" that could take off from the ground? The evidence is certainly ambiguous. Archaeopteryx had well developed wings and feathers, but most fossils show it lacked a well developed sternum for attachment of flight muscles. It also lacked the ability to do a "wing flip" that allows a bird to not stall as it raises its wings for another "stroke". But it's small hallux suggests that it couldn't perch in a tree like a regular bird either. There didn't seem to be trees in the immediate area where the fossils were found either. And it lacked muscles to perch effectively. But, to make a long story short, we still don't know what it could and couldn't do. It perhaps could've taken off from the ground, which is what I tend to think it did.
I can highly recommend this book. It was a very quick read and gave much insight. My only complaint is that it is a bit out of date, as it was published in 1998 and mentions quite a bit of Larry Martin and others who dispute that birds are related to dinosaurs (even though 2 of the 7 Archaeopteryx fossils were mistakenly identified as the dinosaur Compsognathus). But now that 17 species of unequivocally feathered dinosaurs have been discovered, the vast majority of paleontologists and the general public for that matter, agree that dinos are the ancestors of birds...and as my son Max says, birds are dinosaurs. The fact that Larry Martin STILL disputes the dino-bird relationship is astounding. But, I do have my own faults, and so I won't throw stones. Alan Feduccia is quoted in the book as saying " There is no evidence that dinosaurs possessed feathers. Feathers are a uniquely bird characteristic". Well, not so any more.
I enjoyed this book even more than Heilmann's Origin of Birds. Now I can't wait to read "Glorified Dinosaurs" by Louis Chappe. So many books, so little time!

Happy Birthday Darwin

I've been meaning to blog for weeks now about Darwin's 200th birthday, which was February 12. There have been various cool things going on all over the world to celebrate. I watched David Attenborough's new video "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life" on youtube yesterday. It was fantastic. I had a celebration in my Evolution class and gave a guest "lecture" on Darwin for another class.
I tried to attend several important lectures. Philadelphia is sponsoring the Year of Evolution and Donald Johansen, the paleonanthropologist who discovered Lucy, was due to speak in April. I, however, assumed that it was April 2009, but it was April 2008, so I missed that. I was hoping to take Annie to see Donald Prothero speak at Cornell one Sunday afternoon only to discover that he was speaking on Saturday when I couldn't attend. So it goes...
The major way that I did celebrate was to read Darwin: The life of a tormented evolutionist by Desmond and Moore. I did this for myself, to make myself a better citizen, and also for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge. I began this book on Janurary 1,but left it behind when I left for the Bahamas on 1/5/09, as it weighs upwards of 15 pounds and would have made the aircraft unable to gain sufficient altitude to get us to the Bahamas. Whilst in the Bahamas I read another book and began Quammen's short biography "The reluctant Mr. Darwin". I got halfway through Quammen's book on the flight home and then jumped right back into Desmond and Moore. It was a wonderful book. It made Darwin come to life with just the exact amount of nauseating detail about him and his life without being the slightest bit boring. It was approximately 700 pages in hardback, so it was not a short read (or a light read, as I alluded to earlier). But this book did exactly what I hoped it would. It gave me a much better understanding of who Darwin was and how the events of his life shaped his most wonderful theory. Quammen's book was simply too short and too lacking in specifics and details. But this book was perfect. Exciting tidbits I learned:
- Darwin was known as "Gas" to his childhood friends because of his love of chemistry
- Darwin was much closer to his Dad than many texts and stories mention
- Darwin had excessive flatulence, perhaps related to Chagas disease that he picked up in South America
- Darwin loved for his wife, Emma, to take care of him and "mother" him through his various and many illnesses, which were also probably related to Chagas disease.
If you want to know more about Charles Darwin, read this book. And get your own copy, because I'm keeping mine.